How to Best Experience Mystical Siem Reap

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A blend of old and new, East and West, Siem Reap perfectly embodies the changing face of Cambodia. Max Veenhuyzen explores the provincial capital and offers praise to the wonders of Angkor.

Shiny new backpacks. They’re everywhere at Siem Reap International Airport, as are their dreadlocked, elephant-pants-wearing owners. It’s a telling detail about the type of traveller synonymous with this corner of South-East Asia but this mystical Cambodian city is actually a destination with mass appeal.

Well, city probably isn’t the word for Siem Reap, a sprawling pancake of roads, modest stilt and wooden houses, forests and temples – the area’s main draw. While I hadn’t expected a metropolis like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City (or even Phnom Penh, the country’s capital) this lack of development is surprising and, frankly, refreshing. Bikes outnumber cars on the road, with scooters outnumbering them all. Plastic stools and food carts line the streets. School uniforms stick to the proven grey-bottoms-and-white-shirt formula.

It’s the sort of landscape instantly familiar to practised South-East Asia wanderers, although the Art Deco flourishes of buildings such as the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (Pokambor Avenue) – once the French governor’s mansion – speak to Cambodia’s past as a French protectorate.

While it’s easy to pick the locals from the out-of-towners, each party seems to coexist easily with the other; this part of the world has long welcomed visitors. Known once upon a time as Angkor, the region reigned as the capital of Cambodia between the ninth and 15th centuries and was celebrated as one of the great civilisations. A series of natural and man-made disasters, however, put an end to those halcyon days and, between droughts, floods and wars, Angkor slipped into obscurity. It wasn’t until French archaeologists discovered its ruins in the early 20th century that Angkor was back on the map, only for Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime to take it off again.

The way Cambodians have recovered from these tragedies reflects their indomitable spirit. And, like Burma, Vietnam and the region’s other war-torn nations, tourism is helping the country rejoin the global community. Cambodia is rolling out the welcome mat. Again.

Purists may lament the advent of luxury hotels and Nick Faldo-designed golf courses but these developments are more about making Siem Reap accessible to the outside world than destroying the very thing that attracts travellers. Make no mistake: Siem Reap is a city with soul – you just have to be willing to search for it. Pack your bag (or shiny new backpack) and give it your best shot.

Ancient treasures

As hallowed as its grounds are, the famous Angkor Wat was just one of the thousand-plus temples built by the Angkorian kings. Many of these holy places have been lost to time but there’s still plenty of temple-hopping on offer at Angkor Archaeological Park. The stairs of towering Baksei Chamkrong. The tranquillity of Ta Nei. The what-might-have-been of Ta Keo – the soaring, five-level magnum opus that King Jayavarman V never got around to finishing. These are just three reasons to seek out less explored wat (temples). The smaller crowds are another.

Don’t discount the temples that are intact, either, particularly Svay Romeat in West Baray. Marvel at the Buddhist pagoda’s intricate statues and murals; stay for a blessing from monks garbed in distinct burnt-orange robes. When water levels in the nearby baray (reservoir) are high, it’s possible to take a speedboat to the temple rather than drive right around the lake.

Colonial luxury

Originally built by a local businessman as a 50th-birthday present for his wife, the graceful Anantara Angkor Resort (National Road No. 6) presents like a lavish conjuring of colonial Cambodia, from the handmade Khmer objets d’art to the sumptuous goose-down duvets. Balconies overlook the property’s black-tiled saltwater swimming pool – along with the hotel’s luxurious spa, it’s an ideal refuge from the oppressive tropical heat.

The signature Khmer massage – a vigorous oil-free treatment traditionally used by monks to re-energise – comes highly recommended and could be described as a frightfully strong masseuse playing tug-of-war and human origami with one’s extremities. My therapist busts out an impressive array of “holds” during my intensive 90-minute treatment. I’m certain she moonlights as a wrestler on weekends.

Food-wise, Khmer curries and sweets share menu space with the usual hotel-dining-room standards, while tours by Vespa and bicycle (including the aforementioned temple visits) are among the excursions offered. American photographer John McDermott’s wraith-like, other-worldly images of Angkor are an inspired choice for the in-house gallery.

To market, to market

Comfy digs are one thing but there’s no substitute for getting out and experiencing Cambodia first hand. Like many Indochinese countries, the markets in Siem Reap are pivotal to local life. Although you can get souvenirs at Phsar Chas (Old Market), Phsar Leu (Upper Market) makes few concessions for tourists.

A mother and her young son form a ruthlessly efficient live-frog-butchering team. Porcine all-sorts are piled high on rickety wooden benches. Vendors sell tiny pouches of Kampot pepper, the spice synonymous with the coastal fishing village of Kep, where it lends punch to squid and crab.

Opportunities to hook into the local tucker abound. Baskets of noum (Cambodian sweets) dot the market. Slender ficelle rolls are crisped over charcoal braziers before being stuffed to make num pang, Cambodia’s answer to Vietnam’s famous bánh mì pork roll. Best-on-ground, however, is the lady who spends her morning dishing out lort cha, a hearty stir-fry of stumpy udon-like noodle “worms” and bean sprouts crowned with a fried duck egg. Complemented with a sweet and milky iced coffee, it’s a mighty fine start to the day.

While the market’s sights, sounds and smells are a thrill to self-discover, enlisting local know-how is a smart move, especially if it’s Deborah Saunders of boutique hotel The RiverGarden (West River Road) providing the intel. For close to a decade, the former Melburnian has called Siem Reap home and isn’t planning on leaving any time soon.

“Cambodia is similar to the Bali of 40 years ago,” says Saunders. “The attitude of the people, the tropical climate, a glorious Buddhist culture: they’re all positive things to be among.”

Her tuk-tuk tours are a splendid introduction to the little-known, albeit delicious, world of Cambodian street food. The bulk of the learning takes place at the 60 Road night market on Road 60, a dizzying mash-up of outdoor bazaar, children’s amusement park and open-air restaurant.

My informant has a theory that the better the vendor’s hat, the better the food and I think she’s onto something. Like “auntie lort cha” from the market, the lady tending Saunders’ favourite food stall has a thing for exotic millinery; her red-and-gold paisley headwear is as colourful as the sticks of grilled chicken, pork and fish she sells. Look out for prahok, a fermented fish paste that’s employed as a condiment in the Khmer kitchen but can also be eaten with rice and fresh vegetables.

Khmer cuisine

While most Cambodians eat at home and at modest street-side eateries, a growing number of restaurants are trying to reconcile the worlds of Khmer cooking and fine dining with pleasing results.

The best known is Cuisine Wat Damnak (Wat Damnak village), one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Joannès Rivière was born in France’s Loire Valley but the chef now spends his days championing the food traditions of his adopted homeland, most notably the diverse array of freshwater fish caught in Tonlé Sap lake. “The interesting thing about Cambodian cuisine is that sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, tannic and sour aren’t necessarily combined and balanced in one dish but they’re balanced on the table,” says Rivière.

And so it is with bold, uncompromising cooking in the vein of sour langoustine soup with Makassar fruit and waterlily stem, and maam – prahok’s refined cousin. While my experience with modern Cambodian cuisine is limited, it’s safe to say there’s not a chef in the country doing what Monsieur Rivière is doing and Siem Reap is all the richer for Cuisine Wat Damnak’s presence.

Chanrey Tree (Pokambor Avenue) is another go-getter specialising in true-to-type Khmer flavours. Think rice crackers with fried frangipani flowers and natang sauce – a rich joy of coconut, pork and ground shrimp – plus char kroeung, a local stir-fry of frog legs and spice. It’s not the sort of dining that travellers would expect to find in Cambodia but this spirited South-East Asian nation has a habit of surprising visitors.  

SEE ALSO: 10 Unforgettable Experiences in Cambodia

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