Ultimate Road Trip Guide: Cambodia
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Why traveling through Cambodia with kids is a must
Cambodia is quickly becoming an increasingly popular Southeast Asian travel destination. With its rich culture, remote jungles and tropical beaches it’s a wonder it took travelers this long to see beyond the temples of Angkor. Cambodia is much more than that. The Khmer are a welcoming people. The diverse scenery, its friendly people and fascinating, yet tragic history make Cambodia a very interesting and versatile holiday destination.
There’s lots of family friendly things to do here. Road tripping or backpacking Cambodia with kids is an rewarding and awesome experience for the entire family. This ultimate family road trip guide: Cambodia covers all the places you should not miss while in Cambodia with kids.
Best age to visit Cambodia
Cambodia is a great travel destination for kids of all ages. Cambodians love kids and are very helpful. They can get overly enthusiastic with blond kids, though. They love to cuddle them and even pick them up. Just kindly let them know when they’re overstepping and they will absolutely oblige. Khmer are very polite people and don’t mean to cross your boundaries.
Dark side of Cambodia’s past
After a civil war that lasted 5 years, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Its Marxist dictator Pol Pot wanted to create a classless society based on farming. Communist style. Citizens seen as intellectuals and/or possible threats to the regime were murdered. Often they were held captive first, working for the regime in the fields or to be interrogated and brutally tortured in the process.
Kids selling souvenirs
Cambodia endured war and tragedy both leading up to the Cambodian Genocide, initiated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, during this time and after it was over. Poverty and illiteracy is still a huge problem. You’ll see lots of kids selling souvenirs around the temples of Angkor, to help provide for their family. Resulting in them skipping school. As hard as it is, you’ll contribute to the problem when buying from them. When we all stop buying souvenirs from kids, here and in the rest of the world, they’ll go back to school and get a chance to break the negative cycle.
Sites you should avoid visiting with kids
There are many places where you can learn about the Cambodian Genocide. The Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, both in Phnom Penh, are the most famous examples. While they allow children of all ages, I really wouldn’t bring kids under the age of 13-14 here.
The graphic pictures and videos are difficult to digest and grasp the meaning of as an adult, let alone a child. The cruelty of the regime and its leader is palpable when visiting these sites. Skulls and bones can be seen at the Killing Fields. A tree where they slammed babies and children at to spare bullets is now a place of remembrance.
The importance of visiting war memorial sights
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to visit sights like this and pay your respects and learn from our past. But these places are not suitable for children. They’re horrifying and gruesome. My partner and I took turns visiting these sites. When one of us was there alone, the other opted for a kid friendly activity.
Is Cambodia safe for families to visit? Absolutely! But avoid sites dedicated to the horror that was the Khmer Rouge.
Backpacking through Cambodia with children
The ultimate road trip guide: Cambodia can be done by car, but the infrastructure isn’t as good as in neighboring countries Thailand and Vietnam. More on that later, but that’s why we choose public transportation. Backpacking through Cambodia as a family is not only doable, but very rewarding.
Overall Cambodia is not as developed as these Southeast Asian countries. That means less travelers, but with just as much to explore. And by contributing to tourism, you help the Cambodians put food on the table. Just stick to local restaurant, home stays and ho(s)tels and avoid the larger chains if you want to help the Khmer.
So grab your backpacks, book those (sleeper) buses and domestic flights and enjoy the beauty of Cambodia!
Kid friendly Cambodian dishes
The food is more or less hassle free. The service is always fast and requires minimal prep. No long waiting times or long sit through dinners. Kid friendly dishes are Kuy Teav, Cambodia’s version of the noodle soup with pork or beef and Yaohon, a hot pot with a variety of veggies meat and seafood. If your kids are anything like mine, then they love spicy food. In that case let them try Amok, a coconut fish curry, it’s fresh and spicy at the same time.
When your kids tend to be more on the fussy side, you can always get plain rice, fries and chicken. In Phnom Penh and most of the sea side towns and on the islands you’ll find Italian restaurants, for a pizza and pasta fix.
Best time to travel
The best time to travel to Cambodia is from November to March, this is when the weather is not too hot and there’s not much rain. This is also peak season, it will be crowded at the temples of Angkor, in capital Phnom Penh and on the islands around Sihanoukville.
From May to October it’s rainy season. It’s cheaper and wetter. Rain doesn’t tend to last long, you’ll get super wet for a good 10-20 minutes and then the rain will die down. You’ve the highest chance of enduring monsoons during August and October.
Road tripping through Cambodia with kids
If you’ve visited other Southeast Asian countries, you’ll notice that there aren’t as many flight options or train connections in Cambodia as Vietnam, for instance. But don’t let that discourage you. The buses are clean and have aircon. Local public transport doesn’t have airconditioning, but that’s also the case in neighboring countries. A few destinations can be reached by train as well, but the Royal Railway of Cambodia is working on expanding their network within the country.
Road tripping through Cambodia by car
If you’ve read some of our other ultimate family road trip guides, like Perth to Darwin, Thailand and Iceland, you know we love exploring countries by car or campervan. For this road trip we decided on public transport and air travel. Because, while roads have improved massively over the recent years, conditions vary per region and also per season.
The other thing is that cars in Cambodia can generally only be hired with a driver. While that can come in handy in more rural areas, it kind of takes out the fun of a family road trip by car. Finding your way on the map, singing along with some tunes, those kind of things.
How to get to Cambodia
My family and I like to use Expedia for flights. And we always opt to book a flight and hotel, at least for the first night. Just to ease the start of our family vacation. When arranging everything yourself, Expedia is a good starting point. But always compare prices by visiting more than one booking site.
There are 3 international airports in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. These airport receive direct flights from other Asian cities. There are no direct flights to Cambodia from Europe, North America, Australasia or Africa, so you’ll need to switch planes at least once, when you’re departing from these continents.
How to get around in Cambodia
To book your transport during your ultimate road trip through Cambodia with kids, whether by air, train, bus or ferry, we recommend using 12Go. This is a user-friendly website that will show you all the different price options and comparisons as well as reviews from fellow travelers.
There’s also a few Mekong River cruises that you can book through Get Your Guide. They depart from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh or the other way around.
Epic family road trip through Cambodia
This ultimate road trip guide of Cambodia with kids starts and ends in capital city Phnom Penh. This is the best Cambodia itinerary for families who are looking to combine city trips, soaking up history, hiking in nature and chilling at the beach. You can find it all in this 2 week Cambodia itinerary. If you want to follow this entire road trip itinerary of Cambodia at a slower pace, opt for a 2,5 week stay. In that case, prolong your beach vacay, before you head back to Phnom Penh.
Southeast Asia itinerary including Vietnam
If you’re lucky enough to have the time to combine visits to more Southeast Asian countries, besides Cambodia, pick Laos, Vietnam or Thailand.
Family road trip Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand
If you choose to go on a family road trip through Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, check out the ultimate family road trip guide of Thailand and the ultimate family road trip guide of Vietnam.
Start with Thailand and at the end of your Thailand trip you fly from Bangkok to Siem Reap and work your way down to the south. From Phnom Penh you catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and work your way up towards Hanoi, or even Sapa. Catch a flight back home from Hanoi.
But let’s focus on the topic at hand: Cambodia and let’s dive into the ultimate road trip guide: Cambodia for families.
The best place to start is Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. The Phnom Penh International Airport is located about 10km from the city center. It will take you about 40 minutes to get to the city center. During rush hour it will take you about an hour. Prebook an airport transfer to bring you directly to your accommodation in the city.
Phnom Penh really took us by surprise and we loved our time here. Let’s start with the history. If your children are old enough take them to the Killing Fields, also known as the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and to the S21 prison (aka Tuol Sleng museum). I wrote more about these sites earlier on and highly recommend them if you want to learn more about Cambodia’s gruesome past.
But there’s more to explore in Phnom Penh. You can take a stroll along the Tonlé Sap River. When you’re on the promenade you’ll pass by the Royal Palace Park and get a glimpse of the royal palace. This is also where you’ll find lots of family friendly restaurants, serving both local and western food.
Cambodia’s Royal Palace
I briefly mentioned it, but let’s highlight another must do in Phnom Penh: a visit to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda that you’ll spot on site. It looks like a smaller version of Thailand’s Royal Palace. And while Cambodia’s Royal Palace is a lot smaller in size, it isn’t less impressive.
Stay in Phnom Penh for 2 or 3 days and also visit the Wat Phnom temple, take a boat ride on the Mekong river, shop trinkets at the Psar Thmei Market and explore the National Museum of Cambodia.
After exploring Phnom Penh we head out to the north of Cambodia, before slowly working our way to the south. Next up: Siem Reap. Mostly known as the gateway to the temples of Angkor, but this city offers so much more!
Of course you should visit the Angkor Archeological Park, if you have the time stay at least 3 days and don’t stop at a visit to Angkor Wat. Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei and Ta Keo are also truly magnificent. Your children will love exploring these temple complexes as much as you will.
Other great things to do in Siem Reap with kids
Spotting gibbons while zip lining
There’s one thing that should be on the top of your list when you visit Siem Reap with teenagers. Go zip lining through the jungle and spot gibbons. This was actually our teen’s highlight of our trip through Cambodia. Kids ages 5 and up can join, but I can imagine that it can be very scary for kids that young. Once you’re up you have to go down via the zip line. It can get really uncomfortable if your kid’s scared and you have to push them along. If your kid isn’t used to activities like this, I wouldn’t start younger than 7 or 8 years old.
Note that it gibbons are wild animals that avoid contact with humans. Spotting them is not guaranteed, you actually have to be lucky to catch them. We did see them hanging out in the trees, but we were the first group of the day, at 5pm.
Siem Reap is actually a great place to explore by bike. We explored the temples of Angkor as well as the city center by bike. The other great option is to hire a Remork, the Cambodian Tuk Tuk, to take you to all the sights. Make a deal beforehand, or you’ll be surprised with a hefty fee at the end of the day.
Other amazing things to do in Siem Reap with kids:
- taking a Khmer Cooking Class
- a hot air balloon ride over the temples of Angkor
- visiting the Angkor National Museum
- go shopping at the Night Markets
The Tonlé Sap lake is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and an important landmark of Cambodia. More than 1 million people make their living by fishing. Many of them live in the many floating villages on the lake.
It’s nice to experience the serenity of the lake and the way of life, from a distance. Be aware to not book tours that offer a visit to somebody’s house or a school. And check TripAdvisor to see pictures of the tours. More often than not you’ll stop at crocodile farms and get offered to take pictures with drugged up monkeys and snakes.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
Once you’ve found an ethical tour company, the local guides will take you off the beaten path and away from the crowds. The most amazing villages are Mechrey, or Mech Rey, and Kompong Khleang. On a boat you’ll pass by houses, schools and pagoda’s all on stilted platforms. It’s a very nice experience and no wonder that it’s a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
At one or two places you’ll get off and are allowed to wander around a bit. Don’t invade peoples privacy and take pictures from inside their homes or simple walk into the houses. And if a local invites you inside, leave them a small tip.
Ethical Tourism in Tonlé Sap
When visiting the lake, know that the majority of tourism here doesn’t benefit the locals at all. They don’t employ locals and don’t donate money to the local communities that they bring their visitors to. Make sure you book tours from companies that do work with locals, work on preservation of the ecology and donate to the local communities. Some examples of ecotourism are Osmose and Kompong Khleang Floating Village Tours
The most unethical tourism can be found in Chong Kneas and Kompong Phluk. Owned by private boat companies that offer nothing to the community and take you to visit schools and get you to donate money for rice and school supplies, but I can assure you that this money doesn’t end up supporting the kids.
These are also the places that offer unethical encounters with animals. You can spot crocodiles cramped up in a small empty bassin and monkeys that are being kept in small cages. Please don’t engage in any activities including wild animals or children. It only benefits some tourists, but it never benefits the children and animals. If you want to read more about how to avoid participating in animal abuse in the tourism industry, follow the link to my article about this topic.
Note that the waters can be a little rough, so bring travel sickness tablets along if you or your kids have experienced motion sickness before. Also bring your own life jackets for the kids, they don’t offer those as part of the tour.
Tonlé Sap day trip from Siem Reap
There aren’t a lot of places to stay, so book a tour while you’re still in Siem Reap. Tonlé Sap is located about 15km from the center of Siem Reap. Your tour operator will pick you up from your hotel Siem Reap. If you’re not staying in a hotel, just mention the one that’s closest to your accommodation and head out there. This is also the place where you’ll be brought back at the end of the tour.
There are half and full day tours, with smaller children I would go for the half day tour. After this day trip from Siem Reap to Tonlé Sap. What’s the next destination in this ultimate road trip guide: Cambodia?
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We are slowly moving down by traveling from Siem Reap to the city Battambang. Battambang lies about 165km south from Siem Reap. Once in Battambang stay for two days.
The absolute top thing to do for kids in Battambang is a ride on the bamboo train. For about 4 euro per person, the bamboo train will take you through the jungles of Cambodia. It’s basically a bamboo plank on wheels, powered by a tractor engine. In 30 minutes this train will follow about 7km of train track.
There’s nothing to hold onto and no seatbelts, but since 2019 there are seats aboard. You go quite fast, so hold onto the kiddo’s.
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Another thing you shouldn’t skip when in Battambang is a stroll along the riverfront, where you’ll find a small kids playground. Things really come alive here around 5pm, when locals meet up with each other here.
Lastly, visit the Bat Caves around sunset. The caves are located about 10km from the center of Battambang. Find a table at one of the cafe’s and wait. As soon as the sun starts to set thousands of bats fly out of the caves and into the sunset. It’s a brilliant sight to see.
Kampot & Kep
The first beaches in this ultimate road trip guide: Cambodia, but not the last: Kampot. At this point in the trip you’ve passed by your starting point, Phnom Penh, and have arrived at the coast. Kampot and Kep are two villages, located about 25km apart. Stay somewhere in the middle and visit them both. Or stay at one of them for a few days and take a day trip to the other town. Anything goes.
You go to Kampot and Kep to enjoy a day or two at the beach. Another thing you can do is head out to the salt fields of Kampot and Kep. They’re harvesting the salt from December to April. But if you want to know what you can do in Kep and Kampot, here’s a list.
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Things to do in Kep
Kep is very family oriented, so you’ll find lots of families here. It’s a small seaside fishing village and the main attraction of Kep is the fresh crab market. Here you can buy things like crab, prawns, squid and tuna. Pick the seafood you want and they’ll cook it on the spot for you to enjoy right there in the crab market.
From Kep you can also easily hop to Rabbit Island (aka Koh Tonsay). Relax in the sea and chill in a hammock.
Things to do in Kampot
Less families and a little more backpackers. Check out Kampot, but spend the night in Kep to avoid the sounds of partying.
When in Kampot go on a night river cruise to see gorgeous fireflies and bioluminescent plankton. A very cool experience. And rent a scooter or hop into a Tuk Tuk for a visit to Phnom Bokor National Park. One of the most popular attractions in Kampot.
Last but not least, Kampot is famous for its pepper. So head on out to the Kampot Pepper Farm and find out how they make pepper.
The city of Sihanoukville is named after the former king, Norodom Sihanouk. Most travelers have heard about this city, before traveling to Cambodia. It’s added to most travel itineraries and it’s a charming but lazy beach town.
But to be really honest, the biggest reason people visit Sihanoukville is because it’s the gateway to some of Cambodia’s most beautiful islands. Spend one day and one night here as you transit to or from the islands.
When here the best place to hang is on and around Otres Beach. And if you haven’t visited a pepper farm in Kampot, you’ll get a second chance here. Or go up the hill and visit the Wat Leu temple. All before traveling to your last destination, a slice of paradise.
We always like to end a family trip by spending a few days on a tropical island. And that’s what we did while in Cambodia. The last destination of this ultimate family road trip guide: Cambodia. And that is the gorgeous island Koh Rong. You’ve explored so much in such a short time that it’s great if you can spend 3 or 4 days here to charge your battery, before flying home.
Koh Rong has some beautiful coral reefs, so bring your snorkel along or buy one at one of the souvenir shops. When you get out of the water you’ll look at the whitest sandy beach you’ve ever seen, surrounded by rows of coconut trees. There’s no question that your family will relax, while here.
Some other great things to do in Koh Rong:
- book a plankton tour and see it light up in the dark
- go diving or get your PADI here
- rent a kayak and explore the waters around the island
- zip line through the jungle
- play around in the sand
When your Koh Rong tropical island vacation is over, it’s time to get back to Phnom Penh and end your time in Cambodia. This is the end of the Ultimate Family Road Trip Guide: Cambodia.
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Krista posted on 04 Mar 2023 at 3:55 pm
I've heard a lot of great things about Cambodia, so it's great to know that it's kid friendly too and enjoyable with the family.
Cosette posted on 04 Mar 2023 at 2:28 pm
Cambodia sounds like a great destination for families. But indeed I don't think I would let my 12-year old see the Killing Fields just yet. It sounds so horrid.
Saskia posted on 04 Mar 2023 at 4:26 pm
It is truly horrid. Very important for adults to learn about and pay our respects. But it's not a place for kids.
Jennifer S Femrite posted on 26 Feb 2023 at 6:11 am
I feel so inspired to take my family to Cambodia after reading this blog post. Thank you for the helpful suggestions!
Saskia posted on 02 Mar 2023 at 8:18 pm
I hope you get to experience Cambodia with your family! It’s an awesome country.
Leila posted on 26 Feb 2023 at 3:16 am
My husband and I have been researching Cambodia because we plan on visiting next year. This guide is wonderful, and the photos you took are fantastic. Angkor Wat always reminds me of Tomb Raider.
Saskia posted on 02 Mar 2023 at 8:19 pm
Thanks so much. I hope you get to feel like Lara Croft soon and explore the temples Angkor and all the other amazing places in Cambodia.