Archive for the ‘Travelling with children’ Category

Magnetic Island…strangely alluring

1 January 2012

Magnetic Island holidayMagnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland just out from Townsville, has to be one of the most family friendly holiday destinations this country has to offer, at least outside of stinger season.

We went in July 2011 and while the locals thought it was too cold to swim, we had no problem taking the plunge — especially given the gorgeous swimming and snorkelling opportunities on offer.

We stayed at Arcadia on the southeast coast, across the road from toddler friendly Geoffrey Bay and a short walk from the good swimming beach of Alma Bay. Having visited the other settlements on the island, Arcadia is where I would choose to stay again for its proximity to what were, for me, some of the islands main attractions.

Alma Bay is a patrolled beach and there’s a kids playground with shady lawn and amenities that fronts on to the sand.

Magnetic Island holidayLow tide at Geoffrey Bay is perfect for beach-combing, the kids chasing hermit crabs and paddling around in the shallow water. This is an ideal beach for building sandcastles and decorating them with shells, coral and seaweed, all of which are in ample supply.

At the northern end of Geoffrey Bay a dirt road curves around the water to Bremner Point. The road is lined with the volcanic boulders that characterise Magnetic Island’s dramatic landscape, and at sunset rock wallabies come down from the cliffs, balancing on the boulders with the dexterity of circus performers. They gather in the carpark where people feed with specially purchased pellets or certain types of fruit and vegetables (outlined on a sign). However, it’s not necessary to feed the rock wallabies to get close and the photo opportunities are amazing. Look out for joeys in the pouches and keep clear of the boxing males.

Magnetic Island is rich in native wildlife. If the clamour of the curlews doesn’t wake you in the wee hours of the morning, chances are the kookaburras will; there’s a blue-winged variety unique to this region. Just around from where we were staying was a flying fox colony, while a sea eagle welcomed us when our ferry from Townsville pulled into the jetty at Nelly Bay.

Magnetic Island holidayThe flora and fauna on land is rivalled only by that in the sea. Snorkelling off Magnetic Island, it’s easy to remember that you are not far from the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkelled at a few places, but by far the best was Arthur Bay, north of Alma Bay. Accessible only by 4WD down an unsealed track, Arthur Bay has shade, sand, fabulous rock formations, and — at the northern end — splendid coral reefs teeming with tropical fish. If you get the tide times right, you can walk out and snorkelling only centimetres from the coral. We spent several mornings at Arthur Bay, the highlight of which was swimming with a sea turtle in the coral garden.

Tropical Cyclone Yasi, which hit northern Queensland in January 2011, had taken it’s toll on sea turtles in the area — or at least the sea grass meadows they rely on for food. Injured and hungry turtles often end up on the nursery at the ReefHQ Aquarium in Townsville, which we visited on a day trip to the mainland. We timed our visit to catch the daily Predator Dive Show where, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we got hear the diver chat as he swam with sharks and other animals in a tank full of predators. We got introduced to aquarium long-timers Leo and Leonie, a mating pair of leopard sharks, and sentimental favourite Cuddles the tawny nurse shark, resident since 1996, who spent his days snoozing, harvesting food from under rocks when he could be bothered. We learned that blacktip reef sharks never stop swimming, and the long blade-like nose of a sawfish is called a rostrum. The woman who interviewed the diver in the tank also handed around stuff for us to touch: a small shark jawbone and teeth, egg sacs and a sawfish rostrum. A great show.

Magnetic Island holidayOur visit coincided with the school holiday program at the aquarium. Indigenous project officer Russell Butler, whose background is the Bandjin people of Hinchinbrook, was demonstrating traditional skills, and there was a range of craft activities on offer linked to traditional Aboriginal stories from the region. Our favourite was ‘The two boys and the Dhui Dhui’ best, the story of how the Southern Cross got into the sky. As well as a model Dhui Dhui — shovel-nosed stingray — to cut out and colour, we got a print out of the story and a visual map, complete with legend to help us read the symbols.

The other highlight of our day-trip to Townsville was the Strand Water Park on the foreshore. Not much beats watching kids so excited, they can’t stop jumping for joy.

While it might not rival ReefHQ Aquarium, the Aquasearch Lab and Aquarium at 6-10 Elena St in Nelly Bay is worth a visit. Set up outside the home of Rick and Nell Braley, the quirky,  compact display includes tanks of colourful corals, anemones, tropical fish — crowd pleasers like clown fish, moon wrasse, damsel fish, blue tang — and a 25+ year old cultured Giant Clam, cultivated as part of Dr Rick’s PhD research.

Magnetic Island holidaySpeaking of culture, don’t miss the weekly Cane Toad races at the Arcadia Pub, held on Wednesdays though rescheduled to Friday during our visit on account of some rugby match. The races are hosted by ‘Island icon’ and colourful racing personality Verne Jack, who is also responsible for the wallaby feeding. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and one white sock on the night we attended, Verne hoists the toads from a plastic garbage bin one at a time, each wearing a different coloured ribbon, and introduces them: orange is ‘The Flying Ductchman’, green is ‘Irish’, pink is the ‘Pink Pussycat’, etc. Verne auctions them off one at a time to the highest bidders — someone paid $80 for a toad the night we were there — then places them in an octagonal perspex pen at the centre of a large painted circle. When Verne lifts the box away, the cane toads — which look even uglier for wearing ribbons — ‘race’ to the edge of the circle. First one over the line wins…unless it doubles back, in which case the next one wins. The winner gets a cash prize, with profits going to junior lifesaving. Awesome.

Another island event worth mentioning is the open air food market at the RSL Hall, 31 Hayles Ave, Arcadia, with Thai and Indonesian foodstalls, a full bar inside the hall, and a fabulous range of home-cooked cakes and preserves. Open from 5-8pm on Fridays, come early to get a table or bring a picnic rug.

Update

The Coral Sea area around Magnetic Island is an extraordinary, pristine marine environment. To add your voice to the campaign to keep it that way, go to the Protect Our Coral Sea website. It takes less than a minute to make a submission to the Federal Environment Minister, and while you’re there, you can check out the superb photos and videos.

Singapore Zoo

28 April 2011

Singapore ZooElsewhere on this blog I have described zoos in Asia as ‘guilty pleasures’, though some are downright depressing. Singapore Zoo is in a class of its own and certainly the best zoo we have visited in Asia.

We spent a full day of the Easter weekend at Singapore Zoo and barely covered half the exhibits. The zoo is laid out on 28 hectares of superb grounds and almost completely surrounded by water. Much of the paths are shaded by trees and the plant life is astounding. Touted as the ‘World’s Best Rainforest Zoo’, the zoo’s ‘open concept’ design means there are few visual obstacles between visitors and the wildlife, despite the often spacious enclosures.

Singapore ZooAn example is the free-ranging orang utan habitat, a wonder of design where from a series of cleverly designed boardwalks, you can view the orang utans overhead and often at eye level, lounging around, climbing trees, swinging along ropes, playing and in our case, settling in for a snack on some foraged food. This was one of my favourite exhibits.

My other favourite was the Fragile Forest, a walk-through dome (the world’s largest) containing not only butterflies, but two different types of lemurs, flying foxes, crested pigeons, Eclectus parrots, whistling ducks, freshwater stingrays, and other creatures I couldn’t name. I think I was probably more excited than Tash by my close encounter with a lemur.

Also worth mentioning is the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia exhibit, which houses a large tribe of red-bottomed Hamadryas baboons, mountain climbing nubian ibexes with horns like scimitars, and saddle billed storks. Baboons are always fun to watch — though the Proboscis Monkeys give them a run for their money in terms of amusement value.

Singapore ZooFor Natasha, the day’s highlights had less to do with the exotic animal exhibits and more to do with ‘Rainforest Kidzworld’, a park within the zoo. Tash ran in ahead of me, then came running back with her hands in the air saying, ‘Mum, it’s fantastic!’

There is a spectacular ‘wet play’ area — we’d come prepared with bathers and a towel — with pools, fountains, waterslides, showers, and a giant bucket that filled up every five minutes. When the bucket was ready to be emptied, a bell would ring and all the kids assemble in front of the main play station to let themselves be doused by the downpour. Tash was literally jumping for joy.

The other highlight of Kidzworld for her was going on her first ever pony ride. Princesses ride ponies. Enough said.

Singapore ZooI know some think zoos are inherently bad and that animals shouldn’t be in them. While I firmly believe we must make every effort to conserve natural environments so that animals can thrive in the wild, I believe zoos can help raise awareness of the need for conservation and also build an emotional commitment by inspiring people of all ages with awe at the wonders of nature. Brimming with educational displays and beautifully designed, Singapore Zoo delivers on this front.

And kudos to a souvenir shop that sells kids undies alongside a place where existing undies can easily go missing or get wet!

Singapore Zoo is accessible on public transport via Singapore’s brilliant MRT train system, followed by a bus that connects with the station. The train fares cost us SGD$8.10 (AUD$6) each way, the bus SGD$4.10 (and a curse on you if you don’t have the correct change for the bus driver). Zoo entrance fees are SGD$20 for adults (AUD$15) and SGD$13 for children (AUD$9.70). We paid extra for unlimited tram rides but didn’t end up travelling by tram at all. Some 90% of the park is wheelchair accessible and facilities exist for people with disabilities. Tips on enjoying the zoo are here.

And what better way to finish up a great day than with dinner at The Jungle Tandoor, 102 Serangoon Road, Serangoon (Little India), where faux rainforest decor meets delicious North Indian cuisine.

Phillip Island

1 April 2010

Phillip Island 20Roo and I visited Phillip Island during our first winter together nearly 20 years ago. We returned when Tash was 18 months old, braving the cold to see penguins and koalas, neither of which impressed Tash nearly as much as the magpies. And the rocks.

Last weekend we went back, this time with another family as an experiment to see whether holidays really are easier when you travel with other people who have kids the same age as your own. The verdict? — Absolutely!

The other family were our friends Diana and Alessandro, nearly-four-year-old Silvia and one-year-old Nadia. Di and Ale have relocated to East Timor and the weekend was a chance to catch up with them and allow Tash and Silvia to catch up, too. The girls got along brilliantly, and Di and I concurred that four parents to three kids is about the perfect ratio.

Phillip Island 29Tash and Silvia spent a lot of time at Elizabeth Cove — famous for being one of Victoria’s few north-facing beaches — near where we stayed at Ventnor. They paddled in calm shallows, explored rock-pools, collected and buried shells, built and decorated sandcastles, climbed hills, played fairies, rolled about in the sand and even paused to talk and stare out to sea. For me it was magic simply watching them interact with each other and the landscape.

It was one of the most relaxing weekends I’ve had in a long time and we didn’t do much, despite the island’s many attractions. Di had a hankering to visit the koala reserve, having fond memories of the place as a seven-year-old. I was less enthusiastic as the entrance fees are expensive and Tash had been underwhelmed during our previous visit. But we went along for the ride. To the credit of the folks at the Koala Conservation Centre, they sold us all-female foursome a family ticket, which at $25.75 was the cheapest option.

Phillip Island 16Interestingly, koalas are not native to Phillip Island but were introduced in the late 1800s. The population thrived until the 1980s when loss of habitat, feral animals, traffic and Chlamydophila disease started to take their toll. The association of Phillip Island with koalas was so strong by then that a local ‘Koala Working Group recommended the establishment of a reserve that provided koalas with a protected habitat and visitors with viewing opportunities. Thus the David Forrest Koala Reserve was born.

Things didn’t get off to a great start for us at the reserve when a tour of the first of the boardwalk area yielded only two sleeping koalas — little more than furry bottoms nestled in the eucalyptus.

Phillip Island 14We moved on to the Woodland Walk, where koalas seemed few and far between. The girls were getting restless and Di was keeping a running total — ‘That’s $12.50 per koala so far’ — when all of a sudden we spotted more, one after the other. When I say we, it was really Di who was the Koala Whisperer. She came upon several in the bush that were low enough to the ground for the girls to get a good look; some were awake and one of them actually moved. Tash and I also ventured into a second boardwalk area where a few more koalas were easily visible.

Staff at the centre commented that spotting the koalas is half the fun, and I guess that’s true if your kids aren’t too fractious and you don’t mind knocking about in the undergrowth — nor paying around $3 per koala for the privilege.

Otherwise, you might be better off walking down to the beach Ventnor at sunset or sunrise, where you might see a wallaby, and are almost sure to see rabbits and mutton birds, for free.

Bangkok with children – part 3

27 October 2009

Siam Centre shrine 3While Thewet is probably the most kid-friendly part of Bangkok, and Banglampu has the best family-friendly budget accommodation, we also had fun staying off Sukumvit Road and exploring the downtown attractions with Tash on our last visit to Bangkok in January 2009.

We stayed at the Federal Hotel in Sukumvit Soi 11, which has been around forever – or at least since the 1960s – where Roo and I had stayed long before Tash came along. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s good value and in a great location. The pool is pleasant, though you’ll want to turn a blind eye to the pink-skinned men breakfasting poolside  on Singha beer from about 10am.

Staying near Sukumvit and surrounds puts you near the Skytrain and Subway, both of which are great for getting around, although be warned that the many stairs make it a hard slog for little legs and pace yourself accordingly.

Snow WhiteThe Siam Skytrain station is the jumping off point for Siam Square, home of our favourite ‘old school’ coffee shop, the New Light; and the Siam Paragon shopping complex, which houses Siam Ocean World in its basement, the largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere. Ocean World is not cheap but, as described here, it’s an entertaining way to spend an afternoon with kids; the food court on the ground floor is good value, too. And there’s usually something kid-friendly going on around Siam Square: in our case it was a Snow White-themed Christmas display (best not to think too hard about it).

Both the Skytrain and Subway will take you to nearby Lumpini Park, which is about as kid-friendly as it gets in downtown Bangkok. The park has several kids play areas side-by-side: as the equipment is modernised, it seems that rather than replace what went before it, a new play area opens up. The park is Bangkok’s largest and a great place for picnics, Tai Chi, outdoor gym, and that rarest of commodities in the Thai capital, peace and quiet – if you’re not accompanied by a small child, that is.

Lumpini duck boat 2We hired a pedal boat shaped like a duck to cruise around the lake for 30 minutes or so. The pedalling was bloody hard work but worth it as the lake is brimming with wildlife. We saw fish, turtles, eels and monitor lizards so large we almost mistook them for crocodiles.

The best food find of our time in this part of Bangkok was the Rosabieng bar and restaurant at 3, Sukumvit Soi 11, just down from where we were staying. Rosabieng is the Thai word for the dining car on a train, and there’s one in the restaurant’s leafy garden, as well as a working model train in the air-conditioned interior. The Thai food is sensational, with an exciting selection of dishes. I could have eaten there every night. Tash was made to feel very welcome – she even managed to crash the birthday party of a group from the wonderful Mrs Balbir’s Indian restaurant one of the nights we were there.

Sukumvit also has the advantage of bookshops and department stores where you can stock up on toys for the plane, train and/or beach. Asia Books has a good selection of English language kids books and colouring books; there’s one at Siam Paragon, another at 221 Sukumvit Rd, just past Soi 15.

Warrnambool in winter

15 July 2009

Whale watching 5A winter weekend in Warrnambool might seem a strange choice for tropical heat lovers like us, considering the Antarctic winds that buffer this booming town in Victoria’s southwest. But on Tash’s advice, we packed raincoats, gloves and boots and braved the elements for a weekend away.

The tourist brochures say Warrnambool is 3 hr and 15 min drive from Melbourne, but with a 3-and-a-half-year-old in tow and a partner with a penchant for op shops, our trip took closer to 5 hours.

At our first stop we enjoyed excellent coffee and cakes at the Winchelsea Larder; I was only sorry we weren’t there at lunchtime for what looked like a great Ploughman’s Platter (AUD$12.90), plus kid’s menu version ($5.30); a genuinely kid-friendly venue with fabulous food and produce.

We lingered longer in Colac, first at the adventure playground situated on the edge of the lovely Botanic Gardens overlooking Lake Colac (follow the signs from the highway down Queen St and turn right into Fyans St; the playground is opposite the caravan park). The park has everything from a wheelchair-accessible swing to an old-school roundabout and half-dome climbing frame. Our personal favourite was the boat on a spring overlooking the lake, which fitted all three of us.

Colac playground 4

We had lunch at the Botanic Cafe, situated at the opposite end of Fyans St from the playground, also overlooking Lake Colac. Kid-friendly, good value and picturesque location.

Then it was on to Warrnambool, where we stayed with our friends Tam and Bill in a house overlooking the Hopkins River. It was raining when we arrived but as soon as it cleared, we headed to nearby Logan’s Beach for some whale watching. We got lucky: the mother and calf hanging out in the area showed their heads and tails, and at least one of them was blowing while we watched. It turned out to be the one and only time we saw whales in three visits to the viewing platform. Then again, Tash was more entertained playing with Tam’s “binnochios” (binnoculars) than she was by the distant whales.

Tower Hill 1Sunday, on Bill’s advice, we headed for Tower Hill Reserve, a lush wildlife sanctuary inside a dormant volcano that collapsed in on itself some 30,000 years ago. We parked by the Visitor Centre and within moments we were getting up close and personal with a couple friendly emus, and spied four koalas in nearby trees. We also saw black swans by the lake and a kangaroo in the wetlands area.

Tower Hill has a fascinating history. Despite being declared Victoria’s first national park in 1892, the area had been virtually clear-felled by the 1930s. Restoration work begun in the 1960s, based on a detailed painting of the Tower Hill in 1855 by Victorian artist Eugene Von Guerard. As the In The Artist’s Footsteps website notes, “It is the classic example of where a painting, by a realist artist, at a time when photography was in its infancy, can be a very valuable conservation resource.” These days the conservation efforts are so effective that koalas have to be periodically relocated from the area to prevent them from taking over.

Tower Hill 3From Tower Hill we drove to Port Fairy and would have meandered longer around this pretty town except that the port area was closed off for a bicycle race. We opted instead for lunch at Time & Tide, as recommended by Tam, a cafe with gorgeous sea views and even more gorgeous cakes. My smoked salmon fritta was truly delectable and the coffee good, too. No kids menu but they were able to rustle up a kid-friendly dish or two ($4.50), and Tash’s hot chocolate came out with a smiley face sketched in chocolate syrup. The gallery setting means it’s better suited to immobile babies than active toddlers. The turn off to Time & Tide is after the Catholic church and just before the water tower; follow the signs down the unsealed road to the beach.

Rain ruined our plans to build sand castles on the beach out front of the cafe. Instead we drove back to Warrnambool, put on our raincoats and went out to play at the Lake Pertobe Adventure Playground. The playground is a fabulous feat of engineering, built on a former swamp whose “pestiferous exhalations” were the subject of written complaints as early as 1879. (The name ‘Warrnambool’ allegedly derives from a Kuurn Kopan Noot Aboriginal term, meaning ‘two swamps’). Nowadays the park is 20 hectares of lakes, lawn and playgrounds and home to abundant bird life.

Terang playground 2

Having become playground aficionados since the birth of our daughter, I reckon Lake Pertobe is one of our best finds, not least of all because it caters for adults as well as kids: the highlight for all 3 of us were the flying foxes, one for under-12s and another for over-12s. (We were having too much fun to take photos, but there are some here). To find the flying fox station, head right from the main car-park past the maze.

What worked for us over our weekend in Warrnambool was to come equipped for inclement weather, make the most of fine spells to get out and about, and not to be deterred by a shower or two. We had a busy, fun time and I felt we’d only scratched the surface in terms of what the region has to offer.

Also worth noting for the trip back is the castle-like Apex Playground in Terang, which has low doorways hazardous to unsuspecting adults and was a bit slippery in the wet, but is beautifully located overlooking the croquet club and has everything a would-be princess needs to fire her imagination.

Other recommended food stops are the Cobb Loaf Cafe in Camperdown, and Cafe Gravity in Colac (impressive kids’ menu with $7 dishes), both on the main street/highway on the right side heading towards Melbourne.

NAIDOC Day at the Collingwood Children’s Farm

13 July 2009

Tash and I celebrated NAIDOC Day on 9 July 2009 at the Collingwood Children’s Farm in Abbotsford, an event organised by Aboriginal Housing Victoria.

NAIDOC stands for National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee and NAIDOC week is an opportunity to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and the contributions of Indigenous Australians in all walks of life.

Horse kiss for TashThe event was brilliantly organised and included a traditional music and dance session where an Indigenous elder and young dancers invited kids in the audience to learn to dance like emus, kangaroos and eagles. There was also a dance symbolising fishing and the celebration of a good catch. Tash was too shy to join in the dancing but was rapt to witness the didgeridoo played live (she’s only seen it in books and heard it on CD).

My friend Helen alerted me to the NAIDOC Day event and we met up with her and her 2+ year old daughter Iris, sister Genevieve and her 4 kids for the celebration. We participated in a smoking ceremony, where the kids had their faces painted with ochre, followed by a boomerang painting session that all the kids got into.

There were drinks, fresh fruit, cakes, damper and barbequed sausages/vegie burgers in bread–all free, thanks to Aboriginal Housing Victoria and the fabulous volunteers at the Collingwood Children’s Farm.

It was wonderful to be around so many Aboriginal families and kids having fun.

The Farm itself was a great venue, the landscape forming a beautiful backdrop to the ceremonies, and lots of farm animals on hand to entertain the kids afterwards. For Tash the highlight was hand-feeding fresh grass to a white horse; I was rather taken with the 10-day-old black piglets.

Collingwood Children's Farm 1We last took Tash to the Collingwood Children’s Farm when she was just under 18 months old, thinking that because she enjoyed reading about farm animals and emulating their noises, she would enjoy seeing the real thing. In fact, most of the animals–bar the ducks and chickens–scared the hell out of her. This visit was much more successful.

I’d always thought the Children’s Farm, whilst wonderful, a bit expensive to visit at $16 per family; but entry was free on NAIDOC Day and Helen tells me it only costs $2 per adult on Farmers’ Market days, the second Saturday of every month, which is great value.

I forgot the camera, but Helen took some great photos, including the one above of the white horse kissing Tash.

I hope to make NAIDOC Day at the Children’s Farm an annual event – even if it means skiving off work to be there.

10,000 hits

7 July 2009

Suvarnabhumi AirportOh, the places you’ll go this week celebrates 10,000 hits. We named the site after the classic children’s book by Dr Seuss, with a clue in the URL ‘great balancing act’ as to what it was all about.

We started blogging 18 months ago as an on-line diary to keep friends and family up to date with our travels during our ‘year off’ – though it would be more accurate to call it a ‘year on’. A year when the work-life balance was tilted very much in favour of life.

The photo above shows Tash asleep in her father’s arms at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, just before our flight to Cambodia, our home for the year. It was as if Tash had already absorbed the ability of Thai people to sleep anytime, anywhere, after only a few days in the Kingdom. It was the first of many instances where she slipped with apparent ease into a strange and wonderful environment.

As we wrote on during our months away, it emerged from our ‘blog stats’ — the figures that tell you what search terms people use to find your site and what links they click on when they drop by — that the site was filling a gap in terms of upbeat information on travelling in Southeast Asia with small children, especially in countries like Cambodia and Laos. At least one of our readers says she was inspired to take the plunge and head off travelling with her small son on the strength of our posts — which is about as good as it gets in terms of compliments!

This has inspired me to keep the blog going as a guide to travelling with children, wherever we are in the world — a reminder to recapture the spirit of travelling even at home. To slow one’s pace. Take in the sights. Be in awe and appreciation. Take joy from watching a child experience the world in all its glorious diversity.

Thanks to everyone who has followed our travels and visited our blog. Keep on dropping by and feel free to leave comments.

Oh, the places we’ll go…

Crocodile shows

28 June 2009

Today we went to a crocodile show at the Melbourne Zoo called Crocodilia. Almost five months ago to the day, we went to a crocodile show at the Phuket Zoo in Thailand. Can you spot the differences?

Croc show 5

Phuket Zoo 6

Croc show 10

Phuket Zoo 4

I know, I know, it’s easy to see: at the Melbourne Zoo, the keeper is handling a juvenile American Alligator, whilst in Phuket, the keeper is handling a full-grown Asian crocodile.

Seriously though, there were also differences in what we learned at the respective shows.

At Melbourne Zoo, we learned that crocodilia have evolved with five key characteristics that have enabled them to survive for more than 2 million years: the ability to be submerged but breathe above the water; the capacity to draw energy from the sun through their backs; a rudder-like tail that propels them through the water; estivation, or the ability to hibernate during hot, dry times of food scarcity and re-emerge once the rains come; and being communicate with their young, even whilst the babies are still inside the eggs. A mother crocodile may use her teeth to help a baby having trouble breaking out of its egg.

In the first photo, Tash can be seen far right standing next to the zookeeper and holding a megaphone to ‘demonstrate’ a baby crocodile communicating with her mother. And because she was part of the show, she got to pat the American Alligator afterwards [photo 3].

At Phuket Zoo, we learned sometimes a crocodile will simply not be roused, no matter how many times it is poked, prodded and dragged by the tail [photo 4] — and even when someone lies on top of it [photo 3].

The Crocodilia show is part of Melbourne Zoo’s school holiday program and is on at 11am and 1pm in the marquee next to the Carousel park.

The Crocodile Show at Phuket Zoo is a feature attraction and can be seen at various times throughout the day.

Angkor with children

26 June 2009

Exploring the temples of Angkor with young children can be challenging. But it’s also rewarding to see these wonders through your child’s eyes, as Angela Savage reveals.

Ta Prohm 42 frogI first visited Siem Reap and the surrounding temples in 1992. Back then, the United Nations was running Cambodia, civil war was still raging in the countryside, and there was just me and my partner—literally. We barely saw another living soul.

Sixteen years later, we returned with our nearly-three-year-old daughter to a town that had changed so much it was unrecognisable, and temples crowded with foreign tourists. It was a very different experience but equally worthwhile.

The first thing that struck me about visiting Angkor with our daughter was that what excited us was rarely the same as what excited her. Exploring the jungle-covered ruins of Ta Phrom might be fun, but what really had her riveted were the tiny frogs and giant snails that shared the stones with her (we were warned against touching the snails as they can cause a rash).

While she showed mild interest in the carvings of the apsaras at Angkor Thom, she was thrilled by the group of apsara dancers in traditional costume who posed for photos with her for a mere $1 donation.

Another friend’s kids most enjoyed the grassy expanse in front of the Terrace of the Elephants, and watching the real elephants ferry the tourists around Angkor Wat. The horses, too, are popular with the kids.

Bayon 16But visiting the temples themselves can be boring, if not gruelling for a toddler. So here are a few tips, gleaned from a number of families, for making the trip as enjoyable as possible for everyone.

1      If your back is up to it, consider carrying your child in a baby/toddler backpack. If you live in Phnom Penh and don’t have your own, someone on the Yahoo group Cambodia Parent Network might lend you one. Contact cambodiaparentnetwork@yahoogroups.com

2      If your toddler is too heavy or active to be carried, make sure they have decent walking shoes that don’t cause blisters (seems like a no-brainer, but we got caught out on this one).

3      Be realistic about what you can achieve: visiting 2 or 3 temples is probably enough for one day.

4      Hire a guide: in kid-friendly Cambodia, a good guide will be sensitive to kids’ needs, such as pointing out all the fantastic animals to be seen on the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and the Bayon. Ours even carried our daughter up the steeper staircases so we could all enjoy the view.

5      Stay at a hotel with a pool and make the most of it to take time-out between tours.

Dancing 17Some midrange, kid-friendly hotels recommended by resident expats are the Auberge Mont Royal d’Angkor, the Borann l’Auberge des Temples and the Pavilion d’Indochine. All have pools, gardens and kid-friendly touches. The Majestic Angkor was also recommended for older children (pool but no garden).

If you really want to enjoy the temples at your own pace, consider travelling with another family or other adults and taking turns at childcare and temple viewing.

That said, seeing the temples through the eyes of a child can be an enriching experience. While I remember the breath-taking grandeur of the temples on our 1992 visit, travelling with my daughter made me appreciate the details.

Dancing 4 Tash RooAmongst our friends, the jungle temple of Ta Phrom seems to be the biggest hit with the kids. Visiting early around 8 or 8.30am will get you there ahead of the tour buses.

In Siem Reap, the Butterflies Garden Restaurant is worth a visit. If the butterflies don’t keep the kids occupied, chances are the ponds, bench swing and garden will.

There’s plenty for kids to see at the enclosed Night Market, too, and the juggling cocktail barmen at the fabulous Island Bar in the middle should keep them distracted long enough for you to enjoy a cool drink.

Also recommended are the traditional dance shows. The Apsara Theatre (also referred to as ‘Angkor Village’) on Wat Bo Road has a 6.30-8.00 pm dinner and show—free for toddlers—which our daughter found captivating.

This article was originally written for AsiaLIFE magazine.

Phuket

26 May 2009

Simon Cabaret 1Last stop on our Asian adventure of 2008-09 was Phuket, Thailand’s most populous island and amongst its most popular with foreign tourists. I didn’t really warm to Phuket, and in a bizarre way I was grateful for that: it made it easier in the end to go home.

That said, it wasn’t all bad. We stayed at Kata Lucky Villa, which I’d happily recommend (the photos on the website don’t do it justice), and Kata beach was nicer than I’d expected. The sand was clean and soft, the water calm and clear, and the banana lounges only two-deep. We spent most mornings there, surrounded by Russians and Northern Europeans who, as Roo pointed out, must think it’s Paradise. There’s also a decent place to eat at the southern end of the beach called Kata Seafood, right next door to a bar built beneath a sacred tree.

Phuket municipal bldg 3We visited old Phuket town a couple of times. Established by Chinese traders and tin miners, and there are some well preserved shophouses and other buildings from the 1900s up to the 1960s, especially on and around Thalang Road. We had a great curry lunch at Aroon Restaurant at 124 Thalang Rd; and the shophouse at the China Inn Cafe (also selling textiles and antiques) at 20 Thalang Rd was particularly beautifully restored. We also visited the Phuket Provincial Hall, the setting for the US Embassy in the film The Killing Fields. There’s a terrific walking tour guide available here.

Phuket’s other prime attraction (at least in my opinion) is its drag shows, the most famous and polished of which is Simon Cabaret. The intrigue starts with a line on the brochure, “She is more of a man than you will ever be and even more of a woman”, and I’m willing to bet there are audience members who leave without realising all the performers began life as men.

Simon Cabaret 3Simon Cabaret is energetic and great fun, with over-the-top sets ranging from Ancient Egypt to Imperial China, Brazilian Carnivale to a faux rainforest. Numbers are sung in Chinese, Japanese and English — Dreamgirls providing rich material — though surprisingly little in Thai, apart from a traditional Issarn song that starts out as a slapstick by a large, mannish, middle-aged kratoey but ends as a rather poignant performance of ‘I Will Survive’. That performer danced among the audience and planted a sparkly kiss on Roo’s cheek, and for once Tash was not the main attraction in our family.

For her part, Tash was rivetted by the show and all the ‘princesses’. “That was really fun!” she said, as we piled into the minibus to go back to our hotel.

Tickets were 750 baht including door-to-door transport and we felt we got our money’s worth. The showgirls are happy to pose for photos outside after the show, but be aware you have to pay a 100 baht tip per performer in the photo. The most popular performers pull the lesser stars in so they can get tips, too, and it’s wise to be gracious about this. They’re only looking out for each other.

Phuket Zoo 8On our last night in Phuket, we watched a captivating sunset over the sea — a novelty for us who live on the southeast coast of Australia — then chanced upon the swanky Kata Beach Resort and Spa offering a buffet dinner in a garden overlooking the beach. This in itself was lovely, especially with Tash on her best behaviour. But we really hit the jackpot when the keyboard player/songstress duo pumping out the slow rock classics gave way to a group of performers I could only describe as ‘Simon Caberet rejects’.

The open-air show was cheesy beyond belief, with performers out of step and wardrobe malfunctions all over the place. But we all loved it! Tash alternated between emulating the dance moves of the ‘fairies’ — there was an excess of feathered wings, headdresses and tail pieces — and sitting at the foot of the stage, absolutely captivated.

It was the perfect last night.

Phuket 47 Tash doorwayTash got to choose the destination for our last morning in Phuket, and we spent it at Phuket Zoo. It was pretty ordinary as far as zoos go, but four months later Tash still remembers the dodgy show we saw there and the man putting his head in the crocodile’s mouth.

I wonder how much else she remembers.

We flew home from Phuket via Sydney to Melbourne, arriving home just in time for a heatwave, followed a week or so later by terrible bushfires. Both Roo and I started new jobs within weeks, fortunate to find work and to find employers flexible enough to let us work four days per week, giving us both a day each at home with Tash.

It was never going to be easy settling back in at home. Our year in Cambodia saw the work/life balance tipped very much in favour of life. Back in Melbourne, the scales seem tipped to the other extreme.

But we are trying to keep alive the spirit of The Great Balancing Act by making the most of our days off with Tash and doing our best to get out on the weekends, too.

And so we’ll keep this blog going, with a shift in emphasis from Asia to Australia.

At least for now…