Although Angkor Wat and Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia might be better-known tourist destinations, the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh should certainly not be overlooked and is such an important part of any South East Asian itinerary
Truly steeped in historical importance, and shrouded in amazing architecture – the city once known as the Pearl of Asia certainly drew me in. On arriving in Phnom Penh I was hit with an overwhelming sense of familiarity, despite this being our first family visit to Cambodia.
From the airport through to arrival at our new digs I was immediately filled with a lustre to explore and get to know everything more intimately. There’s that ever-present bustle like you feel in big south-east Asian cities, but also a calmness. Arriving on a Sunday, there is a relaxed vibe, the air is warm in late March but not stifling hot. There are more tuk-tuks than motorcycles filling the roads compared to Vietnam – and of course road lanes are non-existent, everyone weaves between impossibly small gaps with relative calm.
History of Cambodia
There are few countries that boast quite as dramatic a past over the centuries as Cambodia. In incredibly recent history the after effects of the Khmer Rouge Regime -events that occurred within our own life times – can still be felt. Although the capital is now a thriving city again, it will remain forever scarred by the brutalities that occurred under Pol Pot’s reign of terror from 1975 until the liberation then occupation by the Vietnamese in 1979. To this day the political situation is still not entirely stable. I personally, try as I might, could not absorb it all and have even more unanswered questions in my head since visiting and seeing it myself.
There are two main memorials to the atrocities that occurred in the 1970’s, one is the Choeung Ek “Killing Fields” and in central Phnom Penh the S-21 Genocide Museum – previously a school that became a prison camp during the regime. Both tell fairly graphic tales of the brutality of the regime. Although Pol Pot died before standing trial, the Khmer Rouge trials remain ongoing.
A must see for anyone wanting to learn more about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pots regime is the Docufilm Enemies of the People. Immensely poignant and almost uncomfortable to watch, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath spent years interviewing those from deep withing the Khmer Rouge, involved and responsible for the deaths of so many (an estimated 2 million Khmer people lost their lives). Sambath builds a relationship with Pol Pot’s deputy, Nuon Chea (who has since been imprisoned by a genocide tribunal), during which time he admits his role in the killings. Another good film to help set the scene before a visit to Phnom Penh is The Killing Fields, based on the true story of journalists caught in Democratic Kampuchea immediately prior to the Khmer Rouge regime, then the brutality that unfolded afterwards. Bring your Kleenex!
Should you take kids to the Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum?
We considered this point a lot. Whilst in some respects they are still so young and it was likely to all go over their heads, my concern was whether my older girl would find it upsetting. If she did comprehend things how would she cope with this, and could I myself explain it to her – without leaving her permanently scarred?
We did end up taking all our kids (aged 6, 3 and 1), and as expected they enjoyed the tuk-tuk ride out there immensely, and when we got there largely complained about being hungry, the heat, the smells (which I can bet they’d do pretty much anywhere in the world). Given their lack of connection to what they were looking at, we decided to also tackle the S21 Genocide Museum. Both can quite easily be done in one morning if you get a good early start and move at a ‘keeping the kids entertained’ pace.
My tip would be for kids under 5 years old, base it on their ability to stay quite and not moan too much for an extended period – more for the sake and comfort of everyone around you who is trying to quietly reflect. For the over 5’s or more aware child, base it on their emotional ability. We got largely through the museums without Miss 6 really raising an eye to it all, then she saw a depiction of a child being tortured – she knew it was a jail but we couldn’t explain to her what the child had done wrong, why were they hurting him? I still don’t know if this was a good idea to take her here or not, she hasn’t mentioned it again since.
We cannot ignore the past but there’s a time and a place and you personally need to consider your children’s maturity and personalities before taking them to places like this. Their boredom was more an issue for us than what they saw.
Other kid-friendly attractions
Royal Palace Phnom Penh
One of the most visited attractions aside from the poignant memorials mentioned above is the Royal Palace. Little seems to be spoken really about the Royal family in Cambodia but King Sihamoni is the current ruler and resides here, so access is restricted for visitors to only the throne room, some of the temples and surrounding buildings. It is incredibly picturesque and serene in here (though we are lead to believe very busy on weekends). Opening hours are quite short and they are closed for 3 hours over lunch so plan around this, and make sure you have covered shoulders and knees for entry.
Nearby is also the stunning Silver Pagoda and just a block further on you will come to the large Wat Bottom Park, which includes an extensive play area. In the evenings its fun to watch the locals get out and exercising, group aerobics classes are very popular!
The Riverside – Tonle Sap & the Mekong Rivers
The embankment along the Tonle Sap River, referred to as the Riverside is bustling in the evenings with street vendors and families looking to relax – do see our warning below though on annoyances. On the opposite side of the road there are an extensive range of dining options to choose from – all with Western and Khmer food options, even fussy eaters can be well catered for. From here there are also a number of tour companies that operate river cruises on the Tonle Sap and Mekong through out the day – you can really choose how long a cruise you do and time of day. I’d recommend checking out the boat you’re going to get though, some looked a little more run down than others!
We took the sunset cruise with Memorable Cambodia and I could not recommend them highly enough. We pre-purchased tickets through a travel agency in town (charged only for the adults in our group) and they picked us up from the hotel and took us to the boat. The boat is run by students from the hospitality college and they did a stellar job serving us and some very thoughtful commentary and answering our questions.
There is a small night market that runs from Wednesday to Sunday evenings, not far from where most of the boat cruises depart. There’s a little light entertainment here too and dining options, a nice way for kids to end the day.
Roof top bars
Those with little globetrotters like ours, do try and squeeze in a kid free evening. There are a load of roof top bars overlooking the river, like the Famous Foreign Correspondence Club (but pricey). Directly opposite is the huge but popular 5 story Grand River Restaurant & Bar. There’s no way I would have taken the kids up there, especially our dare devil Master J as I don’t think they’d pass any sort of Australian Health and Safety inspection but cheap cocktails and a fabulous view made for a great evening out. Older, more responsible kids will really enjoy the novelty of them too.
Family Accommodation in Phnom Penh
We stayed at the Kabiki – a gorgeous oasis in the heart of the city oozing in charm. We could not have asked for better accommodation for this leg of our South East Asia trip. It only has 18 rooms, but the massive selling point for us was their family sized rooms, they have a few that can fit up to 7! Yes 7 in a hotel room! (If you don’t know our pain and misery of finding large hotel rooms, read more here!) And funnily, despite this we did not feel cramped and on top of each other at all – probably because we were out exploring or by the pool for the most part.
The room itself was quite basic, we got two double beds, one single and one bunk bed. This was the first bunk bed experience for Miss Z and Master L – they of course now want one at home (when I explained they’d have to share a room at home then there was a quick back march on this idea…). The gardens are huge and we felt safe letting the kids walk around and explore the mini-jungle! My only criticism was the water pressure in the rooms was incredibly poor, I could cope with the showering, but not being able to properly wash out baby bottles is highly likely what lead to poorly bellies at our next destination.
The staff however really made the place. They were hospitable throughout our stay, always happy to engage with the kids, always happy to top up milk bottles, alter meal requests for the kids. On arrival, each of the kids was given a soft toy elephant – when Master L’s was stolen they didn’t hesitate to replace it straight away. We were able to easily organise baby sitting here with a very responsible girl for $5uSD per hour (had we known this was going to be the only night time baby sitting we were going to get for 2 weeks we would have booked her every night!). When she wasn’t busy working during the day, she made the effort to also do crafts and games with the kids too.
Of course being South East Asia there are plenty of accommodation options to fit all budgets. We paid approx. USD$105 per night to get this family sized suite in a great location near to the Royal Palace and walk-able to many attractions (or $2-$3USD tuk-tuk to pretty much anywhere). Bare in mind some of the very cheap accommodation either 1. won’t fit a family size group or 2. can be far from town. Here are some more accommodation options in Phnom Penh.
A big thanks also to Bron from Smiths Holiday Road who recommended this place to us – if ever in doubt always ask other bloggers with similar ages and sized families to your own where they’d recommend!!
Nuisances and annoyances – parents be aware!
For the first time since travelling as a family we had the misfortune of having a bag snatched from us whilst in Phnom Penh. We really should have known better, there are plenty of warnings that this is an issue in Phnom Penh and are kicking ourselves about it still; but thankfully the items inside were of limited value – expect sentimentally kids toys. It was mostly the annoyance factor of having this happen during our holidays, multiple calls to credit card companies, needing to find a police station late at night, working out the correct “tip” for the privileged of a police report and interpreter, replacing baby essentials.
I will cover safety and security lessons for personal items that we have learnt from this experience in a separate post, but what I do want to highlight here is how it happened so you are prepared and can avoid this. Our children were used as part of their ploy, distracting us with unnecessary attention towards them and making them vulnerable so that we would take our eyes off our personal possessions to naturally protect them. It took less than a minute for the whole incident to unfold.
There was one thing that insurance can’t deal with and that is fear. The previous day we had felt it when the kids scatter-gunned on us as soon as we entered a giant play park, now the thought of them being more than 10 metres away from us terrified me. That feeling did not leave us throughout our time in Cambodia. We are not normally stressy parents, we want our children to feel they can explore but safety was a paramount concern for us, not alleviated when even locals kept telling us we needed to be really careful – of the kids and our possessions. I tell this story not to scare people but make sure you are conscious of the risks and teach your children basic safety precautions. We were at the slight disadvantage of being outnumbered at all times.
How we did it
We flew to Phnom Phen from Ho Chi Minh City with Qatar Airways (yes – bizarre) – by far the cheapest option as they run a DOH-SAI-PHN flight that’s basically empty for the last leg. For 5 of us it cost US$368. Flying is otherwise quite expensive. There are plenty of boat and road options for the more budget and environmentally minded. As much as I fell in love with idea of cruising up the Mekong for a few days to get there, I simply couldn’t trust our 20-month-old Master J to actually stay on the boat for more than say an hour without falling in, wiping that idea! If your kids are older though, do it! What an amazing experience you could have.
Getting around Phnom Phen we could either walk from our brilliant location at the Kabiki or easy tuk-tuk rides. And yes we DID take that double stroller, and for those long walking days, did not regret it at all, other times it easily folded up in a tuk-tuk or we simply had to walk on roads with it. We hired a private car to take us to our next destination, Sihanoukville on the western coast of Cambodia.
Other Cambodian Tourism Facts to know before you go
- Visas are available on arrival or can be pre-purchased on the internet. We went with pre-purchased and zoomed through the airport at record speed – though the lines for those buying on arrival didn’t look to hideously long.
- You can withdraw both Cambodian Riels and USD from ATM’s but most vendors and drivers will want you to work in US Dollar (its a slight upper hand to them on the exchange rate). The exchange rate we worked off was 1USD =4,000 Cambodian Riels.
- 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. The coolest time of year to visit is at the start of the dry season December/January, getting increasingly hotter up to April.
Every inch of me wanted to be in love with this place and rave about it to everyone, but there’s no doubt that the bag snatching and family safety issues put a dampener on things. I know we will return one day, there is so much to love and I do still recommend it for families – just probably a step more caution is needed than other more developed tourist locations.
Over to you – have you been to Phnom Penh? Would you like to visit the vibrant Cambodian Capital?
© Our Globetrotters