Cambodia is a place I first explored pre-parenthood. You know, back in the days when I was still spry and wrinkle-free. To this day it remains one of the few countries I’ve explored that has exceeded my expectations in every possible way. But I was a little nervous about returning all these years later with kids and crow’s feet in tow.
Would it have changed? Would it have lost its charm? Would the temples be trashed? Would we spend more time douchebag tourist spotting than temple touring? (You know the ones who insist on wearing string bikinis to sacred sights, do their best Banksy impersonations on ancient ruins and leave their dumb arse monogrammed padlocks on any fence they can find?) The answer. Yes. No, No and sort of.
There are a few douchebags about (though no more than anywhere else). And while the temples remain pristine and well-cared for, the city itself has changed with resorts, hotels, restaurants and tourism infrastructure popping up all over. But for the people of Cambodia, these changes are for the better as tourism is helping them to rise from the ashes of post-war poverty.
While my affection and connection to Cambodia’s culture and people runs as deep as it ever did, what about the kids? Well, I’m happy to report they both fell just as hard as their mama. But don’t just take my word on Cambodia with kids. Raffles and Sugarpuff have put their journo hats on to share their take on Siem Reap by kids.
But it might be an idea to grab a cuppa before you read on, because they have an awful lot to say…
You might think kids would prefer visiting a beachside resort or a theme park to trekking through temples, but think again because Siem Reap doesn’t dish up any old temples! Well they do I guess because these ones are indeed ancient, but you catch my drift. Emerging as they do from wild monkey inhabited jungles, the mystical temples of Angkor Archaeological Park will entrance even the most ruin-resistant child.
He said: “I have way too much to say about how awesome the temples of Angkor are, so I decided to write a whole separate post telling everyone why they are so great, which you can read here. Choosing a favourite temple for me would be like asking a parent to choose their favourite child, which is impossible, unless of course you had to pick between me and Sugarpuff, then it’s a no brainer. (Just kidding sis, you’re the best).
But to summarise… Angkor Wat is like something from a dream. Ta Prohm will unleash your inner Tomb Raider in seconds. Bantey Srei is like an enchanting art gallery packed with delicate dancing Apsaras and butt kicking monkey gods. Angkor Thom’s Bayon is a mind bendingly brilliant labyrinth with hundreds of giant faces, and has to be the best place on earth to play hide and seek. And in Phnom Khulen, you’ll find epic temples, a giant reclining Buddha, loads of ruins and the River of a Thousand Linga, which is a sacred place well worth exploring. These temples are the reason I wanted to visit Siem Reap in the first place and way exceeded my expectations.”
She said: “At Angkor Wat, a nice monk gave me a special bracelet. I think it’s filled with magical superpowers to protect me and I will never ever take it off ever ever. I really loved the temple with the faces (The Bayon) too, because it was an awesome place to play hide and seek and we kept sneaking up on daddy and scaring him.
There was one temple with trees all over it (Ta Prohm) and it was cool because there were butterflies everywhere, but it was a bit scary because it was broken and I thought it might fall down on my head. It was still super fun because I could stand on the steps and blocks of stone and jump and be crazy. But my favourite was Banteay Srei because it was so little and pretty and kind of pink. What I liked most is that it had carvings of Apsaras, who are really old dancing girls, and I liked to copy their poses. I also liked the monkey statues because my brother and I sang “Monkey Magic, ooh” at them and everyone giggled at us. It was fun.”
Who knew the kids would go so nuts over a mode of transport? But they’re wild about tuk-tuks (a motor bike with a trailer on the back) which are the easiest and breeziest way to get around Siem Reap. Most drivers speak enough English to get by and you can hire one for a whole day to take you from town to the major temples and back again for around US$15-20. Taxis or chauffeur driven cars are generally air conditioned and though more expensive, still very reasonably priced for a day trip further afield. But, at least according to our tuk tuk loving tykes, they’re way less fun.
He said: “It’s comfortable to travel in an air-conditioned car in Siem Reap but it’s kind of boring and I’d rather take a tuk tuk any day. They are seriously the best form of transport ever invented, so airy and dusty and zippy and crazy and when you’re careering around the streets of Siem Reap at speed, riding one is like an adventure all of its own.
Not so awesome are the elephant rides. I was furious at how many stupid people I saw riding elephants across the bridge into Angkor Thom. It doesn’t matter how many kings did it a zillion years ago, or that its makes for a “cool” selfie, everyone knows that riding elephants is cruel, painful and the elephants are mistreated. These are wild animals, and no they don’t look happy! They hate their lives and do what they do because they don’t have a choice. Just leave them alone and stop supporting this cruel industry.”
She said: “Tuk tuks are the best thing ever. They’re noisy, have no doors or seatbelts and zip through town super-fast. It’s like going on a crazy ride at Disneyland. I wish they had them in Australia.”
The food of Cambodia is influenced by its Vietnamese and Chinese-neighbours, though made its own with local ingredients and a touch of French flair. It can also be a little disconcerting, with lively market vendors hawking everything from deep fried spiders and crickets to barbecued frogs. But creepy crawlies aside, it is a pretty kid friendly cuisine with plenty of noodles, rice and stir-fries that are generally milder in flavour than other Asian cuisines. If all else fails western food is easy to find, not that it got a look in with our fearless foodies.
He said: “Let’s get something right out in to the open. Cambodian street food can be kind of confronting if you’re the squeamish type. Good job I’m not! Every market we visited was packed with people serving bags of fried crickets and bugs, tarantulas, snakes on a stick and frogs cooked every way imaginable. From little ones that were fried and served up like chips, to ones that were deep-fried in batter and giant Kermit-sized ones stuffed with spiced minced pork and lemongrass and served on a stick. Oh, and they actually do taste like chicken. There’s even a bug café, which you can read more about here, where I dined on tarantulas, waterbugs, silk worms, ants, scorpions, and every other creepy crawly critter you can imagine.
But it’s not all so out there. Cambodian cuisine is really tasty and you’ll find awesome noodles, soups and stir-fries influenced by Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine as well as my favourite, the irresistible fish amok – a custardy curry packed with chilli, garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass and zingy citrus. I’m craving one right now.”
She said: “Cambodian food is a bit weird. They eat bugs. And frogs. But tarantula legs are ok, they just taste like crisps. And Cambodians make really nice barbecue fish and have some yummy noodle dishes. My favourite meal was when Saroun took us to the market and we ate fresh fruit and pancakes stuffed with banana and fried rice cakes.”
I know people always say that the people of the destinations they visit are friendly, mostly because they don’t leave the resorts and don’t deal with anyone outside of the service staff who are paid to be nice! But Cambodians, whether it’s the folk who are working in tourism, a mum walking through the market with her giggling kids or just a smiling-eyed old dude with his belly hanging out on a street corner, really are remarkably warm and welcoming. Despite the horrors and poverty that the people of this country have endured over the years they are resilient, forward thinking and cheerful. And besides the occasional pushy tout in some of the tourist zones, as a rule they’re sweet, patient, affectionate, very respectful and I luff them.
He said: “The people of Cambodia are really special. Everyone was always smiling, patient and kind. This is amazing too because they have had to suffer and struggle so much. One of the nicest people I met was Saroun from Cooks in Tuk Tuks who took us on a foodie tour and seemed really happy that I was so adventurous. She even took us to a local Cambodian kids fair where we went on a bouncy castle with other kids. But there is a lot of poverty and kids begging in the streets that I really wanted to help by giving them money. But mum says that as much as that seems the right thing to do, it is not the best way to help. So we donated our pocket money to the Cambodian Children’s Trust, and mum gave blood at the Angkor Hospital for Children. I loved Cambodia so much and I really want to do more to help.”
She said: “All the people we met in Cambodia were really happy and friendly. There were lots of little kids who were cute and giggly and I think they liked my curly hair. But I sometimes got sad because some people were really poor and some people had disabilities. Mamia said they were injured by landmines from the war and that made me cross because people shouldn’t ever, ever hurt each other. The monks were really nice to me and gave me special magic strings.”
The five-star Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort, just a five-minute tuk tuk ride away from the restaurants and market strip, and ten minutes from the Angkor temples, is one of the city’s most family friendly resorts. All French colonial elegance with its high ceilings, old-fashioned ceiling fans, period furnishing and polished floors, the resort’s service is faultless and the kids are treated like VIPs. And the food, from the breakfast buffet to poolside snacks and special occasion dining, is sublime.
Surrounded by lush gardens, endless stone paths, wooden bridges and lotus strewn lakes, the sprawling lagoon style pool with a small slide and water features is a magnet for kids and even tiny tots are made feel welcome in the Villas des Enfants – a breezy wooden pavilion packed with toys and games.
He said: I have to admit to being a little biased when it comes to Sofitel hotels but the Sofitel Angkor was really something. The hotel was insanely huge and spectacular inside with huge ceilings and beautiful timber furniture and silky everything. Our adjoining rooms were both massive and led to a courtyard with gardens and a lake covered with lily pads.
The pool was the actual best, because it was not only huge but there was a swim up bar and mum and dad let me have a mojito (the mocktail variety, of course). Plus they served delicious Cambodian salads and nibbles, which we ate by the pool. The staff went out of their way to be nice. They even made us breakfast boxes packed with amazing pastries, which were waiting at stupid o’clock in the morning when we went out to see the temples, so my sister and I didn’t get hungry. And their actual breakfast spread was a thing of buffet beauty. Plus, they made us fishing rods from scratch and taught us how to fish in the lake. It’s one of my favourite hotels so far.”
She said: “I loved my room at the Sofitel Angkor because it was really pretty and mummy and daddy’s room had these little floor cushion bed things that were super comfortable. We had a verandah that led to a garden with stepping stones and the pool was the biggest pool ever. A super nice lady made us fishing rods from bamboo and we got to try fishing in the hotel’s big ponds. And I love, love, love Apsaras and one night there were actual real Apsara dancers at the hotel and they were really beautiful and amazing.”
You’ll find more our our need to know tips on travelling in Cambodia with kids here.
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.