On a recent AmaWaterways river cruise on the Mekong River, I brought my two daughters, ages 8 and 9, on the trip along with me. I wasn't 100 percent sure if they were going to enjoy river cruising on the Mekong River, especially because I knew there would most likely not be any other children onboard.
It's not as brave a move as one might think. My kids are avid river cruisers, but that's not why they liked the journey so much.
Cruising on the Mekong, just like other rivers, is inherently fun for children. What's not to love. The river is lined with floating villages, temples, palaces and excursions involve tuk-tuk rides, oxcart rides and strolls through markets full of exotic goods. The journey is filled with endless opportunities for enjoyment at any age.
What did my kids like most? The general consensus was "everything," chorused by "I don't think I can just pick one." So they picked five.
Visiting Rural Villages and Schools
If my kids had to select a favorite, visiting villages filled with children and handing out school supplies ranked at the very top. It was fun for them to interact with kids their own age.
One little girl, who followed my girls and was trying to sell them silver bracelets, engaged them in a long ongoing conversation about where they were from and what they liked to do in their free time. It turns out, that kids of that age always have a lot in common. They liked doing their hair and playing outside and going to school - although my kids didn't ask why she was selling them bracelets rather than attending school.
They loved chatting with her and sharing stories and trying to figure out what one another was saying.
My younger daughter brought a stash of her sparkly hair ties with her and secretly handed them out to all of the little girls as we walked down the street. They also brought along school supplies that they handed out to the kids.
When we did visit a school in Cambodia, the kids sang a song and my kids sang along. One of their favorite moments of our cruise was when we all sang to them "You Are My Sunshine."
One of the things that I was most worried about was that my children would find tours of palaces boring. I don't know why I was worried. Parents fear not. Kids will pay more attention than the adults and be the most fascinated by the murals depicting intricate tales of the battle over good and evil by demon gods, monkeys and kings.
The Grand Palace in Phnom Penh was of particular interest to my kids. On the wall is depicted the story of Ramayana in one of the longest murals in the world - very similar to the one at the Grand Palace in Thailand. The girls lapped up every detail of the story as the guide detailed a selection of drawings.
The throne room, the emerald Buddha and the beautiful gardens were just icing on the cake.
Another experience that topped the list was visiting temples. Kids will love learning about the way of life of the monks and the temple in Oudong, Cambodia, the original capital of the country, is spectacularly ornate.
AmaWaterways visits the monastery in the morning for a Buddhist blessing, which children will find captivating. The interior of the temple is decorated floor to ceiling with murals depicting aspects of Buddhism such as the wheel of life. It is decked out in gold with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. My children couldn't take their eyes off of it except to pay attention as the monks chanted their blessing.
A New Environment
Visiting palaces and temples are something that kids can expect when traveling to other destinations in the world but, one of the things they loved the most about the river cruise was expecting the unexpected - those unfamiliar experiences that take you by surprise or turn something normal into something new.
An example was the tuk-tuk tour around Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. The busy streets come alive even when visitors are whisked about from one sight to the next in an open-air tuk-tuk. It also gives guests - no matter the age - an enormous appreciation for the skills necessary to navigate the frighteningly busy, narrow and potted roads of the bustling city.
From floating markets to fish markets to markets filled with toys, electronics, clothing and everything in between were fascinating for my kids. Although some ground rules had to be set (we can't buy something in EVERY market), just strolling through and admiring the vastness of what is on offer was entertaining.
Children will balk at some of the items for sale in food markets - live fish, spiny lobster, pigs legs, frog legs, live frogs and don't forget the bugs. Kids will go from being horrified to fascinated to blasé about it in a matter of minutes. But don't be surprised if they become extra curious about what is in their meal when they sit down to the table at night.
To say the least, my concerns about whether or not my children would enjoy sailing on the Mekong with few, if any children onboard, were completely alleviated. Once again, my children made more friends onboard than I did, participated in every activity and were heartbroken on the last day when we had to leave crew and passengers behind to continue our journey alone.
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A Note About the Killing Fields
On the cruise, there is the option to visit the Killing Fields and the choice is yours, as parents, if this is something that they are ready to see. You can seek the advice of the crew as to how to make up your mind, but there isn't a lot of objectivity. We were heartened by the fact that some of the crew had taken their own children and I made the decision to take mine, with the idea that, when I felt it was too much, we would just leave the group and hang out at the entrance.
The experience is intense - even for adults - and we didn't make it more than five minutes before we left the tour. So, I would warn parents with younger children that the best thing to do is to stay behind.
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