A 5am wake up, a 10 hour journey and a notoriously corrupt border crossing bought us to the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap equals Angkor Wat. Plain and simple… Siem Reap is the gate way to this world wonder and is the reason why 99% of tourists come to Siem Reap.
We had to say an early goodbye to our wonderful friends, Elliot, Catherine and their 3 kids in Bangkok and board a bus for the long journey to Siem Reap. Being a hotspot for tourism, flights from anywhere to Siem Reap are rather expensive and way out of a family backpackers budget so our only option was the bus trip. The land border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia at the Poipet crossing has gained legendary status among backpackers as notoriously complicated, corrupt and even a bit scary. With this in mind I tried to read every blog post ever written about this crossing and get every piece of information I could. With corrupt officials, bus changes, rip off artists and scammers at every turn, some may say…. what the heck are you thinking doing this with 4 kids and trust me I asked myself the same question many times on the 6 hour ride to the border. Luckily I found a relatively new bus company which offered a complete service all the way from Bangkok to Siem Reap without the need to change buses or take any taxis. Perfect…. 6 seats please!!! With our transport sorted and armed with everything we needed for the border crossing we set off.
Of all the countries on our “to do” list, Cambodia was low on the list. Angkor Wat was a big draw card for me but other than that we had pretty low expectations of Cambodia. We didn’t know what to expect from Siem Reap and too be honest, no one was all that excited about leaving Thailand. So after a 10 hour trip and despite all the reports to the contrary, a relativity painless border crossing where we only got asked for extra money once but refused, you can imagine our surprise when we arrived in Siem Reap and it was fantastic!!!
A town built solely around the Angkor Wat tourist trade, it was lively, fun and had a great buzz. A party town…. yes, but with a family friendly vibe. We had great luck in booking a brand new guesthouse in the Wat Damnak area as when we showed up, the owner informed us that Agoda had made a mistake and the guesthouse wasn’t actually open for business yet. As my heart sank thinking that we would have to traipse around town looking for a place to stay, he informed us that he only had 2 luxury suites available so would we mind having these instead of the 6 man bunkhouse I had originally booked. Ummmm no thanks… that will cost a fortune. “Oh no Miss, you have them for the same price as the bunk house!!!” Well OKKKKKK then. So here we were in a town which we thought would be stink but was actually awesome, in 2 luxury suites in a guesthouse with no other guests….. Siem Reap, it had only been 1 hour but we loved you already!!!
I realised early on that in fact I was the only one brimming with excitement over the impending visit to Angkor Wat. Understandably the kids were unenthused after being “templed out” in Thailand and unbelievably Carl hadn’t even heard of Angkor Wat before we started planning this adventure. Another factor that was hindering my efforts at getting them all as excited as I was, was the heat. Siem Reap had turned up the temperature… not just with the great atmosphere but it was hot, hot, hot. We made the decision that we would just buy a 1 day pass to the Angkor Wat temples, choose the biggest and best and do it all in 1 big hit. The sun rising over the great temples is a sight to behold but wrangling our 4 kids out of bed at 4am and then listening to them whinge, moan, fight, argue and cry while I tried to ignore them and pretend they weren’t mine just didn’t sound like a great idea. So in the end we decided that we would give every other visitor the peace and serenity of the early morning view and keep our kids at home until after sunrise.
Hiring a tuk tuk driver for the day meant we had the freedom to go to the temples we wanted and spend as much time as we liked at each place. The new Angkor Wat Tourist center is a fantastic place. Its the place where you go to buy your 1, 2 or 3 day pass. Its big, clean and very efficient. With approx 7000 visitors a day, queuing to get your ticket could be a complete nightmare but Siem Reap have done a great job by separating ticket counters into 1, 2 or 3 day passes. We only waited for approx 5 mins in a fast moving line until we reached the helpful, friendly attendant. We got free child passes for the 3 boys and paid $80US for 3 adult passes. A quick photo was taken and our own personal Angkor Wat passes were printed out. Within the tourist center their is also a museum but having already got the kids to do Angkor Wat research, we gave the museum a miss.
Angkor Wat is the worlds largest religious monument and the whole complex covers about 400 acres. Funnily enough it was originally constructed in the 12th century as a Hindu temple but gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple by the late 12th century. The main Angkor Wat temple is surrounded by a 3.6 km long moat. Wanting to seize the moment and keep the kids as interested as possible we decided that Angkor Wat would be our first stop. As we drove along side the moat, I could feel my levels of excitement building. The whole family knew that this was my thing!!! No one else was as excited as me, no one else cared as much as me and when we finally rounded the corner and the temple came into view…. I cried!!! Yes we had arrived with 1000s of other people, yes it was early in the day and stinking hot, but I didn’t care. There was MY Angkor Wat, standing in all her glory and even the kids had summoned up some excitement and joined in my triumph at getting us all to one of the great 7 wonders of the world.
The 4 most visited and popular temples were on our hit list for the day. Having spent most of the morning and most of the first GoPro battery at Angkor Wat, our second temple of the morning was Bayon, the temple of faces. Its much smaller than Angkor Wat but just as impressive. By this time the kids inner Indiana Joneses had emerged and they were off out of the tuk tuk, racing up the stairs and ready to explore. In every direction, smiling serene Buddha faces jut out of the many stone towers. We had come prepared, like all good parents do, with a bag of lollipops ready to bribe and reward the kids throughout the day. While I distracted the kids, Carl hid some lollipops in the stonewalls around us then looked totally bewildered when he held one up and announced that he had just found it. As you can imagine, the kids quickly hunted down some more lollipops and were totally impressed that 900 year old temple ruins had lollipops hidden in the stone. Not sure if its totally PC to have lollipop treasure hunts in the ruins of such important religious structures but we had a great time and I’m pretty sure those Buddha faces were smiling down at us too!!!
Another couple of smaller and less touristy temples gave us the chance to have a few games of hide n seek which the kids loved and also gave us some shade from the relentless heat so we could enjoy a picnic lunch. Our afternoon was spent at possibly the most well known of the Temples, Ta Prohm, more commonly known as the “Tomb Raider” temple. Although none of us have actually watched Tomb Raider, we convinced the kids that it was a legendary temple full of Hollywood style treasures and magic. They were instantly hooked!!! Amazing is an understatement, mind blowing doesn’t even come close. The temple, the stone, the jungle….. just WOW. Although Ta Prohm is undergoing some extensive restoration work over the next few years, the presence of cranes, scaffolding and workers didn’t detract from the experience. In fact it gave us the chance to see how some of these huge stones and rocks were originally put together 900 years ago. A tongue and groove type arrangement without any modern day materials and its pleasing to see that it is getting restored in much the same way. Without a doubt, Ta Phrom was a firm favorite with the kids, swinging from the trees, climbing up the stones and exploring vast corridors was right up their alley. My smile couldn’t have been any wider.
So Angkor Wat with kids??? Hell Yes!!! It was a day filled with wonder and excitment, heat and exhaustion, tears and smiles. Im so grateful that I shared this with my beautiful family but even more grateful that they let me have MY Angkor Wat. Even though they may have been faking their enthesuim at certain points, they did this for my benefit. They knew this was my thing and they made a huge effort to let me have it just like it was in my dreams. I will always remember our special day at the temples but more importantly I will remember the empathy that the kids showed in trying to make it as special as possible for me. x
A day of cooling off and resting was called for after Angkor Wat and although we didn’t have a pool at our guesthouse, the place next door did and all we had to do was buy a drink and BOOM…. free swimming all day!!! Being in Cambodia, we had spoken a lot about the conflict of 40 years ago, so we decided that a visit to the war memorial museum was a must. An outside museum housing 100s of war relics and memorabilia, including aircraft, tanks and guns. A special feature of this museum is that all the tour guides that work there have been personally affected by the war and the Kymher Rouge. Our guide was only 14 when the Kymher Rouge marched into Phnom Pehn and took control. He was home alone and forced out into the streets where he was then send 100s of kilometers away to work in the rice fields. To this day he still has no idea what happened to his Brother, Father and Grandfather who he has never seen again. Unfortunately this is not an isolated story in Cambodia, everyone has a story to tell about that terrible time. The kids spent some time listening to our guide but then they were off playing and climbing on all the relics. We spent the whole afternoon at the museum and enjoyed our time there.
We spent a total of 5 days in Siem Reap and came away feeling so blessed and also excited. We had seen the best and the worst of mankind. We felt a little embarrassed with ourselves for having such low expectations and now wanted to shout it from the rooftops… SEIM REAP IS AWESOME!!!
From the temples to Pub Street, the war museum to free fanta, Siem Reap had something for everyone. Our memories of Siem Reap are nothing but positive and I know that the sunrise over Angkor Wat is still waiting to dazzle Carl and I on a future trip without the kids. Cant Wait!!! x