Although Angkor Wat and Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia might be better-known tourist destinations, the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh should certainly not be overlooked and is such an important part of any South-East Asian itinerary
This post is part of our series Discover Asia
Truly steeped in historical importance, and shrouded in amazing architecture – the city is once known as the Pearl of Asia certainly drew me in. On arriving in Phnom Penh I was hit with an overwhelming sense of familiarity, despite this being our first family visit to Cambodia.
Plan ahead and get your Cambodia visa here
From the airport through to arrival at our new digs I was immediately filled with a lustre to explore and get to know everything more intimately. There’s that ever-present bustle like you feel in big south-east Asian cities, but also calmness.
Arriving on a Sunday, there is a relaxed vibe, the air is warm in late March but not stifling hot. There are more tuk-tuks than motorcycles filling the roads compared to Vietnam – and of course, road lanes are non-existent, everyone weaves between impossibly small gaps with relative calm.
History of Cambodia
There are few countries that boast quite as dramatic a past over the centuries as Cambodia. In incredibly recent history the after-effects of the Khmer Rouge Regime – events that occurred within our own lifetimes – can still be felt.
Although the capital is now a thriving city again, it will remain forever scarred by the brutalities that occurred under Pol Pot’s reign of terror from 1975 until the liberation then occupation by the Vietnamese in 1979. To this day the political situation is still not entirely stable.
I personally, try as I might, could not absorb it all and have even more unanswered questions in my head since visiting and seeing it myself.
There are two main memorials to the atrocities that occurred in the 1970s, one is the Choeung Ek “Killing Fields” and in central Phnom Penh the S-21 Genocide Museum – previously a school that became a prison camp during the regime.
Both tell fairly graphic tales of the brutality of the regime. Although Pol Pot died before standing trial, the Khmer Rouge trials remain ongoing.
Learn more about the Khmer Rouge before you go
A must-see for anyone wanting to learn more about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pots regime is the Docufilm Enemies of the People.
Immensely poignant and almost uncomfortable to watch, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath spent years interviewing those from deep within the Khmer Rouge, involved and responsible for the deaths of so many (an estimated 2 million Khmer people lost their lives).
Sambath builds a relationship with Pol Pot’s deputy, Nuon Chea (who has since been imprisoned by a genocide tribunal and died in 2019), during which time he admits his role in the killings.
Another good film to help set the scene before a visit to Phnom Penh is The Killing Fields, based on the true story of journalists caught in Democratic Kampuchea immediately prior to the Khmer Rouge regime, then the brutality that unfolded afterwards. Bring your Kleenex!
Related Reading: Surprising Facts about Cambodia
Should you take kids to the Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum?
We considered this point a lot. Whilst in some respects they are still so young and it was likely to all go over their heads, my concern was whether my older girl would find it upsetting. If she did comprehend things how would she cope with this, and could I myself explain it to her – without leaving her permanently scarred?
We did end up taking all our kids (aged 6, 3 and 1), and as expected they enjoyed the tuk-tuk ride out there immensely, and when we got there largely complained about being hungry, the heat, the smells (which I can bet they’d do pretty much anywhere in the world).
Given their lack of connection to what they were looking at, we decided to also tackle the S21 Genocide Museum. Both can quite easily be done in one morning if you get a good early start and move at a ‘keeping the kids entertained’ pace.
My tip would be for kids under 5 years old, base it on their ability to stay quiet and not moan too much for an extended period – more for the sake and comfort of everyone around you who is trying to quietly reflect.
For the over 5’s or more aware child, base it on their emotional ability. We got largely through the museums without Miss 6 really raising an eye to it all, then she saw a depiction of a child being tortured – she knew it was a jail but we couldn’t explain to her what the child had done wrong, why were they hurting him?
I still don’t know if this was a good idea to take her here or not, she hasn’t mentioned it again since. We cannot ignore the past but there is a time and a place and you personally need to consider your children’s maturity and personalities before taking them to places like this. Their boredom was more an issue for us than what they saw.
Other kid-friendly attractions in Phnom Penh
So let’s talk about some more appropriate places to take kids in Phnom Penh.
Royal Palace Phnom Penh
One of the most visited attractions aside from the poignant memorials mentioned above is the Royal Palace.
Little seems to be spoken really about the Royal family in Cambodia but King Sihamoni is the current ruler and resides here, so access is restricted for visitors to only the throne room, some of the temples and surrounding buildings.
It is incredibly picturesque and serene in here (though we are lead to believe very busy on weekends). Opening hours are quite short and they are closed for 3 hours over lunch so plan around this, and make sure you have covered shoulders and knees for entry.
Nearby is also the stunning Silver Pagoda and just a block further on you will come to the large Wat Bottom Park, which includes an extensive play area. In the evenings it’s fun to watch the locals get out and exercising, group aerobics classes are very popular!
The Riverside – Tonle Sap & the Mekong Rivers
The embankment along the Tonle Sap River, referred to as the Riverside is bustling in the evenings with street vendors and families looking to relax – do see our warning below though on annoyances.
On the opposite side of the road, there is an extensive range of dining options to choose from – all with Western and Khmer food options, even fussy eaters can be well catered for.
From here there are also a number of tour companies that operate river cruises on the Tonle Sap and Mekong throughout the day – you can really choose how long a cruise you do and time of day.
I’d recommend checking out the boat you’re going to get though; some looked a little more run-down than others!
We took the sunset cruise with Memorable Cambodia and I could not recommend them highly enough. We pre-purchased tickets through a travel agency in town (charged only for the adults in our group) and they picked us up from the hotel and took us to the boat.
The boat is run by students from the hospitality college and they did a stellar job serving us and some very thoughtful commentary and answering our questions.
Markets in Phnom Penh
There is a small night market that runs from Wednesday to Sunday evenings, not far from where most of the boat cruises depart. There’s a little light entertainment here too and dining options, a nice way for kids to end the day.
Those with little globetrotters like ours do try and squeeze in a kid-free evening. There are a load of rooftop bars overlooking the river, like the Famous Foreign Correspondence Club (but pricey).
Directly opposite is the huge but popular 5 story Grand River Restaurant & Bar. There’s no way I would have taken the kids up there, especially our daredevil Master J as I don’t think they’d pass any sort of Australian Health and Safety inspection but cheap cocktails and a fabulous view made for a great evening out. Older, more responsible kids will really enjoy the novelty of them too.
Family Accommodation in Phnom Penh
We stayed at the Kabiki – a gorgeous oasis in the heart of the city oozing in charm. We could not have asked for better accommodation for this leg of our South East Asia trip.
It only has 18 rooms, but the massive selling point for us was their family-sized rooms, they have a few that can fit up to 7! Yes, 7 in a hotel room! (If you don’t know our pain and misery of finding large hotel rooms, read more here!)
And funnily, despite this, we did not feel cramped and on top of each other at all – probably because we were out exploring or by the pool for the most part.
The room itself was quite basic, we got two double beds, one single and one bunk bed. This was the first bunk bed experience for Miss Z and Master L – they of course now want one at home (when I explained they’d have to share a room at home then there was a quick back march on this idea…).
The gardens are huge and we felt safe letting the kids walk around and explore the mini-jungle! My only criticism was the water pressure in the rooms was incredibly poor, I could cope with the showering, but not being able to properly wash out baby bottles is highly likely what lead to poorly bellies at our next destination.
The staff however really made the place. They were hospitable throughout our stay, always happy to engage with the kids, always happy to top up milk bottles, alter meal requests for the kids. On arrival, each of the kids was given a soft toy elephant – when Master L’s was stolen they didn’t hesitate to replace it straight away.
We were able to easily organise babysitting here with a very responsible girl for $5USD per hour (had we known this was going to be the only night time babysitting we were going to get for 2 weeks we would have booked her every night!). When she wasn’t busy working during the day, she made the effort to also do crafts and games with the kids too.
More family accommodation in Phnom Penh
Of course, being South East Asia there are plenty of accommodation options to fit all budgets. We paid approx. USD$105 per night to get this family-sized suite in a great location near to the Royal Palace and walkable to many attractions (or $2-$3USD tuk-tuk to pretty much anywhere).
Bear in mind some of the very cheap accommodation in Phnom Penh either 1) won’t fit a family size group or, 2) can be far from town.
Nuisances and annoyances – parents be aware!
For the first time since travelling as a family, we had the misfortune of having a bag snatched from us whilst in Phnom Penh. We really should have known better, there are plenty of warnings that this is an issue in Phnom Penh and are kicking ourselves about it still, but thankfully the items inside were of limited value – expect sentimentally kids toys.
It was mostly the annoyance factor of having this happen during our holidays, multiple calls to credit card companies, needing to find a police station late at night, working out the correct “tip” for the privileged of a police report and interpreter, replacing baby essentials.
What I wanted to highlight though is HOW they snatched our bag so you can avoid this happening to you. Our children were used as part of their ploy, distracting us with unnecessary attention towards them and making them vulnerable so that we would take our eyes off our personal possessions to naturally protect them.
It took less than a minute for the whole incident to unfold. There was one thing that insurance can’t deal with and that is fear.
The previous day we had felt it when the kids scatter-gunned on us as soon as we entered a giant play park, now the thought of them being more than 10 metres away from us terrified me. That feeling did not leave us throughout our time in Cambodia.
We are not normally stressy parents, we want our children to feel they can explore but safety was a paramount concern for us, not alleviated when even locals kept telling us we needed to be really careful – of the kids and our possessions.
I tell this story not to scare people but make sure you are conscious of the risks and teach your children basic safety precautions. We were at the slight disadvantage of being outnumbered at all times during this trip and our children were quite young still.
You can read our detailed post about travel safety in Cambodia and Travel scams here.
How we did it – Booking our Cambodia Trip with Kids
We flew to Phnom Phen from Ho Chi Minh City with Qatar Airways (yes – bizarre) – by far the cheapest option as they run a DOH-SAI-PHN flight that’s basically empty for the last leg. For 5 of us it cost US$368. Flying is otherwise quite expensive.
There are plenty of boat and road options for more budget and environmentally minded.
As much as I fell in love with the idea of cruising up the Mekong for a few days to get there, I simply couldn’t trust our 20-month-old Master J to actually stay on the boat for more than say an hour without falling in, wiping that idea! If your kids are older though, do it! What an amazing experience you could have.
Getting around Phnom Phen we could either walk from our brilliant location at the Kabiki or easy tuk-tuk rides. And yes we DID take that double stroller, and for those long walking days, did not regret it at all, other times it easily folded up in a tuk-tuk or we simply had to walk on roads with it.
We hired a private car to take us to our next destination, Sihanoukville on the western coast of Cambodia.
Other Cambodian Tourism Facts to know before you go
- Visas are available on arrival or can be pre-purchased on the internet. We went with pre-purchased and zoomed through the airport at record speed – though the lines for those buying on arrival didn’t look to hideously long like Vietnam. You can pre-arrange with E-visums.co.uk.
- You can withdraw both Cambodian Riels and USD from ATM’s but most vendors and drivers will want you to work in US Dollar (its a slight upper hand to them on the exchange rate). The exchange rate we worked off was 1USD =4,000 Cambodian Riels.
- Most hotel plugs came with multi-points, though they honestly seem to use a variety of everything! Bring your own multi-adapter to be sure.
- Wifi signal around the country is not great but most hotels offer it for free so you should be able to make some connection, albeit slow.
- Wet season runs from May to November – expect unpredictable monsoonal weather. The coolest time of year to visit is at the start of the dry season December/January, getting increasingly hotter up to April.
- Click here for a comprehensive guide on things to pack for a South East Asia trip.
Every inch of me wanted to be in love with this place and rave about it to everyone, but there’s no doubt that the bag snatching and family safety issues put a dampener on things. I know we will return one day, there is so much to love and I do still recommend it for families – just probably a step more caution is needed than other more developed tourist locations.
Over to you – have you been to Phnom Penh? Would you like to visit the vibrant Cambodian Capital?
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Disclosures: This post contains affiliate links. We were not paid to review any of the accommodation or activities in this post, all views are our own. You can see our full disclosures policy here.
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27 thoughts on “Exploring Phnom Penh Cambodia with Kids”
Wow Keri, I am so glad I read this post. We are off to Vietnam and Cambodia in a couple of weeks with our 3 daughters (8,6,4) and I had no idea about the safety issues! We have prepared ourselves that it will no doubt be a tough 3.5 weeks of travelling with the 3 of them but I expected it to be fairly safe. At least now I will make sure to keep all 3 (very blonde haired!) girls close at all times. I’m very happy to read that you were impressed with The Kabiki as that is where we are booked in to stay for a couple of nights as well. Great post, thank you!
Now that we are based in Asia and will be travelling to several new countries here, I love reading posts on places like Cambodia which we plan to visit soon! Very informative post and how best to do it with kids!
That’s great Samiya, yes being located in Asia will make it ideal for exploring Cambodia more, you might get some good fly in/out options without needing to try and do it all at once!
Thanks for this post about Pnom Penh, most travelers and bloggers focus on Angkor Wat, so this is a refreshing and informative change. I think you did the right thing by taking the kids to the museum, that is a decision one needs to take. Good to know that they did not connect.
I know how hard I need to search for appropriate information sometimes when visiting more off the beaten track locations so hopefully our views on PP and Cambodia will help other travelers with making their travel planning decisions
I love how you incorporated the history into this very informative post. It is essential that anyone visiting Cambodia understands the background. I also appreciate how honest you were about the risks. Having never been there I find it informative and helpful.
Thanks Carlie, its definitely a place where understanding the history before you visit helps you take in more when you are there, and there are unfortunately some annoyances that tourists just need to be wary of, we were a little naive.
Oh my gosh. How awful to have to deal with the bag snatching and having to be constantly reminded by people to be careful! My sister was pickpocketed in Italy once, and I remember how much of an annoyance that whole ordeal was…but it sounds like when you have your kids with you, it must be 10x scarier, since you have to protect them. So sorry you had to go through that.
Safety concerns certainly kept us on our toes over two weeks. An eye-opener as well about what the world can be like, but how to not let it get you down.
I appreciate that you were so candid about visiting such intense/emotionally exhausting sites with kids. We always debate doing similar activities and have had success… and walked away with the same tips about knowing your kids and how they’ll behave. Our oldest is very sharp though and I know that we’re getting to the age where he’ll react to certain things. But Cambodia truly sounds fascinating and worthwhile with kids 🙂
Thanks Rob – it was important to me to share our experience here. I’m not afraid to say there are times we may have taken on more than we can chew with the kids, and this was probably one of those occasions. It certainly wont stop me returning to Cambodia or recommending it.
You make a great point that visiting a site or a museum that focuses on a more negative past with kids is about a combination of whether the kids are able to be respectful (i.e.. stay quiet for other people) and if they may be disturbed by what they see. And that means what’s ok with you may not be ok with other families (and vice versa.)
Very scary experience with the bags and the crowds. This was my concern going to the Philippines with my kids. I’m half-Filipino and I remember how crowded things would get when I was a kid there. I’m not comfortable with it. Thankfully they just got a bag.
Interesting what you say about the Philippines, we were thinking of visiting there for next Spring, maybe I need to wait until they’re a bit older and I’m ready to tackle crowds again?!
I haven’t been with my kids yet and, from what I hear, it’s gotten a little better. So don’t write it off yet! But, yeah, I guess it would depend on where you’re going in the Philippines, too.
We were looking more so at Boracay and away from the big cities but I’m intrigued to see Manila too – our home helper is from there it would be lovely to visit her family.
Excellent post. I am so very interested in visiting Cambodia, and with such an intense history behind it I was debating on how I would present images like that to my kids, who are 5 and almost three. Thanks for the wisdom and the great photos!
You really need to judge it on your own kids ages and stages. Its so fascinating to visit but kids add a huge new dimension to visiting Cambodia that I honestly wasn’t as well prepare for as I thought.
It is really interesting for me to read your account of your trip to Cambodia. I would love to go with the kids, but you voiced here many of my concerns: how will the kids react to some of the sites? And would I be stressed about them being safe to such an extent I would ruin our holiday for everyone? I think, considering how I am, I am probably better off leaving this trip for a couple more years but one thing is sure: one day we will go, and we will go as a family! I am sorry about your bag: it’s such a nuisance when it happens, it just leaves you feel so vulnerable!
This one is such a personal decision and I can see your anguish. I think my own eagerness to knock of some of my personal bucket list over took some common sense planning this time. Cambodia is a must for avid travellers, but with kids, an appropriate time needs to be found.
Really interesting to hear your experience Keri. I didn’t make it to Phnom Penh when I was in the country so haven’t been to the museum and killing fields but I know I would find it incredibly tough going myself – let alone having to explain some of the atrocities to the children. Although it sounds like they were just young enough not to fully understand. Such a shame about the bag snatching but thanks for alerting other travellers to the dangers. Your natural instinct is to protect your child in that situation and thankfully nothing of too much value was taken. Having three children to keep an eye on must be tough going. You are a great inspiration to other family travellers. Thanks for sharing on #citytripping
Great write-up, I found this really interesting as we haven’t been to Phnom Phen yet. I have heard many mixed reviews so good to read such an honest account. Sorry you got your bag snatched though – happened to another friend of mine in Phnom Phen and they were only transiting through the airport for a few hours!
Goodness even in the airport! It is a sad factor of a very poor country that these things happen. The authorities need to get on top of these issues if they want to promote tourism but in a country with so many other pressing issues I can see tourism is not a priority for them right now.
Sensible precautions are what I would recommend for Cambodia. More so than other places be mindful at all times, which I’m afraid can mean you are not as relaxed as you might like to be; the pros & cons of visiting a less developed country of course.
Fascinating read and so many very helpful tips for visiting Cambodia. The Kabiki looks lovely! I’m sorry to hear about the bag snatching incident and it’s a shame that they used your children as a ploy. I remember something similar happening to my father and me in Manila when I was a child. My father was suddenly swarmed by shouting children coming from all directions while one tried to get his wallet but he managed to shoo them away. That experience has always stuck with me especially now when I visit the Philippines with my son. Thank you for sharing your experience! #CityTripping
Its horrible to know that children are used in such ways but something we also need to be very alert to travelling as a family. I think I’ve been naive in the past thinking we are less likely to be a target as a family but on this occasion its obvious what made us an easy target. A good reminder to never let your guard down and put safety first in considering any vacation. It of course wont dampen our travel enthusiasm but makes us very much more aware of what we can currently handle.
That’s such a shame about the bag snatch – I can imagine how that would colour the whole trip. Phnom Penh is somewhere I’d wanted to go as part of my one-day Cambodia trip. It’s interesting to read about how your kids found the Genocide Museum/Killing Fields too. I think I’d worry more about my daughter being too loud/inappropriate for somewhere so moving as she’s just too young to understand (thankfully) – it’s a difficult decision though. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping
Its very true, I was so worried in the lead up about their reaction to what they might see, but in fact the bigger issue for young children was them disturbing other people. You really need to make the right judgement call on any given day what is appropriate for everyone – and like everything with family travel be flexible on those plans!
Cool tips! Many can apply to just grown up too 🙂