Above : AHA provides a casual setting for tapas-style fusion fare.
A town built by temple tourism is coming into its own.
By Gemma Price
Photographed by John Mcdermott
Siem Reap is best known as the gateway to the ancient Khmer temple complex of Angkor, which attracts at least half of Cambodiaâ€™s two million annual visitors. But these days, this laid-back provincial town is much more than a base camp for wandering among the ruins. Capitalizing on the temple traffic and supported by a growing number of expat entrepreneurs, its atmospheric lanes and tranquil riverfront are emerging as a destination in their own right, home to a sophisticated range of restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and boĂ®tes.
Where to Eat
Siem Reapâ€™s most eclectic knot of eateries can be found in an alley known affectionately as The Passage, an unevenly paved alleyway running parallel to and between the bustling Old Market (Psar Chaa) and the bawdier Pub Street. Grab a table at AHA (G/F, Hotel Be Angkor; 855-63/965-501)â€”the elegant downtown offshoot of the HĂ´tel de la Paixâ€™s excellent Meric restaurantâ€”to indulge in Khmer and Western tapas-style platters and substantial mains like jasmine rice-coated salmon fillet with lemon-coconut sauce and tamarind reduction. Chamkar (855/92-733-150), set right in the center of The Passage, is equally worthy for its inventive vegetarian fare; try the fabulous stir-fried eggplant with loofah and holy basil.
Across town, the Sugar Palm (Ta Phul Rd.; 855-63/964-838) is nothing less than an institution, rightly acclaimed as one of Siem Reapâ€™s best bets for home-style Khmer food. Occupying the second floor of a traditional wooden house, itâ€™s also the top spot for cooking classes; chef-owner Kethana Dunnet schooled Gordon Ramsay on the finer points of Khmer cuisine when he was in town earlier this year. For a more contemporary take on Cambodian dining, Virothâ€™s (246 Wat Bo St.; 855/12-826-346), located across the Siem Reap River near Wat Bo temple, remains a favorite for its modish alfresco setting and menu favorites like yahorn (curry with vermicelli) and pork kari.
For fine French fare with a local twist, head to Abacus (off Route 6; 855-63/966-156), which last year took up residence in a modern, albeit obscurely located, villa off the airport highway. Itâ€™s well worth seeking out. Chef Pascal Schmit, formerly of La RĂ©sidence dâ€™ Angkor, dishes up specialties like braised lamb shank with green-lentil ragout and salmon with ginger beurre blanc, while owner and host Renaud Fichet orchestrates proceedings in the dining room and candlelit garden terrace with a Gallic flair.
Where to Drink
Come cocktail hour, discerning drinkers have plenty of options outside the standard hotel venues. Just northwest of Pub Street, youâ€™ll find Miss Wong (The Lane, 855/92-428-332), an intimate gem of a bar inspired by 1930s Shanghai. Owner Dean Williams uses only premium liquor and is deeply passionate about his mixology, infusing spirits with mango and fresh ginger to produce perfectly muddled concoctions. Or make your way to Nest Angkor (Sivatha Blvd.; 855-63/966-381), a chilled urban garden oasis of daybeds and white canvas canopies. The food is first-rate, too; chef Sothea will grill your choice of imported meats or fresh seafood while you unwind over a cocktail or two.
A more colorful scene awaits at the gay-run Linga Bar (The Passage; 855/12-246-912), popular for its stylish decor and killer martinis. All are welcome, and Lingaâ€™s Saturday-night drag show is one of the most eye-popping spectacles in town.
Where to Shop
Cambodia has a proud tradition of wood and stone carving, lacquering, silver plating, and silk painting, and Siem Reap is a great place to explore this heritage. Visit Artisans dâ€™Angkor (Chantiers-Ecoles, Stung Thmey St.; 855-63/963-330) to learn about the revival of Khmer handicrafts and to pick up some one-of-a-kind mementos. Well worth the kilometer trek south of town, the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles (No. 472, Viheachen Village, Svaydongkum Commune; 855-63/964-437) employs hundreds of artisans to create sarongs and krama scarves made from homegrown silk, sold exclusively at the on-site showroom.
For locally inspired looks with a global dimension, visit the home-cum-atelier of Madagascar-born textile designer Eric Raisina (Veal Village, Wat Thmey; 855-63/963-207), who a few years ago left the Parisian fashion houses of Lacroix and YSL behind to establish his own workshop on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Today, his showroom is a kaleidoscope of textured scarves, accessories, off-the-rack womenâ€™s wear, and bespoke wedding dresses.
Former New Yorker Elizabeth Kiester is another expat fashionista to have fallen for Siem Reapâ€™s charms. She gave up her post as global creative director for LeSportsac (where she collaborated with Stella McCartney) in 2008 to move here and embark on her own label and boutique, Wanderlust (Alley West; 855-63/965-980). Bright and breezy, Kiesterâ€™s casual tops and cotton dresses come in a palette of fresh candy tints and floral prints.
To complete any outfit, pick up some finely crafted silver accessories at Garden of Desire (The Passage, 855/12-319-116). Designed by Piseth Ly, who fled Cambodia in 1982 and ended up in Paris, where he designed eyewear for the likes of Alain Mikli and Philippe Starck, each piece of jewelry is informed by the former refugeeâ€™s often heartrending life story.
Buoyed by a diverse mix of resident and visiting talent, the local art scene is emerging as one ofSoutheast Asiaâ€™s most dynamic. (Read about Novemberâ€™s Angkor Photo Festival on page 78.) Curated by Sasha Constable, a descendant of the British landscape artist John Constable, the HĂ´tel de la Paixâ€™s Arts Lounge (Sivutha Blvd.; 855-63/966-000) hosts exhibitions of international and Khmer artists throughout the year. Another fixture on the townâ€™s gallery circuit is the McDermott Gallery (FCC Complex, Pokambor Ave.; 855/12-615-695), showcasing the ethereal images of Angkor and other Asian monuments by fine-art photographer and longtime Siem Reap resident John McDermott.
And then thereâ€™s the Art Deli (Alley West; no telephone), an â€śart supermarket,â€ť cafĂ©, and studio space set within a 1920s Chinese shophouse in the Old Market area, just next door to Wanderlust. Quirky and lighthearted, this may not be a magnet for serious collectors, but with its boho atmosphere, spontaneous jam sessions, and very affordable works from emerging local artists (some selling for just dollars a piece), the Art Deli in many ways epitomizes Siem Reapâ€™s newfound creative spirit.
Originally appeared in the October/November 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Reconnecting with Siem Reap”)