“People don’t take trips… trips take people.” John Steinbeck, 1902 – 1968. Writer, Nobel Prize Winner
Siem Reap with kids? Why Not?
While we love travelling as a family, Siem Reap, Cambodia has never really been in our radar. Although I’ve personally been to Siem Reap for community work, it has never occurred to me to bring the kids to Siem Reap. Now that the kids are slightly more independent (4 years old and 7 years old), we feel it’s right to explore more regional countries so as to open their eyes, ears and hearts to completely new experiences. After all, isn’t this why we travel?
So here we are, after a whirlwind trip to Siem Reap, we can boldly say that Siem Reap is indeed an unforgettable holiday destination for the entire family (yes kids included). A city steeped in Asian heritage yet unadulterated by excessive commercialisation and where a smile is still emancipating from the heart. Best of all, it’s only a short 2 hour flight from Singapore! This is our 4D3N family-friendly itinerary plus tips, as always.
Watch highlights of our trip:
Trip Duration: 4D3N Siem Reap, Cambodia
Accommodation:Courtyard by Marriot, Siem Reap Resort
Courtyard by Marriot, Siem Reap Resort is a newly opened family-friendly hotel that is only 20 minutes’ drive away from airport. Convenient, customer-centric, comfy and classy. Our stay exceeded our expections in every possible way. Read our full review of the hotel here.
Touchdown and Arrival:
I was plesantly surprised at how clean, brightly-lit and properly air-conditioned the airport is. Same goes for the washrooms located near the baggage pickup. I had no problems logging onto the free Wi-Fi even right before clearing immigration. However, do note that passengers have to disembark onto the tarmac from the aerobridge and take a short walk to the immigration hall.
- Inform airline staff if you are travelling with a family member who requires aid in walking as all passengers are expected to walk down the mobile aerobridge onto the airport tarmac.
- It may be wise to prepare a small umbrella or poncho for shelter when disembarking from the plane.
- Use the airport washrooms before exiting the baggage pickup area. They are quite clean.
Hotel’s Kids’ Club (Rating: 3/5)
The newly minted kids’ club is a god-sent! We needed time to unpack upon arrival and the kids automatically gravitated to the Kids’ Club that is stocked with books and toys for ages 3 to about 7. Older kids, like our daughter, also made herself at home watching the cartoons screened on the TV.
The Kids’ Club has an indoor play area and a small outdoor play area. The two staff who were present were competent and we felt safe that our kids (ages 4 and 10) were with them. We like the fact that the outdoor play area is within sight of the indoor area. There’s also a kids’ toilet within the kids club, making it cleaner and safer for the kids.
- Do pack a small bag consisting of water bottles, snacks, light jacket and even diapers (if needed) for the friendly staff to assist if you are leaving the kids there.
a) Khmer Cooking Class with Head Chef Chanrith Van (Rating: 5/5)
The Khmer Cooking Class started with an early visit to the local wet market, led by the Chef himself. We returned to the hotel at 11am and were ushered to the cooking stations at their main restaurant Lok Lak. Leading us in the cooking session was the friendly and approachable Chef Chanrith who taught the kids how to make simple and healthy Cambodian rice rolls, mango salad and dessert pancakes. The entire team was so patient with kids. In fact, Chef Chanrith himself, father of 2 young kids, hit off extremely well with our little ones. Quite unbelievable that this is one of the top Chefs in Cambodia and yet he was so kind, patient and approachable to the kids. We were not only impressed but touched by his humility.
Once the kids were happily tucked into lunch, it’s time for us (parents) to be involved (smart move Chef!). Chef Chanrith guided us to cook a popular local dish of Cambodian stir-friend beef, starting with making its sauce from fresh ingredients. We could really sense Chef’s sincerity to impart his culinary knowledge to visitors. We finished our cooking just as the kids finished their lunch so they are off to the Kids’ Club. We enjoyed our ‘couple lunch’ in peace. It was very special and deeply meaningful. This is an experience which is a ‘Must –Try’ for families.
- Book early for this Khmer Cooking Class experience with the hotel.
- Make it an all-family event and bring a camera to document. Very meaningful.
- Lok Lak restaurant offers convenient all-day dining. There are plenty of options for western diets as well, with the Lok Lak team making their own pastries, bread, yoghurt and ice cream.
Highlights from the hotel:
b) Art Box Trick-Eye Museum, Siem Reap. (Rating: 3/5)
This apparently is the largest trick-eye museum in the world and situated 20 min. drive away from the hotel.The museum is huge and houses trick-eye art that are life-sized. Do note that visitors have to remove their shoes upon entering, that is to make the flooring hygienic as there are art pieces there that one has to sometimes lie on the ground to achieve that trick-eye 3D effects. The art pieces are rather impressive. It felt at times like we were walking through someone’s large mansion filled with interesting and large murals.
Having said that, we did have some fun family shots taken within that hour that we spent there. Better still was the online app which allows for augmented reality experience accompanying some of the exhibits! It was certainly a surprise to find something like this in rustic Siem Reap let alone the world’s largest! It’s a decent alternative should any of your outdoor plans in Siem Reap be kept on hold due to whatever reasons or should you have an hour extra to spare.
- Be prepared to take off footwear before entering. You may wear socks but the flooring may make it slippery.
- Bring along a tripod for either your phone or camera. Most of the installations are huge and too far for hand-held selfies to be taken.
- Download the app before entering the premise to experience the augmented reality effect with the exhibits.
c) Bambu Stage (Rating: 4/5)
Honestly we did not know what to expect when we were told that we would be going to watch a LIVE Cambodian Shadow Theatre. But the moment we met Nick (one of its founders) and stepped into the theatre grounds that resemble a bit of a rainforest oasis in the midst of the dusty streets of Siem Reap, we knew we were in for a treat. We caught the dress rehearsal of one of their popular shows – ‘Angkor Dreams’ which depicted the night the Cambodian monarchy was overthrown by the rebel army and a republic was declared. This is performed with LIVE musical accompaniment using an eclectic mix of traditional Cambodian and Western instruments. All original screenplay with original scores.
The play uses a mix of traditional shadow play, modern mime, fused with dance using Cambodian dialogue and accented with simple lighting effects. The Creative Director gave us a brief intro of the play and the rest was carried out so well that we could, even as foreigners, feel and sense the confusion, plight and desperation of the people then as portrayed by their small band of actors and musicians. At the end of the play, the kids had a firsthand experience manipulating the traditional shadow puppets! If you have a chance to catch a play at this unique venue, go for it. Aside from good acting, an experience there is like transporting you back in time to when theatre is performed LIVE and in intimate settings.
- It’s an open theatre with no air-conditioning. Do dress comfortably. The stage and audience area are sheltered.
- Do check the age-appropriateness of the show. While the shows are for general public, some scenes may be too loud for very young children below 4.
- Do stay back to interact with the actors and the musicians. It’s really a treat to be able to be so up close and personal with the cast and crew.
- Do note that if you are watching at night, the place can be a bit dark. Slap on insect repellant or wear long pants.
a) Visit to UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat (Rating: 4/5)
A visit to Siem Reap, especially for first timers, would not be complete without visiting the world’s most famous World Heritage site. It was certainly worth every effort and sweat!
Honestly, it involves quite a bit of walking but we were amazed by the ancient architecture as well as the restoration works going on. Our kids took the visit very well and enjoyed it. Surprisingly climbing those ancient steps seemed to appeal to their sense of adventure! There’s so much to share about this visit, especially when bringing young kids there for the first time. I will list my sharing in a Q&A format below to cover the essential questions family travelers may ask.
Q1- 4:30am? Are you sure?
Yes. The entire tour starts with a pickup from our hotel lobby around 4:30am (yes, AM) and would cover seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat and thereafter visiting the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Angkor Wat, (ThTa Prohm Temple (the one with the thick roots) and then Bayon Temple (the one with the giant Buddha faces). Along the way, there would be a stop for a traditional Khmer lunch at an exclusive private venue called Sala Kdei. The entire tour is expected to last from 4:30am till 2pm.
The sunrise tour is well-worth it particularly if the season you are visiting is hot and clear. We could really see the sun rising, casting its multi-colored hues over the sky while giving Angkor Wat that distinctive silhouette. Besides, it is wise to be there early to avoid the mid-day heat and to maximize your day to visit the other sites.
Q2 – Why the other ‘related’ ancient temple sites? Can I just visit Angkor Wat?
Yes you can however the other sites are not too far and are also iconic in themselves. To maximize /complete your visit, travelers would usually do all the three related ones – Ta Prohm and Bayon temples.
Q3 – Are there a lot of walking and steep steps?
Yes, be prepared to walk quite a bit however. Most of the steps are manageable and are not steep even for us non-hikers. At the mid part of Angkor Wat there is a particular temple within that has steep tall steps which are optional if you’d like to climb but can be avoided. We walked a total of 11,000 steps in half a morning. Wear comfortable shoes and clothings.
Q4. – Is it stroller /wheelchair friendly?
Not if you want to venture within the temple grounds. Outside at the car parks and general compound area is largely flat and fine but not if you want to venture inside. So it’s best to go with a child that can walk comfortably. Our 4 year-old did very well and followed us all the way without difficulties.
Q5. – Is a baby carrier recommended then?
Depends on the strength of the parent. Do note that there are steps to climb and undulating terrain and cobbled pathways to negotiate.
Q6. – Is there shelter?
Within the temple grounds are the occasional shelter but not much.
Q7 – How long do we need to spend at each temple site?
Though we love history and heritage, we are not serious archeologist nor history enthusiast hence we spent about an hour walking through Angkor Wat, aside from waiting for sunrise. The same is expected from the other temple sites.
Q8 – Can I take photos there?
Yes! There are in fact selected sites for tourist to take good shots. There are instructions to form a queue which moves on its own.
Q9 – What other precautions do I need to heed?
Not much except that all visitors are expected to wear pants or skirts that cover their knees. The tops must also not be too revealing – it is after all a sacred and religious site. A suggestion would be to wear light track pants or a sarong. Be careful also not to kick any makeshift altars set inside the temple itself.
Q10 – Are there souvenir shops and touts there?
Yes but not much and they didn’t seem aggressive. For us, we just politely ignore them since we were not keen to buy any souvenirs there.
Q11 – Are there conveniences like washrooms around?
There are not many washrooms at the temple sites. I suggest use the washrooms at the ticketing area (in the early morning) prior to entering the temple sites. Once you enter, be prepared to go without toilet conveniences for at least 3 to 4 hours. Thankfully our hotel broke the visit for us by bringing us for lunch between the 2nd and 3rd temples and we were able to use the conveniences during lunch time.
Q12 – Is repellent and sunblock needed?
Yes and yes. Although we did not encounter much mosquitoes.
Q13 – Do they sell food, snacks or drinks along the way?
Yes but as travelers we do not suggest consuming the street food and drinks. Our tummy may not be ‘acclimatized’ to the Cambodian street food.
Q14 – How long was the sunrise viewing?
The whole experience was about 2.5 hours. It involved viewing from a far and then going near the lake to photograph the reflection. It was very beautiful. Well worth it.
Q15 – How else should families prepare for the experience?
Our hotel was exceptional. Not only did they engage a good English speaking guide for us, they actually packed light snacks and drinks for the kids. These snacks became the most-welcomed refreshment when we travelled in between the temples in the tour van. Enquire more about the tour at the Courtyard Marriot Siem Reap reception.
b) Traditional Khmer Lunch at Sala Kdei (Rating: 4/5)
Midway between the Angkor Wat temple visits, the hotel has cleverly arranged for us to have a traditional Khmer lunch at an exclusive and private venue (that is not even on Google map!). Sala Kdei is a large stately wooden Khmer house within the temple complex of Angkor Wat. Stepping into its compound makes one feel like we were invited to lunch by an influential statesman! And indeed, we were treated like VIPs as we tucked into a traditional Khmer lunch that comprises of a selection of delectable dishes of light salads, Cambodian fried rice (yum!) and lightly grilled meats. Delicious and topped with attentive service by the wait staff.
In and around the house compound are furniture and décor accentuated by fine Cambodian artefacts. Our host informed us that this private venue is open for private booking only and it doesn’t even have a Google pin on Google map – talk about exclusivity! The lunch and VIP service in this cosy venue was just what we needed as part of our experience of taking a step back in Khmer history. Thumbs up!
c) Khmer Pottery-Making (Rating: 3/5)
The afternoon ended with the kids having a hands-on experience with Khmer pottery at the Khmer Ceramics and Fine Art Center. The Center doubles as a gallery and workshop for artists to display their crafts as well as for visitors to experience making Khmer pottery. Its mission is to provide employment to poorer Cambodians with physical handicaps. It’s heartening to know we are supporting much nobler causes through the tourist dollars we spend.
d) Phare Cambodian Circus (Rating: 5/5)
This to us, is better than Cirque du Soleil and is a ‘Must-Watch’ when you visit Siem Reap. We were left awestruck by this famous Cambodian Circus that uses gymnastics and acrobatics to wow the crowd. Set in its own ‘Big Top’, the Phare Cambodian Circus not only trains the locals to entertain but raises funds to give hope and education to poor Cambodian children. The venue is not too commercialized and this really lends to the electric atmosphere. Together with live music, the acts were breathtaking and jaw dropping! Just like catching a musical in Broadway New York, you must catch this in Siem Reap. Very popular. Very good. Very suitable for families. Book your tickets early as they sell out really quickly!
DAY 4: Cambodian Indulgences
Our flight back to Singapore was scheduled to depart Siem Reap in the afternoon. That means we have some free time in the morning to catch a Tuk-Tuk to the Central Market after breakfast for some last minute souvenir shopping. We also sneaked in a 1 hour couple massage at the hotel’s Quan Spa just before we checked out (kids were chilling at Kids Club! Ha!). We then bade a reluctant fond farewell to the Courtyard by Marriott, Siem Reap Resort team who has taken such good care of our needs during our short stay. 4D3N is simply too short. We know it’s only a matter of time that we will be back. So long, Siem Reap!
Download our 4D3N Siem Reap Family-Friendly Itinerary at: http://bit.ly/SiemReapForKids18