A visit to Siem Reap would never be complete without a visit to Angkor Archeological Site, but with kids, it’s best to keep your temple visits to just the main attractions. Fortunately, Siem Reap has some other great experiences to offer families that your kids will arguably enjoy more than temple hopping.
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Bantaey Srei Temple and Bantaey Srei Butterfly Center
Getting up close to hundreds of rare butterflies at Bantaey Srei Butterfly Center
Bantaey Srei is about 45 minutes or 16 miles northeast of the main group of temples. Although Bantaey Srei isn’t on our list of must see temples, it’s makes for a fun day trip. On the drive out to Bantaey Srei, you’ll get to see Cambodian village life as you pass simple wood huts on stilts covered in palm leaves. Our children stared wide-eyed through the windows at what looked like a totally different world. There was no end of things to take in – children running around without clothes, women cooking pots of palm sugar down by an open fires, farmers selling bananas and mangos on the road side, families hanging laundry out to dry on a line, whole families piled onto one motorcycle, and water buffalo ploughing padi fields. 45 minutes seemed to whizz right by.
Intricate carvings look like lace at Bantaey Srei Temple
Bantaey Srei, a Hindu temple to the god Shiva is unique because it is built out of red sandstone which lends itself well to intricate carvings. Indeed, the temple walls, pillars and archways looked like lace. It’s a small temple, so while the kids did not find it particularly interesting, they were happy enough with the short time it took to see it. What they did enjoy was the orchestra of landmine victims playing traditional Khmer music on traditional instruments including a leaf! We sat down for 10 minutes to enjoy their music. The boys had lots of questions about why these people were blind and missing various limbs. It opened up a discussion about the sad realities of war.
Traditional Khmer Orchestra of Land Mine Victims
On our way out, we were bombarded by a small army of very persistent children touting their wares. It was the first time our kids got so close to other children who were obviously very poor. After untangling ourselves from the young salesmen, our boys were curious with questions about what and why the children were trying to sell us. As a parent, it was tricky modeling respect and compassion while refusing to pander to the persistent plea from the local children.
On the way back to town, a stop at Bantaey Srey Butterfly Center was the highlight of the day for all of us. Don’t judge this book by it’s cover. It might look rather unassuming, but our short visit was absolutely delightful. For our 3 month old, this was probably the one stop where she could marvel along with the rest of us.
Our 3 month old captivated by a beautiful butterfly resting after emerging from a crysallis
The butterfly garden is home to hundreds of brightly colored butterflies. There were many different varieties that came to flirt with us. But the biggest treat was when our tour guide jumped up in excitement at spotting a black and green female butterfly laying her eggs on a branch right at the eye level of our kids. It was such a special experience we had never experienced anywhere else.
Unusual gold and silver crysallis at Bantaey Srei Butterfly Center
Next, we visited the pupea room where the guide showed us different typesof chrysalis including some that look like gold and silver nuggets. He also opened up the cages where different caterpillars where chowing down on their leaves of choice growing from tiny little worms into big fat colorful caterpillars. Who would have known there are so many different looking caterpillars! On our way out, our guide pointed out a branch where there were several butterflies “resting” from their arduous journey out of their chrysalis. Our 3 month old was transfixed by a large black, white and red butterfly resting peacefully inches from her own awestruck face. It was a truly precious moment!
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Khemer Cooking Class
Khmer Cooking Class at La Tigre de Papier
On a hot afternoon in Siem Reap, it’s nice to be indoors. If you love experiencing cultures through their cuisine, then taking a cooking class can be a lot of fun for the whole family. There are several restaurants that offer cooking classes where a chef takes you on a tour of the Old Market to show you where to purchase the ingredients you’ll need. (Although they say you will purchase the food you’ll be cooking, you actually just walk around the market with your instructor.) We took our class at the Le Tigre de Papier Cooking School on pub street. First, we were asked to pick a traditional appetizer and a main dish that each person would like to prepare. Items on the menu included a few salads like banana blossom salad and spicy shrimp salad. You could also choose to make fresh or fried rolls and a few traditional entrees. There were several things we couldn’t pronounce on the menu, but we decided to go with Amok Fish, Chicken Lok Lac, and Beef with Water Spinach.
The small cooking school was very clean. They were a little obsessed with wrapping everything with plastic cling wrap including every utensil, knife and cutting board that we used. I shudder to think why it was necessary, but was glad that cleanliness was a priority. Our whole family adorned ourselves with aprons and chef hats which looked adorable. Our cooking instructor was a wonderful lady who knew exactly how to get our 8 and 5 year old boys involved. The boys peeled and plucked, while mom and dad cut and chopped everything from cucumbers and carrots to banana flower, water spinach and meat. All the ingredients were very fresh and clean. It was fun for our family to work as a team. Meanwhile, our 3 month old baby hung out in her car seat and enjoyed the constant stream of waitresses from nearby restaurants eager to amuse her.
The traditional Khmer dinner we cooked
After what seemed like a lot of cutting, we finally got to cook up all the food we had prepared. The outcome was a lot of food that unfortunately didn’t taste so good and wasn’t very warm by the time we ate it. Nonetheless, it was a fun way for us to experience Khemer culture as a family. 3 hours was a little too long of a cooking class for young kids, we would have done better to pick two dishes for each adult since the kids couldn’t really work independently. A cooking class doesn’t seem like something a family could pull off with a baby and a 5 year old, but we were pleasantly surprised by how helpful the staff was with our baby and 5 year old who was a little restless about halfway through the class.
Le Tigre de Papier Cooking School
Pub Street, Siem Reap
Reservations: +855 (0)12 265 811
Sojourn Hotel Cooking Class
Classes are $22 per person for a half day class or $35 for the full day class.
Reservations are a must.
Sojourn Boutique Villas
Treak Village Rd, Treak Village Siem Reap
Phone: (+855) 12 923 437
Email: [email protected]
Old Market (Psar Chas)
Like most small towns, the market place is the center of activity. Siem Reap’s Old Market is no different. For our children who buy groceries in supermarkets and occasionally at the farmer’s market, the experience of walking into Old Market was pretty eye-popping. If you make an early morning visit, you’ll probably see a lot more activity, but it will also be more crowded and difficult to navigate the stalls with young kids. When we visited the market, it was in the afternoon and it was a little sleepy, but there was still a lot to see from exotic fruits and vegetables, to live fish swimming around in buckets of water, strange critters, meat hanging on hooks, colorful cakes and desserts.
Communication in English would probably have been a little difficult without our guide, nonetheless, it was fascinating to see all the different things people were selling. The sights, sounds and smells can be overwhelming to your kids, so do prepare them ahead of time for the experience. Remind your young kids to stay close to you and to “touch with their eyes” as we often say in our family. Also, dress your kids in close-toed shoes as there are areas of the market with very wet and dirty floors. You can’t be too afraid of the germs when visiting a developing country, so enjoy the experience of mixing with the locals and just be sure to wash your children’s hands after to keep everyone healthy.
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Ceramics Class at The Khmer Ceramics Center
Ceramics Class at the Khmer Ceramics Center
The Khmer Ceramics Center is a nice place to pick up some beautifully made local pottery, but they also offer ceramics classes that your whole family can enjoy. You can also watch skilled artisans working clay into huge pots. It was such a neat studio. Our 8 year old remembers this experience as one of his favorite in Cambodia. He’s never used a potter’s wheel before and loved working one on one with an experienced artisan to form his first bowl on a foot-powered potter’s wheel. The artisans we worked with had limited English, but they were very patient with us. I don’t think we learned too many skills during this one-hour lesson, but it was fun to work in tandem with a skilled craftsman. Every time our pieces would get off center, they stepped in to save our piece from turning into a mangled lump. Our 5 year old got a good workout working the foot crank and had fun just feeling the wet clay running between his fingers. At the end of our session, we each picked a piece to be fired and glazed, making a nice souvenir for our trip. It was a neat way to interact with the locals and for our kids to gain an appreciation for the skill required to create beautiful pottery. There are several different types of classes offered at the center.
Khmer Ceramics CenterVithey Charlles de Gaulle, Siem Reap 12000, Cambodia
Phone: + 855 (0)17 843 014
email: [email protected]
Cost: $15.00 per person for 1 hour lesson
(1 pot fired per person; $5.00 for each additional fired pot)
Check their website for pricing information for other classes and workshops
Floating Village on Lake Tonle Sap
The massive Lake Tonle Sap is home to hundreds of floating villages. These floating villages are home to Vietnamese immigrants who do not have rights to purchase land and so they make their home on the lake, moving as a community as the lake grows and shrinks depending on the amount of seasonal rainfall. Boats of all sizes can be hired at the town of Chong Kneas for about $20 per person. The tuk tuk ride from Siem Reap out to Chong Kneas is about $8.
While our boat ride as a family out to the floating village offered many photo opportunities and was interesting for our boys to see people living in such a unique way, it is a major tourist trap so brace yourself. During the hour long boat ride, you’ll pass floating homes bustling with life. Some families were beating fish out of their nets, others were cooking, while others were playing basketball. Yes, you got that right, in the center of what would be Main Street, Floating Village is a large floating building with a basketball court. Adults were rowing around in small sampans between homes selling groceries and drinks. Kids as young as 6 were floating around in wash basins skillfully working their single ore to float themselves around as a child might use their bike.
Kids make their way around the floating village in big basins
The floating village was fascinating and lends itself to some great photos, but the over commercialized experience feels pretty tacky. Boatloads of visitors plough through the waters and descend upon a “visitor’s center” of sorts. Basically it’s the floating structure that the locals usher you onto for an excuse to sell tourist all sorts of souvenirs and to make a buck from offering up their kids holding pet snakes for a photo. At the visitor’s center, there is also a crocodile pit where tourists can pay for a crocodile feeding. While our kids did find it interesting, the over commercialization really took away from the experience.
Tour of a Farming Village – our guide’s own home
We had the opportunity to visit a farming village with a village guide who took us to visit his family and neighbors. This was probably the most special experience of our trip. Unlike the floating village, this experience was intimate and very personal. The community we visited grows rice and a few other crops. We visited different homes and talked to different people in the village. Everyone was incredibly friendly and hospitable. We saw their rice harvest and even tried our hand at removing the husk off the rice using a large mortar and pestle type tool.
Removing the husk off rice on our Village Tour
The farmer showed us how they separate the rice from the chaff by skillfully working the pounded mixture through round flat trays made out of straw. We saw many different types of wells throughout the village and the boys were fascinated by the different methods used to draw water out of the wells. We even learned how they make rice noodles using the most rudimentary homemade tools. At the end of the village tour, our tour guide’s uncle invited us over for some fresh coconut with this family. The boys were fascinated by everything and really enjoyed walking around sharing their cookies with the children of the village. It was such a privilege to meet these villagers.
A village tour can be arranged directly with Journey’s Within Tour Company .
Artisan d’Angkor Silk Farm and Factory
Artisan d’Angkor Silk Farm Tour – spinning silk
A visit to Artisan d’Angkor Silk Farm and Factory is a must when you visit Siem Reap. A tour guide will walk you through the entire process of from growing silk from silk worms, harvesting, spinning , and dyeing the silk, to the intricate art of silk weaving into beautiful fabric. Unlike factory tours in the US, at this farm and factory, you’ll have the opportunity to walking right next to the skilled artisans practicing their craft. Our family found this highly labor-intensive process intriguing from beginning to end. The highlight for our boys was egging dad on as he tasted a silk worm right out of the pot where the artisan was removing the raw silk from the chrysalis.
After marveling at the many steps that it took to produce the beautiful final product, you’ll have great appreciation for their lovely store filled with the most exquisite silk merchandize. Although the prices were way higher than at the night market in Siem Reap, the fine workmanship and the designs were worth the price. Treat yourself or someone you love to something nice. At the same time, you can feel good about helping young Cambodian artisans to find work in their home villages and providing them with a trade and role in society. Angkor d’Artisans was established as an offshoot of a Chantiers-Écoles de formation professionnelle, a professional training school, founded to help young Cambodians rediscover traditional handicrafts and give them the opportunity to take part in the rebuilding process their country has undertaken.
Stung Thmey St.
Tel : (855) 63 963 330
E-mail : [email protected]
Nightlife in Siem Reap
As dusk rolls in, Pub Street becomes the center of activity in Siem Reap with a great street atmosphere. While I was grateful to travel in our air-conditioned van with seat belts during the day, our boys where absolutely thrilled to ride a tuk tuk into town. The cool night air was abuzz with lights and beeping horns. As we pulled into Pub Street, we loved looking at street stalls cooking up local specialties. The air smelled delicious. Walking down Pub Street, you’ll soak in a colorful display of restaurants, tourists dining al fresco style and browsing through locally made handicrafts. Down some of the side alleys, we discovered small boutiques selling clothes and spa products from local designers. Every street corner had a small spa with a tank of “Dr Fish” ready for you to soak your feet in and rows of recliners and masseuse ready to rub your feet for a $1 for 15 minutes. We were delighted that the atmosphere was very family-friendly while the night was young.
Pancake Cart on Pub Street, Siem Reap
While there were lots of tourists enjoying food from street stalls for $1-2 a plate, with young kids, you might prefer to play it safe and eat from a restaurant. Many restaurants offer a kid’s menu with food that most kids would enjoy. Stop in at The Red Piano for some great food. The kid’s spaghetti bolognaise was excellent and portions were large. The Blue Pumpkin is a popular local chain that began in Siem Reap that serves excellent ice-cream with traditional and inventive flavors, as well as good western café style food. It was a great place to give our kids a break from local cuisine. If you’re looking for local food, Khmer Kitchen just off pub street dishes out some of the best local cuisine according to the locals. We definitely agreed.
The night market is also just off pub street and is open for business at dusk. It’s a fun place to pick up cheap souvenirs, but be prepared to bargain. Our boys found lots of fun knick knacks to take home to friends. It’s mostly women selling at the night market and while they are polite, they are persistent saleswomen. Tweens and teens might have a lot of fun browsing the stalls where you can also find some great deals on some American brands that manufacture in Cambodia like Adidas.
Volunteering with the kids at Journey’s Within our Community
Looking for opportunities to do community service projects together as a family abroad can be challenging especially if you have young children. In recent years, there has been a backlash against touring orphanages in countries like Cambodia in the interest of protecting the rights of children. Nonetheless, when traveling in a developing country, your children will encounter poverty and it’s a great opportunity to help them see that they can help. The tour company Journey’s Within has a non-profit arm called Journey’s Within Our Community that runs several interesting projects you can specially arrange to volunteer with as a family for a few hours. You can contact them about volunteering as a family during their Saturday library hour or their Sunday arts and craft hour where your kids can meet local children and simply befriend and encourage them. It was a very special experience for our shy 5 and 8 year old boys who had to learn to look beyond themselves and find ways to connect cross-culturally. We all had the opportunity to learn that the first step to helping is building trust through friendship.
Stay tuned this week for more coverage of Siem Reap.