How to teach your kids under the guise of entertainment? Turn off all their screens and head to Southeast Asia, writes Jessica Palmer.
As the parent of a child with a specific learning disability, opportunities for learning to come naturally when travelling are much-appreciated. In the absence of an anxiety-producing test and a classroom, it’s these lessons that seem to stick.
Learning opportunities can be found anywhere in the world. However, there are a number of countries in Southeast Asia that, due to their fascinating culture and acceptance of those travelling with kids, make it particularly easy to sneak in learning without your child even knowing it.
Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat is said to be the largest religious monument in the world. Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it is now a Buddhist temple and is still used as a place of worship today. Although many families make a beeline for Angkor Wat, the Angkor Archaeological Park in which the famous Wat is located also features other well-known temples such as Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple), as well as the different capitals of the Khmer Empire.
Families can gain a greater understanding of Khmer culture and history by visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park. Taking a natural dive into the customs and art of Cambodia shows kids a different way of life, encouraging respect and tolerance for other cultures. Older kids can gain a deeper understanding of the Angkor Empire’s rise and fall, providing a broader understanding of religious, political and cultural influences.
The plastic conundrum
Cambodia has a plastic problem, and while it may not be as obvious around popular tourist sites or in the larger cities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, there is no rubbish service in much of rural Cambodia. As a result, waste is often burned in the open or disposed of in the streets and local waterways. This is very apparent in the once-popular coastal town of Sihanoukville and even some of the surrounding islands such as Koh Rong where, when we visited, we found ourselves swimming with plastic bags, water bottles and chip packets. Although many efforts are in place to solve this problem, financial constraints mean there is no easy fix.
Kids will gain a greater understanding of the importance of avoiding single-use plastics and recycling by seeing the effects first-hand.
Hire a pushbike on Pulau Ubin, a small island just 10 minutes from mainland Singapore and pedal your way around the island, where you will learn about the importance of the Chek Jawa Wetlands, a protected site in which six distinct habitats merge. Here you’ll experience rocky beaches, a mangrove swamp and a coastal forest teeming with wildlife not usually seen at home, such as long-tailed macaque monkeys. Don’t leave your bag unattended, as although they’re cute, they’re known to help themselves to people’s lunch.
Be a gardener for the day
Head to the first garden in Asia dedicated to children, the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden, and follow one of the curated trails which aim to educate and instil a love for nature in children. With the theme of “life on Earth depends on plants”, kids can choose to be an adventurer, naturalist or gardener for the day. The gardens feature a farm, an orchard, a forest with its own streams, a suspension bridge and multiple nature play areas. The best part? It’s free to visit.
With elephant riding nearly stamped out in Thailand, there are a number of elephant sanctuaries in which you can visit and learn more about these beautiful creatures in a kinder way. At the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary near Chiang Mai, guests can spend the day learning about the rescued elephants, what goes into keeping them both physically and mentally well, and watching them frolic in the water. Here you can get hands-on by making some healthy snacks for them and keeping them comfortable with a mud bath.
Make your own tea blend
Popular with the locals, Singha Park in Chiang Rai was originally known as Boon Raw Farm, and was used to produce barley for the famous pale lager Singha. Now, the park is adorned with a giant golden Singha statue and is open to the public as an agricultural tourism business with beautifully curated gardens, lakes, and fruit and tea plantations.
Jump on board the hop-on-hop-off tram and you’ll soon find yourself at the tea plantation, where you’ll learn what goes into making a good brew. Both kids and adults can create their own blend and the staff will seal your teabag up on the spot for you to try it out. If you’re stuck for inspiration, lemongrass and lavender is a good choice. It not only smells amazing, but tastes pretty good as well.
A different perspective on war
At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, learn about the Vietnam War and its long-lasting consequences for the Vietnamese people. Spread over three storeys, this museum shows us the sobering truth of how the war has affected the Vietnamese people, including images of children born with severe deformities due to Agent Orange.
The War Remnants Museum gives the victims of the US military action a voice to tell their story, and it’s both thought-provoking and emotional to hear it told from this perspective without the Western narrative and the glorification of war. If some of the exhibits and imagery get a bit much for younger kids, direct them to the ground floor, where you’ll find some old warplanes and tanks on display, or to the kid’s playroom on the upper levels for a bit of a break. The cafe on the grounds outside does a fantastic cookies-and-cream smoothie to lighten the mood afterwards.
Temples that predate Cambodia’s Angkor Wat
Usually visited as a day trip from either Hoi An or Da Nang, the Unesco-listed My Son ruins predate Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Myanmar’s Bagan and Indonesia’s Borobudur. Built during the 4th to 13th centuries, My Son Sanctuary features several ancient cham temples spread over a 2km-wide valley. Sadly, much of it was destroyed by the US carpet bombing of the region during the Vietnam War, but what is left standing is well worth a visit.
Owing its spiritual origins to Hinduism, this dramatic site surrounded by mountains and hills was the political and religious capital of the Champa Kingdom for much of its existence. My Son is not only visually stunning, it’s a great opportunity to learn about ancient Vietnam.
The world is the best classroom
In Southeast Asia’s diverse cultures, landscapes and history, families will find not just travel destinations, but profound learning experiences. From Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park unravelling the mysteries of the Khmer Empire to Singapore’s Pulau Ubin fostering an appreciation for unique ecosystems, each locale offers a distinct lesson. Thailand’s Elephant Jungle Sanctuary advocates for ethical elephant interactions, while Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum provides a poignant perspective on history. Amid these memorable adventures, families will discover the world is, indeed, the best classroom.