It’s a truth experienced by traveling parents everywhere - no matter how exotic the location or ancient the ruins, kids will rarely share our enthusiasm for temples. Dragging children around centuries-old religious monuments in searing heat while maniacally imploring them to enjoy it will break the most zen parent - our patience escapes us like the sweat that pours down our backs.
Take heart though, as the majestic ancient temples of Angkor in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province are a child explorers’ dream. Once the largest city in the world, its more-than 1000 temples has narrow pathways and steps to climb, hidden rooms to discover and moats and beautiful lakes to cross. Detailed carvings with inscriptions to decipher and the intrigue of a creeping jungle seeking to devour the temples will pique the adventurer in every child.
My six year old daughter Emmie and I spent three days at Angkor on a journey into the centuries old Khmer Kingdom, where ancient Kings worshipped Hindu divinities Shiva and Vishnu and later sought Buddhist enlightenment in temples built throughout centuries by the city’s million inhabitants.
With a few strategies, some distraction and pool-time anticipation we explored, imagined and photographed our way around the ancient city of Angkor, the largest religious site in the world. Here’s how we did it:
A hotel with a pool.
It’s hot in Siem Reap, and scorching at Angkor so you will need a pool to cool off in. Hotels with pools in town are around US$18 a night or if you prefer to stay fancy there are five star hotels in town and on the road to Angkor.
Choose the three day pass.
We bought the three day pass - $US40 for adults, children under 12 free (ticket prices will rise from 1 February 2017) - and took our time. Passes must be used within a week, allowing you to break up your visits with pool days and roaming Siem Reap’s breezy riverside, bustling markets and agonising over whether to taste the fried cockroaches, worms and crickets on every street corner.
Learn before you go.
Share stories of adventure with your children before you start exploring Angkor. With the roots of ancient trees engulfing the temple, Ta Prohm is definitely one for the kids and is where Tomb Raider was filmed - watching it made us so excited to get to the temple and see it for ourselves.
There are many ways to see Angkor - from helicopter flights and luxury tours to hiring pushbikes and riding out and making your own route around the temples. We hired a tuk tuk for the first two days (US$20 per day) and followed the two standard routes that every driver will take you on - you can devise your own itinerary if you like. On our third day we took a car to Angkor Wat, watched the sunrise and wandered around in awe before driving north to Kulen Mountain to swim in an incredible waterfall surrounded by monks, visit the Phnom Kulen temple and the fascinating 1000 Lingas (penis!) River.
Zipline at Flight of the Gibbon
Who would have thought there’d be a zipline in the middle of Angkor? Just a few minutes down a dirt road, Flight of the Gibbon is the perfect distraction to break up your first day of exploring. With Emmie excited about zipping at lunch we planned a full day of sightseeing. After an awesome morning exploring Angkor Thom and the majestic Bayon Temple we zip-lined over the jungle canopy. Emmie loved it so much she went a second time, and afterwards was happy enough to continue until sunset at Phnom Bakheng. It was a big day, but the zipline made it work for us.
Cover up, drink lots of water and buy snacks
Modesty is key, and you’ll be denied entry if you don't show respect by covering your shoulders and legs from the knees up. You can buy water, snacks and lunch outside the temples - James Bond 007 was an especially entertaining cafe owner at Angkor Wat and I enjoyed his fun attitude and nutella pancakes while Emmie played in front of the temple with local kids.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
The ultimate experience and photo opportunity is sunrise over Angkor Wat, reflecting the temple in its pools and lighting up the sky. Take a torch, and depending on the time of year you’ll need to stand to the left or the right of the temple for the best view. You can hire chairs from the nearby stalls for a dollar to sit in while you wait.
Get there early
On the days you’re not at Angkor Wat for sunrise beeline to the temples early and you’ll be rewarded with mostly deserted sites before the heat of the midday sun. Similarly, late in the day most visitors are searching out sunset vantage points and you’ll have the chance to explore almost empty ruins.
Please don't ride elephants
Unfortunately many tourists ride elephants here at Angkor and we ask you to please don’t ride elephants. Instead, seek out elephant sanctuaries where you can spend time with these beautiful creatures like the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri.
Enjoy your time
Traveling with kids doesn’t always go smoothly, and when they’ve had enough it’s often not worth pushing on. Make the most of your time here, enjoy climbing and exploring together and encourage them to appreciate what they can. In our opinion a short experience shared in happiness is worth far more than a long day of tannies!
And while you're in Siem Reap you could help Cambodian children by giving blood at THE Angkor Hospital for Children. You can read about our experience here.
Good luck and have fun.