Walk through Angkor Wat and the other temples of Angkor in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province, and you’re transported a thousand years back in time to the ancient Khmer civilization. Both kids and adults are riveted, imagining kings like Javaman the Great or Suryavarman II ruling a vast Khmer empire from Angkor — once the capital city and the largest pre-industrial center of the world from the 11th through 13th centuries. Experiencing the astonishing site makes it apparent why the temples of Angkor are the Seventh Wonder of the World as well as Lonely Planet’s 2015 top worldwide attraction.
While planning our 14-day southeast Asia trip, we were hesitant about flying to Siem Reap for a mere two-day stay. I typically do not like quick stops designed just to see a tourist destination, without getting to know a little of the country and the culture — not to mention, moving six of us from hotel to hotel is no small feat. However, our tour operator was adamant that we add Angkor, and I’m grateful they pushed us to go. Angkor is a destination that will stay with us forever.
Nature has overtaken Angkor’s man-made structures, casting a mystical feel over the temples. This is especially true in Bayon Temple, which feels like a small secret garden; roots and trees growing throughout the structure add to its allure. However, when you climb to the top of a temple and look out, it becomes apparent that the secret garden opens up to a vast complex of more than 1,000 temples, covering 154 square miles. Only then do you realize what an advanced civilization once existed there.
Just to put it in scale, there is more stone used in Angkor than for the pyramids in Egypt. Additionally, the temples tell the fascinating history of the Khmer people, depicted through the intricate carvings that cover the temples.
There is a palpable pain in the recent history of Cambodia. In preparation for the trip, we read many stories, each more heartbreaking than the next. There are plenty that are appropriate for kids, listed on my Cambodia Book List. One beautifully written must-read for adults is In the Shadow of the Banyon by Vaddey Ratner. Also, A Thousand Faces by John Shore is historical fiction that brings the royal past of the temple structure to life. Who doesn’t like a story about royals?
Before our trip we saw a travel medicine doctor for the appropriate vaccinations. We were informed that malaria and dengue fever were not a concern in Siem Reap, so I was surprised to see a large placard in front of the children’s hospital warning of a severe dengue outbreak. We increased our applications of insect repellent and were all fine. There were other practical guidelines for travel in the area that were also important to heed, and our tour operator was very well-versed in the necessary travel precautions.
As a major tourist destination, Siem Reap offers plenty of nice hotels. We stayed at the Belmond Orient Express properties in Siem Reap and, later, in Luang Prabang, Laos. They were luxurious without being over the top.
The priority for us was to find hotels with rooms that could accommodate three people so the six of us could split into two rooms. It wasn’t just the cost, but also the safety of having young kids stay without an adult in a foreign country, as most hotels did not offer connecting rooms.
Angkor is packed with thousands of visitors each day. An experienced local guide who knows how to avoid the crowds, explore the hidden corners and bring the history to life with interesting storytelling is imperative. Although July was hot, it was not unbearable. We prepared for the heat, dressing appropriately, and had no problems. Additionally, each day we took a midday break to swim and rest, which was much needed for all of us.
Knowing that two days packed with historical details might get tiresome for my active kids, I decided to mix in some engaging activities and we started our tour on quads (four-wheel ATVs). After an hour we were covered in red dirt from head to toe. The kids loved it, but it did not make for great family pictures, much to my chagrin. This tour also gave us the opportunity to see the area surrounding the temples, where the poverty was eye-opening.
What’s better than a playful pack of monkeys to keep kids entertained? Our guide led us to troops of rambunctious primates that my kids adored. Honestly, they may remember the monkeys more than the temples.
While there were many adventures available, I valued our guide’s input on which ones were safe. For example, there was a hot air balloon ride that looked idea; however, we were cautioned not to take it due to safety concerns. Sure enough, as I looked into more review sources, I discovered there had been repeated issues. Lesson learned, and I curtailed my web explorations and leaned more heavily on local input.
Even though I have seen extreme poverty before, I was still shocked by the severity of it in Siem Reap. The area, like most of the country, was devastated by years of civil war. It was impossible not to be deeply affected by this.
Luckily, our children’s school had already been involved with Room to Read and Girl Uprising, both powerful organizations doing great work in Cambodia. We used the framework of their efforts to talk with our kids about the issues facing the Cambodians and ways to contribute. Our tour operator was able to arrange a visit to Room to Read’s library. It was important to us to have meaningful experiences as part of our itinerary to deepen the learning and impact for our kids.
Overall, Angkor is a site not to be missed if you are visiting southeast Asia. It was an experience of a lifetime and one my family will remember forever.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Nancy Solomon except where noted.
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