Why You Should Choose Cambodia as Your Next Family Vacation
Siem Reap is a small city in northwestern Cambodia, which has long been known as the gateway to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. Having visited Siem Reap in 2005, I thought I knew what to expect when I returned with my husband and children in the Fall of 2018. Boy was I wrong! The city has reinvented itself. It has experienced rapid economic growth over the past two decades, with significant foreign investments.
We arrived after having spent two weeks in Thailand, and we were in awe of the level of service and organization. The airport, which was once not much more than a single landing strip and a baggage carousel, is now modern, efficient, and dare I say pretty. While it is still fairly small as international airports go, it is quite impressive. We were also pleasantly surprised by the road infrastructure, the cleanliness of the streets and the fact that the roads were very well lit. Frankly we were reminded of the planned communities that are common throughout the United States, which speaks volumes of Cambodia’s efforts to distinguish itself as a major tourist destination in Southeast Asia.
Where to Stay
When I visited Siem Reap thirteen years ago, the choice of hotels was minimal, we’re talking you had two options if you wanted a 4 or 5-star hotel. The Siem Reap of today is drastically different in this respect as well. As I am the type of person that likes to research all of the available options before choosing a hotel for our stay anywhere we go, I can honestly say that the number of choices was overwhelming. Not only is the sheer number of choices expansive, but there is a hotel for anyone and everyone. Whether you are looking for a budget locale or a 5-star resort, whether you are a single traveller or you are traveling as a family, you have options.
We chose to stay at the Anantara Angkor because we are big fans of the Minor hotel brand, and they had a great package that included daily breakfast and a 60min spa treatment, among other things. While it was not the least expensive option in the area, even with the inclusions, it was definitely a safe choice.
The hotel is one of Anantara’s smallest properties with only 39 suite-style rooms, and it is conveniently located only 5 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from Angkor Wat. The Anantara Angkor has been open approximately 5 years so it is fairly new, and the staff is fairly new to the hotel and service industry, as is most of Cambodia in general. That being said, the staff which was made up mostly of local Cambodian people, are very proud of their progress and very grateful that tourists have come to visit their country. They are warm, friendly, and extremely accommodating. What they lack in experience, they make up for in heart.
Being a very small property, their amenities are limited, especially for families. The pool is decent in size, and they have a very small gym and spa. However, there is no kids’ menu, laundry for children is the same price as that for adults, and the only activity for children at the hotel is a pizza cooking class. One very convenient amenity is the complimentary transportation they offer to all local areas in Siem Reap. We used this wonderful service to visit some of the local shops.
We were a group of 4 adults and 3 children, since my parents joined us for this portion of our travels through Asia. I reached out to the concierge for help in planning our activities, to ensure that everything would be suitable for our multi-generational group, and they were beyond helpful. Never have I experienced this level of service from a hotel concierge. They sent me a proposed itinerary based on the information I had provided them about our group and our interests. It was amazing! We made a few minor changes to their suggestions, and our time in Siem Reap was planned, easy peasy.
Some of the highlights of our time in Siem Reap were sunrise at Angkor Wat, Sunset at Chong Kneas, and a Jeep tour to the lesser known temples of Bateay Prei and Bateay Thom.
Built sometime around 1100 A.D., Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and is listed as one of the seven wonders of the world. It is truly a magical place.
We had a picnic breakfast provided by the hotel for our sunrise experience at Angkor Wat with a private guide, which I highly recommend. The temples of Angkor Wat have grown in popularity and the number of tourists that visit every year has grown exponentially, so having a private guide is crucial to help you navigate the crowds and take you off the beaten path.
Tonle Sap Lake
Sunset at Chong Kneas, a floating village in Tonle Sap lake, was very interesting and arranged very nicely by the concierge. We were very happy to have arranged this excursion through the hotel despite the higher price tag, as there was a marked difference between our classic Cambodian private boat and the other boats we saw on the lake, which were quite dilapidated and filled to the brim with tourists. They provided cocktails and canapes while watching the sunset, which is not included in the other more touristy outfitters.
Bateay Thom and Bateay Prei Temples
After sunrise at Angkor Wat, I would have to say that the jeep excursion to the “jungle temples” was our ultimate favorite experience in Siem Reap. Talk about off the beaten path! These temples can only be accessed by 4×4 vehicles, as there are no paved roads in that area. They were also re-discovered much more recently than Angkor Wat, so they are still not among the more visited temples in the area. We reached the temples in two American Army jeeps, which was half the fun! Upon our arrival, we were greeted warmly by the family who watches over the temple. After a bit of exploring, our guide set up a picnic lunch for us in the center of the temple, as we had the temple all to ourselves. It was quite surreal!
Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm Temple has been nicknamed the “Tombraider Temple”, as it was made famous by Angelina Jolie in the movie Tombraider. Visiting this temple was especially saddening for me as I saw firsthand the state of ruin that this incredible monument has experienced in the past 13 years since I was last there. It is one of the larger monuments in the Angkor complex and is best known for the giant Banyan tree roots that are intertwined within its walls. It is a must see during a trip to Siem Reap, especially since it seems to be deteriorating at an alarming rate.
Wat Svay Romeat
We stopped at Wat Svay Romeat on our way to Ta Prohm Temple, for a monk’s blessing. Our guide gave us a brief tour of the temple, and we then proceeded to meet a young monk, who performed a unique blessing ceremony. The ceremony was brief. The monk first prays and expresses his gratitude for your visit. Then he continues to use holy water to bless bracelets, which he personally ties around each person’s wrist. It is a very simple spiritual encounter, which for us was quite moving.
Artisans d’Angkor is a group of workshops, where thousands of people from surrounding towns and rural areas sell their crafts. In exchange, they are provided with employment, education, and health care. It is an organization committed to the revival and preservation of ancient Cambodia arts and crafts. Artisans d’Angkor is a wonderful place to learn about how Cambodian crafts are made, as they have guides who speak a variety of languages. The guides walk you through the workshops, explaining the process of how their crafts are created. You can see many artists at work and even try your hand at some of them if you are so inclined. After your tour, you can visit their shop and purchase many of the beautiful crafts you learned about. We couldn’t resist and had a beautiful piece sent back home!
Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre
The Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre is a unique place where one can go to learn hands on about Cambodian pottery. The teachers work with you on your own pottery wheel and help you make four different pieces. It’s a fun activity for the entire family.
Originally, we decided to travel to Cambodia because we wanted to visit Angkor Wat. Yet, we were pleasantly surprised through the planning process and during our time there. Cambodia is a wonderful destination, filled with culture, history, and a large range of activities for people of all ages.
As far as the Anantara Angkor, although it is one of the newer kids on the block, which comes with its own set of challenges, they made our visit to Siem Reap an unforgettable one. They treated us like family. In all honesty, we would go back to Siem Reap in a heartbeat, as we felt that there was much left to discover.