Cebu, Singapore and Siem Reap: Traveling with kids through Southeast Asia
I like traveling. I grew up in Costa Rica in a house that happened to be right underneath the landing path airplanes used to follow when landing at Juan Santamaría International, so I became fascinated with airplanes and travel from early on. That said, I was a late starter with international travel, as my first trip abroad was to Mexico City when I was thirteen.
As a working professional, my interest in foreign places took me to Europe and the United States, where I ended up living in San José, California, the very heart of Silicon Valley. Living in Costa Rica, traveling to Asia is, or at least used to be, an expensive endeavor. I did manage, thanks to a business trip with my company, to visit Hong Kong, China and Malaysia, albeit very briefly. That was more than enough to pique my interest in the continent.
Living in the Bay Area has the added benefit of having access to SFO, short name for the San Francisco International Airport, with a myriad of connections to a large range of cities across the Pacific Ocean.
We are a family of four, including our two girls, a precocious seven-year old and a six month old. Last year we took a two-week trip to Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, back when our youngest child had yet to be born (something that seemed quite surprising to people in China) and it was so successful that we decided to do it again, although this time to a different set of destinations.
For family reasons, we had a trip booked to the city of Cebu, in the Philippines, which ended up becoming one of two knots in our travel lasso, the other one being Singapore. I probably would not recommend Cebu as a base of operations when traveling to Asia, for the simple reason that other cities, Hong Kong and Singapore being two good examples, offer a much wider range of connections that will make planning your trip a lot easier.
With that said, we flew from San Francisco to Taipei and from there to Cebu. We stayed one night in Cebu and flew to Singapore the next morning; there, we spent two nights before departing for Siem Reap, Cambodia. We stayed the longest in Siem Reap: Four nights, returning afterwards to Singapore for one full day and to Cebu for another day before the return flight, this time with a six hour layover in Taipei. The whole trip took eleven days and involved nine flights.
What went well?
Lots of things. A few of the ones that made our trip really memorable:
- Baby bassinet on long-haul flights: EVA Air had that available both from San Francisco to Taipei as well as from Taipei to Cebu. It made our lives and the baby's so much easier.
- Late night flights: Our kids are very well behaved, but a twelve-plus hour flight is difficult on anyone. However, with our transpacific flight leaving at 1:00 am local time, both kids essentially fell asleep the moment we boarded and remained that way for most of the flight.
- Singapore: A country with only one city, yet so much to offer. Well organized, safe and fun. We will definitely go back there.
- Our first hotel in Singapore: The Novotel at Clarke Quay. People were nice, room was big, great location for a run in the morning and dinner and fun at night and within walking distance to MTR (subway) if you felt like venturing farther away.
- All-day chauffeur in Siem Reap: We hired a driver to take us around for a whole day, he charged us $35 including a nice car, cold beverages and lots of patience. I could easily get used to that.
- Baby-sitting services in Siem Reap: Our hotel coordinated this, they insisted on two baby sitters, one for each of my daughters, which came to a whopping $10 per hour. Four hours on Pub Street, walking around, having a nice dinner and with our tuk-tuk (a rickshaw pulled by a motorcycle, very convenient and widely available) driver waiting for us the entire time amounted to $67 for the night. Unbeatable.
What did not go so well?
No matter how much you plan, some things are bound to go wrong or at least not exactly as expected. This was our case and it is only fair to showcase some of the lowlights here as well:
- Hidden fees with low-cost airlines: Now, being charged for food and checked baggage is commonplace in the US, even with major carriers. Airlines in Asia that we had tried before really do not this, and you usually get a few decent snacks for short flights and full meals for the ones going over two hours. This time, we ended up booking on low-cost carriers in order to get direct flights from Cebu to Singapore and from Singapore to Siem Reap. For the former, they charged us for the meal, which was fine. The latter deserves a lowlight of its own.
- Jetstar Asia: This is just our experience, other people may have better luck or more awareness of what is included and what is not. We will never again fly with Jetstar Asia. They are a Singapore-based branch of a low-cost carrier from Australia, which in turn is a subsidiary of Qantas. I was a bit wary when I could not see their flights on Expedia and had to book them using CheapOAir (also banned from any future travel plans within our family). For some reason, our booking on CheapOAir did not include the baby traveling on my lap and they could not add her from the check-in counter, we had to go to another customer service counter, a few meters away. There, we were told that adding the baby would cost $38 plus $60 for our checked luggage. They asked me whether I wanted to pay in advance for the return flight as well, which we did. Now, when you are traveling with a baby, usually you want the baby to return with you. Apparently, this was not evident to the person at Jetstar's customer service, so she decided to add my baby daughter just for the flight into Siem Reap but not for the return flight. She asked us about the luggage, but assumed that I was going to leave the baby in Cambodia. Go figure. So we went to Cambodia, had our good and bad experiences and came back to the airport, where the always smiling representative from Jetstar tells me not only that the baby is not included in the return flight, but also that they have no way to add her or even charge me to add her. I will just cut the story short here before it fills this whole narrative with bad thoughts. It took about one hour, a few calls to their Singapore office and a cash payment of $38 in exchange for a hand-written receipt before we could get a ticket for my daughter to travel on my lap. No wonder their flights are so empty. Jetstar. Never. Again.
- All-day tour in Siem Reap: Vacationing in Cambodia is very inexpensive. Even with inflated tourist prices, things really do not cost that much. With that thought, $13 per person, $7 per kid and free ride for the baby for a whole day tour of local temples, including Angkor Wat seemed like a good deal. It is not. You are picked up at the hotel and packed into a van filled with mosquitoes (funny, as there where no mosquitoes outside of the van), then taken to a hot and humid office where you are made to sit with your whole family while you wait to be called to pay and packed again into the van with a bunch of other victims. After that, you are driven to another ticket office, this one operated by the government, where you have to get in line to pay $20 per adult and be photographed for your ticket. You have to present this photo id every time you try to enter an archaeological site. Finally, you get to go to Angkor Wat. This is the only moment during which we had any clearness about our itinerary. The rest of it was a black box, never completely sure of where we were going next and with a lunch break in the middle at a comparatively overpriced place. All of this fun was compounded by broken air conditioning in the van with 38C outside and unpredictable availability of cold beverages, which were supposed to be included as part of the tour. We rebelled and forced the operator to deliver us back to our respective hotel. Do yourself a favor, even if you are traveling alone, spent $40 to hire a driver for the day, get a good book on the sites you want to visit and ask the driver to take you in whatever order you want to see them.
We ended up visiting four countries, although Taiwan does not really count as a visit, as we never exited the airport. Nevertheless, it was an experience in itself.
Taipei Taoyuan Airport
As stated above, we stayed at the airport in Taipei, a total of eight hours when you combine the two times we were there. And this is a nice airport to have a long layover in. First, there is the breastfeeding rooms:
You do not notice these much when you do not have small children, but when you do, it is a blessing to have a separate place thoroughly prepared to take care of your baby in absolute comfort.
Next is the exhibits and open spaces. Airports are usually filled with waiting areas next to the gates, a few shops and restaurants and restrooms. This one has that and a number of exhibits, showcasing everything from the natural beauty of Taiwan (an item now in our bucket list) to the history of the local mail service. It even had a commercial exhibit from Captain America: Civil War which I loved! They cleverly added some seating space in some of those areas, allowing you to get some rest while forgetting you are inside an airport.
It would be unfair to say we did not enjoy Cebu. As indicated before, we stopped at Cebu for family reasons and did not stay there too long. There was a lot of traffic, going from the airport to our hotel downtown took an hour during which we were able to get a good look at jeepneys (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeepney), a local means of transportation that evolved from leftover American military jeeps. It was hot and humid outside, so we took a nap and waited for nighttime before walking to the nearby Ayala Center mall for dinner; there was a wide selection of restaurants, our choice was tasty, not very challenging in terms of flavors, but very enjoyable.
Flying to Singapore is akin to traveling in time, towards the future. It begins at the airport, with an actual orchid garden inside one of the terminals. This goes well beyond the exhibits in Taipei.
In case the garden was not enough, we were approached by a robot that even offered us candy. They also had a space for children to sit down and contribute their own drawings to the local art, color pencils and paper included. Fun place for children and adults.
The first thing you notice about Singapore is how clean and tidy it is. This begins with their subway system, the MRT, short for Mass Rapid Transit. The sign below is posted at the Changi Airport station.
We visited Singapore twice during this trip. The first time, we stayed at a hotel near Clarke Quay, named after Singapore's second British governor, Sir Andrew Clarke (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke_Quay). This is essentially an entertainment district. You have a multitude of restaurants, bars and clubs that are open well past midnight with local and western food, sports, dancing and little bit of everything else. A good portion of the quay is roofed, meaning that the daily rain showers will not ruin the fun. Some hotels, including ours, offer baby-sitting services so that couples can go out at night and enjoy.
Clarke Quay in the morning is a beautiful sight. As I mentioned, Singapore is very clean and that extends even to areas where partying goes on all night. So when you look out of your hotel window in the morning, what you see instead of streets littered with beer cans is runners going in all directions and before you know it, you are on the road with 28C temperature and 85% humidity, and loving it.
We used a 6 km (less than 4 miles) route suggested by the hotel’s fitness center that takes you along the Singapore river into Marina Bay and back. This run made me want to live in Singapore. You can complete the entire course on a pedestrian path, meaning that you do not ever have to stop at a pedestrian crossing and the views are breathtaking. Running this early in the morning (shortly after 7 am) also has the added perk of small or inexistent tourist crowds, so it is you, your fellow runners and the people keeping the place pristine.
Now, Singapore is home to one of Universal Studios' theme parks, but we were looking at a different kind of experience and decided instead to visit the National Museum of Singapore (http://nationalmuseum.sg/). We were interested in the history of the country and how it became what it is today. This is exactly the place for that, taking you from the geological origins of Singapore, early settlements, arrival of the British, colonial times, Japanese occupation during World War II, its independence and short marriage with Malaysia until you reach the financial prodigy the country is today. It filled us with admiration, we know that success does not necessary entail perfection and this country sure has its flaws, but it is also an inspiration for what a country can achieve regardless of size or available resources. The exhibits were setup in a way that kept our older daughter entertained the whole time. There was also temporary exhibit, displaying a collection from the British Museum including, to my surprise, a pre-Columbian bird ornament from Costa Rica and a painting for no less than Pablo Picasso.
Already into our second visit to Singapore, we visited the world famous Singapore Zoo. This one required a 30-minute cab drive from downtown (about $20 SGD). Although many modern museums have been successful in removing the appearance of being collections of caged animals, they have done it really well here. I still have my qualms on keeping animals captive for humans to observe, but the ones here seemed in good health and there was a clear educational value for kids. There where signs everywhere calling attention to poaching and illegal traffic of endangered species. Some of the images on those signs where rather strong, but I still think they impressed our daughter the right way. The weather was very favorable as well, with frequent showers, which forced us to seek refuge but cooled down the temperature to a cozy 25C. A must-visit for sure, and a much better alternative to a theme park.
On the way back to the hotel for our final night in the city, before our return to Cebu, we were just going to pick any restaurant at a nearby mall and have dinner there, especially since we wanted to catch the free shuttle to the airport. Then, we saw Din Tai Fung (http://www.dintaifung.com.sg/). This is a Taiwanese chain famous for their xiao long bao, dumplings filled with minced pork and broth. They opened in the San Francisco Bay Area last year. Now, the Bay Area is a place where good food is everywhere and yet, it caused quite a commotion with wait times measured in hours until they decided to start accepting reservations (http://www.mercurynews.com/eat-drink-play/ci_29896050/dumpling-alert-din-tai-fung-relents-will-accept). Because of this, we decided to take a shot at their 25-minute wait time. It ended up being 45 minutes before we sat at our table, our free shuttle long gone, but it was good. Maybe being hungry helped a lot. And a world-first happened there as well: My oldest daughter tried and loved the xiao long bao, even ordering a second round and eating most of it. She is a seasoned World traveler for sure, but food like this can be challenging for kids. Score, Singapore. We boarded a cab to the airport on a full stomach and a wide smile.
If flying into Singapore felt like visiting a bright future, Siem Reap in Cambodia felt like a dystopian one. This country has gone through a lot over the centuries and it has been recovering for a few decades now.
Siem Reap is where you go if you want to visit Angkor Wat, a 12th century temple built by the Khmer Empire (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat). The airport feels like you have arrived at some very rich friend's house that has a landing strip, the terminal building resembling someone's manor. You get off the plane and then walk to the building, something that made the picture below possible.
Once inside, you are surprised by a very nice, clean and open structure where, sadly, bureaucracy starts. If you do not already have one, you need to fill up the paperwork for a landing visa for all members of your family. Funnily enough, the requirements state that you need a passport photo from each one of you. Truth is, most people do not carry spare photos of them or their families in case they are needed for a visa. Fret not: They will simply charge you a few extra dollars on top of the visa fee to waive the photo requirement (note that this is not a kickback, or at least it was presented as just another fee). With our visa stamps attached to our passports, we exited the terminal and met our very nice driver from the Angkor Palace Hotel. The hotel itself is about five minutes from downtown.
Siem Reap is a place of contrasts, on one side, you have dusty roads and old shops with tuk-tuks driving patrons in all directions in a way that almost reminds you of an old colonial post. On the other side, you see modern structures, mostly luxury hotels and modern vehicles (including too many Range Rovers, which tend to be expensive through the World).
Our hotel was one of these modern resorts, with a kind of luxury that is much more expensive elsewhere. Living in the US, you get used to lightweight materials for pretty much everything from walls to floors. Here, walls were concrete and floors and ceilings were hardwood. It looks nice and inviting, something you would like to have at home, provided it is done in a sustainable way, as wood needs to come from a forest.
The view from our room showed us the pool in between all the greenery, with an additional charm when it rained as in the picture below.
Siem Reap is famous amongst international party crowds because of Pub Street, a conglomerate of restaurants, bars, club and souvenir shops, compounded by a myriad of street food vendors. And it is cheap, too. Drinks go from 50 cents to two dollars, main courses at restaurants are about five dollars; that is US Dollars; American currency is everywhere and most ATMs will dispense it as well. One caveat: If you want to see the local currency, the Cambodian Riel (KHR), get change for fifty cents. As no US coins are around, any change less than one dollar will be paid in KHR (about 4000 KHR = 1 USD).
We visited Pub Street a few times, when doing it at night, we arranged baby sitting with the hotel, which was very convenient. In order to get there from the hotel, we hired a tuk-tuk driver. The price to take us there and wait two or three hours while we had dinner and walked around was seven dollars, probably a price for tourists, but still cheap enough.
There was the unavoidable visit to Angkor Wat and other archaeological sites, which we did during our second full day. Do not get me wrong, these sites are impressive, the sheer amount of construction and detail involved is a testimony to their builders. But then, we had that terrible experience with the day tour which I mentioned before, it really detracted us from fully enjoying the experience. That said, we did get some good pictures from the places we visited:
If you really want to enjoy Angkor Wat despite the heat, do it at your own pace, invest forty dollars to hire a driver for the entire day. Your hotel should be able to make the necessary arrangements. That price should include the car, the gas and cold beverages as well. Some friends recommended that we gave the driver at least an idea of what our itinerary would be, as some apparently do not like it when the guests want to go back to the hotel for an after lunch nap. We did that, an our driver was very accommodating at all times, driving over forty minutes to the Landmine Museum and taking us back to Siem Reap to have lunch at a nice restaurant (on the latter, he stated it was good and that it was his friend's, with the clear implication that he received a commission for taking us there, which I think is fine as long as you are told that upfront). The deep fried frogs depicted below are from that restaurant and they were delicious!
We went back to the hotel and took a three hour nap before heading downtown for some shopping. Overall, our driver was with us from 10 am till 9 pm. That is how you enjoy Siem Reap.
My wife and I have traveled together before, both as a couple as well as a family. All trips are different and entail their own set of new challenges and experiences. This is the first time we travel with our baby daughter and it was great. She will probably not remember much, but for us, we are left with the satisfaction of having started her as a World traveler.
If I had to provide advice to a family doing a similar trip, I would tell them to plan for the things that you can plan for, such as flights and lodging, bring some extra cash for the things you cannot plan for and do not be put off if anything goes wrong, just deal with it. Do not try to see everything, do not photograph everything and enjoy what you do get to see. Finally, even if you are traveling as family, set some time apart to enjoy your trip as a couple. Happy travels!