By Laura Hodgson
Travelling friend at Travel Nation
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Since airfares for long haul travel can be much cheaper during the Easter school holidays compared to the summer holidays, we decided this year to have our main holiday in April.
We wanted some beach time but also some culture and city life and it didn’t take us long to decide on a Cambodia family holiday. As you can’t fly direct from the UK, we decided to bookend the trip with 2 Asian cities and since we were flying with Malaysia Airlines it made sense to stop in Kuala Lumpur. On the way out we chose another vibrant Asian city experience with a stopover in Bangkok.
For our stay in Thailand we booked a tailor-made package for Bangkok for 2 nights. This meant after our long journey from London via Kuala Lumpur we were met by our driver and guide Thom who explained he would be looking after us for the next 3 days. He helped with our luggage, engaged with the children on the transfer and even explained the traffic may be particularly bad that night as Coldplay were playing in the city much to the excitement of my 10 year old son! He also checked us into the hotel whist we had our first Singha beer and the kids enjoyed the fruit and welcome drinks. This sort of attentive service after travelling long haul with kids was invaluable especially when you tired yourself after the long journey.
Known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, they place great importance on families, so it’s an ideal destination. Bangkok is a city with lots of accommodation options, but since my husband and I had already stayed at two of the iconic hotels, the Peninsula and the Oriental, we decided to stay at the Chatrium Sathorn Hotel. As we are a family of 5, their two bedroom apartments are perfect and afforded us the space we needed whilst still being in a central location.
Bright and early the next day after several trips to the hotel breakfast buffet we met Thom in the lobby for our morning tour. When travelling with the kids to cities I always like to have a morning tour included on the first day as this gets us up and out and tackles jet lagged square on. It is also beneficial to do the tours early in the day before the temperatures really soar. The slight downside of going to South East Asia in April is that it is one of the hottest months and whilst this can be challenging in the cities it is fantastic for the beach part of your holiday.
Our tour consisted of visiting the Grand Palace and Wat Pho but the journey there was a tour in itself. Sightseeing with the kids was when I really saw the benefits of being on a private escorted tour. Yes the kids were hot but they loved being shown round by Thom and finding all the intricate carvings and statues in the Grand Palace.
Thom explained to the children the history of the Royal Family and the various buildings in the Grand Palace which was particularly poignant since Thailand was going through a year of mourning as their beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej who had recently passed away. Thom arranged for the children to have a Buddhist Blessing within the Wat Po grounds with incense, gold leaf and lotus flowers to bring them luck in life. He also patiently helped them fill the 108 bronze bowls with coins to bring them prosperity and good fortune. To say he was a hit with the kids was an understatement.
The best thing about early sightseeing is that you can get back to the hotel for a well deserved lunch and a refreshing dip in the pool. The pool at the Chatrium is surrounded by lovely gardens and the kids loved playing in the shaded pool for the rest of the day.
Bangkok has changed lots since my back packer days and we decided to head to Asiatique on the riverside which is full of outdoor shops and restaurants for our evening entertainment. There is a huge night market with lots of restaurant stalls, fairground rides and a big wheel. The kids loved it and it was full of locals enjoying the entertainment and food on offer.
The next day Thom came back for us to take us to the airport and it was time to say our fond farewells. When we arrived at the airport we were escorted into the airport and checked in. The kids were sad to say goodbye and seeing them hug him reaffirmed my opinion that their experience of Bangkok was enhanced by having a guide. We had been to Bangkok several times before in our BC (before children) years but seeing it through the eyes of our children who got so much from our tour was really special!
From Bangkok we took a short flight over to Siem Reap in Cambodia with Air Asia recently voted budget airline of the year. On arrival we realised that things were going to be a bit different in Cambodia with 5 stern officials stamping and passing our passports along their line in a very officious manner, bureaucracy at its best. Thankfully we were met at the airport for our transfer to the Sala Lodges, our home for the next 2 nights.
On the way from the airport the children quickly realised that Siem Reap was quite different to Bangkok. The guide told them that Siem Reap has only 5 traffic lights and only 2 of them work. Junctions were a bit of a leap of faith and people’s modes of transport were quite different.
The tuk tuks in Cambodia are modified motorbikes that had seating attached to them. The kids quickly noticed that most locals travelled on mopeds and cars were quite unusual. So here started the Hodgson Moped Game which involved us trying to find the most unusual thing being transported on a moped. We played this throughout Cambodia and we had a full size refrigerator, a gaggle of live ducks, a dead pig, 4 ladders and several carpets all featuring in the top 5 during our stay. Great fun and a super way of getting the kids engaged in their surroundings.
The boutique Sala lodges on the outskirts of Siem Reap are beautiful. Each place is unique, based on rice barn designs with the surrounding grounds full of rice paddies. It was very authentic, peaceful but most welcoming to our somewhat noisy family who were quick to dive into the pool!
We had a tuk tuk at our disposal for our whole stay so we organised a morning tour of the Angkor Temples, visiting Angkor Thom, Ta Prom and Angkor Wat.
We organised a photo scavenger hunt for the kids and enjoyed watching them trying to get photos of the various carvings, temples and sights. They enjoyed running around the temple complexes but once the heat got the best of us and they’d collected the necessary photos we rewarded them with an ice cream from Gelato Café in town. I thoroughly recommend the chocolate and black pepper ice cream. My six year old daughter was not so keen on my choice. I think it was the first time I got to eat all of my own ice-cream.
After a cool off at the hotel’s pool we embarked on a sunset quad biking tour. It was very safe, well organised and enabled us to see the very picturesque surrounding countryside at our own pace - we even timed it perfectly for a sundowner at the end of the tour. One thing I would say is to check that your travel insurance includes this activity – we used Travel Nation’s insurance policy which can be included alongside other ‘risky’ activities as standard.
After the tour we wanted to hit the town and the legendary Pub Street in Siem Reap. We ate at one of the many restaurants in this extremely lively strip and then as a family took over a massage parlour and all had a foot massage in a row. I’m not sure who laughed more - the kids with their tickly feet or the Cambodian ladies who loved our blond children!
We only stayed in Siem Reap for 2 nights as we had been before and this was only to give the kids a flavour of the city. Ideally you would have a minimum of 3 nights but could even extend to 5 and visit many more of the 50 temples in the region and even head to Ton Le Sap Lake. A home stay on the lake is a very popular family excursion.
As we had quite a tight schedule in Cambodia and wanted to see as much as possible we made the decision to fly south so we could explore Kep National Park and then visit an island.
In Kep we stayed at the Veranda Natural Resort which was on the edge of the jungle where jungle treks, visits to caves and pepper plantations are all on offer. We made extensive use of the pool and they had a kids ‘Happy Hut’ where the children could escape the sun and do natural arts and crafts projects. The food here was divine but it was all about getting back to nature and relaxing for 4 days after the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and the temples of Siem Reap.
When researching where to stay in Cambodia for a beach holiday we did a lot of research and finally decided on Koh Rong Samolem. We wanted somewhere with good resorts, super beach front restaurants but not too developed. Koh Rong Samolem did not disappoint and is an easy 45 minute speed boat transfer from Sihanhoukville.
We stayed on Saracen Bay at the One Resort which had duplex beach front bungalows that could accommodate the 5 of us. There was a lovely infinity pool and the restaurant and bar were very reasonable and superb quality. We also were adjacent to another dozen or so boutique resorts so had lots of dining opportunities nearby where we could dine whilst the kids played on the beach. The beach was fabulous and the jungle interior gave lots of trekking opportunities and a super walk over to Lazy Beach which is considered to be one of the top 5 beaches in the world.
Our final stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh which was a pleasant surprise to us. Much of what I had heard about this city was about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, the horrific Killing fields and the former prison camp S21.
We made the decision that our children were too young to go to the Killing Fields and S21. We did talk to our eldest two about this awful episode of Cambodian history and retelling this it is hard to think that all this happened within our lifetimes and that Cambodia is still recovering. I had previously done the day tour to the Killing Fields and S21 and whilst the story is harrowing, everyone is on audio tours so both places have actually had a peaceful and reflective atmosphere.
One of the highlights in Phnom Penh was visiting a school with the children, a visit organised by a French Charity called PSE. It was set up to try and feed children who were scavenging for rubbish on the dumps in the city. They rescued the children and set up a school which is now a full elementary school, hotel and catering college, beauty school and business school. We were shown around by one of the first children rescued from the rubbish dump 30 years previously so it was very moving but great to see the positive side of this country overcoming its dreadful past.
We loved this city with its roof top bars and restaurants. You can see the investment and growth in the city all around and it feels like a country on the up. With such a young population in Cambodia who are re-educating themselves there is a hugely positive vibe to this city.
After two nights in Phnom Penh we flew over to Kuala Lumpur for a night. Of course you could spend longer here but as we had an early flight the next day we elected to stay at the Sama Sama airport hotel. This is conveniently a short buggy ride or 15 minute walk from the terminal building. We elected for the buggy ride and after a dip in their pool settled down for our last night of the holiday.
If you have even a day to spend in KL, you can easily visit the iconic Petronas Towers for some photos and pack in a little shopping in the many air conditioned malls before you come home!
Asia is a great option for a family holiday and ideally suited us - we were able to stay in luxury boutique properties in Cambodia and it didn’t break the bank, which feels like a real treat. If you would like us to organise this holiday or discuss alternative family trips, simply contact us.
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