Ta Prohm temple, Siem Reap

Our long summer holidays are about to finish here in South Australia with the children back to school this week, and earlier this month we took a family holiday to Cambodia. Some blog readers may recall that we went on a holiday to Vietnam last January, which we absolutely loved. Our flight back from Vietnam stopped over for an hour in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and this was so tantalisingly close to the ancient Angkor Wat it made me think about going back to that region and exploring the jungle temples that it's famous for.

We started our holiday in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Cambodia is very much a developing Asian country - far behind its neighbours Vietnam and Thailand due to the civil war and reign of terror that Pol Pot instigated in the 1970's. There is a lot of investment now flowing in from neighbouring countries, such as China, South Korea and Malaysia, and Phnom Penh is a good representation of the crossroads that the country is at. Towers of glass and steel are going up at a rapid rate next to old French Colonial traditional dwellings and shops, street markets and ageing infrastructure. The typical tangle of electrical wires running overhead, the open sewers in some sections of the city (to be fair, these are reasonably hidden from view - our Tuk Tuk took a short cut one day which was fairly eye opening), the small rubbish piles in the street waiting to be collected, the snarls of traffic and motorbikes with multiple passengers clinging on and interesting things being carried on them...all scenes that are typically Asian- city chaotic, although this is a far smaller capital city than places like Bangkok or Saigon (the population is around 1.5 Million).

Golden Buddha in Wat Phnom

We found it difficult to walk anywhere from our hotel with the children - as many visitors to Asian cities in this region will know, road rules are fairly loose (they will drive down the wrong side of the road, mount footpaths and not necessarily stop at red lights) and with young children you risk being knocked down if you loose your nerve crossing the road (you have to step out into the traffic, moving slowly at a steady pace and keeping eye contact with oncoming drivers and scooters who will slow down and drive around you. If you stop, or run, you risk being hit). Coupled with the fact that many footpaths end up blocked by cars parking on them so that you have to walk out into the street, we instead mostly used Tuk Tuks when out and about to get to our destination. They're little motorbikes with carriages on the back that can weave in and out of traffic and therefore travel faster than cars which can get stuck in the lengthy traffic jams.

outside the coronation pavilion at the Royal Palace, no photos are allowed inside of the richly decorated interior, throne and ceiling depicting the story of Cambodia

We had two full days in Phnom Penh, and our first day we spent touring the Royal Palace complex, which has a lot of Thai style pagoda structures (high pitched roofs adorned with glittering gold tiles) in the manicured grounds encompassing museums, coronation halls, religious temples (the Cambodians are Buddhist) and the famous Silver Pagoda (the floor is made of silver and it contains a buddha encrusted with diamonds). The 65 year old bachelor King lives at the palace with his mother, the Dowager Queen. His father was incredibly popular, and you still see portraits of the older king displayed, however the current king seems to have generated a somewhat more ambivalent attitude, his passion was ballet dancing which he did professionally in Europe in his youth , and he doesn't seem to be so in touch with the people.

Royal palace, looking toward the pavilion from where the King addresses the crowds in the square outside the palace walls on state occasions.

We visited Wat Phnom, which was the founding temple of Phnom Penh located in the middle of the city at the top of a man made hill. Founded in the 14th Century it has monkeys swinging in the trees around it and the scent of incense wafting over all. There are many Buddha statues, with offerings left at his feet of food, money and incense. The Cambodians are very welcoming of the mainland Chinese tourists, who make up the vast bulk of their tourism market, and have pragmatically put in Buddhas that they called "Chinese Buddha", because the Chinese worship Buddha in a slightly different manner.  Buddha is adorned in modern clothing, jewellery and lipstick, and some of them had interesting rainbow coloured LED light displays flashing behind his head. It's a slightly disconcerting clash of old and new, of consumerism and humility before a deity.

Chinese Buddha, who looked like he'd had a hard night out on the town to me, and yes, he is wearing a Louis Vuitton necklace gangsta style...

We visited the tiny National Museum, which houses may of the old statues and artefacts from temples that still remain in the country (looting has been a huge problem for centuries), we visited the Russian Market (large clothing and fresh food market crammed with factory overruns and fake designer goods as well as traditional Cambodian handicrafts), and spent the afternoons when the heat would become more intense by the pool at our French Colonial hotel under the shade of the palms.

National Museum courtyard

We next travelled up to Siem Reap, which was the main purpose of our trip, to see the Unesco World Heritage listed temples in the region. Siem Reap is the closest town to the temples, which lie in jungle a short distance away. This is the jewel in the crown of Cambodia, and they are justifiably proud of the temples. Siem Reap is far more developed than Phnom Penh for the tourist market, most of whom fly in and out on direct flights and do not visit the rest of the country, and it is quite a different experience.

having a "Dr Fish" foot massage in the old town after a day trekking in the temples. The fish nibble at your feet

The old town is very clean with stall holders hosing down the footpaths every morning, it's pedestrian friendly, and lined with cafes that would look at home in any western city in the world. I was at one point actually served my drink in a mason jar while sitting on a Tolix chair which was a little disconcerting, but clearly the influence of Pinterest has gone a long way. The markets sell similar goods to those in the capital, however price wise it was far more expensive (relatively speaking - Cambodia is a cheap travel destination in general). Everything is paid in US dollars in Cambodia, and the starting price in Phnom Penh was always $5 (then you begin to bargain), but in Siem Reap it was all a starting price of $10.

inside Angkor Wat

We ate our best meals of the trip in Siem Reap, at two restaurants overlooking the river that served excellent Asian food (with prices to match - these places were cheap by our standards of eating out at home, however compared to the cost of meals in the main food street in the town, Pub Street, they were fairly expensive). The main Khmer national dishes are Loc Lac (a mild beef curry which originated in Vietnam, but has been claimed as Khmer for 50 years, much like pavlova is contested between the New Zealanders and Aussies), and Amok (fish or chicken poached in coconut milk in a banana leaf with some spices). Many of the other things on menus are more recognisable as being purely Thai or Vietnamese in origin, which fits with the Khmer people being at various times controlled by the Thai and Vietnamese, and there are a lot of French pastries and baguettes on offer, showing the influence that French colonisation still has in the country. Siem Reap is so westernised though, that many of the cafes in the old town serve exclusively western food - I don't think I've ever seen such a concentration of places advertising Wood Fire Pizzas in my life as in Pub Street, and that includes in Italy.

at the top of Bayan, with its may faces

But I've saved the best for last - the Temples. I can't really explain how awe inspiring they are, and the feeling of wonder and discovery that you get on your first viewing. The Temples (there are something like 40 in the immediate vicinity of Siem Reap, with Angkor Wat being the largest and most famous) were built by God Kings from the 11th Century, who worshipped the Hindu faith. Hinduism had spread into Cambodia via trade with India along the coast line, however the temples were built in jungle farther North from the coast (today it takes 5 hours by car to travel from Phnom Penh, so a journey by boat from the coast up the river to Siem Reap would have been lengthy back then).

The scale is absolutely incredible and despite seeing photos, you can't be prepared for the first sight of Angkor Wat rising out of the jungle, surrounded by its perfectly straight, wide man made moat. It's the largest religious structure in the world, exceeding the Vatican or Manchu Pichu, with every surface intricately carved - an 800m long bas relief stretching around the outer edge of the main building depicts battles and scenes from Hindu mythology.

a monk blessing tourists in Angkor Wat

We visited only 5 temples with the children, despite being in Siem Reap for 4 full days. Each temple would take at least an hour, to an hour and a half to explore (Angkor Wat is so large that it took us about 2.5 hours to get through), so most days we picked a couple of the larger and more famous ones and explored them. While it could seem that you'd get a little tired of temples, this is not the case - each one is so different from the other. Our favourite was Bayan, which has strange heads carved into the top of the structure, and layer upon layer of labyrinthine rooms at the base that the children enjoyed exploring. It had probably the best carvings that we saw with elephants, monkeys, fights and parades and religious ceremonies depicted.

this photo gives some idea of the scale - my 6 year old standing under a tree root

Ta Prohm is the one made famous by the movie Tomb Raider, with giant trees growing out of the ruined temple from the time when the temples were abandoned and the jungle left to reclaim them for several centuries. The Elephant terrace's carving was incredible, and I personally loved all the gates into the different temple complexes - rising out of the jungle would be a bridge with an enormous carved stone rail of seven headed snakes being pulled in a tug of war stance by warriors (these were to protect the temples) and an enormous and high gate carved with the head of a deity in a very high stone wall that dwarfed the tuk tuks and cars travelling through underneath.

a view out the back of a Tuk Tuk of an entry gate

Exploring the temples is hot work. It is the dry season during January, but even so temperatures would be in the low 30's and very humid. So pacing ourselves with the children in tow was key - we spent the afternoons swimming at the hotel, and would then wander out into the town for dinner after sundown. Exploring the temples I took wet washcloths from the hotel so that hot children could put them around their necks or wipe down their faces to keep cool, and of course bottles of water (although there are plenty of opportunities to purchase food and drink in the area from stallholders).

Our hotel choice, the Park Hyatt, was a good choice for many reasons - it was well located for a short walk into the Old Town, but it also put on a traditional puppet show, or dance or martial arts display each night during drinks or dinner in the courtyard. My boys in particular were very impressed with the martial arts display and the fact that it was done in such a relaxed manner with informal seating (rather than going to a restaurant where they did that as part of a set 'show' which was commonly offered in the town) worked better for the ages of our children.

Surprisingly, Australians are not as commonly seen in Cambodia as in other Asian countries in the region, and I suspect that it may be because Siem Reap is inland, and not on the coast (Australians do love a Beach destination for holidays in Asia). The majority of tourists are from neighbouring Asian countries (the vast majority coming from Mainland China), the Western tourists, who are a far smaller number, tend to be split between French, Canadian and American. At this stage the supervision of the temples is fairly relaxed - you can walk around and over most of them, without having to stick to set paths unless you're in a very ruined temple where areas may be cordoned off due to potential danger from collapse. I can't imagine that in 50 years time this will be the case, as all the foot traffic, touching of bas reliefs etc will inevitably wear down the temples. The government is also constantly working at restoration projects in various temples, so some areas are out of bounds as they are reconstruction sites.

So, if you're interested in visiting Cambodia, here are some recommendations of places we enjoyed:

Malis in Siem Reap, our best meal of the trip
Chanrey Tree in Siem Reap, the food was also excellent

The "Living Room" at the Park Hyatt, Siem Reap

Phnom Penh - Raffles
Siem Reap - Park Hyatt

We flew direct from Singapore into Phnom Penh on Silk Air. After 3 nights in Phnom Penh we travelled by car with a driver and guide 5 hours to Siem Reap on the main highway (this is single lane both directions, and was finished approximately a year ago, so is new and fairly bump free). This cost approximately US$120. There are flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, however they are operated by Cambodian based airlines, who have very poor compliance records (no accidents, however they are all newer operators post 2010). For this reason we decided driving was safer. There are direct international flights in and out of Siem Reap should you not wish to visit Phnom Penh, and our return flight was direct from Siem Reap to Singapore on Silk Air.

Travel with children:
I'd say that our youngest child, who is now 6, was about the minimum age you'd want to take children to Siem Reap. It's extremely difficult to explore the temples if you're not able bodied - the paths and floors are uneven, there's a lot of climbing up incredibly steep steps, a lack of balustrades, and vast distances to walk. Trying to use a stroller would be impossible, and most very young children would find the walking and climbing hard going in the heat.  We chose not to use tour guides, as we felt our children wouldn't have the patience for it, so we ducked in and out of the temples as we chose, which worked better for us. All three of our children (ages 6,8,11) really enjoyed visiting and exploring the temples and were quite overawed by the scale and age of them, they enjoyed bartering in the markets, and travelling in the tuk tuks. Cambodian people are lovely and very welcoming to children and made a huge fuss of them all, especially our youngest.

I didn't buy anything on this trip (the children bought hats and some t-shirts). The market shopping consists of factory overruns of brand name western goods made in the area, and the fake designer goods found all over Asia (Chanel bags, LV jewellery, scarfs etc). The goods that are local include very well made and delicate basketware (some of which I have seen sold in the Dior home shop in Paris), Cambodian silk scarfs, rather luridly coloured paintings, and carved timber goods. You can buy reproduction antique buddhas and temple bowls etc should you feel inspired to recreate your holiday at home, and at the temples you can purchase rubbings of temple reliefs on rice paper. There are some shops at the base of the Foreign Correspondents Club on the river in Siem Reap that have high quality items for sale, including local pottery, bronze artefacts, and a photography gallery of stunning black and white large format photos that put to shame any of the terrible iphone photos I've included in this post! Generally speaking, I found the best items to be in the shops in the Hotels we stayed at, but I will say that I didn't get a lot of time to explore the shopping in any particular detail.

We really enjoyed visiting Cambodia - it has a fascinating history, and to compare the temples with Western achievements in Architecture at the same period in history shows the incredible artistry and sophistication and wealth of the country at that time and its influence in the region. My only wish is that I had more time to explore more of the temples, however this just means that I'll have to return one day.
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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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