Cambodia isn’t always the first country that springs to mind for a family trip. Yet with friendly locals, beautiful scenery and fun activities for travellers of all ages, it is a world-class destination. With a little extra planning, a vacation in Cambodia is guaranteed to be talked about over family dinners for decades.
The country has developed in leaps and bounds in recent years, with improved infrastructure between all the major hubs. Roads are smoother, and many of the service stations between popular destinations are equipped with at least a handful of Western toilets and baby-changing rooms (remember to bring toilet paper). Many larger international hotels have activities and facilities catering towards kids.
Hygiene standards have also been elevated. While this may not always apply to parts of rural provinces, if you stick to the main tourist hubs then there are plenty of restaurants, eateries and coffee shops that adhere to international standards when it comes to keeping kitchens clean, cooking and serving food and drinks.
Medical care is another major concern for parents. While this isn’t totally misplaced, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are equipped with international medical centres and hospitals. However, invest in decent travel insurance that includes medi-evacuation, as any serious injuries or illnesses will be referred to Bangkok. Also make sure the family’s vaccinations are up-to-date.
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s number one family-friendly destination. The compact city – more a town – is packed full of hotels that have facilities dedicated to children, such as Memoir Palace Resort and Spa, Courtyard by Marriott Siem Reap Resort and Golden Temple Hotel. It’s worth checking before booking what services they offer, including babysitting and play parks, to daily activities and mini-trips.
Angkor Archaeological Park is suitable for families, regardless of age. Exploring the ancient ruins and playing Tarzan in Angkor’s jungles is a great way to spend the day. The one problem may be finding clean toilets and baby-changing facilities. More are popping up throughout the site but are still lacking.
Ongoing restoration work at the main temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm mean walkways have drastically improved. However, there are still many parts of the temples where pushing a pram may be difficult (so bare this in mind if you have small children). Don’t forget to pack sunscreen and hats as it gets very hot.
Phare, the Cambodian Circus, is another top activity for the family. Run by NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak, the circus sees Khmer folktales retold on stage through an incredible ensemble of acrobatics, juggling, trapeze and other circus skills. Don’t worry – no animals are involved in the show.
A visit to the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre is another entertaining activity. These netted tropical gardens are home to thousands of colourful butterflies, with a section where visitors can learn about their stunning metamorphosis.
As one of the heaviest landmined countries in the world, Cambodia is still littered with landmines today – but don’t let this put you off, as all the main areas have been cleared. Traditionally, mine detection has been carried out by dogs and their handlers but in 2015, Belgian NGO APOPO introduced its giant African pouched rat to operations. It claims rats are safer, quicker and more cost effective than manual detection. At the APOPO Visitor Centre, guests are given a tour of the facility and the chance to meet the heroic rodents, who demonstrate their life-saving work.
Hitting Siem Reap’s countryside brings heaps of family adventures: from riding an ox cart through rice fields, sitting in a traditional tractor through jungles and splashing in waterfalls at Phnom Kulen national park, to watching shadow puppet shows in the evening.
There’s no shortage of family fun in the Cambodian capital, with plenty of hotels making special arrangements for little ones. The Kabiki prides itself on being family-friendly, with secret gardens that provide the perfect playground for kids. The Double Leaf also puts on a range of family packages.
Many of the capital’s parks have a small playground area, with Wat Phnom’s manicured gardens a great place for the kids to let off some steam. Just be aware that the park is inhabited by several cheeky monkeys. They may look cute from afar but can be vicious if approached – don’t feed or taunt them.
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is about 40km from the capital and is a great day trip to see some of the country’s endangered wildlife. Operated by NGO Wildlife Alliance, which works across the country to rescue animals from the clutches of poachers and the illegal trafficking trade, the centre houses elephants, sun bears, monkeys, leopard cats, pangolins and other endangered and rare creatures.
In 2017, Fantasy Water World opened its doors, presenting 8,000sq m of water slides, inner tube rides and play areas. Alternatively, Kids City pits itself as an indoor edutainment centre, featuring 10 floors of activities. These include bumper cars, laser tag, a Clip ‘n’ Climb gym, jungle playground and science gallery.
For something a bit quieter, take the kids to Koh Dach (Silk Island), which sits about 40 minutes from the capital in the Mekong River. Here, you can hire bicycles and ride around the small, flat island and get a glimpse of rural local life.
There’s always heaps of family fun to be found at the beach! While Sihanoukville town has become overrun by Chinese development in recent years, there is still some tranquillity at Otres and Otres 2 beaches (a 20-minute tuk-tuk drive away). Here, you can choose to stay in accommodation ranging from basic bungalows through to poolside villas, all a few metres from the golden sands.
Sihanoukville has plenty of watersports to engage in, including snorkelling, kayaking and sailing. Alternatively, spend the day island hopping, quad-biking or horse-riding along the beach and into the surrounding countryside.
There are also the surrounding islands to be explored, with plenty of tranquil spots on Koh Rong and neighbouring Koh Rong Sanloem. Here, families can soak up a secluded tropical island paradise. Build sandcastles on the beach, explore underwater life and take a mini-trek through the jungle.
The idyllic riverside town of Kampot is the perfect place for a bit of treasured family down time. Its laid-back charm, quiet streets and quaint colonial buildings make it the perfect place to spend a few days chilling.
The town centre has a smattering of sleeping options, ranging from basic guesthouses through to charming boutique hotels. There are also accommodations dotted along Kampot River out of town, surrounded by nature and boasting stunning views that stretch across the river and onto rolling hills. Many of the river-based guesthouses offer kayaking and boat trips through the mangroves, paddle-boarding and platforms for diving into the water.
Kampot is famous for its pepper, which is used in some of the top kitchens across the globe. Renowned for its fiery kick, the pepper has achieved geographical indicator status and is grown in farms throughout the area, where the soil is rich and fertile. Many of the farms in the area have thrown their doors open to guests and offer tours of their operations and the chance to learn more about pepper production. La Plantation is a top choice.
If the kids are a little older, then a day trip up Bokor Mountain is a must. The best way is to hire motorbikes – you won’t be allowed in without a helmet so make sure you get them for the whole family when hiring the bike – and enjoy the smooth ride up the mountain. Alternatively, you can hire a private car for the day and enjoy the views as you make your way to the peak. Along the way, there are waterfalls, religious statues and crumbling relics from colonial French times, when the hill station was a retreat for the country’s occupying elite.
The northwestern province of Battambang is packed full of activities for the family. It is the official home of the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak. Here, visitors can take a tour of the campus, where underprivileged youngsters are taught a range of life skills, including circus, music and graphic design. Four daily tours run from Monday to Friday. Circus shows are also put on two to four nights a week, depending on the season.
One natural phenomenon sure to captivate the kids are the bat caves. Head to Phnom Sampeau about 12km from Battambang city after lunch and spend the afternoon exploring the temple that sits atop the hill. Nearby are the killing caves. This sobering site pays tribute to the many Cambodians who were brutally killed there by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Victims were pushed to their deaths through a hole in the cave’s roof.
At about 5.30pm, head to the foot of the hill where a small crowd will start gathering for the performance at dusk. As the sun starts to slip away, millions of bats stir for the night and spend about 30 minutes streaming out of the caves and into the sky for a night of hunting. A truly spectacular sight.
Then there’s the hair-raising ride on the bamboo train, a slat of wood perched atop a bamboo frame powered by a small engine that hurtles along a single track at up to speeds of 40kph (25mph).
The province is also dubbed the rice bowl of Cambodia, which means it is home to some of the country’s most stunning countryside. Battambang is relatively flat too, which makes it a prime cycling spot. Award-winning Soksabike calls Battambang home and puts on a range of sustainable biking tours throughout the province, giving guests the chance to meet villagers and enjoy a glimpse into rural Cambodian life.