Look past seaside resorts and busting cities to discover that Siem Reap is where you’ll find the perfect family holiday in Southeast Asia.
Many parents today, a mixture of Generation X and Millennials, grew up in a world where the ultimate holiday revolved around a theme park or water slide. While screen time may not have been an issue just yet, convincing a little one to spend time in an art museum or wander through a cathedral, would have already been a difficult task. This is why it’s not surprising that many travellers planning a family holiday often overlook Siem Reap. Some of us assume that kids will not have the patience to explore Angkor Wat or even overlook how much more this northwestern Cambodian city has to offer.
Now is the time to avoid the hoards of tourists that once flooded these streets. The new roads and freshly painted bicycle lanes – created during the prolonged shutdown – make manoeuvring around the city with your family on tuk tuks and bikes even easier.
Here are seven experiences that will ensure the whole family discovers the magnificent allure of Siem Reap.
Find creative ways to explore Angkor Wat
A trip to Siem Reap would not be complete without a visit to the landmark ruins. Luckily there are ways to make Angkor Wat more interactive for the little ones, while still respecting the historic preservation. On a visit to the 12th-century Bayon, kids can count out how many of the massive serene faces can be spotted – with over 200, it should keep them busy. Allow them to lead the way when visiting the jungle-encrusted walls of Ta Prohm. It’s worth mentioning to older kids that that this is where Tomb Raider was shot back in 2000.
As travel is just opening back up in Cambodia, it’s an amazing time to explore all of these places that would have been filled with tourists just a few years back. If time permits, lesser-known temples should also be worked into your travel itinerary.
Have a picnic at Kulen Elephant Forest Sanctuary
Elephants that spent over 20 years lugging tourists around the temple have finally received the retirement they deserve. In the foothills of Kulen Mountain – about a 45-minute drive from Siem Reap – you’ll find 1,100 acres of protected forest. At Kulen Elephant Forest Sanctuary, the elephants roam free, are encouraged to form relationships with each other and can rediscover natural foods that they did not have access to for many years.
Group sizes are kept small and two sessions are run per day, one in the morning that ends with a traditional lunch, and an afternoon slot that wraps up with a picnic alongside wandering elephants. Kids (and grownups) of all ages can enjoy watching the elephants pick up bananas with their trunks and follow them on a 2km walk through the forest. Be prepared for the the occasional trumpeting sounds that can come out.
Go for a ride at The Happy Ranch Horse Farm
The Happy Ranch Horse Farm was a pet project set up by Sary Pann when he returned to Siem Reap after 30 years in the US. He developed a love for these animals while living in California and was keen to purchase Cambodian ponies and horses upon his return home. Rides on the ranch were originally set up to help cover feeding costs and developed into another great way to explore Siem Reap. While several horses needed to be sold during the pandemic, they are still running the farm and offering a range of experiences. A variety of trail options are available to suit all riders. Young children can enjoy lead rides through the village and older kids with experience on horseback can explore the countryside.
Learn Khmer ancestral pottery techniques
Children 3 and up are welcome to join in on the Cambodian ceramic classes being offered at the Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre. After a local expert demonstrates how to use the pottery wheel, all aspiring artists can work on shaping their own bowls, vases or plates. There is also time at the end to learn a few Khmer designs that can be engraved onto the works. Make sure to schedule this early in the trip to leave time for the pieces to be fired in the kiln. The outdoor garden, where the classes take place, is perfect for a bit of relaxation – just make sure to bring mosquito spray.
Spend a night the Phare Circus
A night at the Phrare Circus is a must for travellers of all ages. While acrobatics, unicycles and contortion acts are often spotted in the shows, different aspects of Khmer culture are always cleverly woven in through unique music, set design and stories. Ticket sales support the free education and professional arts training at Phare Ponleu Selpak. Translating to “brightness of the arts”, this non-profit art school was set up in Battambang (150km southwest of Siem Reap) 25 years ago. Tip: Show up early and enjoy the food and drink stalls set up before the show.
Stop off for ice cream at សួន សូកូឡា- Chocolate Garden
Appropriately located on Chocolate Road, Chocolate Garden‘s outdoor setting provides plenty of room for the kids to run free. In the cabin-like house in the centre you will find The Bean Embassy, grinding fresh-roasted coffee; a variety of teas from Ujicha; and most importantly, the Gelato Lab. Served in cups or cones, both the sorbet and gelato on offer use natural ingredients. A playground has been set up in the front and there is even a small library to explore in one of the other houses on the property.
Finish the day with some WILD spring rolls and a cocktail
Set up in a traditional Khmer house, WILD welcomes guests in through the lush garden. Families can dine outdoors and offer the kids a bit of room to run around. The super-friendly staff are quick to bring out games to help keep them busy as well. The menu sticks strictly to spring rolls – both salty and sweet – with options like the traditional fried Cambodian spring roll with chicken and local vegetables or fresh rolls with a variety of fillings. The cocktails are where the real fun begins. Try the Alice in Wonderland, a mix of gin, elderflower syrup, kaffir lime leaves, watermelon and soda. Mocktails are also available for the little guys. The restaurant is socially committed and diners can visit the shop at the back of the restaurant, from which all proceeds are donated to charity.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.
The information is accurate as of press time. For the latest travel advisory updates, please refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
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