From the time I was a kid, Asia fascinated me. I was lucky-enough in the ‘80s to travel extensively throughout China and was hooked. It had been a while, but last month I kicked off my boots, packed my flip flops and returned. I journeyed to Cambodia and Viet Nam and fell in love with this continent all over again.
Our group's first stop was Siem Riep, Cambodia. This once sleepy little town’s heart is the ancient and awe-inspiring stone temple complex Angkor Wat. Part of a lost city, it was once the capital of the Khmer Empire. And oh, it’s more recent claim to fame is it’s home to the magical temple Ta Promph the setting for the Angelina Jolie movie Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. So there’s that.
Angkor was once the center of Southeast Asia’s greatest empire. The Kingdom of Cambodia, in decline, was alternately controlled by the Thais and the Vietnamese and then colonized by the French. It’s more recent violent history includes genocide and a brutal restructure of Khmer society. Yet the people are resilient. Proud of their country, they look to re-claim their culture—and to share it—and move forward. It’s a beautiful thing. We enjoyed a stunning high-energy—and sophisticated performance—of the Phare Circus where a young ensemble have been trained to use music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian folk stories.
The little city of Siem Reap has in essence been a resort town for over 100 years, now people come for the temples but stay to enjoy its renaissance, its funky-in-a-cool-way vibe, the energy—and the food.
Cambodian food is a delightful study in contrasts from the cherished and guarded Royal Khmer Cuisine recipes to the noodle soups, curries and stir-fries served up at street-front restaurants and plied by vendors from their rolling woks. Dishes are influenced by centuries of interaction with neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, Chinese migration and French colonization. Think pate and baguettes.
Angkor Wat - Early Residents enjoy Khmer cuisine.
No visit to Siem Reap would be complete without a trip to the frenetic Old Market Phsar Chas. Here fish, fresh from Tonlé Sap Lake, swim in buckets waiting to be expertly beheaded and filleted by squatting fishmongers; a wizened yiey makes red curry paste while minding her grandbaby and treats of exotic fruit in coconut milk are bagged, sold and happily consumed.
Old Market - Siem Reap. Preparing the day's catch for sale.
There are clusters of bagged rice and baskets overflow with colorful produce—the orange-ist carrots I have ever seen. Stalls display offal, some pretty impressive tongue and a variety of raw meats hanging from hooks. Tables are laden with chickens, long legs akimbo and the odd pig’s head wearing a surprised expression. Piles of brightly hued tropical fruit and intriguing spices are a visual treat. Fortunately, they scent the air a bit. Hungry? Local dishes are served sit-down lunch-counter style but perhaps would be best enjoyed by the more hygienically adventurous.
A chorus line of chickens. What legs!
Old Market – Siem Reap. Turning the corner, look who we bumped into. He looks as surprised as us.
Rice galore - spoiled for choice
We loved the exotic Dragon Fruit.
We opted for lunch at the nearby popular Khmer Kitchen. They offer a menu of traditional Cambodian dishes, reasonably priced that pair nicely with the local Angkor beer. It fueled us for meandering the labyrinth that spirals out from the market. Cafes, shops and a surfeit of spas line the streets and alleys and we couldn’t resist the lure of a 30 minute foot & leg massage. It was just the ticket after our temple trek. Six dollars USD, a cup of ginger tea included. Deal.
Siem Reap's popular Khmer Kitchen Restaurant
We adored the old French Quarter with its revitalized and re-branded Kandal Village replete with boutiques and cafes. Hup Guan Street is its hippest ave and its fun and quirky Trunkh was our favorite shop. Of course everywhere we travel we are scouting memorable culinary experiences.
We discovered two here.Armand’s Bistro nails its homage to Cambodia’s French connection with fine dining, loads of atmosphere, exquisite service and the music of Edith Piaff and Billie Holiday. In exploring the Village we popped into the cozy trattoria Mamma Shop and met chef owner Simone Santolini. We loved his story. Simone came to Cambodia as a volunteer with an NGO and later wanted to make Siem Reap his home. Armed with his Nonna’s recipes, he trained a young staff and opened Mama Shop. We booked a table there for that evening. Can Cambodians make great fresh pasta? They sure can. The Gnocchi al Gorgonzola was a group favorite and my lasagna was rich and as good as I’ve enjoyed in Emilia Romagna. Their modest selection of Italian wines included nothing noteworthy but I won’t quibble. One doesn’t travel to Cambodia for the vino. The pizza looked mighty fine and by all accounts it is. Next time.
Mamma Shop - A cozy trattoria in the heart of Seam Reap.
I want to give a shout-out to TREE a global alliance that now operates seven training restaurants in Cambodia. All profits from TREE restaurants are invested in the students who train there and the social programs which support them. Many are former street kids on a journey of developing skills, confidence and securing their future. And the food is fabulous. We were not able to book a table at Siem Reap’s charming Marum but did visit its sister resto Friends in Phnom Penh and are still raving about it. More about Phnom Penh in my next blog post.
Here are a few quickie tips on Siem Reap. We love to help you plan a delicious journey to Cambodia.
Cooking Cambodian There are loads of options including Raffles Hotel (focusing on Royal Khmer Cuisine) and Shinta Mani.
WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO DO Temple trekking, of course. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a special travel memory. Cruise Tonlé -Sap Lake to view the fascinating floating villages and fishing communities. Lovely at sunset. Get out into the countryside -for a different perspective and more remote temples. Indulge yourself with all sorts of affordable spa treatments. Visit the Angkor Artisan’s Workshop. Shop the boutiques -the Angkor Night Market (perhaps a little bar hopping on can-be-raucous Pub Street). Pick up a mango smoothie at Blue Pumpkin, hop into a tuk tuk and tour the town.