Ancient temples, boat rides and hot air balloons
Travelers: Jim James, Erika Chen, and their 16-month-old daughter Amity James
The Plan: Traveling to Cambodia for a week with our daughter Amity was a good combination of adventure and convenience. Nearly two million tourists visited Cambodia last year to see the centuries-old Khmer Empire temples at Angkor Wat just outside Siem Reap, and while the town of Siem Reap is becoming more westernized with child-friendly eateries, ATMs, and Internet access, we discovered that the destination still holds enough challenges to be exciting to former backpackers.
Arrival: Getting to Cambodia is fairly painless from Beijing. We flew from Beijing to Phnom Penh on China Southern Airlines, taking a flight that departed at 8am and arrived around 3pm, which meant that Amity traveled during her naptime.
Most visitors can apply for an e-Visa online (www.mfaic.gov.kh) or pay USD 20-25 on arrival; with the latter option, it’s a good idea to bring two passport photos. We spent the night in Phnom Penh and then hired a driver and car for the four-hour drive to Siem Reap, a bustling town with a population of 90,000. The cost was RMB 450, which was twice as much as the seven-hour bus journey, and gave us the option of making pit stops.
Accomodation: Once in Siem Reap, we found a wide range of accommodations, starting from backpack hostels at RMB 80 per night to the five-star Hotel de la Paix (+855 63 966 000, www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com), where rooms cost as much as RMB 5,100 per night but could also be had for much less through the hotel’s online deals. We elected to stay at the Hotel Mysteres d’Angkor (+855 63 963 639, www.mysteres-angkor.com; RMB 510-572 suite), a Khmer-style lodge. The hotel was on the east side of the Siem Reap River, which in retrospect was not the best move; access to the hotel was through a temple and burial grounds, and the neighborhood was lively yet noisy. For this reason, we later moved to a hotel next to the river’s west bank, the Shinta Mani (+855 63 761 998, www.shintamani.com; RMB 680 standard double).
Angkor Wat: We allotted four days to cover the 400sqkm Angkor Archaeological Park. Getting to the park takes 20 minutes from Siem Reap by tuk tuk, and tickets for anywhere between one and seven days are available for RMB 140-400. In addition to a three-day ticket, we took a hot air balloon ride that gave us an extra day of access to the park. From a yellow balloon 200 meters in the air, we had a fantastic view at sunset. The ride was also safe for Amity, who was most excited by the earth-bound chickens running around the ticket office.
During the mornings, we toured the park by tuk tuk, as it was cooler for Amity, and we returned to the hotel each day for lunch, pool and naptime. In the late afternoons we returned to the park with Amity in a backpack. A tour around the park can take two to five hours, depending on how adventurous parents are and how patient the child. Amity endured three hours of sightseeing before melting down, saved only by the ice cream vendor.
For a reviving break, look for the air-conditioned restaurant in the park opposite Angkor Wat. Inside, we found a haven that served fruit juice and Western as well as Asian food.
On the Water: After three days of touring Angkor Wat, we’d had our fill of history. We found variety in a boat tour of Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, located about 15km south of Siem Reap. The ride cost RMB 136 per person (Amity rode for free) and took us past a Vietnamese floating village that even included a school. We watched the sunset from a floating restaurant, then sailed back up an estuary, and finally hailed a tuk tuk ride home; Amity fell fast asleep to the soothing sounds of a tropical evening. We checked into the luxury of the Foreign Correspondents Club (www.fcccambodia.com) and felt we had arrived home.
Looking Back: Cambodia is a manageable holiday with a toddler, though families should weigh how much they wish to trade convenience for cash. Including flights, car, accommodation, park tickets, and food, our seven-night holiday amounted to around RMB 20,400. Another family could easily have a similar experience while spending half as much – and exercising a greater amount of patience. In the end, all you need is suntan lotion, mosquito repellent, and a sense of family adventure. Jim James