Angkor Management: Touring Angkor Wat With a Toddler
By Bliss Bernal
The Temples of Angkor are stunning, but usually enjoyed by childless travelers. This is a shame because almost all the temples are great places to visit with children, even little ones.
But after traipsing around Angkor for ten days with our two-year-old in a backpack carrier, we know a few things. Here are our best tips for enjoying Cambodia and its temples with a small child.
Let Kids Be Kids
The Temples of Angkor are not quiet and refined. Your kids, no matter how rambunctious, are unlikely to be louder than the tour guides shouting on bullhorns. Additionally, these temples are mostly outdoors and largely in ruins. Time and the Khmer Rouge have broken anything fragile and no one will look askance at your child’s climbing (though getting in the way of people’s photos will earn you withering looks).
The best temple for letting Jude explore on his own was Preah Khan. It was large and mostly flat; Jude could wander through rooms without any steep climbing and there was plenty for us to see.
Ta Prohm—known for its picturesque overgrown silk-cotton trees and its scenes in the Tomb Raider movies— is also good for kids with its ample but not steep or dangerous climbing.
Plan Some Adult-Only Touring
There are a few temples where little kids aren’t allowed because it isn’t safe and others where having little kids with you would be challenging. We managed to see some of these places by taking turns exploring and staying with Jude. We also gave him a break from temple touring one day and let him run around the hotel gardens with a sitter while we went out on our own.
I would reserve Beng Mealea, the wildest and most overgrown of all of the Angkor temples, for children over 8. It offers great scrambling and climbing opportunities for older children and adults. The day we toured it (the babysitter day) we saw two parents trying to manage three smaller kids and looking pretty frazzled. The two oldest were in dangerous looking climbing situations and the youngest was crying because she wasn’t allowed to join them. Their car passed our tuk-tuk on the way back to Siem Reap and the parents looked exhausted and glum.
Baphuon temple, which is due to be restored and pretty rickety looking, is closed to children under the age of 12, even in a backpack (pregnant women aren’t allowed in either). Restoration could be slow going: Pre-Khmer Rouge, the French took apart the temple, intending to restore the rocks and piece them back together. But when the Khmer Rouge came to power they lost or destroyed the detailed plans. Oops. Many of the rocks still lay outside the temple walls, waiting for someone to figure out where they go.
Children are also not allowed on the third floor of the main temple at Angkor Wat. Good call! The stairs were so steep that I honestly could not imagine climbing them with a toddler. They were pretty terrifying, frankly, but totally worth going up on our own. The view of the temple complex and surrounding countryside is spectacular.
Have a Morning Picnic
The quintessential Angkor Wat experience is to get up early and watch the sun rise over the temples on the west side of the northern reflecting pool. We got up at 4:15 to be at Angkor Wat by 5:00 for a 6:15 sunrise. (You can buy excellent coffee from enterprising locals just outside the entrance.)
We had front-row view but also had many, many people around us. We actually thought the view was better around 7:00 when the sun was a little higher in the sky and the crowd had thinned.
Most visitors go back to their hotels for breakfast, but we asked our hotel to pack a picnic breakfast for us. We ate sitting on stone stairs by the southern reflecting pool watching the sun climb higher and higher. After breakfast, we walked around Angkor Wat and had entire sections all to ourselves. By 9:00 the tour buses were rolling in and the temperature was rising. I was happy to be walking against the tide of tourists as we left Angkor Wat for our next adventure.
Bliss Bernal co-authors the blog Around the World with a Two-Year-Old with her husband, Patrick. They left Brooklyn in August 2011 to travel around the world with their two-year-old son, Jude.