When you have four kids, spanning seven years, it is impossible to find the perfect age-appropriate trip for everyone. I keep waiting for the cultural-holiday trifecta: when my kids are old enough to carry their own backpacks, past the childhood-amnesia stage, and curious about the world. But you know the risks living in Hong Kong. Inevitably, while you are sitting tight for this magical sweet spot, you wake up one day and are told to pack your bags and move to London…or New York.
So, despite having a one-year-old who would decidedly remember absolutely nothing of Cambodia, we booked a Cathay Holiday package to Siem Reap (direct flights now, hooray!) for Chinese New Year last year. February is a great time to go — warm but not sweltering. And four days is ideal.
Siem Reap has changed dramatically since I stayed there fifteen years ago as a backpacker, crashing in a dusty hostel. Now, there is an ultraposh Aman! The range of accommodations is broad — you are spoiled for choice. But knowing that my under-10 crew would need a decent hotel pool to balance out the sightseeing, we opted for the Sofitel, which was especially great for younger children. The pool has a shallow area and a swim-up bar that appealed to everyone. Connecting rooms made it convenient for us to fit the whole brood. There is even a fishing pond and the hotel staff will fry up your catch (no, thanks!) And the short tuk-tuk rides to town were a huge hit with the kids. They loved the noise of the traffic and smells on the street as we bounced our way into Siem Reap.
While still in Hong Kong, I traded e-mails with a tour guide named Bon, who picked us up from the airport with a van and driver. It is important to find a guide who understands and tolerates children and can respond accordingly. Bon had the wonderful combination of the patience of a primary school teacher and the knowledge of a professor.
Temple fatigue is real. Here’s how to avoid it: See a temple in the morning; swim; non-temple-related activity in the afternoon. Repeat (or some variation on this!)
The temples are all amazing in their own unique ways but there are some standouts.
- Angkor Wat: Of course! Most popular to go at sunrise to see the reflection of the temple on the lake but it’s a painfully early start
- Beng Mealea: A bit of a drive but this jungle temple is overrun with vines and roots and very atmospheric; kids loved swinging on the vines like Indiana Jones
- Bayon: Famous for the over 200 stone faces
- Ta Prohm: Used as the location for Tomb Raider, enough said
- Ta Keo: One of the tallest monuments; the steep steps are a slog and a bit dangerous but worth the effort
- Khmer Ceramics Centre: Kids can learn to use the potter’s wheel and make bowls and cups; they will fire the clay and even deliver to the hotel
- Happy Ranch Horse Farm: Go early morning or late afternoon for a one hour ride
- Phare – The Cambodian Circus: Not your ordinary circus with elephants but more acrobatics; it’s loud and hot though so not ideal for babies
- Angkor Silk Farm: Kids were really fascinated by the free guided tour of silkworm farming, cocoon unwinding, tie-dyeing the threads and silk weaving; naturally there is a shop at the end of the tour selling the silk products made on the farm!
- Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre: Small but kids loved getting to “hold” a newly born butterfly (good to do on the way back from Beng Mealea)
- Tonle Sap: Better in the wet season when the water levels are higher, it is a long drive to this floating village.
Where to Eat:
- Marum: Sit in the garden and let the kids run around at this training restaurant that employs disadvantaged Cambodian youth serving creative local cuisine
- Haven: Another training restaurant serving delicious fusion food; no kids menu but the lemon & cream pasta was a hit!
- Bugs Café: Undoubtedly, the highlight of the trip for the kids! The Bugs Cafe serves crickets, scorpions, silkworms, spiders, ants and more. Apparently, eating insects is the future – they are an efficient source of protein! As you might imagine, there was, initially, huge push back about coming here for dinner. But once we made it into a competition, everyone got in the spirit. Even the baby tried fried tarantula (of course, unknowingly!) It was a fun experience and very memorable. Just make sure to have dinner plans afterwards since you aren’t likely to clear your plate!
My Top Tips:
- Bring US$ (small change, one dollar bills are best)
- Pack a lot of snacks (think early morning starts when there isn’t time for breakfast, long car drives, bribery to see one more temple)
- Pick up the Leap & Hop Cambodia — guide book especially designed for children with locally relevant games and activities
- Pack long, lightweight trousers for horse riding and Angkor Wat (where shorts and tank tops should not be worn)
- If you are going during a popular holiday time (i.e. Chinese New Year), make restaurant reservations in advance since some of them have limited seating
- Family movie night — watch Tomb Raider (ages 5+) before and after you go
- Read up! There are some amazing nonfiction and historical fiction books about Cambodia: First They Killed My Father, In the Shadow of the Banyan, Temple of a Thousand Faces, The Map of Lost Memories
- Bring your own baby car seats so younger kids will sit safely and comfortably on longer drives