Award-winning food and travel writer, Jane Adams, shares a fleeting slice of Cambodian life on a plate and place tour through her favorite local hotspots.
Typically led by my nose, I recently dived into markets, down alleys, perched on plastic pavement stools to peer into fish tanks and simmering pots, all to share a fleeting slice of Cambodian life. Rest assured 30 years after the fall of the heinous Pol Pot regime, Cambodia offers much more than World Heritage classified ruins.
The royal pomp and circumstance funeral for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk held in February helped raise awareness of the pageantry of the Khymer Kingdom, one of Asia’s largely unheralded destinations. In fact, if it wasn’t for the world’s great wonder Angkor Wat and movie Indochine, one suspects Cambodia would still be slumbering quietly between its tourist-draw neighbors Thailand and Vietnam.
Other advocates of Cambodian charms include gadabout celebrity chefs like Rick Stein and Australia’s Luke Ngyuen, both of whom cruised the mighty Mekong with camera crews, hopping off here and there to whip up classic freshwater fish stir-fries, expounding as they toss woks on the healthful properties of unusual Khymer vegetables like bitter melon (mreh), lotus flower (pka chook) and pumpkin leaves (siek lpoeu). Their enthusiasms rang true every day – Khymer cooking is arguably Asia’s most delicate cuisine.
Home of the expansive Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum and now a new pagoda for the late King Father’s urn – a pulsing city in a hurry to catch up with its Asian neighbors. Intersperse your sightseeing with meals at any of these recommended off-mainstream establishments, most clustered around the Palace.
Street 240 (down a lane) opposite The Shop
Daytime organic, vegetarian, raw food healthy drop-in centre for expats and others seeking some respite from Phnom Penh’s frenzy.
Daughters of Cambodia
65 Street 178
Support this NGO’s efforts to prevent sex trafficking. Great handcrafts and mini- salon teaching street girls to be beauty therapists on the ground floor, and to-die-for lemon meringue pie and good coffee in the upstairs café.
Foreign Correspondents Club
363 Sisowath Quay
Secure a window-side stool to watch the sunset over the Mekong clutching a margarita. Still feels a teeny bit Ernest Hemingway. Also operates as a small hotel and the river view is a winner.
215 Street 13
Another street kids project teaching hospitality skills, expertly managed and dishing up Khymer classics with lashings of bonhomie and enthusiasm. Mekong river fish, and salt and pepper squid recommended. Check next-door Friends store for innovative recycling in action.
67 240 Street
Scrubbed wooden tables and simplicity don’t detract from the cold Angkor beer with signature fish amok – coconutty fish curry dry-steamed in a banana leaf.
25K Suramarit Bvd (Street 268)
Tucked away down a lane, this cutie pie renovated row house touches all the rights buttons. Best green fish curry of my life.
74 Street 174
Gracious colonial house in a garden setting that is also a hospitality training centre for former street youth (sibling of Friends. These fast learners dish up miles of smiles and tangy pomelo shrimp salad, smoky chargrilled pork and eggplant, and turmeric banana crepes. Seek a garden or better still, veranda table.
38 Street 337
Another expat café hangout – go for great patisserie, baguettes, coffee and fresh-squeeze blackboard juice menu.
Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel
27 Street 178
T: +855 23223340
Newly opened with rooftop pool and birds-eye palace views. Ideal location and good value, but need more practice to polish guest services.
La Maison D’Ambre
123 Street 100
T: +855 23 222 780
This striking white corner Sankun-era building near Wat Phnom boasts 10 cutting-edge spacious modern apartments, some decorated with proprietor Denis Copin’s personal Asian antique collection interspersed with eye-popper contemporary furniture like the elongated, studded tomato leather sofa in the foyer. The result – a chic, pampering hideaway right downtown.
277 Sisowath Quay
T: +855 23224894
Modernist spacious rooms overlook the Mekong. Great roof bar for Happy Hour sundowners and exemplary inclusive breakfasts, but avoid top floor rooms (15 + 16 located under the roof bar) and claustrophobia-inducing rear rooms.
Many of the excellent interior decoration, textile and handicraft shops are on 178 or 240 Street. Check Garden of Desire for modern silver jewelry, and Bliss for fabrics and an excellent massage. La Clef de Sol (next door to K’nyay) has wonderful linen clothing and manchester.
Pol Pot and Cambodia’s war torn history means genuine antiques are hard to find. Ask to see the upstairs room at Pavilion D’Asie, 24 Preah Sihanouk Blvd, and browse carefully through the old wares shops on the perimeter of the Russian Market. Best cache of the truly old and impressive Buddha collection can be found at Hidden Treasures, 272A Sisowath Quay. Check on antiquity export regulations before purchase. Best souvenir markets are the Russian and the Central Market, the latter also rates for its striking Art Deco beehive architecture.
Over two million pilgrims visit Siem Reap every year to follow in the footsteps of French explorer Henri Mouhot who stumbled on the world’s eighth wonder Angkor Wat and its clustered temple satellites in the 1860s. To manage the influx various, consortia have built a phalanx of derivative faux Khymer-style short stopover hotels that line the route from the international airport to the old town. But don’t judge Cambodia’s tourism treasure by this. In spite of its gateway status, Siem Reap manages a delightfully pervasive languor that grows with every sunrise, so allow time to succumb to its charms.
Prolific guidebooks spell out all you’ll ever need on Khymer history, culture, and architecture. More important is what they don’t tell you, including the fact that Angkor’s visitation and security is managed by a Vietnamese hotel company.
Whatever duration (1, 3 or 7-day passes) be sure to pre-purchase your ticket after 4.45pm on the day you arrive, because your ticket wont be clipped if you wish to kick-off your immersion with sunset at Pre Rup temple.
2. Go against the flow
Listen when your tuk-tuk driver suggests a counter-clockwise route, so your first temples of the day are unsullied by disgorged busloads.
3. Best till last
If you don’t seek instant gratification, leave Angkor Wat till your last day and go with a breakfast box for sunrise. Look for Bong’s coffee cart in the tuk-tuk car park opposite the main entrance. He bought it on the internet and had it shipped from New Zealand and offers double-shot options for early risers. Then, when all the tour buses return to town for breakfast buffet time, start your (almost) solitary explorations of this magnificent wonder. The luxury lasts till about 8.30am.
Siem Reap is small enough to just tell your tuk-tuk driver the name of the establishment you seek.
Bodhi Tree Riverside Café
Associated with a yoga centre, this hub café near the old market is a training facility and can connect you to good deed projects and holistic health. The green eggs and coffee are pretty good too.
Cute vegetarian café in the Passage near the Old Market, run by an expat French chef.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Expat French chef Joannès Rivière left 5-star hotel kitchens and converted a traditional Khymer house to create his ‘worth a detour’ restaurant that celebrates Khymer cuisine with French flair. If you only have one meal in Siem Reap, eat it here. Tasting menus ($19 & $26) tantalize with pan-fried lake fish, pomelo and taro stem salad, black rice porridge and crispy duck, slow-braised pork with caramelized palm sugar, plus heavenly cinnamon and chocolate ganache. Understated and inspiring.
Drop in for cocktails and bar snacks, or a full meal at the stylish Siem Reap Correspondents Club branch, but don’t expect to meet any working media these days.
Brand new family restaurant on High School Road offering traditional Khymer cooking in a renovated Khymer home. Ideal for lunch noodles served with grace and enthusiasm, and interpreted by a helpful relative speaking New Zealand accented English.
‘Where helping tastes good’ – the initiative of a Swiss couple training older orphans in the subtle arts of good food and hospitality.
Marun (Wat Bo)
Sibling of Friends and Romdeng in Phnom Penh but sassier. Contemporary walled garden and beaming staff introduce Khymer food with a modern twist. Start with a pineapple chili margarita.
Square 24 (Wat Bo)
Nothing old-fashioned here where the Indochine interior could feature in Wallpaper magazine. French management ensures super smooth service and the generous fragrant chicken amok will sate temple touring appetites.
Upstairs Café (Wat Bo)
Look for the bright red teapot sign and head upstairs for a classic omelet and pot of tea, or later in the day, yummy homemade cakes.
Viroths (Wat Bo)
An institution that has succumbed to the ‘feed-them-early’ tour group carrot.
So book later and sit in the garden for a modern Khymer meal surrounded by a polyglot mix of Angkor pilgrims.
A new small resort that evokes a mix of Morocco and the Pacific where spacious white villa units surround the two pools (freshwater and salt) and the buré-style café and bar. Personal, intuitive service and arguably the best deal in town – your personal tuk-tuk driver provided within the daily tariff. He’s at your beck and call 12 hours a day or night, full of local knowledge and great companionship for single travelers.
Customized Khymer care brims at this small boutique property nestled in a lush tropical setting near Wat Po, a member of the Relais & Chateaux group. The larger Bungalow and Executive suites have small private gardens.
Delightfully discreet, this low-slung resort was previously King Sihanouk’s private guesthouse. The 24 luxury suites feel like private residences and the house tuk-tuks stand out in the morning shuttle to Angkor’s temples.
Siem Reap brims with souvenir handicrafts, silver and gems and numerous markets by day and night. In addition and far more interesting is a visit to the workshops of several artisans including the French Stocker brothers Angkor Artwork for exquisite lacquer ware; Theam for brightly colored contemporary lacquer ware and signature elephants; and Kru Khmer for herbal teas and spa products.
Non-shopaholics are recommended Cooks in Tuk-Tuks run by the Rivergarden Boutique Hotel. Head off to the market in a brightly colored tuk-tuk – shop, cook and eat your efforts. Half-day class $25.
GETTING TO SIEM REAP
Your mode of transport depends a bit on your sense of adventure. There are regular flights, a crowded ferry across Ton Le Sap Lake, air-con buses – or you can book a one way air-con Camry with an English-speaking driver. (Going rate US$65.) National Highway 6 to Siem Reap is under chaotic construction, but after two Armageddon hours it reincarnates as a bucolic meandering passage through the countryside. The five-plus hour commute can include wayside stops for lunch and temple time.
Jane Adams is an award-winning food and travel writer based in Sydney. Her perambulations of plate and place have appeared for over 20 years in publications including Gourmet Traveller, Cuisine, Qantas magazine and once upon a time The Bulletin. She has a passion for farmers’ markets, local food and old Asian teapots. Contact her at: email@example.com (Photos by Sam Shepherd & courtesy hotels.)