Cambodia is a wonderful destination, filled with culture, history, and a large range of activities for family members of all ages.
Siem Reap is a small city in northwestern Cambodia, long known as the gateway to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. Having visited Siem Reap in 2005, I thought I knew what to expect when I returned with my husband and children in fall 2018. Boy was I wrong! The city has reinvented itself; it has experienced rapid economic growth over the past two decades, with significant foreign investments.
We arrived after having spent two weeks in Thailand, and were in awe of the level of service and organization. The airport, which was once not much more than a single landing strip and a baggage carousel, is now modern, efficient, and dare I say pretty. While it is still fairly small as international airports go, it is quite impressive. We were also pleasantly surprised by the road infrastructure, the cleanliness of the streets and the fact that the roads were very well lit. Frankly we were reminded of the planned communities that are common throughout the U.S., which speaks volumes of Cambodia’s efforts to distinguish itself as a major tourist destination in Southeast Asia.
Where to Stay
When I visited Siem Reap 13 years ago, the choice of hotels was minimal: your clients would’ve had had two options if they wanted a 4- or 5-star hotel. The Siem Reap of today is drastically different in this respect as well—the number of choices is overwhelming. Not only is the sheer number of choices expansive, but there is a hotel for anyone and everyone, from budget to luxury. We chose to stay at the Anantara Angkor Resort because we are big fans of the Minor hotel brand, and they had a great package that included daily breakfast and a 60-minute spa treatment, among other amenities. While it is not the least expensive option in the area, even with the inclusions, it is definitely a safe choice.
The hotel is one of Anantara’s smallest properties with 39 suite-style rooms, and is conveniently located five minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from Angkor Wat. There is a new amusement area that recently opened right next door to the hotel, Boxville, which has activities for all ages. While it can be noisy at night if you are in the hotel’s common areas, we heard nothing once we were in our room.
The Anantara Angkor has been open approximately five years, making it fairly new, and the staff is fairly new to the hotel and service industry, as is most of Cambodia in general. That being said, the staff, which is made up mostly of local Cambodian people, is very proud of their progress and very grateful that tourists have come to visit their country. They are warm, friendly, and extremely accommodating. You cannot walk through the hotel without being asked how your day is going, how your breakfast/lunch/dinner was, or how you enjoyed whatever activity you participated in earlier that day. What they lack in experience, they make up for in heart. Being a very small property, its amenities are limited, especially for families. The pool is a decent size, and they have a very small gym and spa; however, there is no kids’ menu, laundry for children is the same price as for adults, and the only activity for children at the hotel is a pizza cooking class. Our kids did participate in the pizza cooking class, where they had the opportunity to make and enjoy their own personal pizzas. It was a simple, but fun activity for them. There is one onsite restaurant, with a full bar, that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Your clients can also choose a Dine by Design option, where the hotel sets a private table al fresco that is complemented with a private performance by Cambodian Apsara dancers (performance is an additional US$100). One very convenient amenity is the complimentary transportation the hotel offers to all local areas in Siem Reap.
We were a group of four adults and three children, as my parents had joined us for our travels through Cambodia. I reached out to the concierge for help in planning our activities, to ensure that everything would be suitable for our multi-generational group, and they were very helpful. In fact, never have I experienced this level of service from a hotel concierge. They sent me a proposed itinerary based on the information I had provided them about our group and our interests. We made a few minor changes to their suggestions, and our time in Siem Reap was perfectly planned.
Some of the highlights of our time in Siem Reap were sunrise at Angkor Wat, sunset at Chong Kneas, and a Jeep tour to the lesser known temples of Banteay Prei and Banteay Thom.
Built sometime around 1100 A.D., the Angkor Wat temple complex is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and considered one of the seven wonders of the world. It is a truly magical place, where families can opt to have a picnic breakfast provided by the hotel while viewing the sunrise. I highly recommend your clients have a private guide: Angkor Wat has grown in popularity and the number of tourists that visit every year has grown exponentially, so having a private guide is crucial to help your clients navigate the crowds and take them off the beaten path.
Tonle Sap Lake
Sunset at Chong Kneas, a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake, is a very interesting experience and arranged very nicely by the hotel concierge. We were very happy to have arranged this excursion through the hotel despite the higher price tag, as there was a marked difference between our classic Cambodian private boat and the other boats we saw on the lake, which were quite dilapidated and filled to the brim with tourists. The hotel provided cocktails and canapes while we watched the sunset, which is not included in the other more touristy outfitters.
Banteay Thom and Banteay Prei Temples
After sunrise at Angkor Wat, I would have to say that the jeep excursion to the “jungle temples” was our ultimate favorite experience in Siem Reap. Talk about off the beaten path! These temples can only be accessed by 4×4 vehicles, as there are no paved roads in that area. They were also “discovered” much more recently than Angkor Wat, so they are still not among the more visited temples in the area. We reached the temples in two American Army jeeps, which was half the fun! Upon our arrival, the family that watches over the temples greeted us warmly, and since we had the temple all to ourselves, our guide set up a picnic lunch for us in the center of the temple. It’s a surreal, brag-worthy experience that you should recommend to your clients.
Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm Temple has been nicknamed the “Tombraider Temple,” made famous after the release of “Tombraider,” the movie. Visiting this temple was especially saddening for me as I saw firsthand the state of ruin that this incredible monument has experienced in the past 13 years since I was last there. It is one of the larger monuments in the Angkor complex and is best known for the giant Banyan tree roots that are intertwined within its walls. It is a must-see during a trip to Siem Reap.
Wat Svay Romeat
We stopped at Wat Svay Romeat on our way to Ta Prohm Temple for a monk’s blessing. Our guide gave us a brief tour of the temple, and we then proceeded to meet a young monk who performed a unique blessing ceremony. The monk first prays and expresses his gratitude for your visit, then he continues to use holy water to bless bracelets, which he personally ties around each person’s wrist. It is a simple spiritual, albeit moving, encounter.
Artisans d’Angkor is a group of workshops where thousands of people from surrounding towns and rural areas sell their crafts. In exchange, they are provided with employment, education, and health care. It is an organization committed to the revival and preservation of ancient Cambodian arts and crafts. This is a wonderful place to learn about how Cambodian crafts are made, as they have guides who speak a variety of languages. The guides walk you through the workshops, explaining the process of how their crafts are created. Your clients can see many artists at work and even try their hand at some of them if they are so inclined. After the tour, they can visit the shop and purchase many of the beautiful crafts they’ve learned about. We couldn’t resist and had a beautiful piece sent back home!
Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre
The Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre is a unique place where one can go for hands-on learning about Cambodian pottery. The teachers work with your clents on their own pottery wheel and help them create four different pieces. It’s a fun activity for the entire family.
We would go back to Siem Reap in a heartbeat, as we felt that there was much left to discover.
This story originally appeared in worldstompers.com, a family travel website created to inspire families with kids to expand their idea of adventures. You can follow the adventures of the Bazavilvazo family @worldstompers on Instagram and The Worldstompers on Facebook.
For The Worldstompers’ story focusing on Maldives as a family-friendly destination, click here.