Family planning: Exploring Southeast Asia with the whole clan in tow

03/29/2014 12:00 AM

03/26/2014 2:23 PM

We were riding back to the hotel after a long day exploring a Cambodian island where women hand-weave colorful silk scarves on looms under their stilt homes. It was a fun excursion, and yet another opportunity to shop, which we’d done a lot of on this trip — for clothes and trinkets and the lovely textiles that are so abundant in Cambodian markets, and for wood.

That’s what dad, a carver and woodworker in his spare time, does in foreign countries — he buys local lumber, wood he can’t get at home. He’s left a trail of befuddled customs agents from South America to Africa and now Asia.

We had just finished an impromptu tour of a wood furniture store on the way back from the island when dad announced: “I’ve noticed the people here are very family oriented.”

My response: “Dad, you’re halfway around the world with eight family members, three generations of Nesmiths. The tuk tuk driver is going to go home and tell his wife the same thing about us.”

And maybe he did. We were at the tail end of an epic family vacation together, and we hadn’t killed each other after all that togetherness.

The Nesmiths are a world-wandering clan. Periodically my brother or I will pick up and move to some faraway place. That usually prompts the rest of the family to plan a trip to take advantage of the semi-local guide. When I lived in Chile, my cousin Debbie found the time to visit me twice that year. This trip to Southeast Asia was motivated by the fact that my brother and his wife had moved with their two children to Saigon (formally renamed Ho Chi Minh City, but still generally called Saigon).

My mother, 74, made it clear early in the planning stage that the place she most wanted to see in the region was Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia. My husband and I and my parents all wanted to see Vietnam, too. None of us had been there. But my brother and sister-in-law weren’t particularly interested in spending their vacation at home. So four of us did our sightseeing in Vietnam, then my brother’s family came with us to Cambodia, and Debbie — who didn’t have as much time — joined us there.

One key to our fantastic journey was collaborative planning. Just picking dates for this trip was tricky because of everyone’s work and school schedules. Once we had the dates figured out, we decided we simply couldn’t fit in a trip to the beach on Cambodia’s southern coast. It was going to require too much traveling that we feared would bore the children and exhaust my parents.

It’s not always easy to travel in a group of nine people, no matter how much you love each other, and the age range alone complicated our trip. My 2-year-old nephew and 6-year-old niece have vastly different needs and abilities than my parents, both in their early 70s, or the rest of the adults in the middle, all in our 40s and early 50s.

Between us we were sporting two trick knees and one artificial one, three balky backs, a bad hip and two potentially serious food allergies (fish and mangoes, both bountiful in Southeast Asia). We packed abundantly, carting around my mother’s back brace, necessary after surgery a few years ago, a lumbar pillow for me and prepackaged snacks for times when we didn’t want to rely on roadside eats, or didn’t want to stop.

We went into this trip knowing that none of us are backpackers anymore — or yet. We expected to take taxis when we needed to and to pay extra for a private van to make the five-hour trip between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the city near the Angkor temples.

We also embarked with adventurous spirits and a willingness by everyone involved to ditch all the carefully laid plans at a moment’s notice if need be. When dad wants to stop to look at the tiny sawmill operation under one of the homes on the silk island, it’s time to stop. When dad walks away with a block of wood, it’s time to laugh about what the next customs agent would make of the American bringing home common lumber.

We all came back with treasures and treasured memories. My mother forgot her cane, but she picked up a lovely inlaid replacement at a market in Saigon. My cousin, sister-in-law and I binged on pretty white blouses, lightweight print pants perfect for traveling, silk scarves and jewelry in the markets in Saigon, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. My husband, nephew and brother tasted roasted crickets and other market delights.

And seeing Angkor Wat was definitely worth it.

The view from the very top of the largest religious monument in the world is a marvel of prehistoric engineering and a vision of how the world changes. Inside, you can see what the Khmer royals would have seen 1,000 years ago, with carefully engineered sight lines ensuring their view was perfect. Buddhist monks, dressed in their traditional saffron robes, wander the grounds below, as they have since the late 13th century, when the Khmer kingdom shifted away from the Hindu god that Angkor Wat was first built to honor some 200 years earlier.

Beyond the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat, the jungle stretches out in all directions, but that’s not what the people who built this temple would have seen. Many historians believe Angkor was the largest preindustrial city that ever existed, with more than a million people living within its 386 square miles.

The sheer engineering is beautiful to behold. But the walls of it and all the other temples in Angkor also deserve close scrutiny. The detailed bas-reliefs, sometimes overwhelming in their gorgeous repetition, prompted me to wonder who created this mesmerizing artwork. Who carved the elephant’s trunk just so or fashioned Shiva’s smile with such grace? Sadly, while we know the names of the kings who commissioned them, we don’t know the artists who created them. But artists they were.

And one of the reasons why the temples around Siem Reap are a great vacation for a variety of people, from toddlers to retirees, is because they offer such variety when it comes to physical requirements. A lot of walking is necessary, but visitors can see and enjoy Angkor Wat and many of the other ruins without having to do much serious climbing. Most people hire tuk tuk drivers for the day to carry them between the ruins, most of which are just a few minutes drive from each other.

My mother spent two days roaming the grounds of Angkor Wat and another two days seeing other ruins. My baby-boomer cousin, a marathon runner, was the only one in our group as dedicated to taking it all in as Mom was. But we all managed to see a lot, taking our time, climbing when we could, or, in the case of my nephew, playing with toy trucks in the shadow of the remarkable architecture. Turns out, the buttressed walls provide cool trails for toy trucks.

Angkor Wat is not a place to let small children loose — there are very few railings and it’s easy to climb out on a ledge two stories above the ground, as my nimble sister-in-law and 6-year-old niece happily did. Seeing my niece fearlessly standing where my cousin and I were scared to step was one of my personal highlights — and she enjoyed it a lot, too.

To make sure we didn’t get on each other’s nerves too much, we did many things as a group and we also split up. A lot. This was even built into the planning after my husband asked, “Are we really going to spend three weeks with the Nesmiths?” Fair question, so I booked a three-day Mekong River cruise for just the two of us. My parents and my brother and his family took a five-hour private van trip from Saigon to Phnom Penh, while my husband and I made the trip more slowly by water.

As we cruised up the river, passing small villages, rice paddies and jungle, my husband and I talked about how this trip would have been unthinkable to my parents 40 years earlier. Vietnam was still at war and the Khmer Rouge would soon take over Cambodia.

None of us experienced anti-American feelings in either country. Several people asked my father if this was his first trip to Vietnam, a question none of the rest of us got. They seemed to be trying to figure out if he had served in the war, but we didn’t sense any bitterness.

Instead, we found people in both countries were kind and solicitous of my parents, often offering my mother a chair. She had to get over her feeling of being “treated like an invalid” in a place that puts a higher value on respect for elders than it does on independence.

Strangers delighted in the children, asking to take pictures of them and even reaching out to squeeze their cheeks, something my toddler nephew thought was fine. My niece was not happy being touched by strangers and we had to help her ward off those gestures, which, while friendly, made her uncomfortable.

My brother and sister-in-law took ultimate responsibility for the care and entertainment of their children. But the other adults had fun taking a kid or two for awhile, like when my niece and I went off to get fish pedicures — you stick your feet in a water tank and fish gently nibble them. We both squealed with delight as the fish tickled our toes. And she was a trooper when I got us lost going back to the hotel. The kids got a trip to an amusement park in Phnom Penh, an excursion my husband and I skipped.

Fortunately, both my brother’s children are easy-going travelers and adventurous eaters so they happily joined the adults sampling local fare. And then, when the only thing my niece wanted after hours cooped up in a van was pizza, it only seemed fair to find her some.

It was easy to find good Western and local food in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Both cities rely heavily on tourism — although few restaurants or museums accept credit cards.

While Angkor Wat is the jewel of the park, many of the other ruins are fascinating and fun to explore. For 500 years, Khmer kings worked to outdo their predecessors, building shrines, universities, monasteries and temples. Some are surrounded by moats, with inner pools and courtyards. Many have towers reaching high above the city.

Ta Prohm, with its ancient trees growing on and out of the building itself, is probably the most photographed ruin after Angkor Wat itself. Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries as a Buddhist monastery and university, Ta Prohm is a quick tuk tuk ride from Angkor Wat. And unlike Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm gives a sense of how many of the ruins looked before they were restored.

It’s hard to stand beneath those trees without thinking about the people who built these monuments. Did they believe their society would always be there? What would they think of its decline and disappearance? And 900 years from now, what will be left of what we have built?

As my father and I stared at the tree roots growing out of a once-magnificent monument from a once-glorious society, Dad said “it’s alarming is what it is.”

It’s true, time passes as one generation gives way to the next, with almost nothing of what we create truly permanent. For me, taking in the artistry of those ancient people was all the more special because I did it with three generations of my family.

Dad’s already pushing the rest of us to plan another group voyage to some amazing place.

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