Crete with kids

Exciting New Venture: Rise and Explore, Join Us!

Hi Faithful Toddlejoyers:

It has been awhile. A LONGGGG while. Like, a 3 year long while. During that time, we had a third child, made two international moves in one year, and settled into life in Krakow, Poland (our first time living in Europe, believe it or not). So here I am. Back. That’s right, I’m back!

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Exploring Crete on a gorgeous spring day

But wait, not on Toddlejoy. In a totally different forum called Rise and Explore. Wait, wait, wait, what is this Rise and Explore business, you may ask? And how is it different than the good ol’ Toddlejoy you used to know and love? Well, for one, it’s much of the same: I’ll write about our travel adventures, give you family travel advice, and share our favorite, coveted travel destinations and accommodations. My husband still complains I give away our best kept secrets. I will muse less about parenting — unless, of course, it is related to traveling with kids — and I guarantee fantastic photography (I have been working on it, you know). There will, sadly, be less of Thailand due to our current geographical location. But, there will be much more of Europe this time around. This time next year, we’ll be moving to a new undisclosed (even to us) location, and then the geographical content will shift again – so stay tuned! And finally, the whole look and feel of my new blog will be more professional, because while Toddlejoy started out as a personal blog for me to share my creative side, Rise and Explore is starting as a professional travel blog for those looking to find the most family-friendly destinations, activities, and places to stay in this big wide world. I’ll also be adding a new section (“Low-Down”) that has itineraries set to go for different destinations. That’s right, when you decide to go somewhere we’ve already been, the work has already been done for you. Just check out our itineraries, copy what you like, and go. Really, it’s that simple.

So, I hope you will continue to follow our crazy, wild adventures around the globe. I promise equally as good of content (if not better), beautiful visuals, and a lot of laughs. I hope you’ll subscribe to Rise and Explore, follow Rise and Explore on Instagram or Facebook.

See you on the flip side, my friends!

 

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Secrets and Confessions: Our Family Adventure to Disney World

I last visited Disney World 17 years ago on spring break from my second year of college.  So you can imagine how different it was when my husband and I flew to Orlando for a 48-hour visit this past May with our three-year old and four-year old.  Disney always brings the magic, there is no denying that.  But it’s a whole new ball game when you bring your young ones to experience the magic with you for the first time.

So here are some secrets we have to spill, and some confessions from our trip – things that I was surprised by, things that might surprise you, things that would surprise everyone . . . but at the end of the day, Disney is amazing.  It is always amazing.  On that note, when can we go back?

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Logan and the Plutomeister

1. Disney’s FastPass+:  Completely awesome and great for families.  Gone are the days when you have to wait in line for 45 minutes for your favorite ride.  With the advent of Disney FastPass+,  each ticketed family member can choose up to three rides per day at one park to “FastPass+.”  Fastpassing a ride allows you to to get in an expedited line for the ride of your choice at a designated time of day and, in our experience, wait no more than 15 minutes.  This changes the game completely with little kids!  No patience for lines?  No problem.  Got places to be (like a melting-down toddler who needs a bed)?  You’re in luck (more than you would be otherwise, anyway).  By taking advantage of Disney’s FastPass+ system, you and your little ones can get to the rides of your your choice, experience them without the long wait time, and be on your way.  A few tips on how to use the FastPass+ system:

  • Book your FastPass+ reservations as far in advance as you are allowed, which is up to 60 days in advance of your check-in if you are staying at a Disney Resort and up to 30 days in advance of your visit if you are staying at a non-Disney property.
  • Do you research ahead of time.  Did you know that Peter Pan’s Flight has wait times that exceed 150-180 minutes during peak season?  Yes, that is ridiculous.  Completely ridiculous.  If your kids are Peter Pan fans, then you better be FastPassing+ that one.  Also immensely popular rides that tend to have long lines?  Big Thunder, Splash Mountain and Space Mountain.  Good ones to FastPass+.  And what’s that?  You want to meet Elsa and Anna?  Well, stay at a Disney Resort and FastPass+ that sh*t right now.  Because there is no getting in to see Anna and Elsa unless you reserve a FastPass+ at 12:01am on the night you are 60 days away from check-in.  That is one hot ticket, my friend.  This list of ride wait times might come in handy when you are working out which rides to Fastpass+.  It seems accurate based on our visit, however I would say that you should definitely also Fastpass+ the Seven Dwarves Mine Train if that interests you.  Wait times always exceeded 90 minutes during our visit and no FastPasses+ were available at the time of our visit (they had all been pre-booked).
  • Showing up at your FastPass+ ride and realize the regular line is just as short as the FastPass+ line?  Take a minute to open the My Disney Experience app (more on this below) on your phone and change your FastPass+ selection to another ride for a later time.  Hop in the regular line of the ride you had originally chosen to FastPass+.  FastPass+ selections are precious; you don’t want to waste them.
  • Used all of your pre-booked FastPass+ activities for the day?  Use one of the FastPass+ kiosks in the park to create a new FastPass+ selection (yes, you can obtain more FastPass+ selections after your original three have expired; it just requires you to do so via the kiosks in the park – an awesome bit of information that many other park-goers will know nothing about).
  • Do you know how good it feels to pass people waiting in long lines for old favorites like Thunder Mountain, The Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World, etc?  So good.  Did I feel guilty for using our FastPass+ activities the way they were intended to be used?  Not at all.  So get on it people, study the FastPass+ system, learn it, and use it!  It makes the Disney experience all that more enjoyable with kids.

2.  Magic bands = the coolest things ever.   It’s so true.  Disney never disappoints.  In fact, they go above and beyond in nearly every respect.  This includes sending you (and each person traveling with you) personalized, color-coded “magic bands”  in the mail before your trip if you’ve made reservations to stay at a Disney resort.  How do magic bands enhance your experience?  Besides just being cool and encouraging excitement about your trip to Disney in advance, you can use them to unlock your hotel room, pay for food, drinks, gifts, and other items in the parks and at your resort, and check-in at your FastPass+ attractions.    Our kids loved the independence of being able to enter our room on their own. Similarly, they enjoyed matching the Mickey ears on the band to the Mickey ears at the FastPass+ ride entrances to get in line.  Wearing and using their bands made them feel in charge of their experience.

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Can you spot our magic bands?

3.  A 48-hour trip to Disney with two kids under the age of 5 = complete hangover.  I know I’m getting older, and I’m okay with that.  But when I tell you I felt like I had a hangover  after two nights and three days of Disney, I’m not kidding.  I think our bed times over the three days averaged to nearly 11pm.  We ran on adrenaline during our time in the park, but when we got back?  Pure exhaustion!  My ability to stay up late and function normally the following day is not what it used to be!

4. I rode Dumbo five times.  Five times, ya’ll, five times.  Let’s just say that my three year old was OBSESSED with the ride and her ability to single-handedly control the flying elephant.  I am a good mom, I really am.  Why?  Because while I was riding Dumbo (five times) my husband and my son were on Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain – two of my absolute favorites!  And did I get to ride them this time?  No.  But guess what, I got to ride Dumbo five times.  I’m not bitter — at all.

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Dumbo enthusiast

5. I have never suffered from whiplash so bad as when my three-year old drove at the Tomorrowland Speedway.  It was brutal.  So if you’re reading this and you’re smart, you’ll send your three-year old on the speedway with your significant other.

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The second time on the Speedway my husband got the whiplash treatment!

6. Breakfast in bed still rocks. Our three year old turned three our second day at Disney.  We promised her breakfast in bed.  When the kids woke up, they placed a very excited call to room service, ordered up breakfast, and fifteen minutes later – voila!  Mickey Mouse waffles with syrup and whip cream in bed in their pjs.  It really doesn’t get much better than that.

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Mickey Mouse waffles and chocolate milk for breakfast – these guys are in heaven!

7. On that note, you can’t go wrong by staying at a Disney Resort.  You can’t get Mickey Mouse waffles at a non-Disney property.  Nor can you ride the monorail or boat to the Magic Kingdom (or other parks) from a non-Disney property.  And you definitely won’t be spotting any characters or indulging in character breakfasts at non-Disney properties.  So, while prices are high, staying at a Disney resort is worth it when you have little kids.  We stayed at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.  It was perfect.  We didn’t have (nor did we need) a rental car for the weekend (we took Disney’s Magical Express bus from the airport to/from the resort). Staying at the resort allowed the kids to live the Disney experience the whole weekend.  And they loved it.  Food at the resort was top-notch and the pools were tons of fun.

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Boating into the Magic Kingdom . . . it doesn’t get any better than that!

8. They weren’t kidding when they said to book dining far in advance.  So here’s the thing:  everything I read on Disney’s sites (and second-hand sights offering tips for Disney World) suggested that you book special dining occasions (say, dinner at the nicest restaurant at your Disney resort or a character breakfast in the Magic Kingdom) far in advance.  In fact, I’ve read that breakfast with the characters can often be completely booked 180 days in advance.  That is A LOT of days in advance.  Unfortunately, we only planned our trip about 50 days in advance and I disregarded all of the online advice about dining.  In the week prior to the trip, I panicked a bit and called several restaurants in the park trying to book a character meal.  Absolutely nothing was available (at a reasonable time, at least).  The best restaurants at our hotel were also fully booked at specific times (breakfast and dinner) when we arrived.  So heed my advice:  if a character meal or a nice meal at your resort is important to you, book it as soon as you know you’re making a trip to Disney.  You can always cancel when you get closer to the date if need be.

9. All girls don’t want to be (or meet) princesses.  My three-year old loves to watch the movie Cinderella.  She also sings the Frozen soundtrack in the car daily.  But that is where her love of princesses stops (at least for now).  She doesn’t want to dress up like one, she doesn’t like to pretend she’s one, and she really couldn’t care less about Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, or the myriad of other Disney princesses out there.  Since the Elsa and Anna meet and greet is such a hot ticket, I couldn’t get a FastPass+ when I tried (about 40 days out).  What I was able to get was a Cinderella meet and greet FastPass+.  My husband and I had the perfect plan to split forces and he would take our son on roller coasters while I took our daughter to meet Cinderella.  But that never happened – because our daughter never had one iota of interest in meeting Cinderella — or any other princesses in the place, for that matter.  She nearly threw a fit when I told her we were going to meet Cinderella (and not the good kind).  After asking her three times if she was absolutely sure about forgoing the experience, I switched our FastPass+ to Dumbo.  And guess what?  We ended up riding it five times (see number 4).

10. Stroller rental prices are outrageous!  But I guess this is Disney World after all, land of the over-priced lemonade and Mickey Mouse ear balloons.  We paid $31/day for a double stroller.  It was functional, but certainly did not look that comfortable.  If we had done our homework, we could have rented a much better stroller (City Mini or BOB) for a much lower price from an outside party that delivers to the park.  So if you’re looking for options, check out this site – Military Disney Tips – to get some ideas.

11.  Unexpected favorite (new) rides:  Buzz Light Year Shoot and Spin, Astro Orbiter, and The Magic Carpets of Aladdin (with the spitting camels being a bonus) – all super-fun with kids and ones that were new to me.  Of course, all of my old favorites like Pirates, Thunder Mountain, It’s a Small World, etc. still stand — but these were great new additions!

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Astro Orbiter – old school, but so much fun!

12.  My Disney Experience site and app:  Visit the My Disney experience website to plan your visit.  Using the site (and/or the associated mobile app), you can scope out the rides and entertainment schedule, make your FastPass+ selections, and book your dining.  Make sure that you’ve downloaded the app to your phone so that you access your itinerary, view a map of the park (which features ride wait times that seem to be generally accurate), and switch up your FastPass+ selections when you’re in the park.  Using the app while you’re on the go will help you make the most of your visit.

13.  Early May is a sweet time to go.  We avoided the big crowds and although it was in hot, we did not totally melt.

14.  A special shout-out to Disney Parks Moms Panel, which is a fantastic resource and seems to have the answer to almost any question you could ever conceive of about a visit to Disney.

15. No, we did not avoid the meltdown.  

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Nap time!

Now Go!  And enjoy!

Traveling With Young Kids: The Skinny

So we all know that this traveling with young kids thing is not easy.  Any sage advice for how to make it more bearable (dare I say, enjoyable?) is key.  Therefore, I present to you some of our travel tips — all born out of experience.  Some things we learned the hard way; some we got lucky on, but the important thing is that we have learned what works for us (mostly).

1. As you plan your trip, search the web for parenting blogs in your destination city.  They contain fantastic jewels of information about fun things to do with kids locally.

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We learned about this awesome science museum in Perth through the blogosophere

2. Traveling – in and of itself – can be unpredictable, so learn to go with the flow. Pack light. When you have to tote around toddlers, babies and all of their accessories, that extra suitcase of snorkel gear and flip flops no longer seems so important.

3. Do not leave home without a baby carrier or an umbrella stroller.

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Logan backpacking it through the streets of Phnom Penh

4. Do you have a long flight ahead of you with young kids? Book a night flight. Carry PJs and toothbrushes on board. Continue with the same night time routine you have at home. If the children refuse to sleep on the flight, resort to bribery to keep them calm. Allowing them free reign of the kids movies (make sure to buy them kid-sized headphones before the flight) and/or a bag full of M&Ms seems to do the trick.

5. Fly reputable international air carriers, not American ones (sorry America).

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A picture is worth a thousand words

6. Always, always request early check-in and late check-out at your accommodation.

7. Speaking of accommodations, if you have a large family that will require at least two hotel rooms, have you considered booking a rental home on VRBO, Airbnb, or other similar sites instead?  If not, you should.  More space for less money.  Also, more awesome spaces for less money.

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We scored this amazing place on a VRBO-like Australian site.

8. Pre-arrange transportation at your destination.  Trust me, you do not want to be waiting in a long rental car, taxi or bus line after a lengthy flight.  Along these lines, become a [insert rental car company name here] preferred member – it saves so much time, especially at destinations like LAX.

9. If you’re renting a car at your final destination, rent car seats as well.  This is SO MUCH EASIER than lugging car seats through the airport.  Most rental car companies offer this service.

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We rented this Holden wagon — with car seats installed — for our western Australia road trip.

10. And last, but definitely not least, bring a grandparent (or two).  That way, maybe — just maybe — you can get a couple of hours or relaxation in.

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Monkeys! AKA my traveling companions.

If you have things that have worked for you, by all means, please share them in the comments below!

Margaret River and Pemberton: Family Australia Trip Part 3

Finally, finally, finally I am getting around to posting about our time in Margaret River and Pemberton — hands-down the best part of our trip to western Australia.

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There is so much for everyone in the Margaret River Valley

Margaret River Valley

After our spectacularly fun day at Busselton Jetty, we piled back into our Holden wagon and headed 50km to the Margaret River Valley.  Ahh, Margaret River . . . my favorite part of Western Australia (and I should know, it was my third time visiting)! From the wine, to the caving, canoeing, camping, abseiling, surfing, and much more, this place is most definitely off the hook.  If you are an adventurous traveler who loves the outdoors, Margaret River is for you.  If you are a wine aficionado who enjoys beautiful vineyard settings, Margaret River for you.  If you are a beach bum who loves a great surf (as well as a Great White or two), Margaret River is for you.  Honestly — this place has something for everyone.  I would go back again, and again, and again.  You get the point.

Our digs, Bussells Bushland Cottages, in Margaret River were perfect.  P-E-R-F-E-C-T. The cottages happened to be everything we were looking for – cozy, kid-friendly, and privately situated in the bush, yet still only a five minute drive to the township.  Every morning and late afternoon we went on a bush walk around the property.  Every time we went out, we encountered kangaroos in their natural habitat, as well as beautiful birds (there was a feeder in front of our cottage that the kids could fill with seed every day).  Every evening, we built a fire and read our night time stories in the living room together.

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Kangaroo-spotting out the back door of our cottage

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Why, hello there

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So many beautiful birds in this part of the world! This feeder was right in front of our cottage.

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Fires by night in our cozy bushland cottage

And during the days? Wow. We did a lot.  Here are some of the things we did — all of which we recommend:

1. Visited local wineries and breweries.  Our favorite? Cheeky Monkey Brewery.  They had a fantastic, shaded playground just adjacent to the brewery and indoor/outdoor restaurant.  The kids played, ate, played again, and all the while we sampled the libations.  This place is first class for families. If you stay at Bussells Cottages, by the way, they will give you a list of wineries and breweries in Margaret River upon check-in.  The list denotes which wineries and breweries are kid-friendly.  Super useful.

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Excellent playground at Cheeky Monkey Brewery (other great pics can be found at Kids Around Perth)

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Kate enjoying her first vegemite sandwich!

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Super-healthy kid fare at the brewery

2. Went caving.  So many GREAT caves in the area (Lake Cave, Jewel Cave, Ngilgi Cave, to name a few).  When I traveled to the area years ago, I abseiled into caverns and crawled my way through some tight spaces.  It was phenomenal.  With young kids, that’s not doable.  What is doable, however, is a visit to Caveworks, a visitors center that allows kids to learn about caves and try their skills at crawling through an artificial cave.  Logan and Kate spent over an hour walking and crawling through the artificial cave and looking at the eye-catching photos of caves around the world.  The visitors center is attached to a real cave (Mammouth Cave) and you can go out on the deck and take a look down into the cave, getting a sense for just how spectacular the caves really are. If your children are old enough (I’d say they’d need to be at least 5-6 years old), you can venture on down for a real caving experience.

3. Lunched at the beach (Yallingup Beach, to be exact).  Stunning, to say the least.

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Yallingup

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Oh, just another drive along the coast of western Australia

4. More than satisfied our sweet tooth at the Margaret River Chocolate Factory.  I think the photos say enough.

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You know they enjoyed it when the clothes have to be removed . . .

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Chocolate fondue – check. Chocolate-covered fork in hair – check.

5. Fed kangaroos, llamas, and more at Sunflowers Animal Farm.  Do not miss this.  This was a huge highlight for the kids.  In fact, we went twice!  Sunflowers also offers a farm stay.

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Feeding crazy-haired llamas at Sunflowers Animal Farm

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Little lambs . . . so sweet

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In the bunny pit

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This is why we came to Australia. So cool.

6. Meandered into Margaret River Township for dinner and a trip to the local candy store.

7. Went on many bush walks in the area, spotted marron (crawfish), and played on local playgrounds.

Alas, we only had three wonderful, fun-filled days in the Margaret River valley.  So much to do, but so little time!  If we had been able to extend our time, we also would have visited the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse in Augusta, ventured into the Yalingup Maze, the Yallingup Shearing Shed, and given the Wonky Windmill Farm and Eco Park a go.

Pemberton

With Margaret River (sadly) behind us, we headed to Pemberton — the last stop on our  journey.  Total distance is about 140 kms and takes about two hours.

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Doing our farm stay duty by feeding the donkeys!

Pemberton was the perfect final stop on our trip.  It is slower and quieter than Margaret River, but the bush is perhaps even more spectacular. There area offers a multitude of bush walks of varying distances and difficulty.  We did a 3km hike with Logan (three at the time) and Kate (18 months at the time).  Logan managed the hike on his own, while Kate rode in the Deuter Kid Comfort II.  The karri tree forests are really something special and shouldn’t be missed.  Another classic activity in the area is taking a tram ride deep into the forest.  Logan and Walter did this one afternoon and loved it.

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All aboard! Pemberton Tramway takes you deep into the karri tree forest

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Forest gazing

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Marron-spotting

We chose to do a farm stay in Pemberton at Pump Hill Farm Cottages.  It was right up Logan’s alley — riding on a tractor-pulled hay wagon each morning to feed horses, cows, donkeys, chickens, ducks — what more could a little boy ask for?  The playground at the farm stay was fantastic as well.  Our cottage was located in front of the playground — so we grilled dinner while the kids played.  It was a welcomed mix of entertainment for the kids and relaxation for the parents. If you make it to Pemberton and you are traveling with young kids who love animals, Pump Hill is the place.

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Quaint farm stay cottage — just across from a great playground for the kids

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Beautiful horses just across from our cottage

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Getting properly dirty at the playground (see our cottage in the background?)

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Feeding donkeys in our pajamas — one of the perks of a farm stay!

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Someone is happy about this tractor-pulled hay wagon ride!

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Pure joy.

After two nights in Pemberton, we headed back to Perth in one day (with a stop in Bunbury for lunch).  The drive was fairly easy, but we were all fairly sad to be leaving our best vacation to date.  Western Australia.  What a magical place.

A long (and pregnant) weekend in Phnom Penh

With only Logan in tow, we were brave and made three international trips in one year. Phnom Penh was the final international trip we took before Katelyn was born.  It was a three-day weekend getaway during which we did lots of walking, sight seeing, and shopping.  The National Museum of Cambodia and Royal Palace are must-sees.  We stayed at the Amanjaya Hotel — which is beautiful and very centrally located.  The only downside was that the hotel’s baby crib was not ideal, so if you choose the Amanjaya, definitely plan to bring along your own pack n’ play — unless, of course, you’re okay with baby sleeping in the bed with you.  Also, don’t skimp on the cool clothing, sunscreen, and a sun hat for baby- Phnom Penh is warm!  A sturdy baby-carrying backpack is also a good thing.

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Logan is all smiles as we depart Bangkok for Phnom Penh

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Our hotel was in walking distance to so many awesome sites

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Walking the promenade

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Monkey around the hotel and taking a brief respite from the heat

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At the National Museum of Cambodia. Stunning. Definitely worth a visit.

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Admiring things at the National Museum

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Shopping! Logan was a little unsure about his new friends, but they really liked him!

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Rooftop dining along the promenade with one happy lil’ fellow!