My son and I recently returned from a trip to Cambodia. I thought I would share what we did during our time “tuk tuk-ing” around the country. In this post, I’ll talk about our first stop on the trip, Phnom Penh, and how you can see all of the best parts of the city in just 4 days, even with your little ones in tow!
Cambodia is a fairly new, but very popular, tourist destination. After years of turbulence and strife from the Khmer Rouge genocide and civil war, Cambodia is still in the process of putting itself back together. The tourism industry is a major part of the country’s current economy. Many people earn their living connected in some way to travelers; tuk tuk drivers, guides, performers, not to mention the ever-growing list of hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and bars catered specifically to foreigners. So if you start having doubts about if you should go or not, just tell yourself you’ll be helping the local economy and get over there!
We flew into Phnom Penh fairly late and shared a taxi with another lone traveler to our hotels. Shared taxis are your cheapest option if you don’t want to take a motorcycle or tuk tuk with all of your luggage. Although, to be honest, tuk tuks are less expensive and can usually fit quite a few bags in them. Most of the major attractions in Phnom Penh are pretty centralized. It is pretty feasible to walk from Wat Ounalom, to the National Museum, to the Royal Palace, to the Friendship Monument, to Wat Botum, all the way down to the Independence Monument. I like to call this area the Cambodian Mall (just a little play on words from the National Mall in Washington D.C.), because most of the attractions are there.
The first day we spent at Wat Ounalom, which is the home of Cambodian Buddhism. My son had a great time exploring the dozens of buildings and seeing all the different stupas. We then walked along the Mekong River, which is lined with flags from all over the world. Its a great place to sit and relax for a few minutes. I would recommend staying at Wat Ounalom until lunchtime and then having a bite and relaxing along the riverfront until the Royal Palace opens up for the afternoon. The Palace closes everyday during midday. There is a fantastic western style cafe in this area called Connecting Hands Training Cafe. All of the women working there have been rescued from slavery or sex trafficking. They are there to learn working skills so they can re-enter society. The cafe also rescues children and uses the profits from the cafe to send them back to school. They also sell bags, wallets, bracelets, etc that have all been handmade by these amazing women. The food is a delicious little slice of home; salads, sandwiches, fries, french toast! Definitely go for the Oreo milkshake… it was ah-mazing. A good cause and good food! Um, yes please!
In the afternoon, we headed for the Royal Palace. Its entry is a beautiful grassy area completely covered with pigeons and people peddling bird seed and corn kernels. Ashton’s day was made in that instant. The ticket booth and visitor entrance is a little down the street from the grand entryway. Again, I would recommend going as soon as they open in the afternoon/morning because it’s not as busy. Be sure you bring something to cover your upper arms. It is impolite to show above the knee or above the elbow. They do have coverings you can buy but its a lot easier/cheaper to just bring a scarf/shawl in your bag. Once inside it’s a breathtaking view of ornate buildings on all sides. The throne/coronation room is right in front of you as you walk in. You can’t enter any of the buildings on the right, but to the left you can enter the Silver Pagoda complex. The Silver Pagoda is a beautiful building with a floor completely tiled in silver pieces. No photos allowed and you must take your shoes off. Inside is a giant gold statue of Buddha, people paying their respects, as well as many other Cambodian relics.
Once you’re finished exploring the other areas of the Silver Pagoda complex (be sure to check out the murals along the perimeters) head on down to the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument. It’s just a few minutes walk down the street from the Royal Palace, inside Wat Botum park. This park is also a great place for your kids to let loose after a few hours of “good behavior” at the Palace. There are many great playgrounds along the sides of the park. There are always lots of Cambodian and foreign kids playing on the slides and climbing the jungle gyms. Wat Botum is on the street directly parallel to the park and is a smaller but just as impressive Buddhist center comparable to Wat Ounalom. If you’re all wat-ed out, I would say skip this one and spend more time at Wat Ounalom.
When you’re finished prying your kids away from the playground, walk all the way down the park and take a right. You will see the Independence Monument and Norodom Sihanouk Statue. Both are quite impressive pieces of Cambodian architecture commemorating Cambodian freedom. We then went back to our hotel for dinner and a swim. I would recommend getting hotels with pools since they’re so common and no more expensive than hotels without them. It’s a great way to cool off after a hot day of walking around the city.
The next day we went to Wat Phnom which is north of the “Cambodian Mall” we explored the day before. It’s a gorgeous example of Cambodian stupa architecture set atop a hill and dominates the skyline of northern Phnom Penh. It can get pretty crazy here during the day so try and go in the morning. Inside is an impressive statue of Buddha with modern Cambodians praying for luck and/or money. From here, head on down to the French Embassy for a minute. While not that impressive of a building it has a lot of significance. If you’re a history nerd, like I am, you will recognize this as the place where the locals tried to seek refugee but were ultimately forced to leave the gates to be killed by the Khmer Rouge. After, you can try to let go of some of that malaise by heading down to the National Museum. It’s not very big but definitely worth the visit. I loved the statues and my son loved the canons and swords. There is something for everyone.
After lunch, head on over to the bustling Russian Market. There is something here for everyone! Clothes, bedding, wall hangings, toys, trinkets, buddha statues, wood carvings, paintings, paper cut-outs, pretty much anything you can possibly think of. If you’re a photographer, head on over to the spices and food section of the market. The colors and textures are incredible. While here, make sure you haggle. It’s the way of life and expected pretty much everywhere in southeast Asia. At night, head back to the National Museum. They have an amazing dance show put on by the Cambodian Living Arts. I wasn’t sure if my toddler would sit through the whole thing but figured we’d give it a try. He sat through the entire hour and barely blinked. Everytime a dance was finished he would clap his little hands and say “wow, cool!” All of the dances are really energetic and visually stunning. Perfect for kids. I strongly suggest people of any age to check it out on one of the nights you’re in Phnom Penh.
The next day we took a little excursion outside of the city. We booked a VIP tour with the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary, about an hour outside Phnom Penh. This was a bit of an expensive tour but this is probably the thing I would recommend the most out of all the things we did in the city. They come to the city and pick up you and the others in your small group and drive out to the sanctuary. You get to spend the whole day with elephants, bears, tigers, monkeys, and other creatures native to Cambodia. The thing that makes this place so special is that all of the animals here have been rescued from the fur trade, cruel owners, the ivory trade, etc. You can feed the elephants their breakfast and take a walk with them, but NOT ride them. You can watch as they change the prosthetic leg of a elephant who had gotten caught in a hunter’s trap (talk about heartwarming, to watch this elephant get the chance to walk again!). If you love elephants and really want to see/interact with them on your trip to southeast Asia, please, please, please do not ride them. The elephant riding industry is so cruel and they are often, in a word, tortured in order to be trained to be ridden. In Cambodia you can go to places like Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary or the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri where they rescue the elephants from awful situations.
I was worried my son would be a little scared of the large elephants. Nope. He ran right up to one. I had to hold him back. He kept cutting in front of people to feed the elephants again. He would pick up leaves on the ground and call out “Luck-yyyy!” Sure enough, Lucky would come over and eat his one little leaf. One of the female elephants ate a banana out of his pocket. They were so sweet and gentle with him. He was smiling from ear to ear all day. The monkeys are another big highlight of the tour. Near the end of the day you enter the baby monkey cage and feed them. They jump all around and on you, eating out of your hands. It’s an amazing memory to have. Ashton still likes to look at the pictures of the monkeys and elephants. And you can get really close to the tigers… so close that we got sprayed on (don’t worry, not within claw’s reach). The sanctuary also provides a wonderful Cambodian style lunch and hammocks to relax in for an hour or so in the middle of the day. Again, it was a little expensive but I would recommend this more than anything else we did. Ashton and I were both completely enthralled with all the animals.
Once we got back it was time for dinner. Since we had been outside all day we wanted to pamper ourselves a little. So we headed down to Aeon Mall, a modern shopping center where all of the cool, hip, young Cambodians go. On one of the top floors is a bowling alley. My son is pretty obsessed with bowling and we don’t have bowling alleys where we live so we went to let loose for a bit and get some dinner. There are so many great restaurants on the same floor with all kinds of cuisine.
The next day we organized a tuk tuk driver to take us on the “Genocide Tour” of the Killing Fields and Prison S-21. I was a little skeptical to bring my son on this tour, but decided to anyways, because selfishly, I really wanted to see it. Prison S-21 is actually a high school that was converted into a prison/genocide camp for anyone against the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields is a large open field where hundreds of thousands of people were killed and buried in large pits. Some have been unearthed and some pits remain untouched. It was completely profound and I would tell everyone going to Phnom Penh that they should see it….. as long as you don’t have toddlers with you. Not that they aren’t capable to see it or it’s too long of a day, but because of respect. As much as I learned there and as intense of an experience as it was, I felt terrible trying to control my toddler making fart noises in the middle of the Killing Fields. Again, I don’t recommend this to people with small children but older kids, I think, would learn a lot from this experience.
In the afternoon, I felt that Ashton needed to go crazy and get rid of a lot of excess energy since I had been “shushing” him all morning. So, if you find yourself in the same situation, head on over to Kid’s City. There is literally something here for any age. There are go-karts, rope climbing, a large toddler play center, and an older kid’s play center, among other things. Let the kids go nuts and relax for a little bit. In the evening, check out the Night Market, which is mostly clothing and jewelry and food stands, but has some toys and paintings as well. This ended our time in Phnom Penh, as we set out for Siem Reap the next morning.
Almost everyone we met here spoke very good English or Chinese, so we had absolutely no language barrier while we were out and about during the day. The few people we met who didn’t speak English or Chinese were very friendly and had no problem deciphering our miming. You have to have a good sense of humor about yourself if you’re traveling in places where you don’t understand the local language! We found that as long as you are friendly, Cambodian people will bend over backward to help you or make you as comfortable as possible. We truly loved our time in Phnom Penh and hope to make it back there one day. Next post I’ll talk about the best things to see and do in Siem Reap. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!