Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia is high on the list of must-do travel destinations – with its spectacular temples, ruins and jaw-dropping carvings, it’s an awe-inspiring and unforgettable trip (and just two hours from Singapore!). But can you do it with children? Will a Cambodian holiday end up in ruins or will you all be loving the ruins? Tracy Tristram took her sense of adventure along with her three small people (and a husband) to Angkor for a fun-filled long weekend…
Pssst: If you’re looking for more family holiday inspiration in Asia, check out our guides to Kuala Lumpur with kids, a relaxing family beach escape in Koh Samui and why we think Hong Kong is a top family travel hotspot.
Our youngest was just eight months old when we bundled him in his Ergo Baby and introduced him to a sight that we had wanted to see for many years – Angkor Wat.
We also had our other two kids tag along (not in Ergos) at age five and 10 at the time. They were completely nonchalant about going to “a load of old ruins” but were happy to admit they adored the place once we were there. The photos and the guide books that had been scattered around our apartment in the lead up to the holiday were really not all that interesting to them. They had visions of spending a holiday in a kind of endless museum. But the reality was an experience of exploration, excitement and yes a little bit of exhaustion that they loved every second of.
SIEM REAP: THE NEED-TO-KNOWS
Siem Reap is just a quick two-hour direct flight with Jet Star or Silk Air from Singapore, so makes a great destination for a long weekend or as a pit stop as part of a longer holiday. You’ll barely have time to fire up the iPad before you are landing in this amazing and mystical land.
For most passport holders, Cambodia is ‘Visa on Arrival’ but do take a look at the information pertaining to your nationality before you travel at Cambodia Tourism Visa Requirements. And make sure you bring some USD to pay for the visa!
Weather wise, the driest and coolest months to visit are November through to March. Once March rolls around it starts to heat up and April and May are the hottest months. In June and July the heat starts to lessen and the showers start to fall (rarely for more than an hour or two at a time). Come August you will need wellies and a rain mac, and possibly even a portable canoe, as this is when the rain really starts to fall. In fact between the months of August to October, Siem Reap has more water fall from the sky than London has in an entire year! (And for those of you who know London, you must also know that it rains a LOT there!).
We visited Siem Reap in January and the weather was ideal. Not too hot. Not too cold. No rain.
What many visitors to Angkor are not prepared for is the sheer size of the site. Angkor Archeological Park is not just one little area, it is a a vast 400km2 city made up of various sites and specific areas of importance. It is NOT possible to walk between the main areas that tourists can visit. The little legs in the family would never make it. And while it is possible to have a quick scoot around in one day, you should really allow yourself at least two, if not three, full days to explore this amazing place. The best option for families, and the option that we used, was hiring a driver who picked us up from the airport who was then was our guide/driver for the duration of our stay. The drivers will charge a daily rate and take you wherever you want to go while you are there. They will wait in the various car parks while you ramble over the ruins, and then drive you between the sites as you see fit. They also generally know some really cool places for a bite to eat.
Angkor essentials: Getting in, getting around, getting out…
You must possess an admission pass (an ‘Angkor Pass’) to visit the temples and sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Passes may be purchased at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat. One-day tickets only can be purchased at the secondary toll gate on airport road entrance near Angkor Wat and at Banteay Srei. Your driver/guide will be able to take you to the appropriate ticket counter.
Passes are sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks. The three-day pass is valid for one week (that is, three days to be used within the week, not necessarily consecutively). The seven-day pass is valid for one month (seven days to be used within the month, not necessarily consecutively). Children under 12 are free, as are Cambodian Nationals. Cash – either USD, Euros, Thai Baht or Cambodian Riel – are the only accepted form of payment. No credit/debit cards.
One passport-sized photo per person is required at time of ticket purchase for three and seven-day passes. If you do not have a photo, free photos are provided at the main entrance. This can mean a lengthy queue though and your time is definitely better spent exploring than lining up!
A one-day visit allows you to see the highlights of the most famous temples, but very little more. This may suit those with very young children. Three days will get you a visit to all the major temples as well as a few minor ones with a little extra time to linger at your favourite parts.
Visiting hours are 5AM – 6PM. Angkor Wat closes at 6PM, Banteay Srei closes at 5PM and Kbal Spean at 3PM. Make sure to always carry your ticket! It will be checked upon each park entry and at major temples. There is a significant fine for not possessing a valid ticket inside the park. A regular admission ticket is not required to visit Phnom Kulen (the holy mountain famous for its carvings and sacred waters), Koh Ker or Beng Mealea, but there is a separate entrance fee of $20, $10 and $5, respectively.
A lot of the site is open for us tourist types to clamber over and explore at our will. Our kids were in their element finding secret passages and dodgy looking staircases to climb and our time there was, sadly, not quite long enough.
There are dozens of temple ruins in the Siem Reap area. Your temple itinerary depends largely on how much time you have and your level of interest, though some temples are absolute must sees. Any itinerary should include the legendary ruins of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the giant faces of Bayon. These temple ruins are probably the most iconic and offer the kids ample opportunity for climbing and rambling. It is worth noting that Angkor Wat is NOT stroller friendly! A baby carrier is a must for babies and little legs who won’t cope with the level of walking and climbing involved. The older little legs will get tired, so factor in rest breaks and if you are there over a few days then definitely pace yourself according to your kids’ energy levels!
Another incredible adventure for your family is Ta Prohm. Close to Angkor Thom, the two sites make for an unforgettable day out. Ta Prohm is also very familiar for Lara Croft fans as it featured in the film adaptation, although Angelina Jolie is unlikely be there when you visit, I am sorry to say. However, Ta Prohm is the undisputed capital of the ‘Kingdom of the Trees’ and it is easy to see why. Shrouded in dense jungle, this area has largely been left untouched by archaeologists except for the clearing of a path for visitors. The trunks of the trees twist around the stone pillars, giving it a haunted charm that the kids will love (or run screaming from!).
Another notable option is either sunrise or sunset at the site. Sunrise (you will need to enter the park at around 5AM) is best viewed at Angkor Wat. Sunset is best seen from the mountain temple up at Phnom Bakheng. There was no way that our lazybones kids were going to make a sunrise, but we did hike them up a big hill for sunset (take water and rested legs with you for this one). The view was totally worth the effort and the kids were happy to sit and watch until the last traces of sun had left the sky. Getting off the hill was, however, challenging. It is dark, and stony! So watch your step and take it slowly! And also make sure you have some bandaids in your bag for the inevitable scrapes!
The sunset/sunrise experience can be made even more memorable (and in a less taxing manner) by witnessing the full glory from a hot air balloon! These trips are only available from mid December through to mid March every year. To find out more, visit Angkor Ballooning.
You are visiting someone’s home…
Something that none of our family expected was the number of Cambodian people actually living in Angkor Wat! Many of the families living there have small stalls selling the obligatory fridge magnet and ‘I went to Siem Reap’ T-shirts. They also run small food stalls and restaurants on the site. Our children were particularly fascinated by their children… ragamuffin little kids running barefoot and free without a parent to be seen! These kids were immeasurably cute and ridiculously happy. And a great eye opener for our kids who are prone to feeling hard done by if one of them gets a bigger piece of cake than the other… These Angkor Wat kids are as savvy as they are cute. They WILL ask you for some money and they will do it very charmingly. Take small change with you, or better still pack some colouring pencils, small colouring books or other little gifts your children can hand to Angkor Wat’s children.
THERE’S MORE THAN RUINS
Obviously a trip to Siem Reap would not be complete without the pilgrimage to Angkor Wat. But that isn’t to say that this is all that Siem Reap has to offer….
Flight of the Gibbon
This amazing experience will zip you over the jungle, gibbon style, for an adventure you will never forget! The course involves 10 different zip lines, four hanging bridges, a 50m rappel descent, guides and safety instructors who will not only ensure you survive the challenge unscathed, but will also educate you on the local flora and fauna along the way. If you are super lucky then you will get to spot some actual gibbons during the experience. A Cambodian meal is also included in the price of USD109 per person (with 25% discount for children under 16). Go to Tree Top Asia to find out more and to make a zippy booking.
Angkor Wat Night Market
Enjoy a fish spa and pick up a souvenir, or a cold beer and a fried snake on a stick all in one place! Angkor Wat Night Market is open every evening from 4PM until midnight if you’re in the mood hunt for a bargain and a creepy crawly snack. There is also a mini cinema here showing short movies about the history of Cambodia, which is well worth stopping by.
Cambodian Cultural Village
If you are not all cultured out then spend a few hours with the kids exploring the Cambodian Cultural Village. There you will see traditional housing, artisans carving, traditional shows and a wax museum. There is a restaurant on site for milk shake refuelling purposes. And while the kids have a milk shake, perhaps mum or dad can take advantage of the traditional Cambodian massage hut on site!
Khmer Ceramics & Fine Art Centre
Kids love to get messy and create their own pottery masterpieces at Khmer Ceramics & Fine Art Centre! Once their creation is complete, it will be fired and glazed and then delivered to your hotel within 24 hours. If clay is not their thing, then there is also a painting option. Once the messy parts are done then you can also have a tour of the facility and can see the grown-up artisans at work.
WHERE TO STAY
Siem Reap may have a huge relic on the edge of town, but it also has a large number of family friendly hotels to rest your weary head at in the evenings. Whether you want something boutique or perhaps a more all-singing, all-dancing option, there is a choice for everyone, and prices are really rather reasonable. We plumped for Memoir D’Angkor which had a good-sized family room (double bed for us; two single beds for our Large and Medium kids and a travel cot for Small child).
The hotel also had a decent-sized pool to jump into at the end of a day of adventuring, and a good restaurant with a nightly live dancing show which the kids loved joining in with.
Sadly, as with many amazing wonders of this world, Angor Wat will not always be so accessible… Centuries of weather and erosion means that it really will fade away one day. Certain areas are already being roped off as they simply are eroding too quickly under our feet. So book a flight, pick a hotel, and pack your sense of adventure into a case and take your own family to ramble on the ruins of the very beautiful Angkor Wat.