The Magical Kingdom of Cambodia stole a little piece of my heart when I visited to work with a small and now defunct NGO in Phnom Penh, more than a decade ago. It was a place I’d always promised to return with my kids, but only once they were old enough to appreciate the country’s Ancient architecture without fear of temple fatigue, and also to understand the grim realities of its dark history as the country is still, even today, in recovery.
Visiting Siem Reap with kids would mean introducing them to themes like genocide and the magnitude of evil human beings are capable, making that whole birds and bees chat I’ve also been putting off seem as easy as telling them a knock, knock joke. And while bursting the bubble of their innocence wasn’t part of my immediate plans, neither was my son becoming fixated with visiting Cambodia.
Raffles curiosity started when he began flicking through my old photo albums (though that may have had as much to do with the fact that he was curious about the unwrinkled young thing masquerading as his mama in the pics) and started reading through some of the many books I’d collected on the place I think of as my spiritual home.
But while his mother’s paraphernalia may have awakened his interest, it was Lara Croft who shot it to number one on his travel hit parade, with an actual bullet… and a couple of roundhouses, after he watched her do her thing all over its extraordinary temples in Tomb Raider.
Raffles has a magical way of sending his wishes out into the universe and it paying attention, and at that exact same time an opportunity presented itself for him, and us, to visit, so we decided to take the leap into an exciting adventure in Siem Reap with kids.
LOVE AT FIRST HISTORIC SITE IN SIEM REAP
In an unexpected stroke of luck for their history buff mama, it turns out my kids are immune to temple fatigue. In fact, all it took was Angkor Wat revealing itself at sunrise for the pair of them to fall in deep, deep smit.
We spend an hour or so exploring the temple’s hallowed halls and intricate reliefs. Raffles is especially fascinated by it’s 550 metres of epic Bas Reliefs depicting battles between ancient gods and demons, while Sugarpuff is shyly smitten with the young monk who blesses her with holy water and ties a string bracelet around her wrist.
Tumbies rumbling, we leap into our Tuk Tuk to nosh on the breakfast we’ve brought with us, thoughtfully supplied by our awesome hotel, the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra.
We nibble away as we buzz over a causeway lined with epic Hindu deities and monsters.
Eating on the go means that instead of returning for breakfast at our hotels like most visitors do, we manage to achieve the holy grail of temple touring at Angkor Thom, as we have the whole place pretty much to ourselves. Booyah!
At the heart of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, a 12th-century, melon twisting temple built by King Jayavarman VII, who it seems was the Kanye of his time, devoting the temple to Avalokitesvara, the universal god of compassion, whilst massaging his own inflated ego by having its 216 gargantuan faces made in his own image. And no Yeezy, I’m not suggesting you do the same.
The kids are momentarily mesmerised by the ancient faces but are soon off playing a game of ancient hide seek amongst its many mysterious nooks and crannies.
They fly in one crooked doorway, up and down the uneven steps, vanishing from sight only to magically reappear in another part of the complex, thoroughly enjoying the thrill of having their parents in a non-stop state of panic as we search for them under the mocking gaze of the temple’s hundreds of giant eyes.
Figuring they might need a break from all that templing, we head to Angkor Zipline, located amongst the gibbon-dotted treetops of Angkor Archaeological Park.
They have a hoot flying through the trees but at the end insist they’d rather be exploring more ruins as soon as they unhook themselves. Before they can change their minds, our Tuk Tuk driver delivers us to the nearby temple of Ta Prohm.
Raffles immediately recognises its jungle-clad ruins from its star turn in Tomb Raider, and my wee treasure hunters bound off into the atmospheric ruins with an excited squeal, his sister on his heels.
Leaping through the temple hand in hand, the kids clamber over muscular roots that have entangled themselves around and throughout the crumbled ruins.
They chase butterflies and each other, stirring up dust and dancing in the streams of light as they use their imaginations to create moments of pure magic that make my heart soar.
WHEN TOO MUCH TEMPLE IS NEVER ENOUGH
After a refreshing swim back at the Sofitel, my wannabe archaeologists pour over guide books to select which enchanting ruin will be the first stop on tomorrow’s adventure.
This is how we find ourselves heading further afield to Phnom Kulen, the birthplace of the ancient Khmer empire. Home to the mysterious River of a Thousand Lingas, overlooked by carvings of Shiva, Brahma, Lakshmi, Vishnu and Rama, and Preah Ang Thom, a16th-century Buddhist Monastery, my little tomb raiders are as enthralled as ever.
They’re blessed by a monk at the temple.The kids are fascinated by this monk’s sacred sak yant tattoos. As he chants and ties strings around their tiny wrists, they carefully study the tapering spirals, sacred geometry and spidery lettering – believed to bestow mystical powers, protection and attract good luck. So inspired are they by the symbolism of the designs they steal a biro from my handbag and start drawing all over each other in an attempt to recreate them. Alas, the only things their amateur attempts will attract is soap when we get back to our hotel.
They continue their imaginary adventures in the shallow waters of a temple-flanked waterfall, stopping only for a swing and a selfie with a couple of curious monks, who seem enamoured with their bouncy curls.
On our return to town we decide to squeeze in one last stop at the tiny, rose-hued Banteay Srei, an incredibly preserved 10th-century temple that boasts some of the most elaborate stone carvings in all of Asia.
The tomb raiding twosome are particularly enchanted with this one, Sugarpuff desperately trying to emulate the dancing Apsaras carved on its walls while Raffles eyes off a couple of beefy sculpted guardian monkeys.
They even manage to sneak off long enough to tomb raid the neighbouring market on a quest to attain a beautiful Buddha statue for their mama’s birthday. Well played babies.
DAREDEVIL DINING IN SIEM REAP
While it’s generally more of a challenge to stop Raffles eating everything in sight than it is to introduce him to new cuisines, Siem Reap has him in full pelican mode, shovelling everything he can into his copious gob.
And when I say everything, I mean everything. Street markets hawk everything from deep fried tarantulas and bags of crunchy crickets to jerky-style frog and barbecued snake on a stick, and much to his sister’s disgust, Raffles wants to try them all.
The answer is a visit to Bugs Café, an Insect Tapas restaurant where the highly trained chef skillfully turns the creepy crawly Cambodian street food staple into gourmet grub (quite literally if you consider his use of silk worms in some the dishes).
Raffles chomps the legs off a huge black Tarantula before digging into a feta and tarantula samosa, while Mr Eats World chows down on a Bug Mac, complete with insect steak and sweet potato fries. Even my flavour phobic youngest loves the restaurants amok, a deliciously creamy Cambodian fish curry served with rice (and to her delight, completely devoid of bugs). The entire meal, aside from a skewer of giant waterbugs that leaves us all retching, is surprisingly delicious and certainly one we won’t forget in a hurry.
A moveable feast with Cooks in Tuk Tuks proves another gluttonous winner.
Sugarpuff is in heaven as we fly through the dusty streets from Phsar Leu Market, chomping on the gelatinous palm fruit, sweet French style pancakes stuffed with banana and deep-fried rice flour chive cakes we’ve purchased. But it as 60 Road, a local street food market, that Raffles enjoys our most authentic food experience.
We join local families on roadside mats to dine on stuffed frog, barbecued local fish and grasshoppers before he and his sister screech their way through a rickety fun fair at the end of the strip with the local kids.
REALITY BITES IN SIEM REAP WITH KIDS
Would I recommend Siem Reap with kids? Absolutely. But it isn’t all temples, Tuk Tuks and tarantulas. Cambodia’s still visible poverty can prove a little challenging for little ones. Seeing first-hand the effects of war as we pass by landmine victims and child beggars, mine are especially confused by their parents refusal to hand out cash on the spot. But Mr Eats World and I address their concerns and use the opportunity to address the country’s dark past as gently and honestly as we can.
We also explain why we had to say no to clearly needy street kids and instead demonstrate how we, and they, can help them far more via donations to ethical charities that will use the money on projects that will help them out of the cycle of poverty they’re trapped in. And also through more useful actions like giving blood at the Angkor Hospital for Children.
While the kids bubbles of innocence remain intact, Cambodia has fired up their compassion and their imaginations in a way I could never have imagined. And I think they are much richer for it.
Disclosure: All tomb raiding, tree top swinging, tuk tuking and tarantula munching was self funded.