By: Heidi Sarna
I’d been to the Cambodian province of Siem Reap before, but the most recent trip was with a good friend from the US who was visiting Asia with her family for the first time. They were eager to explore the legendary Hindu-Buddhist temples of Angkor, the only caveat being their “baggage”: two kids. I left my own behind in Singapore, as school had just started, and joined my friends and their two sons (aged 12 and 3) on a four-night, kid-friendly Siem Reap sojourn involving tuk tuks, boats, bikes and more.
Day 1: By plane
Our plane landed in Siem Reap in the afternoon and we spent the rest of the day settling in; a tip when travelling with kids is not to over-schedule. I found a great hotel online that met all of our requirements: moderately priced, near the temples and with a pool. For a large family suite that accommodated the five of us, we paid less than US$100 a night at Pavillon Indochine , a cosy 20-room hotel set in tropical foliage at the edge of Siem Reap town.
The hotel’s pleasant open-air restaurant operates all day, with breakfast featuring homemade yoghurts and jams, croissants, eggs and fresh fruit. Our little group would linger there while the adults took turns having some private bathroom time each morning.
The hotel also has a rustic spa with professional masseuses offering Khmer massages (which focus on stretching and are done wearing pyjamas) as well as aromatherapy and foot massages starting at just US$8 an hour. Needless to say, I became a regular and so did my friends. Room rates include breakfast and a tuk tuk with driver daily.
Day 2: By tuk tuk and foot
The helpful staff at the hotel arranged a guide for us and at 8am we set off in two tuk tuks for a half-day of temple touring. My friend Rachael had to quickly get over her aversion to her three-year-old riding in the open-air three-wheeler without a seat belt.
With the kids in tow, our goal was to focus on just a few sites and we asked our guide to keep the commentary short and sweet. Our first stop was the 12th-century Bayon Temple within Angkor Thom (or Great City), known for the many serene and massive stone faces carved into its terraces and towers. We followed our guide in and out of the temple rooms and corridors, admiring the crumbling but still hallowed structure rising up from the jungle as if part of nature itself. Our awe-inspired reverie was broken by one of the kids needing a toilet. When a newly potty-trained three-year-old has to go, you don’t wait around.
After a morning of temple-hopping in the rising heat, the kids were understandably losing focus. Dad and the boys went back to the hotel while Rachael and I followed the guide to one more temple, the much-photographed Ta Prohm, famously covered in banyan tree roots. After an hour or so of temple gazing (and after we had bought one too many wooden flutes and bracelets from an aggressive mob of child vendors) we too were back at the hotel for our afternoon hiatus. We ate lunch, swam and booked massages – a routine we repeated each afternoon.
By about 3.30, when the midday heat was dissipating, we were ready to head out to the famous Angkor Wat. We spent a few hours walking through its galleries and passageways, looking at the carvings of Hindu epics and other narratives along the walls. I entertained the boys while my friends climbed up ladder-like stairs to get to the temple’s upper levels.
Day 3: By bicycle
For a break from the temples, we signed up for a family-friendly half-day guided bike ride through the countryside surrounding Siem Reap with Grasshopper Adventures .
With the three-year-old in a bicycle seat behind one of his parents, and the 12-year-old enjoying a tandem ride with the other, we pedalled 25 kilometres along flat dirt roads and footpaths that traversed small villages, quiet residential areas and picturesque farmland, where lotus, morning glories, lemongrass and watermelons grew. Periodically, our guide Mr Chantha would stop and tell us about an aspect of Cambodian history or culture. We visited a colourful Buddhist monastery and a small local market, where Mr Chantha bought us local snacks made of coconut, rice and banana. Though we were leery of getting sick, since most of the snacks were deep-fried, we dug in (and were fine).
Day 4: By car and riverboat
As newcomers to Asia, my friends were eager to see the floating villages along the Tonle Sap lake and its tributaries. While for experienced travellers in Asia it might rank as a been-there-done-that yawner, my friends enjoyed the 30-minute drive through Cambodian countryside followed by our private ride in a no-frills local boat.
We chugged past basic wooden homes on stilts along the river’s edge and watched locals do their laundry, cook, fish and go about their simple lives. The kids were fascinated. Before turning around we had a look at the expansive Tonle Sap ahead of us – it’s so large you can’t see the other side – and were also taken to a small crocodile farm attached to a floating tourist shop selling drinks and over-priced souvenirs.
As we had the driver for the day, we swung by a few more temples for a quick look before heading back to the hotel. The ninth-century Bakong Temple, in the ancient town of Roluos, was especially beautiful in its decay and remoteness from the main temples on the tourist track.
A final highlight
Having enjoyed ourselves so much in Siem Reap, we wanted to do our bit to give something back. Before flying back to Singapore, we stopped off at Green Gecko , a home and school for 70 children who previously lived and begged on the streets of Siem Reap. We had a look around, listened to a half-hour talk about this impressive charity, and dropped off two bags of supplies we had bought the day before, based on the “wish list” posted on the Green Gecko website.
Each evening we looked forward to a delicious and cheap Khmer meal in a different kid-friendly restaurant, washed down with cold beer. The first night we went to the not-for-profit Green Star , a restaurant that supports the Green Gecko charity. Small, unassuming, dimly lit and on the edge of town, it was our favourite of the entire week. We especially loved the Khmer hotpot, a soup flavoured with lemongrass, lime leaves and coconut water; the Khmer yellow curry with vegetables and chicken; and the scrumptious prawn and pork croquettes. The other nights we went to Khmer Kitchen , Butterflies , and the trendy Red Piano , all of which serve delicious Khmer curries and stir-fries plus a few Western staples.
Though we didn’t have much time for shopping, before dinner one night we did manage an hour at the sprawling Old Market to pick up T-shirts and cheap souvenirs. Another evening, we made a mad dash into the Sopheng Art Gallery (No. 382, Street 9, Mondul 1 Village, Sangkat Svay Dangkum) to buy prints of the serene Bayon Temple faces.
In all, my friends’ first visit to Siem Reap was a big hit. Their boys loved the tuk tuk rides and Rachael fell in love with the temples. She managed two sunrise visits with our tuk tuk driver, revelling in the mystery and beauty of the Angkor temples at dawn, while the rest of us slept.
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