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Two things spring to mind when people think of Cambodia: the extraordinary feat of ancient engineering that is Angkor Wat, and the devastatingly cruel period of the Khmer Rouge. Can a country known for temples and sites that dredge up memories of genocide really provide a fun family holiday?
Taking kids to Cambodia on a family holiday
Having lived in Cambodia with his family, Chris Greener has seen first-hand how children love the country.
Temple touring: Beyond Angkor Wat
Clambering through monkey-clad jungle ruins, we see enormous vines swallow ancient temples, and giant stone faces emerge through dense foliage, smiling serenely above the overgrown scene. My eldest traces ancient carvings before perching on a ledge at the base of a huge stone elephant, pausing to look over this bygone estate. I step into a hollow between some giant plaited roots with my awestruck youngest, her eyes widening as she looks up at branches that touch the sky. We are explorers discovering a long lost kingdom for the first time.
This is the internationally famous, much photographed jewel in Cambodia’s crown, Ta Prohm. Having crafted a scavenger hunt for my kids – complete with clues, riddles and an illustrated map – they busily weave around the site, wielding important scraps of paper as they try to uncover the enigmas of this once great civilisation.
It isn’t just us searching for secrets in every nook and cranny though; hordes of tourists visit these temples every day. But we’ve been let into a secret of a different kind. Apparently there’s somewhere equally enchanting but nearly deserted; Koh Ker, a 10th century former capital of the Khmer Empire. A two-hour drive takes us out of Siem Reap to our camp in the heart of the jungle, just outside this ancient site.
Waking early the next morning, we peer out of our canvas home to see the first light find its way through clusters of leaves overhead, the only sound coming from birds bouncing from tree to tree. Unlike Angkor Wat, we have this ancient city to ourselves – we are the stars of our own Indiana Jones movie! Another day of adventure ensues. Who knew that kids could like temples?
Making Cambodia home
It didn’t take us long to find our feet after moving to Phnom Penh – largely thanks to the kind welcome from the community. ‘Friendly locals’ has become a tired trope in travel literature, seemingly applied anywhere, but Cambodia actually topped Rough Guide’s ‘friendliest countries in the world’ list and I can certainly vouch for it. They embraced us as neighbours from our very first week.
Making our first hasty steps into the light, my wife and I were bleary-eyed from hours indoors unpacking our worldly possessions. Our new life in Cambodia with our first child was just beginning; we were yet to make our first foray into the neighbourhood, but an empty fridge and a restless baby meant it was time to find food.
Delicious wafts escaped from a local restaurant, and we had barely stepped inside when my family and I were enthusiastically whisked through. A waitress came over to our table, beaming from ear to ear at my small child who was soon elevated to the highest echelons of celebrity. Before I knew it, he was good-naturedly kidnapped and taken on an impromptu tour of the restaurant. We were left standing, not quite sure what to make of someone stealing our child.
Chefs, waitresses and managers alike nattered behind the scenes, and just as we wondered if he was ever to return, he was carried back towards us with a happy chortle and a fistful of treats; squishy banana and the juiciest mango. From then on, every time we went for a meal – or anywhere, really – the hospitality of the Khmer people (and their absolute love of all children) saw my kids making friends with just about everyone. We’ve been lucky enough to have family holidays all over the world, but the Cambodian’s generosity of spirit is second to none.
Getting out of the city and into Battambang
A national holiday gave us the opportunity to swap the busy capital for the countryside with a trip to the sleepy town of Battambang. Going cross country with kids can be arduous, and I have plenty of friends that who opt for the ‘flop and drop’ philosophy on holiday, but there’s no reason to stay still in Cambodia. The roads are developed, and with private cars and air-conditioned coaches we found getting around stress-free. Battambang is so laidback it’s horizontal, and with little traffic and well-preserved French colonial architecture a walking tour is a must. But nicknamed the ‘rice bowl’ of Cambodia, we wanted to see beyond the city’s parameters.
Bike rides and food markets
A leisurely bike ride took us on a flat path flanked by green rice paddies on each side and shaded by intermittent thickets of trees. Workers in the fields glanced up, smiling at us with toothy grins and as we passed through villages, curious families appeared for friendly chats as kids circled around their legs making shy conversation. Everyone speaks a high level of English in Cambodia, from market-sellers and tuk tuk drivers, to hotel staff and local guides, but it’s not always necessary; my kids are soon running around with the local children – it seems that playing transcends language barriers.
Ambling on to a food market, we were presented with some unique entertainment: fish squirmed in buckets; chickens clucked at our feet; people perched on little red stools above pallets of exotic produce, or sat cross-legged on the floor – weaving unruly strands of rattan into baskets. I was fascinated, but all of this just happened to be at my kids’ height. They were at the heart of the action.
The only thing missing was a delicacy we’d spotted in Phnom Penh; amidst the colour and hubbub of a market there, we spied creepy-crawlies as you’ve never seen them – fried tarantulas piled high on round silver plates. They are definitely an acquired taste, but my son gave it a go as a baby. Who says kids are fussy eaters?
Evening entertainment – Phare Circus
We earmarked the evening for the Phare Circus show; it seemed to be a thing of legend but I had no idea what to expect. Would there be clowns? High wires maybe? Please, no animals. We took our seats in the big top.
The lights went up, live music began and a group of young performers entertained the crowd with a whirlwind of acrobatic mastery. They bounced around the stage doing backflips, handstands and cartwheels, as well as performing traditional (and perfectly choreographed) dance routines. The fearless juggled flaming torches, and as each flare cascaded through the air, every avid face in the audience was illuminated.
Not only was it hands-down the most amazing, and unexpected, show that I have ever seen, it’s also all in aid of a good cause. I found out that the organisation is a social enterprise – each of the performers are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and any profits are used to train them and other young people. As the show came to an end, we felt a collective pang of sadness, but it certainly wasn’t the last time we saw one of their shows.
Going to the seaside in Sihanoukville and Koh Rong Samloem
Cambodia’s beautiful south coast is only a few hours from Phnom Penh, so at weekends we would go in search of the sea (and relaxation), packing a bucket and spade to spend disconnected days on one of its pristine beaches – a world away from our home in the capital. We would often stay in Sihanoukville, a lively coastal city with plenty of resorts that remains relatively under the radar in comparison to the coasts of neighbouring countries Thailand and Vietnam.
As lovely as the quieter beaches are here though, nothing compares with Koh Rong Samloem. This island is only a 45-minute boat journey from the mainland and has a coastline of empty white stretches of sand. You can kayak, snorkel and dive, or trek in pristine jungle… but we came to relax. Situated on the Gulf of Thailand, the sea is blissfully warm, but it’s also shallow as far as the eye can see so the kids paddled safely as it gently lapped the shore.
While they pad around the sand, I took to a hammock strung between two coconut trees, book in hand, and when we yearned for a bit of adventure, we sought out a beachfront café for a lunch of fresh seafood,before resuming a lazy afternoon in the hammock.
Leaving Cambodia and coming home
Now back in the UK, there are many things we miss – the sunshine on those beaches, and a community who treated our kids as their own. We travelled cross country, tried new (often unusual food) and made more friends than we could have imagined. But our kids were too young to try everything: we didn’t kayak through the submerged forests and floating villages of Tonlé Sap Lake, go horse-riding through rural countryside, or stand-up paddleboard along the winding Preaek Teuk Chhu River.
They were too young to track gibbons and bathe with elephants in Mondulkiri, soar through the Angkor Park jungle canopy on zip-lines, whizz along tributaries and waterways in Prek Toal, or zip along local roads and the countryside on the back of a Vespa. Even with everything we did in three years, we could do so much more. All the more reason to go back for a holiday – I’m not sure that any other country will ever come close.