How to Survive Siem Reap (or other places in southeast asia) with a Toddler
How to Survive Siem Reap (or other places in southeast asia) with a Toddler
Cambodia must be in your itinerary if visiting Asia. Yes – even if you are traveling with a baby or a toddler. I know many families that travel with young children prefer beaches and places where a stroller can be pushed easily… but the magic of Siem Reap’s storybook ruins is something you can certainly not miss, and taking a baby or toddler along should never be an excuse to skip a place like this.
There are few places I have been to that have caused an overarching feeling of awe upon taking my first look. The Great Wall, the Colosseum, the snow sculptures in Harbin Snow and Ice Festival… and the ruins in Siem Reap. Just one quick look at it and your jaw literally opens wide, for a couple of minutes.
Yes, it’s a tricky place to visit with a baby. Tropical insect borne diseases, scorching heat, dangerous tuk-tuk rides, wobbly stone stairs to climb…. None of this sounds very baby friendly, I know…
So how can you pull off a trip like this with a baby or toddler and survive?
Browse through to get help planning a baby proofed trip to Siem Reap!
Before every trip you should always check with your doctor to find out if there are any vaccines that both you and your child might need. Of course, ensure you are all up to date on routine vaccinations. The CDC recommends doing this check up four to six weeks prior to the trip.
Aside from the routine vaccinations that you should always make sure you have (whether traveling or not!), you should consult with your doctor to find out for the need of a vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis and Malaria, mainly because these are both mosquito borne, and you will most definitely be susceptible to mosquito bites during your trip to Cambodia. Malaria prevention with young children is a bit tricky because it consists in a pill that should be taken before, during or after, depending on the doctor’s orders, so check with your doctor to find out the best method for prevention in young children. You could also get a shot again Rabies, especially in the case of older toddlers or children, as there could be a chance they play with stray dogs or cats (or monkeys) that roam around the city and temples. There are not many stray animals around in Siem Reap, but you will see a couple.
All vaccines that you get will really depend on what region of Cambodia you will be in, whether or not you will be sleeping outside (for example, camping), among other things. The rule is to always consult with your doctor prior to your trip.
Of course, prevent mosquito bites by using products with DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535. Note that DEET should only be used from three months of age onwards. If you would prefer to stay away from these chemicals, you can use organic mosquito repellents such as Babyganics Natural DEET-Free Insect Repellent, but note you will need to reapply these more frequently. Also, it’s a good idea to wear long sleeve shirts and pants, although this may be challenging because of the heat.
I know all this talk about tropical diseases may have you thinking Cambodia is a horrible destination for young children. But it’s not! All of this is only for prevention, and specialists report that only 5% of visitors in Asia are affected by diseases.”The biggest risk for travellers in Asia is not bugs, parasites, and other nasties, but road accidents that take a toll of unwary victims” (from http://www.smarttravelasia.com/Health.htm). So relax, take the precautions, and go!
As we are on the topic of health and disease preventions, always, always, always travel with a full insurance. Take a thermometer, fever reducing medicine, stomach pain medicine, and any other basic over the counter drugs you can think of. Better safe than sorry
Never drink water from the tap, never use it for cooking or preparing food, don’t use it for brushing teeth either. Hotels will usually give you a bottle of water a day per person, and you can find very cheap bottles of water at any shop in Siem Reap. Avoid ice cubes as well, as, of course, these are made from tap water!
The CDC has this great infographic that very clearly shows what is recommended and what to avoid, in Cambodia and in general throughout Asia.
And speaking about food…. I’m sure you have wondered what to feed your child! Bring your own food, in cans or jars. It is not easy to find baby food in Cambodia so this is a must. We have been doing baby led weaning with Ruben which means that usually when we travel he eats whatever we eat. However, on our trip to Cambodia we took his food, and that helped us feel safe about what he was eating. Also, we made sure to stay at very decent hotels, so when eating there we felt confident to give him simple things, such as rice and pasta.
We also carried our own plastic cutlery and tupperware, mainly because it was more simple than having to wait around to get a spoon from the restaurant we were at. I usually travel with a small container with detergent to wash these things. To sterilize pacifiers and other items, I use the hotel electric kettle – just dump the things in there with water and boil away! You can also carry Detoll (or other similar brand) wet wipes. These are great for hand sanitizing, table cleaning, or general disinfecting of areas that you child will use.
This is a must! Do not bring your stroller. Not even for a night out. The ruins and temples around Siem Reap are filled with wobbly stone staircases that are not stroller friendly at all! If you take your stroller you will be carrying it with one hand while you hold you baby in the other hand 99% of the time. The next day, you will decide it’s best to leave it in the hotel, which means you will end up taking it simply to use at airports. If you really feel you need it for the airport, then go ahead and take it, but do not go out to the city with the stroller! Besides, you will be getting on and off of tuk-tuks a lot, and folding and unfolding your stroller will be very unpractical!
Not even for the evening, when you go out to dinner around Pub Street will the stroller be of use! There are so many people walking around and the place is full of small allies that are super interesting to explore, but a stroller will not fit comfortably through them.
If your child weighs up to 15kgs, you can use an ergonomic, soft carrier, which it practical and simple and can even be folded to be put away in the suitcase. I always recommend Ergobaby carriers. I do not leave the house without it! If you child is larger than the weight limit for these, there are some very good carriers, such as the Osprey Packs Poco AG Child Carrier, which I have heard is very good but have never used (luckily Ruben still fits in our Ergobaby carrier and loves both the front and back positions). Don’t worry about naps because babies can have great naps while lying in the carriers, Ruben does so since he was about 3 months old, and I have seen older children napping in the backpack carriers, although I have never had the chance to experience this first hand. You might want to practice before the trip though, to make sure you can put your child in and out the carrier, and to get him or her more used to napping there.
It’s no surprise that south east asia has scorching heat and unbearable humidity. Avoid the times of year when this is at its worse and do yourself and your baby a favor: go during December, January or early February.
Even if you do this, you will get hot! So make your sure you book a hotel with a swimming pool. You will absolutely be grateful for this after a morning of temple viewing and your child will love to relax and swim loose while cooling off.
Ensure you leave enough time for the well deserved rest in your hotel’s pool. Do not over plan. I suggest you spend at least three days in Siem Reap. You can purchase three day tickets for the Angkor Archeological Park. Your hotel or tuk-tuk driver can help you plan which temples to see which days, they most likely will suggest full day trails, but I suggest you pick one or two temples – at most – per day. That way you can spend the morning at these temples, and then head back to town for lunch, and allocate the rest of the afternoon for lounging in your hotel pool.
Make sure you arrive early in the morning on the first day of the visit, when you buy the tickets because lines can get long. 8:00 – 8:30 is fine. Also, take advantage of the fact you are wearing your child, and ask security for a special line. We did and we were able to cut the line in front of about 50 people! The rest of the days for you visit there is no need to be there so early. 9:00 – 9:30 AM is ok.
Spend some time roaming around the ruins and getting lost among the destroyed and tree root covered temples. Of course, respect the signs and do not go to forbidden areas. The best of these ruins is just taking it all in: the spectacular views of the moldy stones, the carvings, the way the tree roots intertwine through and around the stones. The birds singing in the middle of the jungle… it’s truly magical and feels like it was all taken from a story book. When you find a place where you can stop and relax, let your child down from the baby carrier and enjoy the adventure of walking and climbing along the stones. Follow him or her super closely though because the stones are all very irregular and for sue he or she could fall.
It may seem like you are not making the most of your tip by taking so long in viewing just a few ruins. But, trust me, after seeing the four or five most important ones, all of them will seem the same to you! And truthfully, you will really need the extra time relaxing after the heat and weariness of carrying your baby up and down stone stairs and ruins. Your baby, in turn, will really appreciate being “let loose” to roam free. The whole point is to enjoy the beautiful sights and spend some time with your family, so relax, take your time, and enjoy it calmly.
There are a few other things to do around Siem Reap other than Angkor Archeological Park. I would recommend you skip them all and stick to the basics. I know I always say you can continue traveling even when you have a baby with you, but the truth of the matter is that the way you travel does change… a lot! And this is one way it changes: you cannot do it all. Stay on the “safe” side (mentally) and visit the must see places. Then, chill!
Do not go to the National Museum or to the War Museum, no matter how interested you may be in Cambodia’s history and the story behind the Khmer Rouge. Do not go to the floating village, no matter how much the tuk – tuk driver recommends it. Especially during the dry season (december through february, which is when I recommend you go), it is too far away, uninteresting, and all in all, a mosquito infested tourist trap.
Do not attempt to wake up at 4:30 to get to Angkor Wat in time to see the sunrise, as many people and websites recommend. It may be a beautiful view, but the truth is I do not think it is worth it! I have seen photos, and spoken to people who have done this, and though I do recognize it’s a nice view, I do not think it is marvelous enough to put your baby through a 4:00 am wake up call.
Visit the most important temples, lounge in your hotel pool during the afternoon and stroll around Pub Street in the evening. You will love this and trust me, it is more than enough! Temples not to miss are Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.
In point one we discussed how the biggest risk for travellers in Asia is not bugs, but road accidents. Having said this, I thought that Cambodia had much safer traffic than other places in Asia. All motorcycle drivers wear helmets, which seems to be a massive improvement as in other places not a helmet is in sight among the ocean of motorbikes.
Nevertheless, staying safe is of course a must, especially because tuk-tuks are the official way of transport for tourists. If you arrange airport pickup with your hotel (which you should!) they will send a tuk-tuk. You will visit the temples on a tuk-tuk. Everywhere you go – a tuk-tuk. You can ask for a car, but of course this has about ten times the cost of a tuk – tuk and will take a while longer for the car to arrive.
To stay safe while riding a tuk-tuk I recommend you always wear your baby in the carrier. That way you can grab firmly onto the handles or rails while you baby is safe. Also, sit so that the baby is facing forward to avoid him or her getting dizzy. This seems silly, but trust me, babies DO get tuk-tuk sick (Ruben did, and I felt so sorry for having him riding back facing the whole time).
Whatever you do, do not go elephant riding! Sure, it may seem like a really fun activity for a toddler or young child, but isn’t part of the reason we are traveling with children to raise global citizens who are respectful of the diversity on planet Earth? Doesn’t this also mean teaching them to respect and value all living beings?
Riding elephants always involves animal maltreatment, no matter where. Around the ruins of Angkor Wat you may see signs offering elephant riding. You may even see the elephants with velvety looking red saddles. Use this as an opportunity to talk with your child about how the elephant might feel, and by no means take your child to ride one of them.
If you are interested in elephants, then I would highly recommend visiting the Elephant Valley Project. It is not located directly in Siem Reap and you would have to plan your visit ahead of time as it means traveling to Mondulkiri. You can take one day tours which involve taking care of the elephants as a volunteer, and all money you pay for your entrance to the sanctuary goes to taking care of the 11 rescued elephants they have there. I did not have the fortune of visiting this place, but I have seen other elephant sanctuaries (in Chiang Mai) and I highly recommend this experience.
And as we are on the topic of animals in Siem Reap, let’s talk about monkeys. You will see various monkeys around the ruins. You may feel like pointing your toddler in their direction and even coming close to them for a funny photo. Do not. These monkey are not nice monkeys. They will defend themselves vigorously as they will think you are a threat. Make sure you keep any snacks, food or bananas you have just bough in the street carts right out of the temples out of reach and safely in a backpack, as these monkeys will steal anything edible that is within their reach, and they will do so violently. This is very important because the monkeys may have rabies, which is clearly something you want to avoid, as discussed in point one.
Siem Reap is a wonderful place to visit. Granted it may not be the most baby friendly destination in the world, but if we only stick to those that are, our holidays would all be spent at Disney World…. Right?
So be brave and most of all be prepared, and off you go to enjoy Siem Reap!
Have you been somewhere in southeast Asia with a baby or toddler? What other tips would you include to this list? Comment below!