During the month of January my husband and I posed a question to our kids. "Would you rather travel to Cambodia by train, bus or airplane?"
We were having dinner and it was raining outside. The thermometer hadn't budged from the thirty-five degree mark in over three weeks.
"Train," said the kids. It was an instant, unanimous decision.
"The only train is third class. It takes six hours and there's no air-conditioning. It'll be really, really hot," my husband warned.
They looked out the window at the drizzling rain and assured us they'd be fine.
It started out as a fun, five o'clock in the morning adventure. We claimed our hard wooden bench seats and settled in with our bags of snacks.
Before the train had left the main terminal in Bangkok, vendors were walking up and down the aisle with baskets full of food.
The train rollicked us out of the city through the slums. We peered out the windows, wide open and unscreened, directly into people's homes built only a few feet from the tracks.
We saw children bathing in canals. "They're swimming," said Child #2.
"Do you think they have water in their homes?" I asked. My kids considered this foreign concept for a minute before they got the answer right.
We did what travelers do on trains all over the world. We read our books, looked at scenery, and explored the different cars.
There was an elderly woman on the floor of the dining car using a cleaver to chop up tropical fruit. Her hand was steady, seemingly immune to the bumps, rolls and jerks of the train. The finished product floated in a bath of cloudy water.
"Can I get some fruit?" Child #2 asked.
"How about a Fanta?" I suggested, envisioning multiple emergency trips to the train bathroom.
After five hours, the initial romance of the train lost its bloom. That last hour was hot and, well, that's kinda all I remember about it.
We disembarked into an eastern border town where we dragged our luggage to a checkpoint and stood in line with backpackers (none of them American) as we waited to cross the border into Cambodia.
"I want to go first so I can tell my friends I was in a different country than my family," said my daughter, but her enthusiasm waned when she saw the serious-faced, gun-toting border patrol guards.
"Can we still take a picture when we cross?" she asked.
"It says no pictures," my son pointed out.
"Yes, but what happens if we take them?"
"Do we really want to find out?" I asked. They both shook their heads no.
If we'd magically popped into Cambodia via airplane, we might have arrived fresh and air-conditioned cool, but we wouldn't know the length of Thailand, the smell of unidentified meats being offered in bamboo baskets or the relief at crossing unscathed through an armed border between countries.
I'm not sure if any of the above are important life lessons, but I think they all add up to memorable experiences. If nothing else, we've taught our kids to appreciate air travel. My daughter has informed us that, in the event the choice is presented again, she'd prefer to take a flight, direct, if possible.