Is Cambodia a Family-Friendly Destination?
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Cambodia is an increasingly popular Southeast Asian travel destination, and for good reason: It’s compact, affordable and there are a variety of experiences to enjoy. But it’s not as developed as neighboring Thailand or Vietnam. How does all this stack up for family travelers? Is the effort-to-reward ratio in parents’ favor? We spoke to family travelers and foreign residents of Cambodia to get the lowdown on what is and isn’t so kid- and family-friendly in the country.
Getting to Cambodia
Cambodia has two major international airports, in the capital Phnom Penh (PNH) and in Siem Reap (REP, near Angkor Wat). Most long-haul travelers will need to transit through another Asian hub first, such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, and then reach Cambodia. (TPG has tips for flying to Asia in first class and business class from the US.)
Look to airlines like Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, EVA, ANA, United, Korean Air, Asiana, AirAsia (a local low-cost carrier), Bangkok Airways, Hong Kong Airlines, Qatar, China Easter, China Southern, Air China, Qatar and Delta for your trip to Cambodia.
For getting around the cities, tuk-tuks (a three-wheel taxi) are the most convenient, but be warned that they come with hazards (as is also outlined here). British couple Hazel and Richard live in Phnom Penh with their three kids aged between the ages of 2 and 6. They say they regularly see or hear of accidents involving tuk-tuks that result in injuries. Bag and cellphone snatching from tuk-tuks is also common, so travel with these items out of sight. Make sure you have mobile data capability on your cellphone so you can use apps such as Grab or PassApp to book a ride.
Cambodia is not a geographically large area, so you can see a lot in a week or two by car. One of the easiest ways to travel around the country is to hire a car or van and driver. These can be arranged through your hotel. Many roads outside cities are unpaved, so having a comfortable private car makes the experience more enjoyable.
Domestic flights are also a convenient option if you’re short on time. American Devorah Lev-Tov traveled to Cambodia with her husband and 3-year-old son. They were originally scheduled on a Cambodia Bayon flight from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, but this was canceled without explanation or assistance. They ended up taking a JC Airlines flight instead, which was a positive experience.
It’s also possible to use long-distance buses, but these aren’t very kid-friendly. Overnight buses, in particular, should be avoided: These can be cramped, hot and make too few toilet breaks. It’s worth noting that Cambodia does have a good rail network that connects major points of interest. While you can get up and move around, unlike on a bus, there are frequent delays.
A fun way to travel between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is by ferry on Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The ferries leave early in the morning from both cities. The rides are scenic and a refreshing change from sitting on a bus or train.
The Ancient Ruins (aka, Angkor Wat)
Family travelers should consider a few things before they go. Angkor is massive and spreads much further than just Angkor Wat (“wat” means temple in Khmer). A highlight is exploring the outer temples which have fewer visitors. You can do this by car, taxi, tuk-tuk or bike (many Siem Reap hotels rent these). But young kids (or anyone else for that matter) run the risk of getting “templed out” after a while. More than anywhere in the country, when visiting Angkor it’s important to weigh your family’s interests against their physical abilities. While you can buy a seven-day pass to explore every corner of the ruins, a one- or three-day pass might be a better option for families.
There are many other things to do in and around Siem Reap to entertain the kids: the Cambodian Cultural Village, with dance and cultural shows; Senteurs d’Angkor, which produces soaps and incense; the Angkor Silk Farm, which has free guided tours; and the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Diversity, which runs interesting tours and has well-cared-for animals.
Kayaking on the Tonle Sap is also a great activity for older kids. Canadian Nancy Besharah, who traveled to Cambodia with her husband and two kids aged 10 and 12, said kayaking on the Tonle Sap was the highlight of their trip.
Siem Reap is a major tourism hub, thanks to Angkor Wat, so there are many great places to stay. These range from simple guesthouses to charming boutique hotels to luxurious resorts. Points hotels include the Park Hyatt Siem Reap (from 12k World of Hyatt points per night), Le Meridien Angkor (Marriott Category 3, from 17.5k points per night) and the Courtyard Siem Reap Resort (Marriott Category 2, from 12.5k points per night).
The Surprising Capital City
Some older guides still caution against Phnom Penh as an unsafe, post-conflict city that you shouldn’t dream of stepping out in after dark. These warnings should be taken with a huge handful of salt in 2019. Cambodia is a developing country, but the capital is a (perhaps) surprisingly pleasant and chilled-out place.
Walking along the riverfront by the Royal Palace in the early evening, cruising on the Mekong or Tonle rivers and visiting temples and local markets are all family-friendly activities in Phnom Penh. The Bophana Audiovisual Center is another fun place that will keep both older kids, teens and parents happy: It archives and plays Khmer films, and holds weekly Saturday movie nights.
After dark, from about 7pm, the “adult industry” becomes more visible, especially outside the central city. Massage parlors and clubs selling “extra” services are abundant. How much you are willing to expose your kids to and how you explain the situation is a personal decision for parents to make, but it’s likely that younger kids won’t understand the reality of what they see. Visitors who have spent time in other Southeast Asian cities, such as Bangkok, may not be fazed by this, and earlier in the night, there are no real safety concerns beyond that of most cities. If you want to take your kids out for dinner, don’t be afraid to do so. Locals and foreign residents recommend heading home before 10pm.
For a capital city, you’ll be disappointed to learn that there aren’t any points hotels in Phnom Penh. There are, however, plenty of midrange and boutique hotels suitable for families. Look for hotels with swimming pools to cool off. Book through Hotels.com/Venture with your Capital One Ventures Reward Credit Card to earn 10x miles per dollar spent (ends Jan. 31, 2020), or via Chase’s travel portal, where you can either pay with a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn points or pay with Ultimate Rewards points.
Although Cambodia is not known as a beach destination to the extent of neighboring Thailand, there are decent beaches. Kep (near Kampot) and the islands off the coast of Sihanoukville are especially lovely.
Kep has laid back beaches with calm waters and no hassles, and the nearby Kep National Park is a delight, with butterflies and jungle walks aplenty. Off Sihanoukville, the islands of Koh Ta Kiev, Koh Russey and Koh Rong Sanloem are highlights, with little to do but swim and play on the beach. Plus, there’s a range of accommodations, from basic beach huts (sans reliable electricity) to luxurious resorts. Several points-accepting high-end hotels are currently under construction in Sihanoukville (Marriott, Le Meridien and InterContinental). However, Sihanoukville itself is not the best family destination — head to the islands nearby instead.
Locals’ Treatment of Children
Khmers tend to love kids and are friendly and helpful, showering kids with attention and even gifts. The flip side is that if they consider your kids “cute,” they might give them too much attention. Hazel and Richard’s kids are blonde and blue-eyed, and are always having their cheeks pinched and kissed; being cuddled, picked up and carried; or having their photos and videos taken. While Hazel knows that these interactions are almost always friendly, the kids tire of them quickly. She recommends stepping in firmly but politely if you feel your kids’ boundaries are being overstepped. Keep an eye out for your kids looking unhappy or uncomfortable, and take their need for space seriously, even if it risks upsetting a well-meaning adult.
Cambodia is a developing country with a tropical climate, so the usual precautions are required: Seek medical advice from a travel doctor before departure, and be careful what you and your kids eat and drink. A particular cause for concern is the risk of dengue fever, which has seen a huge spike in cases since 2017. The disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, and at present there is no widely available vaccine or cure. It’s essential to talk with your doctor about the dengue risk and how to do all you can to avoid being bitten.
Parents can find most things they’d need in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but if you need something specific, bring it from home. For example, you can buy sunscreen and insect repellent, but it can be hard to find exactly the right SPF (or any sunscreens without whitening creams in them), or repellent with your preferred chemical composition. Pharmacies in the cities are well stocked, but they won’t necessarily have the medications your home-country doctor would recommend.
Diapers and formula milk are available in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but if you’re traveling to less-populated areas — even places like Kep, which are quite popular — stock up on supplies in the city. Diaper-changing facilities are few and far between, but high chairs are common in restaurants in the cities. Most restaurants and larger cafés have clean Western-style toilets, but they don’t always have toilet paper, so carry your own tissues or use the provided hose. Outside the cities, squat toilets are the norm.
The family travelers and foreign residents in Cambodia we spoke to all recommended Cambodia as a Southeast Asian destination for families seeking something a little different from the Thai resort experience. It’s a family-friendly place if you understand the challenges of traveling with kids in a developing country.
Are you thinking about visiting another Asian destination with your family? Here are some ideas:
- How to Visit Hong Kong With Kids
- 8 Things Every Teen Should Do in Hong Kong
- 5 Top Chiang Mai Activities Made Family-Friendly
- The Best Ways to Get to Singapore Using Points and Miles
- 3 Ways to Do Singapore on Points
- The Best Destinations in Asia for Families
- 7 Reasons Adventurous Families Should Travel to Singapore
Featured image by IPGGutenbergUKLtd / Getty Images
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