Should you attempt to visit the world’s largest temple complex with toddlers and young kids?
I knew that exploring the lost city of Angkor with small people was never going to be easy.
Visiting Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list for much of my adult life. I have marvelled at stunning photographs and been awed by the history and mystic of Angkor. We’ve become pretty experienced family travellers these last few years; we’ve adjusted expectations; we know pretty well where breaking points are likely to occur, but I won’t deny it – taking 3 children (a 6, 3 and 1-year-old) to Cambodia was tough going. Tackling the Angkor Temples with them, perhaps a step too far.
Let’s wind the clock back a bit though and look at the challenge that stands in front when planning an epic trip like this. What should families think about beforehand? Is it OK to do something for yourself instead of the kids? And in what circumstance would I recommend you leave the kids behind.
Yes, the Globetrotters have found a breaking point.
What exactly is Angkor Wat & the Angkor Temples?
First, let’s take a quick step back if you know Angkor Wat by image and by name and little more.
Angkor Wat is in fact one of many temples and structures in modern day Cambodia that made up the ancient city of Angkor – part of the vast Khmer Empire. Even to this day, it is still the largest stone structure in the world and the largest religious structure.
To put it in perspective, the ancient city of Angkor would have been larger than modern day Paris and contained more stone than the Pyramids of Giza. In the 12th century, the Khmer Empire covered most of South East Asia, yet with little written records from this era, the ancient city of Angkor mysteriously disappeared around 500 years ago. It’s believed around 1860 the city was rediscovered and over the last century restorative projects have been undertaken to try and uncover the stories of its past. Since 1992 the Angkor Archaeological Park has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The nearest modern day town to the ancient city is Siem Reap, situated approximately 6kms to the south where most tourists base themselves for exploration of this vast archaeological site. The most famous, and intact of the temples is Angkor Wat (“Heaven on Earth”) with the other popular options for exploration being the ancient city of Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple (where people and Gods co-existed) and Ta Prohm – probably the most intriguing temple with its overgrown tree roots engulfing the temple that once lay beneath. There are dozens of other smaller temples to explore within the 400sqm park.
There are a myriad of transport options from cycling to private hire cars or buses to get around the temple complex, but for the best experience, hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the day or morning/evening is the best way to go to soak up the atmosphere. So there’s the absolute basics, now as for the kids…
Why we left our kids behind exploring the Angkor Temples
We DID take our children with us on the first evening to explore Angkor Wat at sunset. It’s a moment I had looked forward to with such anticipation and certainly the size and scale of it all cannot fail to impress! I was really here, pinch me a minute!
But then did I mention the hundreds, no probably thousands of other tourists there soaking it in too, argh!! Forget that dreamy photo with any sort of sun reflection happening off the lake (swamp), it ain’t going to happen. My sheer hatred of the selfie stick hit an all time high…
My 3-year-old’s whining started from the moment he got off the tuk-tuk, no amount of placating about the heat, walking, hunger – or whatever today’s issue was could console him.
My 6-year-old daughter, on the other hand, was as in awe as I was. She wanted to draw EVERYTHING! Which was brilliant, so excited to see her trying to get involved, but of course this meant it took us forever to walk from A to B, mind the selfie sticks and control the throngs of crowd who wanted to be photographed WITH our children (hey look people, ancient temple, cool huh? no blonde haired children apparently rocked their world more).
As for the 1-year-old; wide spaces, big crowds, steep drops and open bodies or water… need I say more.
So, with that first experience in mind, we made the bold call to explore the rest of Angkor the following day without them, safely leaving them in the care of the hotel kids club – where they made new friends and had an absolute ball without us!
HINT: If you purchase your 1 day ticket before sunset (after 4.30pm) you get that evening for free; your ticket only becomes valid the following day so you can technically squeeze in a day and a half of exploring on the one day ticket!
It was probably the best decision of the trip we had made! Not only did hubby and I get some alone time without the whining and constant attention craving that can ensue when you’re travelling, we could do it all at our own pace. I was able to stop, take photographs and not constantly fear for my children’s safety, something which was forever prevalent for me on this trip.
Still want to take the kids?
Good on you! Braver than we are for sure – please do be conscious of ages though and whether you are doing it for them or for you.
For the littlies, it’s NOT stroller friendly at all! Infants will be best carried in a baby carrier like an Ergobaby. Whilst slightly older children will enjoy exploring the passageways and rambling over ruins – particularly Ta Prohm which is still engulfed by enormous tree roots – its hard work. Allow lots of time for rest breaks and careful of the steep drops. My recommended minimum age would be 5/6 years old to truly appreciate it, but each to their own; you and your children may have way more patience and tolerance for heat, crowds and history than we do.
Additional temple exploring pointers
- You need to be a little bit fit. We found a lot of the steps to be very steep. Mr Globetrotter pointed out that many of the staircases now had additional wooden steps added, and safety rails put in that didn’t exist 10 years ago – they are still quite steep and precarious. I would definitely advise against small children and preggies doing a lot of the temple climbing.
- It’s super busy. He also noted that the tourist numbers had probably quadrupled too – you cannot move for a selfie stick or someone awkwardly being in your way so a bucket load of patience is needed if you want to take nice photos. From our observation, there was no “best time of day” to go to avoid it. We were pre-warned how ridiculously busy it was at dawn so with our poorly bellies anyway avoided this experience, but by noon and the heat of the day it was still thriving everywhere.
- Go early or late. So based on the fact it’s busy whenever you go, still aim for early in the day, even if you’re not going for 5am opening to beat the worst of the heat. If you come later in the day too around closing, you may even get a people-free shot as they move the crowds away.
- Show some respect. It is still a religious site so do bring something to cover shoulders and knees (not just a pashmina) – I saw some tourists being denied entry wearing these and they were far from polite to the security guards doing their job. Kids are fine to dress for the weather.
- Drink! If anyone offers you water at any point – take it! It’s seriously hot work and very easy to get dehydrated. There are vendors frequently spotted around and our tuk tuk driver had his own supplies for us.
- Slip, Slop, Slap! Definitely apply the sunscreen before you go and take a hat. There’s a lot of walking about in the sun without shelter – though Ta Prohm offers a little more shade than the others, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are pretty exposed.
- Hire a guide. As we were being flexible with our timings and arrangements, we did not – though in retrospect I regret this. Those looking for a much deeper educational experience (no doubt with children who have much longer attention spans than ours!) then this is the thoroughly recommended way to explore and learn. The guides we overheard with other groups were thoroughly knowledgeable and will give you much greater insight, nothing around the sites is really otherwise sign posted.
- Be firm with vendors. The street sellers and begging can be relentless. Yes, the children selling postcards can be quite adorable and you feel for them, but there are SO many advisories telling you not to give them money and perpetuate the poverty cycle. The older vendors can be just plain rude, they will physically grab you, or the kids, trying to get you to buy from them. An unpleasant side effect of what mass tourism has brought with it. (There are plenty of local charities to give your money to if you want to support the children; inquire at your hotel and do your research first).
Know before you go – Angkor Wat & the Khmer Empire
There’s a lot to explore once you are at Angkor and it can be overwhelming, especially if you are simultaneously toddler wrangling! I found it helpful to learn a little more about the temples before starting our trip – older kids (and grown ups!) I’m sure will love watching Indiana Jones & Tomb Raider – though sadly there’s no extensive labyrinth of caves underneath to explore!
For more about the ancient city I found this National Geographic clip a great insight.
And well worth checking out this documentary Angkor Wat – Land of the Gods (2 parts)
I won’t pretend my kids actually sat and watched these with me, but I personally found them fascinating! And yes, I did a refresher course on Tomb Raider on the plane over!
Siem Reap with Kids
Taking a look back into the town of Siem Reap itself, it was foolish not to book at least another day here (we only had 3 days total). I think I read all the wrong reviews that the city itself was nothing much, it was sleazy in parts, but we simply did not see this; nor did we get a chance to visit Tonle Sap or further afield.
Compared to our arrival into other south-east Asian cities, Siem Reap didn’t have that same frantic pace, the constant beeping, the roar of motorcycles and tuk-tuks; it really felt more relaxed. The airport road is a big wide boulevard, lined with luxury hotels and buffet restaurants (big business apparently with the tour groups). Notable to us too, was the lack of rubbish on the side of the road compared to other parts of Cambodia. It’s clear considerable effort has gone into creating a beautiful cityscape here – no doubt with the aim of attracting more tourists.
Pub Street – the main bar and restaurant district in the centre of town – came across in prior reading as having a bad reputation. We were very pleasantly surprised then by what we got. We visited several times in the afternoon and early evening and found it to be completely family-friendly. Of course we’re not staying out late with the raving crowd – Mr Globetrotter got quite a different perspective on the city when we walked around as a single gent later at night! Yeah lots of things might be stated as illegal in Cambodia, but….
For shopping and souvenirs, the Old Market probably has the best selection – everything from fresh foods and spices to the usual, clothing, bags, art, hardware. We thought it was only open day times but was still trading each time we walked past in the evenings. Separately there is also the Art Market across the Siem Reap River open from early evenings – a bit more modern and nice and wide – it fit the double stroller! Despite the name it sells a mixture of everything – tucked right at the back are a number of art stores if you’re looking for a painting or keepsake. There are several other night markets spotted around town, but same-same.
We were quite disappointed with the quality of the children’s clothing in Cambodia. Within weeks after coming home many of my daughter’s dresses have completely frayed or the elastic has perished. Likewise a zip broke immediately on a new backpack. Sad, this is a part of going to South East Asia that we love, but I guess you do pay for what you get after all.
Food & kids supplies
We could get hold of things like nappies and wipes OK, but our toddler son did not like the milk at all, even the carton imported stuff he rejected – I should have bought some infant formula. They do have all variety of packaged snack foods but most we did not recognise or understand what was in them and the kids didn’t like them. Compared to other parts of Cambodia, Siem Reap is very much geared to tourists and menus everywhere will be in English along with Western dining options.
How we did it
Getting there and away
We arrived via a domestic flight from Sihanoukville on the western coast to Siem Reap. At our time of travel (April 2016) there’s a once a day Cambodia Air service in the late afternoon that takes about 45 minutes in a small aircraft. It was a little turbulent which normally wouldn’t have caused us an issue, except we were all miserably sick that day! To go by road in comparison takes about 12 hours; 6 hours to Phnom Penh where you either change bus or connecting passengers get on and off. Although some of these services are luxury coaches – the idea of 12 hours on a bus (let alone with poorly kids) was far from appealing; we sacrificed for the significant extra cost ($433USD) to save on pain and time.
We returned home from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City with Vietnam Air (operated by Cambodia Air). For a family of five (2 children, 1 infant) the total airfare was $488USD. Again a little pricey but significantly easier than driving which would take well over a day. We originally entered Cambodia from Phnom Penh and pre-purchased our Visa’s online which took less than 24 hours. All we needed to do was present the print outs as we crossed the border, no lining for Visas.
Accommodation in Siem Reap
There are plenty of family-friendly accommodation options to suit all budgets in Siem Reap. We stayed at the beautiful French Colonial style Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa in the centre of Siem Reap. It was the only luxury hotel stop we made for the trip around Cambodia, and boy was it well needed and appreciated! We have a full review of our experience at Victoria Angkor Siem Reap here. With the heat and kids it was slightly beyond walking distance for us in to town, but only an easy $2USD tuk-tuk ride away (yes, a tuk-tuk can fit 5, plus a double stroller, plus the shopping!).
The big bonus for us in booking Victoria Angkor was the kids club which allowed us to avail the opportunity to explore kid free on this occasion. If this is something you are interested in doing and you are staying at a budget location, you can still book your kids into the kids club at Victoria Kids as outside paying guests – as well as use the pool facilities for an additional fee. Having a pool for your return at a bare minimum is essential, we got seriously hot and sweaty at the temples and needed to cool off! Also, I would recommend you look for a hotel on the northern side of town nearer to the Angkor Archaeological Park to cut down travel time. There are many big hotels near the airport, but driving daily from here can make for a very long day.
Entry to the temples requires an Angkor Pass – $20USD for a one day pass. All adults and children over 12 must have a photo ID printed which is carried at all times around the complex – children under 12 are free. Your passes are purchased at a security checkpoint on the way to Angkor, they take your photo there. (As mentioned above purchasing after 4.30pm also gives you entry for the evening – parks start shutting from 5.30pm, closed at 6pm). If you want to spread things out a lot further a 3 day pass is $40USD or 7 days $60USD. Bringing your own photo may help you skip the 3 day / 7 day queue but you’ll need to line and have a picture taken for the day passes. Mornings the park opens from 5am for those looking to catch sunrise.
To be honest, unless you have are deeply interested in the history, architecture, religion – or want to move at a much slower pass, you can adequately cover the “Big 3” temples in a day if needed – Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and the ancient city Angkor Thom & the Bayon. I can’t imagine even slightly older children being amused for several days. I would say the 10-year-old+ crowd could probably handle it. Just bare in mind there are no additional activities or facilities aimed at children out at the archaeological park at the time of writing. Due to the fragile
Just bare in mind there are no additional activities or facilities aimed at children out at the archaeological park at the time of writing. Due to the fragile nature of the structures, touching and crawling over much of the temples is prohibited which is like a red flag to a bull when you’re talking small kids.
Other useful bits to know visiting Cambodia
- The currency we used was predominantly US Dollar at a rate of 1=4,000 Cambodian Riels. You can withdraw Riels from ATM’s along with US Dollars but most vendors and drivers will want you to work in US Dollar (its a slight upper hand to them on the exchange rate). You really only need pocket change in Riels, larger shops and restaurants will take credit cards as well.
- Most hotel plugs came with multi-points, though they honestly seem to use a variety of everything! Bring your own multi-adapter to be sure.
- Wifi signal around the country is not great but most hotels offer it for free so you should be able to make some connection, albeit slow.
- Wet season runs from May to November – expect unpredictable monsoonal weather and potentially roads to be cut off if visiting during these months. The coolest time of year to visit is at the start of the dry season December/January, getting increasingly hotter up to April. Khmer New Year is in early April, we left just days prior but the decorating and upcoming celebrations looked exciting – be warned though hotel prices can significantly increase during these celebrations and some businesses will close.
Now I hope we haven’t put too much of a downer on anyone’s travel plans to Cambodia!
You know we are all for showing our kids the world and having new experiences – we have a whole website here dedicated to it! But I also think its important to have an honest view too, from two tired and weary parents we took on too much visiting Cambodia with 3 young kids. Had we waited just a few more years I think it would have made a huge difference to the experience taking our kids to Angkor Wat – but I guess that just gives us another reason to return.
Have you explored Angkor Wat and the ancient Angkor Temples with kids? What age would you recommend being ideal for learning and exploring with minimal whining?
See more on our South East Asia Adventures in the Travel Diary, including our adventures in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville
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