Cambodia was the first trip we’ve taken in which I took a real pause to consider if it was a good idea to visit with young children. A quick Google search will turn up horrible stories regarding child abuse, trafficking, and exploitation. Even something so innocent as volunteering at an orphanage (which was originally on our list) can be damaging to the children. Living in Japan, we have the luxury to let our son, Miles, have a lot of freedom, however, we knew this (unfortunately) wouldn’t be possible in Cambodia. Despite our trepidation, the more we read about the country the more we realized that we had to visit and experience it for ourselves. It didn’t take long for our family to become immersed in the country and as the minutes ticked by we were more amazed at the beauty of Cambodian culture, history, and architecture. There is a rawness that is still present here that we have missed many other places we’ve visited in Southeast Asia, and it was absolutely addictive. I have no doubt that we will be back, and would highly discourage you from writing the country off – it is a truly magical place.
[ D A Y • 1 ] Tokyo → Kuala Lumpur → Siem Reap, Cambodia: Phare Circus
We headed up to Haneda International for an 2330 flight to Siem Reap (connecting through Kuala Lumpur). It wasn’t the most restful night sleep, but red-eye flights seem to be our jam as the kids always tend to sleep for the majority of the air time (plus it saves on the hotel cost and increases our adventure hours – #winning). Despite the sleep everyone was still a wee bit tired when we landed in KL – Haha! Can you tell?
After an uneventful flight (my favorite kind) and arriving in KL we headed straight to the lounge for our long layover (If you haven’t looked into Priority Pass this little beauty has saved our behinds sooooo many times!) before finally boarding our two hour flight to Siem Reap – Suasdey Cambodia!
We took a tuk tuk to Hotel Koulen (which was included in our hotel cost), checked in, spent some time at the beautiful pool (which we had entirely to ourselves) before taking off to Phare, The Cambodian Circus (aka Cambodia’s Cirque du Soleil)!
This organization takes Cambodian street kids and trains them to be circus performers. Even better, the profits generated support professional arts training, education, and other social support programs. We would absolutely recommend eating at Phare Café before the show and enjoying their set menu – really nice outdoor atmosphere, romantic lighting, quiet, good service, & excellent food! You can’t go wrong with an evening spent here. Buy your tickets online in advance as shows do sell out (details below)!
Cambodian Visa Tip: In our experience the “visa -on-arrival” option was just as fast and less expensive than the “e-visa” option. When you disembark the plane, walk (fast) to the ”Visa-on-Arrival” line to beat the rush. If you really want to maximize time, bring your own pen and fill out the paperwork (a single sheet per person) while you are waiting in the “visa-on-arrival” line (this is a third paper form and different than the two forms that you will receive on the flight). While filling out the paperwork, we actually were called to the front because we had small children (this happened so fast that we didn’t even have time to fill out the entire form for all four of us beforehand). We ended up stepping to the side and they processed our first two visas. Then we skipped the line again when we had completed the last two of our forms. It was a very quick process! Just make sure you have one passport photo available for the person to staple to your form and $30usd for each visa and you’ll be set! Total time from touch down in Siem Reap to receiving our visa-on-arrival was 31minutes (if you have small kids E-visa did not save much time if any – in our personal experience).
After receiving our visas, head left for “Passport Control” this takes a bit more time and only requires one member of the family. You will need to hand the person one immigration form for the family and then the passports themselves for all members. Penny was having a meltdown (ugh!!) while we were in line for this, so they opened up a window for us and processed us quickly (they really try to help out parents with small kids and we so very much appreciated it). In a way having to get visas and go through passport control was nice as our bags had already been pulled off the belt and were waiting to be scooped up when we wrapped up the process. Easy day finding them with our red tags (when everyone and their momma has a black suitcase make sure yours stands out)! We exited baggage claim with both kiddos and bags in tow and met up with our tuk tuk driver, Mr. San. He gave us a warm welcome to Cambodia and spoke great English. Off we went to Hotel Koulen (this transfer was included in our booking through Booking.com)!
Currency Tip: Cambodia is very much a cash based economy, so be prepared for many places not to accept credit card. I suggest bringing lots of $1usd (we brought $85 in 1 dollar bills) and making sure that the notes are crisp and without rips or tears as they may not be accept in certain places if they are.
Hotel Koulen Tip: If you choose to stay at Hotel Koulen you’ll want to spend some time at the beautiful pool. Happy Hour happens every day from 1600 – 1900 and offers a buy 2 get the 3rd free on featured food items. Cocktails range from $1.50 – 3.85/each all day. Service is top-notch!
Tipping Tip: Tipping is not required or expected, however we typically tipped our day drivers and tour guides a small amount to show our appreciation, it was readily accepted.
- Hours: Nightly performances at 2000, with an additional performance beginning November 1, 2018 – March 21, 2019 Monday, Thursday, and Saturday at 1700
- Admission: Tickets start at $18 USD (depending on what section you choose and whether you wish to eat at the cafe prior to the show). It’s a small venue, so I don’t imagine there being a truly “bad” seat in the house.
[ D A Y • 2 ] Siem Reap: Phnom Kulen, Wat Preach Ang Thom, Kbal Spean, Kulen Waterfall, Banteay Srei Temple
Early breakfast at Hotel Koulen before heading out the door! Honestly the hotel breakfast here was one of the best breakfasts I have ever had – So. Delish! Lots of natural light, tons of options, pool view, and the service was fabulous to boot! Simply fantastic way to start our day! Fueld up and ready to roll our driver picked us up at 0700 to head to Phnom Kulen National Park (because things get real toasty by mid-day and traffic on the one way road only goes up the mountain until noon).
Kulen Mountain is a special place as it is 1.) the birthplace of the Angkor Empire, 2.) where most of the rocks used to build Angkor Wat were sourced, and 3.) the site that King Jayavarman II proclaimed Cambodia’s independence from Java I (AD 802). We stopped at Wat Preach Ang Thom first to see the giant reclining Buddha (8m long) before making our way to Kbal Spean (“The River of a Thousand Lingas”), where the Stung Kbal Spean River flows over an 11th century archeological site where there are various carved rocks in the riverbed which honor the Hindu God Shiva (although they were a bit hard to see as October is still considered the “wet season” and the river was fairly high).
We then took a swim in the epic waterfall that had a cameo in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and on our way back down the mountain stopped at Rom Chang Angkor for lunch where Penny captured the attention of SIX servers and we tried fish amok, a traditional Khmer dish, and Palm sugar wine with ginger which reminded us a lot of sake.
We rounded out the day at Banteay Srei Temple (“Citadel of the Women”), a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and built during the second half of the tenth century (our first temple in the Angkor Wat complex – So Impressive!). Our little globetrotter, Penelope caught some zzzs later during dinner at WILD, a cute spot owned by a French couple that specializes in fun cocktails and delicious spring rolls while big bro built some temple inspired creations. Earrrllllyyy wake up tomorrow (0400) to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat (hopefully the kids don’t hate us too terribly much for this)!
Tuk Tuk Tip: Before you depart on your Cambodian adventure make sure to download “Pass App.” Although Grab exists in Cambodia we found Pass App to be less expensive. Use the app to order a tuk tuk like you would for Grab or Uber. Then look for the number that the app displays (this number will be on the tuk tuk, rickshaw, etc.). We opted not to exchange any money and used only USD while we were in Cambodia. The conversion we used was 4,000riel/$1usd.
- Hours: Sunrise to Sunset, although the road to get to the top is only open one way at a time: Going up the mountain until noon, then only down the mountain.
- Admission: In order to drive up the mountain you will have to purchase a pass ($20/Adult; Kids were free (had to be born after 2006).
- Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
- Admission: Free (once you get up the mountain)
Wat Preach Ang Thom Tip: Remember to be respectful here and cover shoulders and knees. You will have to remove your shoes at the base of the steps prior to seeing the Giant Reclining Buddha. We were told you weren’t allowed to carry them and that you *had* to pay for someone to watch them (we paid $1usd for a couple children to watch all of them).
- Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
- Admission: Free
- Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
- Admission: Free, although see below for info about renting lockers, life vests, or even swimsuits (would recommend packing your own swimsuit at least…)
Kulen Waterfall Tips:
- Prepare for your visit by watching Lara Croft: Tomb Raider prior. The waterfall has a small cameo in the film. Don’t worry though, in real life that scene wouldn’t have been possible as the water is much too shallow to take a leap like Lara’s from the tip-top without sustaining some serious injuries.
- During the wet season the waterfall is very strong (when we visited in mid-October the waterfall was very powerful still even though it is considered the cusp of the wet/dry season). The water is suitable for swimming, but watch out for large rocks under the water as many of them are difficult to see. I would highly suggest water shoes of some sort especially for your littles and maybe even for the adults, too, as Dom actually sliced open his big toe here on one of said rocks. Although Dom’s and my adventure shoes are open toe we thought with how clumsy the kids can be closed toe would be best! We have been really happy with our “adventure shoes” (minus the minor injury!) and the kids love theirs! Check them out Here!
- Be aware that the current can be a bit strong, so make sure to grab a life vest for your little one if he/she can’t swim.
- Dress conservatively when you swim (no bikinis). Pants and shirt with capped sleeves are good choices for women (I wore pants – black, not the white ones pictured above and a t-shirt with a swim suit underneath). Men can wear regular swim suits and no shirt. There is a changing area available at the bottom of the largest waterfall (costs 50cents to use).
- “Safe Boxes” are also available for your belongings and cost $1 to rent (even though we had a dry bag I think it was a good idea to have one of these, so that everyone in your party can swim together without worrying about your stuff being stolen.). Boxes were big enough for all of our clothing, GoPro and Camera (think mid-size cooler). You’ll lock up your stuff and then take the key attached to a band that you can fix to your wrist.
- Hours: 1100 – 2300
- Admission: Included in our tour, but prices were very reasonable (Family of 4 could eat for less than $20 USD)
- Hours: 0500 – 1700
- Admission: Included in Temple Pass (see below)
Banteay Srei Temple: Prior to visiting any of the temples in the Angkor Wat Complex you will have to purchase a temple pass at Angkor Wat Archeological Park Ticket Center. Purchasing the Temple Pass will this cover almost all of the temples, but will not cover Kulen Mountain (that is a separate ticket).
- Hours: 0530 – 1700
- 1 Day: $37/Adult; kids free
- 3 Day: $62/Adult; kids free
- 7 Day: $72/Adult; kids free
- Hours: 1700 – late
- Admission: Drinks $3 – 4 USD, Rolls $2 – 3 USD
[ D A Y • 3 ] Siem Reap: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banyon Temple, Ta Prohm
The forecast didn’t look too promising as we woke at 0400 to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. I thought we must have been crazy to get the kids up so early right up until we started to see the sky turn from black to faint blue, to pink, and finally into bright orange and red. It was pure magic, and like most things while traveling definitely worth the extra effort of getting everyone up and out the door.
We spent the rest of the morning touring the inside of Angkor Wat (built during the first half of the 12th century), hanging out with monkeys (this was Penelope’s favorite part), and cycling Angkor Thom Wall where we ran into water buffalo, cows, a couple military outposts, and eventually ended at one of the entrances to Prasat Bayon Temple (built in the late 12th/early 13th century).
216 beautifully stone carved smiling faces later, we broke for a bite and then dove into the history of our last temple of the day, Ta Prohm! Built around 1100AD, but later abandoned for centuries, today (along with the rest of the Angkor Wat complex) it is a UNESCO Word Heritage site and is unique in that today it looks nearly exactly like it did when it was found. The roots of the trees here tell a beautiful story and it’s not difficult to see why it was chosen as one of the film sites for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It was a long day for the kids (they went to bed at 1615!), but one of our favorite travel days ever, truly unforgettable.
If you plan on visiting any of the temples in the Angkor Wat Complex do yourself a favor and contact Siya Pouv! Honestly he was one of the very best guides we have ever had and I cannot say enough wonderful things about him. He was incredibly helpful with the kids (he has two children of his own), very knowledgable, formatted the day based on our interests, and took some wonderful family photos for us (one of which will be our Christmas card this year!). His smile is contagious and we throughly enjoyed our day with him. Reach out to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Hours: 0500 – 1800
- Admission: Included in Temple Pass (see above)
- Hours: 0500 – 1800
- Admission: Included in Temple Pass
- Hours: 0730 – 1730
- Admission: Included in Temple Pass
- Hours: 0600 – 1800
- Admission: Included in Temple Pass
Angkor Wat Complex Tip: Prepare for your visit by watching Lara Croft: Tomb Raider prior. Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, and Banyon are all featured in the film (the film itself isn’t exactly a cinematic masterpiece, but the temple scene will definitely get you excited for your visit).
[ D A Y • 4 ] Siem Reap: Tonle Sap Floating Village (Kompong Khleang) → Phnom Penh
I had read some pretty awful reviews about tourists visiting the floating villages and frankly almost scraped the idea all together because of it. However, when I read about Bridge of Life School, there was a degree of transparency and accountability that gave me some reassurance about spending the afternoon there (+ our tourist $$).
Their goal is to minimize some of the harmful effects of tourism and provide visitors with a deeper understanding of everyday life in the village. Even better, all of their profits get reinvested in the community, including a school which allows students to go to classes even in the rainy season, when the water is traditionally too high for the kids to make it to class at public schools. Armed with this information, we decided to head out to Kompong Khleang Floating Village on the Tonle Sap, the largest floating village in Siem Reap Province, to experience the community in a responsible + meaningful way.
Along the way, we stopped at a local stand to try some bamboo sticky rice and a bakery to see some local foods being produced. We spent the afternoon transferring to Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, and checking into our hotel, SIM Boutique, around 1900. We had dinner and drinks on the roof, enjoying a birds eye view of the soccer game happening in Olympic Stadium below before calling it a day. And 0nce again, Penny stole the hearts of the servers here!
- Hours: Sunrise to Sunset (its a village…so there really are not any specific hours)
- Admission: Tour price was $35/person, Kids free
Transfer tip: If redoing this day I would have the driver driving us to Phnom Penh pick us up at the dock instead of driving us back to Koulen Hotel. We ended back tracking since that was the same road that our driver later that day took to Phnom Penh. This would have saved a good bit of time had we known!
SIM Boutique Tip: Food at the rooftop restaurant is nothing incredible, but it is solid. From the roof you can grab a good view of city lights and Olympic Stadium. Happy Hour runs every day from 1600 -1900 (buy one get one free on same drinks). Drink prices: Soft Drinks: $2.50, Tiger Draught: $2.50, Glass House Wine: $3.50, and Cocktail: $4.00.
[ D A Y • 5 ] Phnom Penh: Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Russian Market, Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Nail Bar, Elephant Bar at Le Royal Ruffles Hotel, National Museum for traditional Khmer dance
With only one true day in Phnom Penh we had to have a good idea of what we wanted to see. We started by touring both the Grand Palace and the Silver Pagoda (famous for its floor made from 1kg silver tiles), then headed to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and S21 (a high school that was turned into a prison camp in the mid-1970s by the Khmer Rouge Regime) where an estimated 20,000+ people were tortured and executed, as well as the Choeung Ek Killing Fields where 1.3 MILLION people were killed and buried in mass graves. During this horrible time a third of the Cambodian population was murdered, near 2.5 million people total. To say it was an emotional afternoon is an understatement. Words can’t describe how horrific and eye opening it was to be at a place where such evil happened.
We went back and forth for a long time on whether this was an appropriate place to take kids (see our blog post on it Here). In the end, we decided to bring them, as it was over Penny’s head and we were able to turn some of it into age-appropriate teaching for Miles (additionally we broke up our visit to these two sites by visiting the Russian Market in between for the kids to get something to eat and have a break from being quiet – details below!). It wasn’t exactly a jovial way to spend the afternoon, but we would be amiss to skip over this horrible part of Cambodian history. We gave the kids another break at the hotel pool (of course we chose another rooftop one for this trip because why not?!) before delving into our evening plans.
Dom watched the kids while I got a mani + pedi at a Nail Bar, we got a drink at the famous Elephant Bar (just like Jackie O. did when she visited as First Lady in 1967 and of course I had to order her drink, the Femme Fatale), and finally landed at the National Museum for a traditional Khmer dance show (which surprisingly held both kids attention for the whole hour). We headed to bed satisfied with our attack on Phenom Penh, ready to begin our trek to the islands the following day. Let the adventures continue!
- Hours: 0800 – 1100; 1400 – 1700
- Admission: $10/Adult, Children 6 and under are free
Royal Palace Tip: Dress Modestly with shoulders and knees covered.
- Hours: 0700 – 1130 and 1400 – 1730
- Admission: Adults: $8 with audio ($5 without audio); Children 10-18yo: $6 with audio ($3 without audio); Children under 10yo are free
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Tip: Museum is mostly outdoors with buildings that you can enter and exit at your own pace. We highly recommend the audio tour (without it you’d miss so much). If you are short on time or have children with shorter attention spans listen to the most important portions of the audio tour (these will be the numbers that are in red in the pamphlet you receive when you purchase your tickets).
- Hours: 0630 – 1700
- Admission: Free
- Hours: 0730 – 1730
- Admission: $6 (includes headset for audio tour); Children were free
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek Tip: Red numbers are suggested on the audio tour pamphlet for visitors with limited time (or children with shorter attention spans in our case).
- Hours: 1100 – 1930
- Hours: Happy Hour 1600 – 2100
- Admission: Drinks half off during happy hour (cocktails ~$7usd/each)
- Hours: $25/Adult; Free/Kids
- Admission: Seating within sections is not allocated.
[ D A Y • 6 ] Phnom Penh → Sihanoukville → Koh Rong Samloem
Domestic flights in Cambodia don’t seem to be nearly as inexpensive as those in neighboring countries, so we opted to hit the road and drive from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville to then take the ferry to Koh Rong Samloem (I had no idea what a wild ride we were in for when I arranged our driver for this day – very nice, but so aggressive).
After about an hour on the ferry we finally got our toes in the warm sand and settled into Sol Beach Resort. It was a bit of extra effort to get to the island, but it was another great example how a bit of additional work can make a huge difference. We were met with a beautiful white beach, an amazing sunset, and the laid back vibe we had been looking for at the end of our trip. Oh and free “welcome massages!” Pretty sure Penny enjoyed hers the most (I feel like this set the bar really high for future holiday expectations!).
[ D A Y • 7 ] Koh Rong Samloem: Saracen Bay, Lazy Beach
We slept in a bit and then spent the rest of the day taking it easy and enjoying the white sand, clear water, and abandoned beaches. With no internet and little cell service it was amazing to block out the outside world and focus on nothing but playing with the kids. Koh Rong Samloem, we approve!
Beach Tip: Make sure to trek to Lazy Beach for a bit to enjoy a bit more surf, clear warm waters and (for the most part) an abandoned beach. You’ll have to walk through sand and even a little through the jungle when coming from the main tourist spot (Saracen Bay), but getting a bit off the beaten path (even in the islands) is 100% worth it. There is a small resort here which has a restaurant and bar available. Grab a drink and lunch and relax! This place is paradise!
[ D A Y • 8 ] Koh Rong Samloem → Sihanoukville → Siem Reap: Made in Cambodia Market, Siem Reap Art Market, Pub Street
We left the island life behind and ferried back to Sihanoukville. In typical fashion the ferry was 45min late, but thankfully I had learned my lesson re: “island time” in Thailand and had budgeted for what seems like the inevitable tardiness. Upon arriving on shore, we tuk tuked to the airport to fly back to Siem Reap before leaving for Tokyo the following morning. We survived the flight with lots of window stickers from DAISO (the Japanese dollar store equivalent) and landed in Siem Reap 45min after take off.
Although this flight was a bit more expensive compared to the other domestic flights we have taken the drive time would have been ~9hours, so it was worth the extra $ for sure. We checked into our hotel, Wheel Garden Residence ($23/night!), and struck up a conversation with a family that was moving from Tanzania back to Canada – spending several months traveling full-time in the interim (ahhh…full-time travel…my dream!).
We swapped travel stories at the pool over happy hour and then left to explore the many markets of Siem Reap, where we snagged a few water color paintings as a last minute souvenir. Early bedtime for the kids before another early wake up for the long flights home in the AM. W’re really going to miss Cambodia.
Wheel Garden Residence was a great budget hotel option for the night before we flew out. It has a great little pool and outside restaurant and right outside the walls is an authentic Cambodian neighborhood street complete with street market and some very cool little shops.
Ferry Tip: Make sure to factor in “island time” when thinking about transfers. All of our ferry/speed boast transfers to date (Thailand, Bali, Cambodia) have all run behind schedule. The tardiness seems inevitable.
- Hours: 1200 – 2200
- Admission: Free
- Hours: 1200 – 1300
- Admission: Free
- Hours: 1200 – 2400
- Admission: Free
[ D A Y • 9 ] Siem Reap → Kuala Lumpur → Tokyo
Last morning of our trip we beat the sun by getting up extra early to tuk tuk to Siem Reap to catch our first flight of the day. Heading home is always a bittersweet feeling. On one hand it’s nice to feel a bit more stability and routine coming back into the picture, but there’s also a big part of us that misses the excitement that comes along with travel. These are the days I find myself yearning for the opportunity to travel full-time…maybe one day.
Upon arriving at the airport in Siem Reap we checked in and then headed to the Priority Pass lounge to spend some time before hopping our Air Asia flight to KL. Gorgeous lounge with a bit of mid-century mod feel and great food! Our flight from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur was pretty uneventful, but the flight from KL to Tokyo…yeah…different story.
It’s becoming more and more clear that any time we take a flight around 1400/1430 it never seems to pan out too terribly well. Penny is just a mess at that time with no nap and no matter how prepared we seem to be it’s just not a good time for anyone because of it. Anyway, 50% of the flight (like the last time we flew this flight KL to Tokyo) was miserable before she finally exhausted herself and passed out. We landed in Tokyo, scooped up our bags, flew through customs to beeline it for the train home (All in less than 30min! Japan excels when it comes to efficiency.). I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia, but despite its tarnished history we were happy to find a country healing – its people incredibly friendly and kind, its culture unique, and its geography beautiful. Siem Reap, in particular, is definitely high on the list of our favorite cities. Cambodia, thank you for your hospitality. Chuob knea pel kraoy (see you later)!