12 reasons to visit Cambodia with kids: in photos
There’s always a risk visiting a destination you’ve longed to see for years – can somewhere as iconic as Angkor Wat really live up to its reputation? Especially when you visit with a five-year-old? But as I discovered, Cambodia was all I’d hoped for and far more.
From its fascinating ancient sites to the beautiful scenery of mountains and beach, the warmth of the welcome which greeted us both (my daughter especially) and the bold colours of everyday life, Cambodia gave us reason after reason to fall in love with the country.
Given my daughter’s highest accolade – a “very fun adventure” – it’s perfect for families too. Well, what kid doesn’t like a bit of adventure with plenty of seaside? Here’s how it bewitched me – my 12 reasons to visit Cambodia with kids.
The smiles were never far from the surface – in a country which has endured war and tragedy, the people we met were unfailingly friendly, proud of their beautiful country and happy to share it.
I lost track of the number of time people thanked us for visiting, of the waves my daughter received. Ancient monuments might draw people to Cambodia but it’s the Cambodians themselves who win your heart.
Angkor Wat, the glory of the Khmer empire; Bayon with its serenely smiling faces; ‘Tomb Raider’ temple Ta Prohm, its entwined trees more lovely than any mere film appearance – and that’s only the start. Some ancient, some newer, some collapsing into heaps and almost swallowed by the trees, others perched on the top of a mountain.
Angkor and the temples of Siem Reap are as intricately impressive as you might hope, the detailed carving enduring across the centuries, the whisper of a long lost empire echoing through the stone. But the less well-known temples are no less memorable, their towers stretching to the sky, tentacled tree roots wrapped around statues and entirely unexpected animals decorating pillars alongside the tales of myth and legend.
Incense sticks still burn, monks still appear at the summmons of a gong, reminding us that this is still part of everyday life – even if some precious and bejewelled offerings once left in the capital’s temples have now become exhibits in their own right.
Even the most intrepid explorer, hearing tales of long ago battles between gods and demons or venturing into jungle-clad ruins, needs a break from temples occasionally. But those were only the start of our adventures.
Speeding along the narrow gauge track which once ran from Battambang to Phnom Penh on the famous Bamboo train, easily dismantled if you met another group coming the other way or gazing out across rice paddies from the steady plod of an ox cart, the spiked horns of the water buffalo seeming entirely at odds with their placid pace.
Heading into the mountains to kayak in the mirror still waters of a mangrove, startling birds from the treetops and keeping an eye out for monkeys (and imaginary crocodiles) before a mini hike to a waterfall, the spray from the wet season’s rains crashing past in a cascade of white froth.
Pale sand, sun-warmed seas and a choice of beaches to enjoy it – we fitted in two seaside stops along Cambodia’s south coast. First at Otres Beach near Sihanoukville, perfectly designed for relaxing, and then on to Kep, near the border with Vietnam.
Once the favoured weekend escape of Cambodia’s elite, its famous Modernist buildings may be crumbling but it’s as beguiling as ever. Butterflies flit in the national park, crabs are still the speciality on the market menu – a cheery waving statue welcomes visitors to Kep with one raised claw – and the baguettes in the bakeries could be straight from Paris, a tempting legacy of French colonial rule.
With Thai and Indian influences, and a willingness to cook almost anything, you need barely eat the same meal twice in Cambodia – although for five-year-olds who would prefer simplicity, there are plenty of Western and plain dishes around.
The spiced coconut of fish amok and the fresh tang of ginger and lemongrass, noodles, stir fries and mango salads with a kick were only the beginning. I never did see tarantula on a menu, but tried beef with red ants, Kampot pepper crab, frogs legs, supersized snails and even deep-fried frangipani flowers, washed down with fresh coconut or sugar cane juice, and hand-poured cocktails at sunset.
Molten golds and deep reds, the vibrant orange of a monk’s robe against the blue sky – bright, bold, those are only a few of the everyday colours of Cambodia. Pillar box red stripes and saffron yellows adorned the boats cutting through the milk chocolate waters of the tributaries leading to Tonle Sap lake.
A splash of turquoise coated one house, purples and orange brightened a restaurant, while piles of silk scarves mixed more shades than a rainbow. In the rainy season, even the fields seemed an super-saturated emerald.
The chilled-out atmosphere
There’s nothing like kids for making you slow down – but wherever we found ourselves, whether city, countryside or coast, there were pockets of tranquility.
Rivers lapped quietly under the clouds, only the ripples of boats to disturb the peace. Water lilies floated silently on ponds, Buddha statues smiled, timelessly serene; my daughter even fell asleep on a sun lounger.
The shadow of the past lies across so much of Cambodia. Two decades after the country’s long civil war ended, another two since the worst terror of the Khmer Rouge, it’s still felt in countless everyday ways. But horrifyingly dark though those years were – so much so, that I couldn’t even consider taking my daughter to Tuol Sleng or the Killing Fields – the country is so much more than its recent tragedies.
Art, craft and culture are everywhere; temples and shrines dot the roads, glorious palaces shine while others patiently await renovation. Monks accept alms before snapping photos on their mobiles and Buddha heads emerge from the cliffside until more budget can release their bodies from the rock, while gloriously dressed characters from the Ramayana pose with visitors at Angkor Wat.
In so many ways, the traditions of Cambodia continue in daily life, whether that’s the dishes on menus or the homes built with room underneath for hammocks and animals to shelter.
Perhaps the most fascinating glimpse we had was the stilt houses built by the shores of Tonle Sap lake – teetering high above the water level, even part-way through the rainy season. Small boats moored at the bottom of the spindly steps while on the water, fishermen netted their catches.
No two hotels were quite alike – some mixed Khmer influences with their modcons, others offering cool boutique serenity. Best of all, perhaps, the floating tents we stayed in at Koh Kong in the Cardamom Mountains – luxurious safari tents set on a pontoon on the Tatai River, Four Rivers Floating Lodge was as much an experience as accommodation.
And for my daughter? A series of fabulous pools, including one of buoyantly warm saltwater, to refresh after a busy day’s adventuring.
Head to Cambodia’s far east region and you’ll find elephants – but although we didn’t venture quite that far, we had some more compact creatures to discover. Monkeys sat idly by the roadside in Angkor, plucking fruit from the trees at Kep and climbing rebelliously over the royal palace roof in Phnom Penhh.
The buttery yellow butterflies which flitted through the temples of Siem Reap were joined by intricately patterned cousins in Kep, their wings flashing like jewels in the sunlight. And near Battambang, as dusk fell, millions of bats flooded from three caves in the rock face as if triggered by an inaudible signal, gorging on insects until it was time to return just before the dawn.
Few countries have such variety as Cambodia, the feeling that each stop had something entirely new to discover – after all, where else can you pack all this into a fortnight, especially with a small girl in tow?
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Disclosure: Our trip was courtesy of Stubborn Mule. All opinions and enthusiastic smiles are my own.
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