Interview / Travel

Keeping the Kids Entertained: Cambodia

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As many schools break up for the summer holidays, parents can be left wondering how to keep the kids entertained. Writer Jessica Tana takes a look at what’s on offer. Photography by Lucas Veuve

“This is a city that’s starting to cater for the kids,” Gerhardt Oberholster says, watching his three children splash around in their building’s swimming pool. “When we came here, we didn’t know what to expect. But it’s great, there’s so much more than we thought there would be to do.”

Although it may feel like summer is all year long in Cambodia, the dry season does coincide with some local and international schools’ semester breaks. Whether the little ones have three weeks off or only one, finding ways to entertain children during their summer break in Cambodia can sometimes seem like a challenge.

“I am struggling a little bit,” says Claire Ben Zina, head figure skating coach and National Team coach at Aeon Mall Ice Rink. “There’s probably more than I’ve had time to look at. I’ve been busy.”

Zina, whose two girls spend most of their time inside Aeon Mall’s Kids Park and Ice Park, says she has found it difficult to find outdoor activities. “There’s not really any nice outdoorsy place to go, that I know of. You can’t just go for a walk in the park, it’s not really possible. Or even a walk on the street is not super pleasurable,” she says.

Although Zina has only been in Phnom Penh for six weeks, she has a point. Traffic, lack of sidewalks and high temperatures do not make the capital’s outdoor life extremely inviting for small children. However, there are many children living in Phnom Penh, and the transformation towards child-friendly city seems well on its way.

Kids in the Hood

“We get a week at Westline School, so it’s not that long, but there’s so many public holidays,” Oberholster says. “As long as you choose the right place to go. There’s a lot of stuff catered for kids around the city. There are play areas in all the malls, fun parks and boat cruises down the river.”

The Oberholster family – Gerhardt, Madeleine and their children, Kirsten, 15, and twins, Caydee and Jayden, eight, moved to Cambodia from South Africa in August 2016. Since then, the couple has been striving to keep their children entertained. “We are always looking for new stuff to do,” Oberholster says. “We try and make it as fun as possible for them.”

Once the couple find an activity that looks interesting, they visit it by themselves before bringing their children. “First, we get on the moto and check it out, and see if it’s kid-friendly,” he says.

“They really like Sovannah Mall, they’ve got a big play area up the top,” adds his wife, gesturing towards the kids. “Aeon has ice skating, laser tag and ten pin bowling. Koh Pich, they love that fun park. There is a whole entertainment area there. Feeding pigeons at the palace. Boat cruise down the river – for smaller kids it might not be appropriate, but for their age groups it was perfect.”

Surprised and delighted by the many activities on offer in the city, the couple said they had their doubts at first. “We read up on it online,” she says.

“And some parents were complaining – to be honest, I didn’t think there would be this much to do.”

Kids City marketing manager Chhan Raingsey says there is plenty of entertainment for the family if they look for it.

“At Kids City, we have the Clip and Climb (rock climbing), toddler town, laser tag, bumper cars and two floors of science discovery activities,” he says. “We offer both education and entertainment for the whole family.”

Kids City opened in 2013 and the colourful building hosts ten floors of activities, catering to all kinds of ages, from infants to teenager. As well as the centre, the Cambodian-owned company also provides a range of family activities inside Aeon Mall.

“For children under five there is Kids Park on the first floor, there is a bowling alley and the cinema on the third floor, and laser tag and ice skating on the fourth floor,” father-of-three Chhan says. 

With Kids City supplying a range of indoor activities, there is still the need for parents to find safe and entertaining outdoor recreation in Phnom Penh.   

Computer science lecturer at Cambodia University for Specialities, Mao Lucky says he prefers to take his children outside when they are on vacation. “When they have no school, I always take them swimming, and sometimes to the market for dinner,” he says.

Swimming is a year-round activity in Phnom Penh and with many pools and several water parks, it’s an easy fix to a long, hot day.

“Children should know how to swim to protect them from accidents,” Mao says. “Many people do not know how to swim so practising swimming is good.”

Mao takes his seven-year-old daughter Chheng Meivatey and son Chheng Mongkol, five, to Phnom Penh Sport’s Club. With a children’s pool and toddlers’ splash area, the centre is a popular spot for families. 

For an extra special swimming excursion, there are several water parks in Phnom Penh, such as the recently opened Fantastic Water World at Grand Phnom Penh International City. The park has water slides, tunnels, swimming pools, and a kid’s playground.

For daily child-friendly entertainment, Phnom Penh seems to have it covered. When parents try and find prolonged activities, however, such as summer camps and educational activities, things become a little trickier.

Stay in School

“According to me, the city of Phnom Penh itself is not particularly child-friendly,” says Claire Hoi, co-founder of Ocarina French Music and Arts School.

“Roads and traffic create a constant agitation. There is a lack of outdoor green spaces, such as public parks, for children to go and play freely in nonguided activities. The cultural options such as concert venues, exhibitions and theatre, are also still very limited for a capital.” 

Hoi, whose summer school programmes cater for English and French speakers, as well as those wishing to be exposed to either language, says although there are an impressive amount of sports and physical activities on offer, when it comes to culture the possibilities are limited. “I believe holidays are an opportunity for children to set aside from traditional academic learning, take a break from the school environment, and turn towards more creative activities,” she says.

“Museums, workshops, theatre, concerts; all those non-scholar activities are rare.”

Like several of Phnom Penh’s international schools, Ocarina runs summer camps for young children during the holidays. However, it throws the focus on artistic and cultural programmes.

“Every holiday, our camps are new and different,” Hoi says.  “Programmes of activities are created from scratch with our teachers, who do proposals of activities they would like to set up, as original as they want. The only thing we impose are that activities permit children to discover new things, encourage them to be curious, and to be actors of their camp.”

From discovering Morocco, for four- to eight-year-olds, to creating comic books and designing clothes, for seven- to 12-year-olds, each camp runs for roughly one week and ends with a presentation, a trip or the creation of something.

“Of course, we don’t replace museums or artistic scenes, such us theatre,” Hoi says. “But we have the chance to be completely independent from administrative decision makers. Until now, we have been able to cover many kinds of cultural fields, such as, film-making, architecture, archaeology, book creation, sewing, cooking and more.”

While Ocarina summer camps cater for younger children, Hoi says the difficulty for many parents is finding activities for teenagers in Phnom Penh.

“I have teen piano students who have spent the whole holidays at home, because their friends were travelling and the holiday camps in schools run mainly for primary levels,” she says.

While the city does not offer many options for teenagers, the countryside of Cambodia has activities older children and their parents can enjoy, as long as they don’t mind roughing it a little. 

Get Out and About

“Horse riding is good for the whole family,” says Ven Sokun, of The Happy Ranch Horse Farm near Siem Reap. “Children can learn independence from being on a horse, and can have exercise too.”

Happy Ranch runs countryside treks on small ponies and horses, anywhere from one to four hours long. Meandering through Cambodian villages and temples, older children can feel the freedom of controlling their own horse, while younger children can be led with a guide.

“It’s no problem for the kids to ride; we have lovely horses for children,” Ven says. “We have many children come riding here and they love it.”

While the ranch only caters for day trips, the four-hour pony ride through Cambodian countryside also takes visitors to local craftsmen and farmers working in the rice fields.

For a day trip with more education in mind, Picnic Resort, near Sihanoukville, is an organic farm where children can see how crops are grown and learn the importance of organic farming.

“Children learn the from the natural environment and organic farm,” says Picnic Resort manager, Bun Chhen. “We have a children’s playground, restaurant, garden and organic farm for children to enjoy.” There are also lodgings, although it is mainly a day trip, popular with both foreign and Khmer families. 

For a week or weekend away, camping is an option, with many resorts providing tents, sleeping mats and washing facilities.

“Families can experience fun and safe camping or stay in a villa,” says Kirirom Hillside Resort marketing officer Khut Suyean. “We also offer a wide variety of leisure activities and facilities.”

The resort, which is located at the foot of a mountain at Kirirom National Park, offers fishing and canoeing at a lake, swimming in the resort pool, horse riding and hiking through the sprawling national park, bicycle races, rope sliding, tennis and basketball.

“All the activities are good for children,” Khut says. “Swimming keeps your heart rate up, bike racing improves your health and basketball is a good outdoor activity to fit the bill for a growing child.” Set inside an elevated pine forest, the resort also has a hotel, sauna, several restaurants, children’s play equipment and even a small zoo and dinosaur park.

With development steadily growing in Cambodia, tourism picking up and an influx of expatriates and their families, it is not surprising that many resorts, cafés, entertainment complexes and sport clubs are starting to cater for children.

For families with young children, the summer holidays are packed with opportunities to mingle, learn and play, but for teenagers, there is still a lot of room for improvement. However, Kirsten Oberholster says she hasn’t been disappointed yet. “I love doing everything,” she says with a grin. 

Cover Story @ AsiaLIFE Magazine

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