By Emily Finch
After nearly five years of defaulting to our usual beach destinations for the school holidays, the time had come to inject a little bit of culture into our offspring! But were we biting off more than we could chew? With the girls only seven and five, I did wonder if it was perhaps too soon to do the “grownup holiday thing”; yet we were certainly prepared to give it a crack.
Our digs for the three-night stay were at Shinta Mani Angkor, a hotel by Bangkok based luxury resort designer Bill Bensley, located right in the centre of town. This is a property with a conscience; it’s part of the Shinta Mani Foundation, established with the purpose of enhancing the lives of people in the local community through responsible tourism.
Siem Reap was everything we thought it would be: busy (for a town), vibrant, beautiful, visibly steeped in history and, yes, a little touristy – a mix of families like ours, group travel parties, well-heeled European couples, plus a few gap-year school and uni leavers trying to “find themselves”.
When you’re travelling with children, it really is the little things that make the difference. You just want the trip to, well, flow. Shinta Mani had thought of it all (for a small fee!); private transfers in an air-conditioned people carrier, fast-track immigration check-in, cold towels and pretty orchids on arrival, and a tranquil pool to keep the children amused after a morning of temple-watching, with suitable poolside meals and a kids’ menu.
But, let’s be honest, you don’t go to Siem Reap just to hang out in the hotel, so here’s my list of must-dos for any family trip here.
1. TEMPLES OF ANGKOR
It goes without saying that everyone visits Siem Reap to see the UNESCO World Heritage temples, and they really didn’t disappoint. We chose to go for sunrise, but we also hear that sundown is a lovely time; some travellers even visit twice in a day to see both – now, that’s dedication to culture!
Indochine Exploration’s Angkor Uncovered Temple Tour is a great way to experience this magical place; it comes complete with picnic breakfast, air-conditioned vehicle, driver and experienced temple guide, picnic lunch by the stunning lake and the option to walk or bike off the beaten track. We were surprised at just how much our kids got out of this excursion; they particularly enjoyed being blessed by one of the local monks and getting up in the dark to watch the sunrise over brekkie! The full-day tour starts from US$195 for one person, but is considerably cheaper for two or more people; it includes the things mentioned above, plus transport from your hotel, good-quality bicycles and helmets, and water and other drinks. Next time we’re going to try the company’s Secret Lake Cycle Ride & Kayak Tour (five hours).
Psst… Top tips for tackling the temples with children: go with another family so the kids can keep each other motivated, take warmer clothing for the cooler early morning with a change of lighter clothes for later on, and, as ever (even with older children), pack lots of snacks!
2. COOKERY COURSE AT KROYA
This course, at Shinta Mani restaurant Kroya, was one of our trip highlights. It’s an ideal family-friendly thing to do to escape the heat and the temples, as beautiful and mesmerising as they are! Waking into the spacious and air-conned private kitchen, we found ingredients freshly cut, chopped, sliced and laid out, ready to throw into the pan. This is my kind of cooking course, with minimum hard graft required, leaving you time to really get into the flavours, smells and feel of the physical dish.
A small recipe booklet was handed to us at the start; our aim for the day was to prepare various Khmer dishes. The fish amok and the green mango salad were two of the highlights, and the girls really enjoyed making sticky rice dumplings! We then had the opportunity of eating all the gorgeous dishes we’d just made over a long lunch en famille.
Even if your budget doesn’t stretch to staying in Shinta Mani, Kroya is worth making a rickshaw trip to. We devoured a whopping seven-course chef’s special taster, including wild pomelo salad with poached prawns and toasted coconut, Kampot pepper steak in a pickled morning glory and shallot reduction, and roasted chicken stuffed with Siem Reap sausage, peanuts and vermicelli. Book an alfresco table, and dine cross-legged on hanging sofa chairs and low tables suspended above lily ponds (yep!), and take in the gentle live local music that often plays.
3. HORSE RIDING
We didn’t experience a horse ride ourselves, but we bumped into family friends of ours from Singapore on the trip and they raved about it. It seemed a real hit for every member of their family (three kids, ages five, six and eight), plus mum and dad seemed happy. Spending an entire morning on horseback while soaking in the countryside sounded divine; we will make time for this when we visit again.
It’s fair to say that, while Siem Reap can easily be “done” with young kids, you do have to pace yourself and balance things:
so, a morning’s worth of wandering through temples needs to be tempered with a fun trot on horseback or hiring some bikes and letting the children burn off some of that culture steam.
4. PHARE: THE CAMBODIAN CIRCUS
Try and catch this nightly show during your visit; it’s just a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride out of town. For those who avoid circuses with animals, don’t worry – there are none in these productions, only young acrobatic artists who’ve trained at Phare Ponleu Selpak, a school in Battambang (Cambodia’s second-biggest city) that provides free public education and arts training to disadvantaged children. All profits from this entertaining show go back to the school so it can continue to help children have more of a future. We loved that it was in an old-school big top. Grab an early dinner before you go as the show kicks off promptly at 8pm. Allow 30 minutes to get there, grab some popcorn or a beer and snare a good seat – it’s first come, first served!
5. EAT AT SPOONS
We really noticed the philanthropic side to this vibrant town: the Shinta Mani Foundation and Phare aren’t alone in their attempts to provide a fantastic experience for visitors while nurturing local talent and giving back to the community via skilled, lasting, employment. At Spoons, a training restaurant run by an NGO called EGBOK (“Everything’s Gonna Be OK”), our plates of food were fresh, authentic and delicious, and definitely lived up to their strong TripAdvisor reviews; the service was spot on too.
I got chatting to the manager that evening who explained that the staff rotate around all parts of the business, so they get a feel for not only the F&B side and how to cook and prepare good food, but also, how to mix excellent cocktails (vouched!), work the till and cash up, and also learn how to run a business. We loved the whole concept – this place is a must-visit!
6. ENJOY A RELAXING MASSAGE
After a long morning and a very early start, it’s good to know there’s a plethora of spas around Siem Reap town to help you wind down. I suggest booking in advance into the Shinta Mani Spa, which offers a host of superb treatments. I went for the full-body massage complete with essential oils and a very experienced therapist and left feeling zombifyingly relaxed. Naughtily, I also indulged in a full mani/pedi combo, as the morning helping the children up and down and in and out of those temples had taken its toll on my tootsies. There’s a range of refreshments to enjoy pre-, post- or during your treatment, too, including bubbles, and you can have some treatments (like nails) done alfresco under the shaded terrace.
Getting there: SilkAir and Jetstar both fly direct to Siem Reap (2 hours 10 minutes). We used skyscanner.net to find the best deal.
Visas: On arrival for most nationalities (check relevant immigration websites for info). Take two passport photos of each person with you for Cambodia.
• Shinta Mani Angkor: +855 63 761 998 | shintamani.com/angkor/
• Indochine Exploration: facebook.com/IndochineExploration
• Horse riding: Happy Ranch Horse Farm
• Spoons: egbokmission.org/spoons-cafe
• Phare: firstname.lastname@example.org | pharecircus.org