Text by Will Meyrick
The fact that 48 hours is possible in Siem Reap is testament to the tenacity of a town, that when I first saw it 15 years ago, and again with my brother about ten years later, was a dusty ‘cowboy’ town emerging slowly from a ghastly occupation. It was pretty loose back then too, my brother and I wandered around without check, hanging out in the temples and the overgrowth creating our own entertainment. These days the temple tours are highly organized, I think there is enough written on the temples without me having to add to it apart from to recommend trying the local food in the warungs around the Baray at Ta Phrom. It was the town of Siem Reap that interested me on this trip, and it was great to see that having resisted the attempts of foreign investors to turn it into the region’s Vegas, it now caters to a travelling demographic that enjoys adventure travel and temple exploration by day and immersion in a very cool new Indochine culture by night.
Siem Reap, like the rest of the country, has survived a dark history, but as the years have passed this small town that serves as a satellite to the temples of Angkor has come into its own with a vibe: a unique beat of modern Cambodia. It has achieved this, I believe, mostly through the work of the Khmer people who have spent time in the growing hospitality industry and then ventured out on their own, creating a café culture that sees owners as chefs and bartenders enjoying the interaction with their guests. This enhances the friendly appeal with a pretty laid back mix of tourists mingling with the longer-term ex-pats. They are often “down” from Phnom Penh, bringing with them a desire for more than ‘beer’ culture and a healthy interest in the empowerment of local NGOs through sustainable ventures into tourism and production. And there is no doubt the remaining French, some of whom say they feel more Asian than European, have a great deal of influence in the style of the emerging culture and the quality of the food.
A fine example of this is Cuisine Wat Damnak, run by a French couple, who share a philosophy close to my heart. It is simple: they source the best local seasonal produce and embrace the influences of all Cambodian flavours from the indigenous Khmer and the Cham to the cuisine of the ethnic minorities of the Kingdom. The ingredients are sometimes rare items, hunted out beyond the markets, ambarella fruits, wild lily stems, Tonle Sap lake fish and shellfish found nowhere else, and owner Johannes, having lived in the region for many years, has developed relationships with the producers, sourcing much of the market produce through a women’s co-operative farm and alerted to fresh crops and catches through his established networks. In the restaurant, a traditional Khmer house, the menu follows the seasons and exudes the atmosphere of the cool, new Cambodia.
I visited Chanrey Tree for its traditional Khmer food, and was really taken with the setting that is both modern and traditional, a really smart concept in design that enhances the eating experience. Khmer dishes like Char Khroeung are a delicious mix of Khmer spices including lemongrass, turmeric, lime leaf, galangal, garlic, peanuts, Chinese celery and spring onion or the prahok, fermented fish, and the amok, a creamy Cambodian curry that comes to you straight from the owner /chef working in his kitchen. With banana hearts, frangipani flowers and jackfruit, pineapple, lemongrass and the famed kam pot pepper to work with, who wouldn’t want to be in the kitchen…unless of course you were in the bar. Miss Wong is the bar to be in, it exudes the atmosphere of vintage Shanghai and I felt quite at home. Drawn inside by her swinging red lanterns I couldn’t help but sample the decadence of her China White, a cocktail of jasmine tea syrup, lychees, gin, and Cinzano before heading back to the hotel.
Accommodation in Siem Reap is plentiful. The Navutu Dreams Resort and Spa luxuriates in its own gardens, while Belmond La Residence d’Angkor is, like the Amansara, once the former guesthouse of King Shianouk, located closer to the town. Both offer exceptional standard accommodation with all the special touches, personal service and, at the Amansara, the king’s old Mercedes Benz. There is however plenty of choice, even budget hotels have their own boutique style like the Reflections Hotel just around the corner from Pub Street, and there is so much going on outside that to save on accommodation and spend on tours is the optimal way to get the most out of the budget. No joke, I travel with my high-flyer wife, who’s idea of roughing it is leaving five out of ten pairs of shoes at home, and three i-plugged kids, one of whom has a passion for being anywhere but where her parents are! I am aiming to get the most out of this travel experience: luxury hotels are great but I brought them here to get outside of the comfort zone that our life in Bali affords us and to discover the world ‘outside’.Click to view slideshow.
In order to do this I went to visit my old friends Sri Lek and her husband Rim. Sri Lek and Rim have a business that exemplifies the new tourism of the area: It’s called Beyond Ultimate Escapes and it supports the work of their NGO ‘HUSK’. At Beyond Ultimate Escapes Sri Lek and Rim offer gorgeous photography tours, a good opportunity for me to use the new camera, and the chance go a bit wild riding out to the further temples on motorbikes. Or my favourite, Sri Lek’s phenomenal cooking classes, some of the best I have ever experienced. I could return again and again, it is one way you can really ‘get’ Siem Reap. Learning the methods of making the prahok, the fermented fish paste that is the backbone of Khmer cuisine, the grilled pork with holy basil and kaffir lime, and the amazing kam pot pepper that is used in many dishes, included a caramelized fish. We also made the noodle salad served with a ceremonial fish cooked in coconut milk, tamarind and the previously prepared prahok. This is how and where Sri Lek and I cemented our friendship, and shortly after our first meeting I brought them to Bali to teach some of their amazing dishes to our chefs. Through their NGO Sri Lek and Rim also offer tours that allow a glimpse into the lives of the locals of the villages and the Tonle Sap Lake. Check out their website at www.huskcambodia.com. It is full of inspiring initiatives that make you feel you want to get involved – even an old pair of reading glasses can change somebody’s life. Their approach to responsible tourism is very clear and their guide to being a responsible visitor something of a relief when faced with the myriad works being undertaken in order to improve the lives of rural Cambodians.
It is not possible to escape the realities here, but why should we? One of my main reasons for returning was to share my experiences of earlier visits with my soon-to-be-teenage daughter. At eleven-years-old she needs to be able to understand that happiness doesn’t revolve around what you possess, but what you have. And if that is a bowl of tasty noodles to eat at a street stall by the river, then that can be pretty sweet. While I didn’t want to scare or shock her needlessly, the situations we saw around Siem Reap, although improved, did appear to give her cause to stop for a moment, take off the headphones and reflect. Maybe she could see herself, where she might be in the future, considering where life could take her, learning perhaps it is better to have than to own. Even if it was just the reflection of the red lanterns of Miss Wong’s or the lights of the night market downtown shimmering on the surface of the Siem Reap River, it was still the reflection of a world outside her own and 48 hours is all it takes.
About Will Meyrick
Will Meyrick, a restaurateur with Sarong Bali, Mama San Bali, Mama San Hong Kong and E&O Jakarta. A celebrity chef and a street food enthusiast. The author of “Sarong Inspirations” cook book.