We started our first day in Phnom Penh the same we usually do in any new city. We left the hotel and went for a morning stroll, taking in the new sights, smells and winding streets. We found our way down to the river, where we saw high rise buildings towering over the river. In their shadow some men fishing with their hand thrown nets. A scene that replays so often throughout South East Asia, the one that tells a story of a fast moving region keeping hold of age old traditions, while hurtling into a new, modern world.
We stood together overlooking the scene in front of us, taking in the moment. After a few minutes a man walked towards the waterfront and stopped, taking in the same view we were. Eventually he broke the silence and began talking to us about family and precious moments, before relaying his story of being mugged and stabbing his attackers on the streets of Phnom Penh, while continually glancing down at the camera around my neck. He continued on, telling us about his time in Cambodian prison and missing out on his family growing up, back in his home country of America. It was certainly an encounter that made us feel incredibly uncomfortable, so we bid our farewells, wished him luck on his voyage back home and began making our way along the river.
Naturally, this was the perfect opportunity for the boys to begin walking at a snails pace, stopping to closely examine every stick, leaf and ant on the neatly paved street. Within moments, the man had caught up with us again and began asking us for water, again relaying his story of being made to wait around the streets until his flight home. Trying my hardest not to look shaken up or uncomfortable, I opened my pack and handed him a bottle of water, thankful that we had left most of our valuables in a secure safe back in our hotel room. We bid our farewells again, scooped up the boys and told them that the more exciting ants were on the opposite side of the street.
Desperately trying to get across the street, tuk tuk drivers began their accent. “Tour to the palace. I offer good price.” “Tuk, tuk Miss.” “Hello Sir, this temple is very special, let me tell you.” “Ah, beautiful children. Where are you from?”. Pushing our way past the tirade, we made it to a temple. “I take you to the palace. Good price.” After politely declining the 50th offer within two minutes, we made our way through the decorative gates and into the calm of the temple. Taking in the beautiful carvings and sculptures surrounded by greenery was incredibly calming and tranquil. “After here I take you to the palace.” Growing more and more irate, Mr. C firmly told our new follower that we did not need a tuk tuk and would not be needing this man’s services.
We moved through the grounds and came to a set of steps leading to a elaborate, golden bell. A man made his way to where we were standing and showed us how to ring the bell and asked if the boys would like to try it. The bell released a low chime, that echoed around the complex and created a sense of inclusion. The man bowed, smiled and went back to sit on a bench in the shade of some low hanging trees. “I take you now to palace. Good price.” The tuk tuk driver had made his advances again. Quickly beginning to lose our patience, but being very aware that we were standing in the middle of a temple complex, Mr. C firming told him to leave us alone because we wanted to spend time as a family. He finally seemed to get the message and reluctantly walked back towards the entrance.
I began to move around the temple’s courtyard, taking in the richly coloured elephants, statues and shrines. Pointing out different things to the boys and pondering the differences between this building and our churches back in England. “It’s important temple. Very special. I take you to palace now.” The tuk tuk driver was back and we had really run of patience this time. We pretended he didn’t even exist, scooped up the boys and left, taking the back roads back to our hotel, hoping to avoid further harassment and the stabber on the waterfront.
After such an awful introduction to the city, I began to wonder why anyone recommended Cambodia as a must visit. Then I thought back to a conversation I had with an Italian women back in Rome about street sellers, “You English are too polite. Be more Italian, pretend people don’t exist when you walk past them.” We figured, she was probably onto something and tried things the Italian way. It certainly made our time in Cambodia’s capital a much easier ride. So my top tip for British people travelling around Cambodia, leave your British politeness at the border… it has no place in Cambodia.
With a new attitude, a much more effective way of dealing with persistent harassment and thankfully no more encounters with the stabber we began to love our time in Phnom Penh. We very quickly began to see the charm and instead of googling flights back to Thailand, we began to consider extending our stay. Phnom Penh is a great stopping point with children when you know where to go, especially if travelling on a budget.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh – The Point Boutique
We stayed at The Point Boutique hotel while in Phnom Penh. We managed to broker a really good deal with the manager, meaning we got a deluxe Junior Suite, with a balcony for $38 (approximately £27.40) a night. The room was very comfortable, with a large cosy bed, safe, complimentary teas, coffee and water, TV and a table next to a window overlooking at the city and the river. We got to experience an intense thunderstorm during our stay and watching lightening flash across the city skyline was just spectacular. The balcony left a lot to be a desired, with approximately one square foot of space to move around in and the blast of a hot fan from the air conditioning blowing at you the entire time, but at least we had the option of opening the door. A great breakfast was included with the price of the room and the hotel also has a rooftop bar (which we didn’t get to check out). In terms of value for money, it was such a great hotel to stay in with little ones and well worth the money we paid.
What to do in Phnom Penh with young children
Children Playgrounds – Urban Space Playground & Cafe
There are a number of playgrounds dotted around the city, with metal and plastic equipment. We found that a lot of the public play areas weren’t maintained all that well, with a lot of the equipment broken or covered in something we didn’t want the boys playing near. We did a bit a research and found a great cafe about a 20 minute tuk tuk ride out of the city centre called Urban Space. Urban Space has playground equipment that rivals western standards, a large sand area with trucks, soft play and a children’s pool with a water slide. The food is a little expensive for Phnom Penh, but not excessively so and the quality is exceptionally good. There is a small charge for both the soft play and use of the pool, but the outdoor playground and sand pit are free of charge.
Kingdom Resort and Spa
Kingdom Resort and Spa is a great place to visit with little ones. In the centre of the resort is a large pool, with a deeper swimming area, complete with two large water slides. There is also a children’s area, that has a mushroom water fountain and various different slides of different levels. Kingdom Resort and Spa is about a 40 minute Tuk Tuk ride out of the city, so we hired a tuk tuk driver for a few hours for $20 (which is about £15).
Bear has always been a bit reluctant to get in the water (I partly blame some awful swim lessons we went to when he was baby), but after seeing the slides, he jumped straight in. The boys had so much fun splashing about and learning to swim and is somewhere we would definitely go again.
The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. The centre is home to a number of rescued wildlife offering both a programme to rehabilitate and release animals back into the wild, as well as a sanctuary for animals that are unable to be released. During our time at the centre, we were able to feed elephants and baby macaques, visit behind the scenes parts of the park, learn about the animal’s stories and enjoy a traditional Cambodian lunch. It is such an eye opening place to visit and an absolute must visit for people who are passionate about conservation.
Phnom Penh has a number of different night markets, each of them unique and with a different charm. We stumbled upon the Phnom Penh Night Market, which was very close to our hotel. In the middle of the market is a stage, where various stage performances are performed during the evening. A little way behind the stage are the food vendors. The food vendors lay out woven mats, so people can gather together enjoying food, while listening to the live music being played in the middle of the market. Depending on what is ordered, it is incredibly cheap to eat at the market. A meal and a coconut cost us about $3 (approximately £2.15). For our family of four, it cost us to less than £10 a night to eat at the market.
Good Cause Dining
This is something we didn’t do personally, but something my Dad recommended to us if we got a chance to do it. Good Cause Dining is a great initiative where street children are taught culinary and waiting skills, as well as being given the chance to gain crucial work experience.
Our time in Phnom Penh with young children
After a rocky introduction to Phnom Penh, we came to love the city and were sad to say goodbye. We experienced so much as a family during our time in Phnom Penh and loved learning so much about the conservation efforts that take place there. The culture surrounding family is very warming and it has been amazing learning more about some of the great initiatives giving back to those who need a helping hand. Phnom Penh has been one of the most interesting places we have visited so far, with so many raw experiences, both good and bad. It is certainly somewhere that has taught us so much and somewhere that we will always hold close to our hearts.