Cambodia has become one of my very favorite places on the planet. Nick and I first visited the country 10 years ago, when we spent two weeks as honeymooning backpackers. Since then, the country has held a heady romanticism for me. Dodging potholes on our rented motorbike and incessantly dusty, we made a mental bookmark to return someday to Siem Reap with kids. Maybe not the logical takeaway for everyone, but I find Cambodia the essence of family-friendly, especially for families gung-ho for an off-the-beaten-path holiday. Tuk tuks, tree roots and temples are all right up a kid’s alley. Not to mention Cambodia’s affordability and most friendly people.
(In fact, we’re so drawn to the country, that we returned again to attempt the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon in December 2022. And this time, we brought my parents. Stay tuned for a post about multi-generational travel in Siem Reap!)
This detailed account of our trip covers tips and experiences we think your family can use, especially now as this Southeast Asian gem emerges from the Covid era with many admirable face lifts and (for now) without the crowds.
A detailed account of how we spent two weeks in Cambodia: Part 1 – Siem Reap
- Day 1: Lay of the Land
- Day 2: Smiling Faces (Bayon)
- Day 3: Sunrise at Angkor Wat
- Day 4: Tree Roots and a Night Out (Ta Prohm)
- Day 5: Shopping and Sunset (Phnom Bakheng)
- Day 6: Holey moley! (Banteay Srei)
- Best of Siem Reap with Kids
- Planning a trip to Cambodia?
Day 1: Lay of the Land
After landing by 4 p.m. we were whisked from the airport to Viroth’s Hotel in a creamy colored vintage Mercedes Benz. Wow – this was a marked upgrade from our travel style a decade ago when my husband and I backpacked our way through the country.
Be aware that before you leave the airport, be it glamorously whisked off or via tuk tuk, your family likely will need visas to enter the country. These can be applied for online (my preference as I feel more comfortable having documents in hand) or on arrival.
👉Tip: You’ll also receive an arrival and departure card from the staff on your flight. This is separate from your visa. Be sure to keep your departure card in a safe place throughout your trip as you’ll need it when exiting the country.
👉Another Tip: Encourage kiddos to use the toilet on the plane before descent to avoid stopping at the toilet immediately after deplaning. This makes a real difference in your place in the immigration queue, if you’re seated near the front of the plane. You can find more family travel tips here.
After sipping a welcome drink and ogling the impressive design of Viroth’s Hotel, we left one haven to meander toward another. On this Thursday evening, dozens of vendors were set up along the Pokambor Avenue riverside, serving up snacks and meals to friends and families relaxing on teeny red chairs. Pub Street, on the other hand, was void of foot traffic, an acute reminder that (in March 2022) we were among the first foreigners back to Siem Reap. Most establishments all over the central city appeared open and ready for travelers…when they come.
At 7p, we arrived for our dinner reservation at Haven. A Swiss couple started Haven after recognizing the gap in existing philanthropic organizations available to young adults. Haven now provides professional training in the culinary arts and service industry, and the Cambodian government has also tapped co-founder Paul Wallimann to assist organizations country-wide with food hygiene training.
The ambiance of the garden setting was casual and convivial, and the service team were so, so polite. We ordered bunches of dishes and drinks, all delicious. It was truly worth a return, and we thought we would find ourselves back there – but the food scene in Siem Reap has advanced so tremendously, we had more restaurants on our list than number of meals to eat! Another meal at Haven is definitely on our list for next time – and should be on yours for your trip to Siem Reap.
While many roads in Siem Reap were upgraded during the pandemic, Haven’s little street was not. But don’t let this deter you. A handful of tuk tuks wait outside ready to ferry you back to your accommodations should you choose not to walk back in the dark.
Day 2: Smiling Faces (Bayon)
Breakfast at the hotel was a fantastic spread of made-to-order eggs, crepes, waffles and fruit. At about 8:15 am, we met Mr. Long, a driver of one of Virtoth’s fleet of comfortable cornflower blue tuk tuks. Mr. Long became a happily familiar part of our stay – our “forever tuk tuk driver” in PB’s words.
We arrived at our first stop of the day, Bayon Temple, about half an hour later. It’s so hard to choose a favorite temple given how unique each is, but if pressed, this may be my top for the quirky nature of its smiling stone faces! Built about 100 years after Angkor Wat, it was undergoing some major preservation in March 2022, so we were unable to climb it as I remembered doing the decade before. Yet, its grounds and ground-level halls provided ample exploring opportunities. (Update: As of December 2022, the status was unchanged.)
We had agreed to meet Mr. Long at Bayon’s Elephant Gate, so we meandered around Baphuon Temple, the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King on our way there.
En route, we picked up a Buddhist thread bracelet from Wat Preah Ngok just north of the temple (PB’s lasted the entire trip. It costs about 8,000 KHR or $2 USD.)
You’ll also find that age 12 is the threshold for many ‘cans’ and ‘cannots’, including for when children can climb steep staircases. Thus PB wasn’t allowed to climb up Baphuon Temple, so she and I did aspara poses upon its impressive elevated walkawy and around its treed perimeter – still worthwhile – while Nick explored it from the above.
By this point, it was noon and the refreshment vendors waiting at the tuk tuk pick-up lot near the Terrace of the Elephants were looking mighty tempting! We grabbed a well-deserved coconut roadie and called it, but you could alternatively go on to lunch and then another temple complex or two if you have the stamina.
Mr. Long dropped us at Tevy’s Place, a small, homey spot for lunch back in town and within easy walking distance of Viroth’s. We wanted to try the fish amok, which we’d heard was spectacular and a great value (and true on both accounts!). Washed down with a cold Angkor, it was soul-reviving, followed by a dip in the hotel pool.
👉Tip: As backpackers on a budget previously, we had lived without it, but if you are bringing a kid to Siem Reap, splurging on a hotel with a pool is almost non-negotiable. No, it is definitely non-negotiable. And since you’ll be taking a daily dip, don’t forget to pack your kiddo’s goggles and maybe toss in a couple dive sticks.
We capped off the day with a trip to Phare Circus a.k.a. “the best show ever!” according to PB. And it truly will be a highlight on your trip to Cambodia, too.
Phare is a platform for disadvantaged youths to hone skills and earn a living wage. It feels like theater told through jaw-dropping acrobatics. Reserve ahead – the show was sold out even as early on into the pandemic recovery as March 2022. It is incredible to see the support from locals and tourists for this effort.
Storylines change each show, and, even though ours that evening had risque elements (“Khmer Metal”), it raised no questions for our kiddo who was too enamored by the movements to notice. Just have fun and arrive no later than 5:30 p.m. to take advantage of the great home-cooked street food on offer. (Choices range from kid-friendly pizza and popcorn to Cambodian favorites. Beer, wine and cocktails are also available. Popular choices sell out, too!) Phare has a location in Batambang, too, if your itinerary is taking you there.
👉Some tips for your first day at the temples:
- You can now buy your temple pass online through the official ticketing site. The system is super easy, and I had no issue with the online payment. But, we must have been one of the first users of this online system as the staff checking passes at the check point really inspected it. Fold it neatly and you may receive compliments for your efforts 😉. I don’t know how much time it saved us to pre-order and print these at home, but if you like to have things in order before setting off on a trip, or maybe trying to make sunrise at Angkor Wat, I can vouch for this new option.
- By the way, kids under 12 don’t need a temple pass. You may be asked to present a passport to prove their age, but as PB was just 5, she obviously met this requirement, and we were never asked to present an ID for her.
- We took temple touring very easy given we had a 7-day pass and a 5-year old. With portable infants (i.e. in a chest carrier) or teenagers, you could ramp up your touring schedule to fit more temples into one day. But if you’re inclined to stretch it out, this schedule worked well for us. You ultimately are the best gauge of your family’s patience for strong sunshine and historical structures.
- Mentally prepare yourself and, if you think suitable, your kids for the attention Western kiddos may receive as they tour Cambodia. My daughter is drawn to kitties, so we eventually discussed it through that lens – that just as she wants to greet any kitty she comes across, people may approach us to say hello to her, or even request a photo. She can accept or politely reject the attention, just like a kitty might hang around or flee from us.
One of the top things to do in Siem Reap
Holy moly! The Phare Circus isn’t just one of the top things you’ll do in Siem Reap, it is probably one of the most fun entertainment experiences you’ll find worldwide. Book ahead so you don’t miss it.
Day 3: Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Can one really see Siem Reap without a pilgrimage to Angkor for sunrise? One of the only temples facing west (thus providing the picture-perfect setting for viewing the sun rise over it from the east), Angkor Wat was eerily uncrowded on the pandemic Saturday morning we visited. Maybe 50 people on site?
Leave your hotel no later than 5a. We left Viroth’s at 5:15a and arrived about 5:45a – and that turned out to be too late. With the sky already glowing orange, we traipsed hurriedly up to the viewing pond. After getting a satisfactory shot, our empty bellies were grumbling, and we succumbed to a friendly woman hawking breakfast among the vendors set up on the temple’s north edge (more on this later), We explored until 9a when PB and I were ready to move on.
Highlights for a 5-year-old: looking for a devata rumored to be the only one smiling while showing her teeth – we never found her! Please comment if you do! And the floaty bridge temporarily spanning the Angkor Wat moat while the original stone bridge was under repair – I don’t know if this was intended to be so fun, but we totally enjoyed it!
Again, we encountered the rule that children under 12 were prohibited from some steep stairs – those leading up to the top of Angkor Wa’s Bakan tower. My husband and I divided and conquered, each taking a turn going up on our own. We had skipped this experience 10 years ago given the wait, which can be over an hour at crowded times but was nonexistent given the current volume of visitors.
👉Tip: If lines return, my opinion is to skip this. The added height did not provide any of my favorite views.
👉Tip: Avoid fresh foods from food vendors inside the temple grounds. Viroth’s helpfully packed us a beautiful takeaway breakfast canteen. However, our lovely vision of picnicking on the grounds was dashed at the entry when we discovered food containers cannot be taken in. Instead, our breakfast stayed in our tuk tuk, to where we should have walked back and refueled after sunrise. Tuk tuk parking is approximately a 20 min walk from where you watch the sunrise, though, so we (regrettably) splurged on food and coffee at the vendor area inside the temple grounds in order to avoid the round trip. The vendors were very friendly and the food tasted great, but a bout of food poisoning struck within a couple hours. Ask your doctor to write you a Rx for traveler’s diarrhea pills – it just might save your trip!
Once we returned to Viroth’s, PB and I did pool time while Nick rested up. Fortunately, meds had a quick effect, and to my true surprise, we were able to keep a reservation for a 2-hour countryside horseback ride scheduled for the afternoon.
Our private ride was led by two guides, one leading my daughter’s horse, out a couple kilometers from the farm. We even took our four-legged friends along one of Siem Reap’s freshly striped bike lanes.
While the ride felt safe, sprawling development has really encroached on the area around Happy Ranch Horse Farm. We rode our horses 40 minutes before reaching the countryside I expected to see immediately based on the tour description. We did not receive much information about the region (how it was in the past or the changes occurring today) that could have added useful context. In the end, we wished we’d skipped this experience as we’ve found other places around the world (i.e. Belize) where introductory horseback riding is more scenic and a better value for the money.
For dinner, we gave in to nostalgia by eating at Viva. This is not a necessary culinary pick unless 1) You are Texans who haven’t had guacamole in 4 months (and this decently fits the bill), or 2) you are nostalgic because you stayed at the hotel of the same name a decade ago. Alternatively, across the street is Elia Greek Kitchen. We noticed it looked vibrant and busy and happened to eat at their Phnom Penh outpost later on our trip. Elia’s was an absolutely divine meal there and likely as memorable in Siem Reap.
Finally, we rewarded PB with some rolled ice cream, which she had been hopefully pointing out every time we passed a vendor. Be picky which one you visit though. Angkor Fried Ice Cream Rolls and Fruit Shake on Street 11 just south of Street 7 was hygienic and more flavorful than another we tried later.
We also tried a fish spa. You know you’re curious about it, too 🙂
One of the top things to do in Siem Reap
Actually, don’t miss a fish spa! You may come across these in other parts of SE Asia, but if you’ve never tried it, give it a go. It was definitely one of our kiddo’s favorite things of the trip. I guarantee you’ll laugh (or scream), so have the proprietor take a video as the fam dips their toes in to capture the hilarity.
Day 4: Tree Roots and a Night Out (Ta Prohm)
We spent the next morning at Ta Prohm, home to strangler figs and cotton silk trees that can make it seem like you (and, as we arrived at the busy-ish hour of 10a, dozens of others) have just discovered it. We happily spent nearly two hours taking photos amongst the “Tomb Raider” tree and halls. PB especially liked the petite doorways that seem made for children, and we hunted again for a mystical figure. It took the assistance of a security guard to locate it.
👉 Tip: Ta Prohm, famously the most jungly of the main temples, has actually undergone some substantial preservation over the last decade. Nothing negative about that, but it wasn’t as jungly as we remembered. If you’re looking for that experience, consider a day trip to Beng Mealea, quite a bit farther afield and still in a state of jungly decay.)
We next quickly visited Banteay Kdai, which we had completely to ourselves over the lunch hour. After exiting, we walked across the road for a brief view of the serene Srah Srang reservoir.
On the way back into Siem Reap, we stopped for a quick snack and then dropped in at Theam’s Gallery, a mecca of high quality, high-sheen acrylic souvenirs at a friendly price point.
A few sets of fine chopsticks and miscellany later, we arrived at Banlle for a late lunch where we wished we could try everything on their vegetarian menu. We finally decided on a lasagna, mushroom lok lak, beet and avocado carpaccio and banh me sandwich. We really pared back, right? 😉 We loved it and tried to return for seconds later on our trip but hit their day off (Tuesdays, beware!).
We had previously arranged for a sitter through Viroth’s to watch PB for the evening, so Nick and I headed out around 6:45p to enjoy a grown up set dinner at Embassy (recommended!). Each of the dishes was phenomenal. We’ve been lucky to have consumed some highly regarded set menus around the world and this one was remarkable for the fact that every. single. dish. was outstanding and for its shockingly reasonable price. I also love that its kitchen is helmed by two Cambodian women chefs.
We tried the infamous Miss Wong’s Cocktail Bar (divine design but empty during our visit. We could have brought PB and not rattled any patrons, ha!) and even spent a few minutes at the Temple Club. Because we could.
One of the top things to do in Siem Reap
You might be catching a theme here – over the last decade, Siem Reap developed a dining scene, and it’s dang good. Whether it’s local and plant-focused (Banlle), modern Khmer gastronomy led by two women chefs (Embassy), or community-driven (Haven), to just name a few, foodie families will find dining out to be one of the top things to do in Siem Reap.
Day 5: Shopping and Sunset (Phnom Bakheng)
We took most the day off from temples and instead flocked around town collecting souvenirs. Some places to consider (in addition to Theam’s, listed above):
- Artisans d’Angkor: high-end wood and stone sculptures, lacquer art and silk clothing, all produced by xx. During our visits (in March and December 2022) their silk farm was not yet operating, but artisans are on site to demonstrate their skills. The ubiquitous retailer also has a small outpost in the Siem Reap airport and a large boutique in Phnom Penh.
- Khmer Ceramics: a wide assortment of dish sets in pretty pastel hues, all hand-fired on site. You can sign up for a workshop to mold your own ceramic souvenir.
- Made in Cambodia Market: natural-dyed blankets and scarves (fantastic gifts for moms and mothers-in law!), creative ceramics by Morodock Ceramics, sweet eco-friendly toys hand made by the women of Cambodia Knits, pepper from Cambodia’s culinary Kampot region, and other unique clothing and jewelry.
- Louise Loubatiere Boutique: memorable water buffalo horn and silk jewelry, linen wear and lacquered coconuts. Run by a friendly expat couple making a home in Siem Reap with young kiddos.
- Wat Chocolate: a chocoholic’s temple with ingredients sourced from around the country. Another location in Phnom Penh opened in 2021.
After refreshing by the pool ( the fourth day in a row, in case you’re on the fence about whether a pool is necessary for family travel in Siem Reap), we made our way back up to the temples for sunset.
👉 Tip: Watch the sun set over the park at least once. There are a few options, with Phnom Bakheng being the most popular and Pre Rup being another atmospheric spot.
We left Viroth’s about 4:15 p.m. and first explored Baksei Chamkrong Temple right next door to Phnom Bakheng. Lo and behold, this small (but tall) temple was PB’s favorite. While as steep (or more) than the others restricted to age 12 and higher, no signage was posted, so up we went. Definitely take a look at the situation and proceed how you feel comfortable for your family. We took it slow up, rounded the top once, and took it slow again down. In all, we were only there 20 minutes.
When you make your way over to Phnom Bakheng, ensure that adults wear sleeved shirts and that women cover their knees. While PB was allowed in wearing a tank top, the man donning a tank tap directly adjacent to us was denied entry. (We later spotted him wearing a new souvenir t-shirt 😉.)
Be prepared for a trek of about 15 minutes up to Phnom Bakheng, whereas you can see Pre Rup from the road. Once to the top, ongoing preservation work had changed where viewers could sit, (no longer on the edge as you could 10 years ago), and guards were adamant about not lounging and drinking (no more sundowner cans of Cambodia here). We had fun with our long shadows, but as we had clouds on the horizon, we left before the sun was fully set. Be sure that kiddos walk (don’t run!) down. Our PB came away with the scraped knee to prove the mighty power of gravity…
Dinner at WILD Creative Bar & Spring Roll Restaurant was a highlight for PB. First, the setting is very fun for kids, especially when you get one of the lounger tables on the grass, but it also has a very fun cocktail and mocktail menu. Staff immediately brought us a bucket of blocks, and PB was in her element. For being a kid, she has surprisingly never warmed to spring rolls, until WILD. The cheese and basil spring roll was her jam, and there are actually a ton of flavors to choose from. You can’t go wrong.
Day 6: Holey moley! (Banteay Srei)
Whether mini or gown-up, a round of mini golf at Angkor Wat Putt is a load of fun. Just be sure your tuk tuk driver hears you correctly and heads south to the putt putt park and not north to the temple 😉 Owner Mr. Tee will honor a free drink (beer or soda) for every hole-in-one at this temple-themed space. By pure luck, I actually landed one! Our tuk tuk driver Mr. Long had never been, so we insisted he join us for our round.
At 1:45 p.m., we set off for a final excursion out to Banteay Srei, one of the farthest temples in the archaeological park, but a favorite. Before exploring it, we stopped at the NKFC Conservatoire a couple minutes’ ride beyond. The NKFC is a special vocational training school with a dance and music program for children in the surrounding countryside.
Given the lack of crowds in March 2022, no shows of Khmer dancing were back on anywhere in Siem Reap, but in preparation for our trip, we had checked out the Khmer Dancer from the library, and PB was really excited about seeing dancers like the character in the book. Out of curiosity, I had reached out to the NKFC for options.
Through the incredible coordination of Mr. Van Leat at NKFC, the students put on a show just for our family in exchange for a very reasonable donation to the worthy cause of this school. Even as we made the drive up to the school, we had no idea of the special experience ahead of us – I was hoping to quietly observe a class in action, but we were actually invited to an entire private performance by the dancers and musicians. Later, the dancers taught PB some hand gestures and dance movements. It was one of the most special moments of travel I’ve experienced anywhere in the world.
Before Covid, the Sacred Dancers of Angkor performed twice weekly at the Divine Sala, so hopefully those regular shows will resume again soon. (As of December 2022, they had not.)
By the time we got to Banteay Srei, we were the last people walking in, which meant we had the fantastically beautiful temple completely to ourselves. It was the one I remembered being most crowded on our visit a decade ago, so to have the run of it just continued the magic of the afternoon. Again, ongoing preservation roped you off farther from some of the main reliefs and carvings than before, but for the good reason of protecting the delicate artwork of this temple.
En route back to Siem Reap, you will pass right by Pre Rup, making it a good option for sunset. We were a bit too late, though, so we continued straight back to town for dinner at The Sugar Palm. Run by Chef Kethana, she opened her restaurants to revive classical Cambodian cuisine after the devastation of Khmer traditions in the 1970s.
As it was the final night in Siem Reap, we relented to PB’s campaign to return to the fish spa for one more nibble.
We continued our two weeks in Cambodia with a venture to Tonle Sap, Kampong Cham, Mondulkiri, Kratie and Phnom Penh, which I’ll be detailing out in a forthcoming post.
Best of Siem Reap with Kids
- The tasting menu at Embassy Khmer Gastronomy – wow! Truly a foodie destination probably best experienced as a date night.
- (PB’s fave) Cheese spring rolls from WILD Creative Bar & Spring Roll Restaurant
Best atmosphere in Siem Reap
- Viroth’s Hotel – the attentive and friendly staff and the casual posh design of the hotel had us already planning our return before we’d even checked out
- Riding through the Angkor Archaeological Park in a tuk tuk, especially in the early morning mist or at golden hour
Best mama moment
- Watching PB get an impromptu lesson in Cambodian dance hand gestures with the Sacred Dancers of Angkor
Best kiddo moment
- Fish spa nibbles! Fish come in different sizes. Start small and see if you’re brave enough to dip your toes in with the bigger fish
Highest exceedance of expectations
- The food in Siem Reap (but think outside the archaeological park)
Best kismet travel moment
- Sharing a game of mini golf with our tuk tuk driver Mr. Long at Angkor Wat Putt…and my miraculous hole-in-one!
- Lacquered chopsticks from Theam’s Gallery
- An angkouch, a Cambodian folk instrument played with the mouth, also from Theam’s Gallery
- Lacquered horn bangles from Louise Loubatieres
- Natural-dyed blankets and scarves from the Made in Cambodia Market
Practice these phrases in advance
- Susadei – “Hello” (Sounds like “seuss ah day”)
- Lee hi – “Bye”
- Arkun – “Thank you” (Sounds like “are coon”)
- Moi Bee Bei – “1 2 3” (Sounds like “moy bee boy”)
Check out these books in advance
A little bit of prep work can help kids get excited about the trip – and you, too!
- The Camobidan Dancer: Sophany’s Gift of Hope for a story about rekindling traditional Cambodian dance after fleeing the Khmer Rouge for the United States.
- If you can track down a Leap & Hop Cambodia, 2nd Ed. ring-bound book, this is a fun addition for travel with a kid. Geared a little above PB’s age, we still used good parts of it and will continue to reference it on future trips. It is just one in a cool series of travel activity books written for kids.
- Ancient Angkor is a book we picked up from a vendor on our first trip to Cambodia, and it’s still touted at the entrances to temples all over the park. This is not a book to read cover to cover – it is waaaaay more detail than you (probably) desire. But it gives you something more in depth than you’ll get from any common country guidebook, so you can pick and choose how much you’re keen to read. We find it especially useful at the temples to explain the magnificent bas reliefs.
- The Khmer Times for a sampling of stories with a local lens, much of it quite applicable for travelers, including coverage of the new international airport (expected to open in late 2023) to street food.
- Nhum: Recipes from a Cambodian Kitchen for a beautiful cookbook to build your appreciation for Khmer ingredients and recipes, before or after your trip. Unfortunately, it is not currently available on Amazon US, so check your local library!
To get a guide or not to get a guide?
We have so far toured the temples of Angkor Wat three times…and never hired a guide.
A tuk tuk driver, yes, and on our first journey, we relied on him to recommend our touring circuit and stops at smaller, lesser-known sites. (No matter how much time I’d spent planning possible routes, I didn’t know the area as well as he did!) But, we just haven’t bit the bullet on hiring a guide for a “full-day” tour of the temples.
Have we missed out terribly? Perhaps we don’t understand the architectural or decorative purpose of certain structures as well as we could, but we 1) do overhear a lot walking by other tour groups, 2) carry the authoritative Ancient Angkor with us, and 3) have remained completely flexible in our touring capacity with a preschooler. And, since we’re yet to tire of visiting Siem Reap, there is probably a guide in our future…someday.
How about you? Have you hired a private guide or taken a group tour and have a particular recommendation?
Planning a trip to Cambodia?
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