We’re re-sharing this fabulous series, Cambodia with kids, originally posted on Trekaroo in 2012.
Looming serpent heads, towering ancient stone walls, the steepest set of stairs ready to be raced up by two rambunctious boys, monster trees eating up a temple, and tales of gods and demons locked in battle. This is what our 8 and 5 year old boys will remember most about the temples of Angkor Archeological Park.
November to March is the best time to visit Cambodia.
…Avoid crowds between May to October. From one mom to another, we could not have pulled off such an amazing trip without the help of Journey’s Within.
Exploring Angkor Wat with Kids
Never mind that Angkor Wat and the other hundreds of temples that make up the Angkor Archeological Park is a UNESCO’s world heritage site covering an area of almost 400 square kilometers. Never mind that these ruins were once home to the largest pre-industrialized cities in the world far exceeding the population of London during the same time period. The most famous of these magnificent remains of the powerful Khemer Empire of the 9th-15th century are Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom with it’s many faced Bayon Temple.
When visiting Angkor Archeological Park with kids or without them, there are three temples you must not miss. The large and magnificent Angkor Wat, the many faced Bayon Temple in the walled city of Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, the temple that has been consumed by strangler trees, also made famous by the movie Tomb Raider. Each of these temples are intriguing for kids in different ways. With young kids, I would not recommend visiting more than one large temple or two small temples in a single day. Also, take advantage of your children’s early wake up time and get a head start to the day to beat the heat and the crowds.
Hiring an English-speaking guide is easy. I wouldn’t even consider visiting the temples without one if you have children of any age. Few adults would have the patience to look up each detail in a guide book and to read about it while navigating the sometimes expansive ruins in the heat, much less kids and teens with short attention spans.
A well-trained guide will greatly enhance your experience of the temples, sharing with you historical and mythical stories enveloping the temple ruins and it’s many statues and carvings. All guides have to go through a year of training to learn about the history of each temple. They also take a series of tests to become qualified guides. During high season, it’s highly advisable to book your guide ahead of time to avoid being disappointed with one who isn’t very experienced. While guides can be booked through the tourism office on Pokambor Avenue, the best source of referrals for guides is from your hotel or guesthouse. The folks at Journey’s Within Tour Company have contacts with guides who are experienced with working with families. However, we found that with our young boys (8 and 5), we still needed to do some ”translation” to draw in our boys’ attention. Sorry, no Junior Ranger program here. A guide costs about $20 a day (excluding transportation and tips) and will gladly tailor your tour of the temples according to your interests.
To visit Angkor Archeological Park, tickets can be purchased at the front gate.
Trekaroo Trip to Cambodia and Thailand
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The largest temple in the park is Angkor Wat, built in the 12th Century by King Suryavarman II as his state temple and capital city. It is the largest ruin remaining in the complex and is a great first stop because this Hindu temple first dedicated to the god Vishnu has many well-preserved carvings that depict many stories from Hindu mythology. Our kids were fascinated by the stories our guide told about the gods and demons teaming up to churn up the sea of milk. They looked apprehensively at the wall depicting the various punishments of hell promised upon people guilty of committing various offenses. Many of the symbols we first encountered at Angkor Wat were repeated in the other temples throughout the park and the boys were slowly able to see the repetition and identify different symbols.
This large temple consists of 3 levels and between each was an incredibly steep set of stairs that our boys had a great time clambering up. If you have kids younger than 4, you’ll have to keep a very close eye on them. As we got higher, so did the sun in the sky. By late morning, we made it up to the courtyard at the base of the final and highest tower. Unfortunately, we discovered that kids under 12 aren’t allowed up to the main tower because the stairs leading up there are ridiculously steep. Those with a fear of heights were sitting out too. There was just a little shade in the courtyard that our boys huddled under while waiting for mom and dad to take turns to climb to the top. Make sure to bring along a lot of water and snacks your kids can enjoy while they wait at the foot of the main tower.
At dinner that night, we realized that this was the first time our boys were encountering a different set of beliefs around life, divinity, and after life from what our family has shared with them since they were little. It lead to some very interesting questions from the kids as we debriefed the stories they had heard from the day.
To get a bird’s eye view of the grandeur of Angkor Wat, couple your visit with a ride in the Angkor Balloon (about 1km away). This large helium filled balloon lifted us about 200m above the ground for about 10 minutes. Our boys were thrilled by the experience because they felt like they were in the Pixar movie UP! Truth be told, I might have been even more thrilled myself. We went on the balloon in the morning and the view was rather hazy, so I recommend riding the balloon in the afternoon or at sunset when the air is usually clearer. This bird’s eye view of the land we were about to explore for the next 5 days was a wonderful way to begin our Cambodian adventure. Padi fields and atap huts juxtaposed against grand old temples filled the horizon as far as the eye could see. We couldn’t help being excited. Unfortunately, our cameras couldn’t quite capture the essence of moment.
The Angkor Balloon
Reservations recommended if you’d like to ride at sunrise or sunset.
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Bayon Temple in the Walled City of Angkor Thom
Bayon Temple is truly a sight to behold. Built around 1190AD by King Jayavarman VII, Bayon is a Buddhist temple which includes elements of Hindu cosmology. What is most striking about the temple is it’s tightly weaved series of 51 towers each carved with four huge faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. In addition, the temple has an extraordinary collection of bas-relief scenes of legendary and historical events.
This temple was intriguing for our kids because of the many chambers they could climb in and out of. If it had not been so crowded, it would have been a fantastic place to play hide and seek. Fortunately, the looming faces weren’t scary looking. Some even wore friendly smiles. Our 8 year old found the temple inspiring for his budding interest in photography, while our 5 year old had fun climbing up and down the different blocks of stone. He seemed more intrigued by this stone jungle gym than checking out the different bas-relief scenes. Bayon is pretty large and was very crowded when we visited, so keeping a close eye on your kids is a must.
For the kids, the highlight of our visit was taking an elephant ride around Bayon Temple which costs $10 per person. The moment the boys saw the huge elephant meandering gracefully around the temple grounds, they perked up with great excitement. Getting on the elephant was easy as there were platforms built up into the trees where passengers climb up to. The elephant walks right by to pick up passengers. A small step on for mom and dad, and a large step for the kiddos and we seated ourselves comfortable on the bench strapped to the elephant. All 5 of us, including baby in a carrier got up onto one great beast. The boys were quite beside themselves from the whole experience. I was thankful for the narrow metal bar across our laps that was just about secure enough to keep a 5 and 8 year from falling off. I had to remind myself that ski lifts aren’t much safer. It was a fun way to see Bayon Temple from a little distance and appreciate the towers of many faces from many different angles. A walk around its perimeter would have been way too much for little feet, so we were glad to hitch a ride with our big footed friend.
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Our whole family agreed that our favorite temple was Ta Prohm, a temple famous less for it’s carvings and more for the large strangler trees that have literally consumed the temple. We all marveled at how impossible it was to tell whether the stone walls of the temple are holding up the trees or the trees are supporting the fragile structure of the temple. What a fascinating demonstration of the interconnectedness of man and nature!
The ambiance of Ta Prohm is truly unique. The massive tree roots draping over the temple walls like slithering tentacles of a giant octopus add an eerie feeling to this cavernous one story temple. It’s a scene right out of a movie and every tour guide never failed to remind you that Angelina Jolie ran through this temple in one of the scenes in the movie Tomb Raider. In the central tower was a room with many holes the size of golf balls once filled with huge rubies, sapphires and giant pearls. It once housed a golden statue of the king’s mother. It was this tower that truly captured the imagination of our boys who readily stuck their fingers into every hole scooping around for hidden treasure.
As a family, we were simply fascinated by this temple. It was the perfect illustration of the force that nature’s patient persistence can exert on what humans might otherwise deem immovable! The boys eyes were twinkling with curiosity as they ducked excitedly around corners to find massive vines at Ta Prohm splitting huge stones in two and roots spilling over temple ramparts like oozing lava.
As you leave this temple, you’ll be approached by local children trying to sell you all sorts of souvenirs. It was challenging to process this with our children. Our guide advised us not to encourage these children because sometimes they get exploited or are encouraged to leave school if they can earn a living selling trinkets. Be ready to have conversations with your kids about the poverty they will undoubtedly encounter in a very tangible way.
Lead image by Bigstock.
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