family travel with a conscience in Siem Reap, Cambodia
When I last visited Angkor Wat in 2008, I was a single backpacker who’s mode of transportation was whatever was cheapest and $10 a night on a hotel was considered a splurge. Things have changed. Both in my life and in Angkor Wat. I have memories of exploring the temples by bike without anyone else in sight. This doesn’t exist anymore. Throngs and throngs of tourists now arrive by the busload, tuk-tuk-load, car-load, motorbike-load and you name it, every single day.
It really started me thinking, what is the impact of all of these people? On the ruins, on the environment, on the culture? Throughout our travels in Asia, we have been disturbed by the ever presence of plastic. Washing up on pristine beaches, piling up along the roadsides, and the individually wrapped everything in the grocery stores. According to the #refillnotlandfill movement, 355,000 plastic bottles are disposed of DAILY in Cambodia alone. This is staggering. So, the question is, how can we still enjoy traveling while being conscious of the impact of our travels. And how can we do this with our kids in tow?
So, this is my new mission. Family friendly, responsible travel advice, along with beautiful photo inspiration.
Visiting the Temples with Kids
Looking for a big adventure with your little ones? Angkor Wat is the place. While we didn’t actually see many families while we were there, I can honestly say it is a wonderful place for kids - albeit not the most relaxing. Ancient temples in the jungle, incredibly friendly people, beautiful scenic landscapes. It’s magical. You would not regret it. Of course, it is not without its challenges.
There are three ticket options for visiting the temples: 1 day (37 USD), 3 day (62 USD) and 7 day (72 USD). We chose to do the 3 day plan. With small kids, a full day of temples in the hot sun was just too intense and we wanted to take it nice and easy to be able to enjoy it. I highly recommend this option, as our kids hit their limit after about three hours. The Angkor Wat complex is HUGE. Literally it is the city of temples. You could spend days and days on end exploring, so it is best to plan strategically. Most tours take what’s called the Grand Circuit or the Small Circuit, starting in the morning. The most popular temples such as Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm are covered in these tours. While these temples are incredible and worth a visit, try to avoid them at peak times. It can also get very hot so I recommend planning your day around early morning or late afternoon for temple visits.
The first day we chose two of the most popular temples (Ta Prohm and Bayon), which were really packed. The second day I asked some of the lovely staff at our hotel if they knew of any ruins that would have fewer people. They sent us to three temples called the Roluos Group away from the main complex (but still included in the entrance ticket), where tourists rarely go. It was absolutely amazing. We were standing completely alone exploring one of the most magical places in the world. There are a number of other temples that aren’t nearly as heavily frequented, so definitely ask! The last day we did the Angkor temple near sunset to avoid the early morning madness. It was still very busy, but much more manageable, and really, it is worth the visit.
It’s important to note that the temples are not stroller friendly. If you have small kids that need some support, bring along a carrier! Also, bring lots of water. I know this one isn’t always easy, but having your own reusable bottles makes a big difference if you don’t want to contribute to the plastic waste. We asked our hotel to refill ours multiple times a day - which they did happily. We also did it at restaurants and cafes, so don’t feel shy to ask.
Where to Stay & what to do
We stayed at the Onederz Khmer House in Siem Reap, and it was wonderful. Amazingly friendly staff, delicious food and very very accommodating to kids. There is a beautiful pool (with a shallow end) in the lush gardens which is a wonderful place to pass the afternoon after a morning of temple exploring. They also provide eco friendly toiletries with beautiful refillable ceramics in the bathtub and all the extras are given in biodegradable packaging made from stone using a soy based ink. Props to them for going the extra mile! It is located a little bit out of the main buzz of the city, but we really enjoyed the peace. They offer a free airport pick-up and drop-off as well as free tuk-tuk rides into town whenever you want.
Siem Reap is a lovely rural city buzzing with social, economic and environmental initiatives. While there are so many out there, here is a basic list of some of the ones I found interesting!
#refillnotlandfill started as a way to tackle the staggering 355,000 bottles disposed of daily in Cambodia alone. The idea is to make safe water accessible without the plastic. Pick up a bottle and make sure to use the free filling stations! Check the website for filling stations around the country, https://refillcambodia.com (also available in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar!).
Phare Circus is a social initiative working with disadvantaged youth from Battambang, training them in the professional arts. Wonderful intimate shows run daily at 8pm with an additional 5pm show from Nov-Mar. Proceeds from ticket and merchandise sales go to supporting educational programs, professional arts training and other social projects in Battambang. Our kids really enjoyed the early show. Book your tickets at https://pharecircus.org.
New Leaf Eatery serves delicious food for a good cause. 30% of profits go to support educational programs and an additional 20% go to supporting the Cambodian staff. And did I mention it’s delicious? This is a good location to start if you want more information on responsible travel in Cambodia. Located in the old market area https://newleafeatery.com.
Alley West has a variety of socially and environmentally conscious shops. Running parallel to Pub street in the old market area you can explore shops such as smateria which sells bags and wallets made from old fishing nets and plastic waste http://smateria.com or bodia spa which sells beautiful natural beauty products. They even have their own spa if you want to treat yourself to a bit of luxury http://www.bodia-spa.com. And no visit to Alley West would be complete without a stop at Gelato Lab which serves up the most delicious cold stuff and coffee. They have a recycling initiative https://mobile.facebook.com/gelatolabsiemreap that allows you to enjoy your treat guilt-free. They also happily refill water bottles with nice ice cold water!
Made in Cambodia Market is an upscale artisan market located in Kings Road. Beautiful high quality products made by and supporting Cambodians are sold at fair prices. https://www.facebook.com/MadeinCambodiaMarket/
Lavender Jeep is a completely women run company structured as a cooperative giving the women entrepreneurs a stake in their own business. http://www.lavenderjeepsiemreap.com/about/
Greene Bike an electric bike company if you aren’t up for long distances in the hot sun on a normal bike. http://www.greene-bike.com
Of course, using one of the many many bike rental companies is also a great way to low impact travel, but a bit trickier with small ones, especially in the heat!
Other tips for responsible travel in Cambodia
Be respectful when visiting the temples. Cover your shoulders and knees out of respect (they enforce the covering of shoulders), follow the signs and don’t climb off the designated paths. With such a high density of tourist visits everyday, the temples will not be around for long if we don’t respect the rules.
Don’t take photos of kids. As a photographer, I understand the urge, but as a mother and child protection worker, I strongly urge you not to. Unless a parent is there to give consent, refrain from getting that perfect Instagram shot. Children are not tourist attractions.
Always try to support local jobs and local artists wherever possible. Tourism should benefit the host country, after all. In Cambodia this is very easy. There are many very high standard hotels, cafes, restaurants, shops and products run by, produced by or benefitting Cambodians.
As hard as it is, say no to plastic. Plastic will be thrown at you in every situation imaginable. Come prepared, bring reusable bags, straws and bottles.
And finally, be prepared to be inspired by the beautiful country and the warmth of its people. Happy travels!