The magical Kingdom of Cambodia stole a little piece of my heart when I visited to work with a small (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 of, making that whole birds and bees chat I’ve been putting off seem as easy as telling them a knock, knock joke. But while bursting the bubble of their innocence wasn’t part of my immediate plans, neither was my son becoming fixated with visiting Cambodia.
Raff’s curiosity was first aroused when he began flicking through my old photo albums (though that may have had as much to do with the fact that he was intrigued by the unwrinkled young thing masquerading as his mama in the pics). It was piqued even further when he started reading through a few of the many, many books I’d collected on a country I think of as my spiritual home.
But while his mother’s pics and paraphernalia may have awakened his interest, it was Lara Croft who shot Cambodia to number one on his travel hit parade, with an actual bullet… and a couple of roundhouses, after he saw her do her thing all over its extraordinary temples in Tomb Raider.
Raffles has always had a magical ability to send his wishes out into the universe and it pay 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 in tow.
LOVE AT FIRST HISTORIC SITE IN SIEM REAP
In an unexpected stroke of luck for their history buff mama, it turns out my children are both 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 fascinated by it’s 550 metres of Bas Reliefs depicting epic battles between ancient gods and demons, while Sugarpuff is shyly smitten with the young monk who blesses her with holy water and ties a red string bracelet around her wrist.
Tummies rumbling, we leap into our Tuk Tuk to nosh on the BYO breakfast, thoughtfully supplied by our hotel, the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra.
We nibble away as we buzz over a causeway lined with enigmatic Hindu deities and gruesome monsters.
Eating on the go proves a smart move as it means that instead of returning to breakfast at our hotel like most visitors must, we manage to achieve the holy grail of temple touring at Angkor Thom, getting 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, at least on a narcissistic level, was the Kanye of his time. Jayavarman devoted 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, momentarily mesmerised by the ancient faces, are soon ensconced in a game of ancient hide seek amongst the temples many mysterious nooks and crannies.
They fly in one crooked doorway, up and down the uneven steps, vanishing from sight only to reappear in another part of the complex, thoroughly enjoying the thrill of having their parents reduced to 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 the templing, we head to Angkor Zipline, located amongst the gibbon-strewn treetops of Angkor Archaeological Park.
They fly through the trees hooting and hollering but by the end my monkeys insist they’d rather be exploring more temples. I’m astonished by their eagerness to be dragged around ruins but before they can change their minds, throw them in to our Tuk Tuk and ask the driver to make haste to the nearby temple of Ta Prohm.
Raffles immediately recognises the jungle-clad ruins from its star turn in Tomb Raider. “Is this really it?” he asks in awestruck wonder. Indeed it is. My wee treasure hunter bounds off into the atmospheric ruins with an excited squeal, his sister hot on his heels.
Leaping through the temple hand in hand, they clamber over the muscular roots that have entangled themselves in, through, and around the crumbled ruins, stopping only to strike the occasional Hollywood adventurer pose.
They giggle with delight as 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
Later the night, my wannabe archaeologists forget their usual night time antics to pore over my guide books, eager to choose which enchanting ruin will be the first stop on tomorrow’s adventure.
It is a unanimous decision to head further afield to Phnom Kulen, the birthplace of the ancient Khmer empire. The mountain is home to the mysterious River of a Thousand Lingas and Preah Ang Thom, a16th-century Buddhist Monastery, where my little tomb raiders are as enthralled as ever.
There are more Buddhist blessings and strings to add to their collection, but the kids are more fascinated by the sacred sak yant tattoos on the monk bestowing them. 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 adventures in the shallow waters of a temple-flanked waterfall, stopping only for a swing and a selfie with a couple of curious smartphone wielding monks, who seem enamoured with their bouncy curls.
On our return to town I 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.
My clever little adventurers even manage to sneak off long enough to tomb raid the neighbouring market on a special quest to attain a beautiful statue for their mama’s birthday. Well played babies. Well played.
You can read more about what the kids thought about the temples of Siem Reap here.
Related: Take a road trip through the Cambodian hinterland to discover even more of its incredible ancient temples and lost cities.
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 and he shovels 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. Much to his sister’s disgust, Raffles wants to eat them all. So to satiate his hunger for the weird and wonderful, we visit Bugs Café in Siem Reap, an Insect Tapas restaurant where a highly-trained chef skilfully turns creepy crawly Cambodian street food staple into gourmet grub (quite literally if you consider his use of silk worms in some the dishes).
Raffles gleefully 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 restaurant’s amok, a deliciously creamy Cambodian fish curry served with rice (which, to her delight, is completely devoid of insects). The entire meal, aside from a skewer of waterbugs that rock a giant ‘roach vive and leave us all retching, is surprisingly delicious and certainly one we won’t forget in a hurry.
But Raffles is still hungry so we undertake a moveable feast with the foodie folks from Cooks in Tuk Tuks. It proves a gluttonous winner with our whole crew.
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 incredible, unctuous, deep-fried rice flour chive cakes that our guide Surin has selected to start our culinary adventure. But it is at 60 Road, a truly local street food market, where Raffles enjoys his most authentic food experience.
Here we join dozens of local families gathered on roadside mats to dine on a variety of Cambodian treats. We spy stuffed frog, barbecued local fish and grasshoppers, sausages, bull’s penis (yes, I said bull’s penis) and a whole bunch of other unidentifiable critters on the charcoal grills, our kind hosts helping us to distinguish the rat from the frog and the pork sausage from the pork sword.
My tiny travellers play with local kids between bites, shyly at first, but they’re soon off and cackling their way through a rickety fun fair at the end of the strip with their new pals, the language barrier a non-issue to international relations kid-style.
REALITY BITES IN SIEM REAP WITH KIDS
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, my kids are confused by their usually charitable 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 have to say no to clearly needy street kids and instead explain 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. We also demonstrate positive actions through useful aid 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, my daughter offering her pocket money to help and my son requesting his friends donate to a Cambodian Children’s Charity instead of buying him presents on his birthday soon after. And they are much richer for it.
SIEM REAP WITH KIDS – NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
When to visit
November to March is the most popular time to travel with little rain and less humidity.
Kmher, though French and English are widely spoken
Cambodian Riel (US dollars are also widely used and accepted)
30V AC electricity. Power outlets are two-prong round sockets.
Visa & Passport Requirements
A 30-day tourist visa is required for all visitors entering Cambodia. These can be obtained on arrival for in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Preah Sihanouk but you will require a passport sized photo. The Cambodian government website also offers e-visas, so you can apply before you leave. Visitors also require a passport valid for at least six (6) months.
Mosquito borne diseases are a risk in Cambodia. When travelling with children prevention is best so apply child-safe insect repellent (with no more 20% DEET) as recommended and ensure they are dressed in long (but lightweight) clothing at all times. There are no essential vaccinations for travellers to Cambodia but we advise visiting your family GP a minimum of six weeks before travel for up to date advice on immunisations.
Avoid tap water, raw foods and food stalls with dubious hygiene standards, and avoid tummy bugs by following our safe eating mantra of “cook it, peel it or forget it.
You can find more detailed tips on travelling in Cambodia with kids here.
Disclosure: Our tomb raiding, tree top swinging, tuk tuking and tarantula munching in Cambodia with kids was self funded.