When I was a kid we had a hardcover book which contained the most amazing photos of the mysterious ruins deep inside the Kingdom of Cambodia. I was fascinated by these images of monks in saffron robes sitting in temples and by the photos of huge stone faces that framed massive gateways topped with invasive trees. I was thrilled by the adventurous stories of how a French naturalist named Henri Mouhot “discovered” (for the west at least) this city “time forgot”. When I grew up I thought, I wanted to be like Mouhot, and discover more of this exotic land.
This being the early 1970s though, Cambodia was not only mysterious and exotic, but out of bounds for almost everybody, as a war was on in next door in Vietnam. Later of course, it would be revealed that our president was conducting a secret war in Cambodia, dumping millions of tons of bombs on what were actually our allies and in doing so, destabilizing and devastating this ancient land. The final result of this illegal and disastrous policy was the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, a violently extreme Communist movement led by the infamous Pol Pot who seized control of the country on April 17th 1975. The Khmer Rouge then launched one of the most horrific genocides in history. It is estimated a staggering one third of the entire population of Cambodia was murdered, tortured or starved to death. On December 28th 1979 a Vietnamese led invasion toppled the regime, but the country was completely devastated.
As a student at The Beijing Language Institute in the early 80s, a fellow student’s father, who was a British journalist, was one of the first foreigners to go back to the ruins of Angkor. Weekly she would give me updates of how he and his colleagues “camped out” in what had been the luxury Raffles hotel in the abandoned town of Siem Reap nearby the ruins. He told of landmines and sightings of still undefeated Khmer Rouge bands. He wrote of the devastation of the cities and the starving people and children many of whom were missing limbs, a result of the landmines. But he also wrote of the continued magnificence of the ruins of Angkor and the hundreds of surrounding temples. I was hooked; and I wanted to go!
Finally, in early 2000, Mark and I made it to Cambodia! We flew on a small plane from Bangkok to the town of Siem Reap (which translates as Thailand Defeated). At that time, Siem Reap had still barely recovered from the devastation of the war. And the town had a “Wild West” feel to it especially at night. We stayed at the beautifully restored Raffles hotel, where my friends father had “camped out” just a decade before. But outside of this oasis of gentility, there were dirt roads, only a single stoplight, three or four other hotels and ragged boys literally hunting for food in the Central Park in front of the Royal residence.
When we went to the ruins, we were instructed to not stray too far as there were still land mines about. We exchange $10 and received a huge wad of small change which we handed out liberally to the hordes of small children begging. At points we were greeted by musicians without legs and arms playing Khmer folk tunes to eek out a living. Since this was the lunar new year there were a few foreigners but mainly there were Cambodians dressed in traditional garb, paying their respects at the temples. The temples were magnificent and quiet.
Over the years, we have visited Cambodia on a regular basis. I am proud to say that we were even able to sponsor the first Cambodian foreign exchange student to come to the U.S.A. and work. This was our small personal repayment for the vast devastation that our country's leadership, unleashed on this tiny land. And I’m happy to report that in the last two decades tremendous change has come to the country. Siem Reap, has change vastly. The airport is now modern and glittering with marble. There are many stoplights and over one thousand hotels! Although some of the charm for the visitor has been lost, the opportunity for the people is much greater and the new prosperity is palpable.
GETTING TO SIEM REAP
Today it is more than easy to get to Siem Reap, almost too easy, as the town and the ruins now risk being overrun by direct budget flights from China, Japan and Korea. For those traveling from the west, virtually all national carriers connect from major ports of entry from Bangkok to Hong Kong and Singapore. And these are quick flights; in less than a hour from Bangkok you will be circling over the vast water works that underpinned the ancient civilization of the Khmer.
VISA ON DEMAND
There is really no reason to get a visa ahead of time for Cambodia as acquiring a tourist visa at the airport is fast and efficient (at least for most westerners, Asians are frequently hit up for bribes). But you will need to provide the custom official with two passport photos and $25.00. As well as an entry form that they will provide you on the plane in most cases. It is best to have exact change to expedite the process.
U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere in Cambodia. You can exchange money at ATMs that are at every turn if you want to have some local currency.
GETTING TO YOUR ACCOMMODATIONS AND ABOUT
Virtually every hotel in the city will be happy to arrange to have you picked up by a hotel car; Raffles might even send a stretch BMW limousine if you really want to live it up! But the taxi desk found curbside at the airport is fast and reliable. There they will write down the name of the place where you are staying for your driver. The charge to take you to all hotels in Siem Reap is $7.00. Most taxi drivers speak rudimentary English and some are surprisingly fluent. On the way to your hotel, most drivers will offer to take you sightseeing at a standard rate of around $20.00 a day. You are not obligated to do so, but if you like your driver and his car and negotiate a fair price it can be a very convenient way to see the ruins.
When you go to the ruins of Angkor be aware that this is a vast place of which the truly stunning and massive complex of Angkor Wat is merely one small part. This was a huge city at one time and what remains are numerous Wats (temple complexes) that were built of stone scattered over thousands of acres of land. What you will not see is the domestic architecture of the city, as they were built of wood and have long ago disappeared. No matter what time of year you visit it will be hot and at peak tourist times in the winter, it will be dry and dusty. For this reason, we highly recommended hiring a car and driver to see the sites. It’s not only relatively cheap and safe but when you pass some sweating ragged out hipsters on motorcycles you’ll know you made the right choice. We also do not recommend tuk tuks for the same reason.
In the evening, tuk tuks are a great way to get around town as it’s relatively cool and things are all within a close proximity. Your tuk tuk driver will be happy to stay with you at each destination, and take you back to your lodging at the end of the night. Be sure though to negotiate a price ahead of time. It is also polite to continue to use the same tuk tuk and taxi driver if you like them.
If you decide to go to the magnificent and huge Tonle Sap lake which is the heart of Cambodia and fairly near to Siem Reap, or to any other outlying areas, we strongly recommend getting a car and driver recommend by your hotel, or one that you’ve arranged to continue using from the airport. Your driver will help you get to the boats, negotiate a captain and other fees and wait patiently for you to return.
Patience is a virtue in getting around in Cambodia. Keep in mind that just a few short decades ago Cambodia was one of the poorest nations on earth and there are still vast challenges for the people of this country. In the center of town you will find that street numbers are often haphazard and as you move further from the center of town they will simply cease to exist. This will mean that if you are searching for a certain gallery or factory that is not that well known, your driver will have to stop numerous times to ask for directions. Also, as you go further afield you will find poor dirt roads or roads that have been partially destroyed by say a recent monsoon. Distances that would take an hour at home may take double or more to traverse in Cambodia.
As I mentioned earlier, there are over a thousand hotels, hostels, jungle camps etc, in Siem Reap now, with more popping up every day. Because of the intense competition in the lodging market, prices can be very reasonable. In addition to hotels, there are a number of great apartments and homes for rent in the city. The town itself, though a bit overwhelming at times is still quite pretty along the river where most of the nightlife and restaurants are clustered. For this reason we recommend staying in town rather than more remote resorts closer to the ruins. The following are a few of our favorites.
RAFFLES Grand Hotel d’Ankor
Well we might as well start with the “Grand Dame”! Located across from King Sihanouk's former summer get away home (now a Aman Hotel) it is fronted by fifteen acres of gardens. Built in 1932 and currently run by Fairmont Raffles Hotels International, the Hotel was constructed to accommodate tourists arriving to visit Angkor Wat.. from the beginning it’s elegant Colonial French architecture and decor were a hit with the rich, well traveled, famous and at times notorious A listers of the era.
Today, beautifully restored, it is an elegant oasis from the bustling and dusty town of Siem Reap. The pool is huge and gorgeous and a welcome respite after a day of sightseeing. The gym though small, is well outfitted and the classy bar makes one feel as if they are walking directly into a 1930’s movie set! The elevator with its original wrought iron grillwork and personnel operator is in itself a great thing to see! On the downside, the beautifully attired staff can be a bit brusque and even rude at times, and both times we stayed here, tried to push us into a category of room below what we had reserved. Make sure to reserve a garden facing Landmark room or higher category as the rooms in lower categories are a bit dank and narrow. The rooms in the Landmark category are spacious and pleasant. We do not recommend eating here as the food is not only very overpriced it is mediocre at best. You can enjoy much better food of all kinds outside of the hotel’s confines.
This unique and very special hotel is comprised of eleven individual Khmer antique houses set amid carefully tended rice fields. The homes were found in various areas of Cambodia and lovingly reassembled by the owners. To these houses, just the right amount of updating has been added, including great air conditioning and pleasant modern bathrooms. The result is a real “sense of place” that one rarely finds in hotels.
There is a nice outdoor dining room and bar at the front of the complex with a limited if well prepared menu. The infinity pool at the other end of the property is beautiful very clean and peaceful. Sala Lodges is set in a “nice” neighborhood where many expats have built homes, and it is easily accessible to town and to the ruins.
There are a few down sides here, there is no gym, so if you want to work out you’ll need to go to a nearby local gym. And there is no onsite spa, although they are happy to arrange for a masseuse to come to your room. At times the congeniality of the staff seems a bit “put on” here and the management seems a bit grand for a tiny place, but this can be ignored as the lodge itself is so pleasant.
A number of years ago, while sitting at the pool at Raffles, we met an up and coming Chef named Viroth. This friendly guy invited us to his new restaurant that night where we had a great time. Since then,, Viroth and his French partner Fabian have built a mini empire comprised of two boutique hotels and a restaurant.
The hotels are set a block off the river in the center of town close to the best restaurants and nightlife. Both hotels were designed by the best modernist female architects operating in the country. The stylish 1960s modern look of these establishments are nicely enhanced by the decorating and furnishings built and acquired for the hotel’s by Mr. Fabian. The spacious rooms are well appointed with spectacular bathrooms and terraces that overlook the hotel’s large pool. There are pleasant bars and restaurants in the lobbies area and a small gym and spa on site.
The staff here is pleasant and charming and happy to help you with every request. There is even a vintage 1968 Mercedes that can take you to the airport or around town for a nominal amount of money. Viroths gets high marks these days from the press but still remains fairly reasonable for such a great experience.
THE URBAN RESIDENCES
If you are interested in booking your own apartment in town there are a number of options, but The Urban Residences is certainly one of the best. Vann Molyvann, the famed Cambodian modernist architect, would be pleased to see these well thought out stylish apartments. The flat we enjoyed was on two spacious levels with soaring ceilings, a gorgeous living room dining room kitchen area and an upstairs master suite with its own comfortable terrace. The apartments are within walking distance of virtually everything in town, from the famed Pub Street to the best restaurants and markets.
These residences, come with nicely outfitted kitchens, with some thoughtful items stocked upon your arrival. Breakfast is provided daily by the adjoining Rambutan Hotel which you can have delivered to your room or enjoy in the hotel dining room. You will also enjoy daily maid service and full access to the hotel’s small pool and convivial bar. The staff here, though not always the most polished, is eager to help and always friendly.
Down a charming alley lined with Chinese lanterns, you will find this sweet hotel built in the French colonial style around a small pool. Rambutan’s location can’t be beat, as it is a short walk away from the the best part of town. Here you will be greeted by a very affable and pleasant staff that will work hard to make your stay a pleasant one. The manager, Tommy Bekaert, is a very gracious person who makes a conscientious effort to introduce fellow traveler and expats alike. The rooms here are pleasant and well appointed and have small charming terraces. This isn’t a five star luxury property, but the feel is of languid relaxation it makes up for absent amenities. There is a small spa and the Khmer massages given there are some of the best we’ve ever had. There is no gym here but there are two local ones nearby. We walked to the large well equipped, if poorly air conditioned Angkor fitness which actually enhanced our experience of the local town and culture
if you are looking for a hard core gay resort experience then head directly to Men’s. The stylish sixties modern hotel is a little off the beaten track but is still within a quick tuk tuk ride to town. The staff here, not oddly, seems a bit jaded but still pleasant and will be happy to arrange whatever you need.
The rooms are large, spacious, well appointed and overlook the beautiful pool area. There is a newly renovated gym looking out over the pool and an extensive spa. Breakfast, that is provided daily, is adequate if not anything to write home about. There is a pleasant bar area and you're sure to meet plenty of crazy travelers and fun locals if you want to!
Next door to Raffels is the super exclusive Aman. Created from the restored 1960s modern guest house formerly owned by King Norodom Sihanouk, this is a walled compound of restrained luxury. While Angelina Joelle was filming her harrowing movie “First they killed My Father” (a must see for any visiting this country), she made the Aman her base. And she is not alone amongst the famous and the monied that have stayed here: did someone mention Brad and Jackie O! So if money is of little concern (rates start at an eye popping $1,500.00 a night) or if it’s that very special trip, consider the Amansara! On an aside, we have from time to time just shown up at an Aman resort and been able to arrange a slightly more reasonable rate.
All twenty four rooms here are spacious, sparse and luxurious in the modernist way. The suites have private outdoor sitting areas and twelve suites have private plunge pools. The pool area is lovely and in addition there is a lap pool. The spa here is of course serene and of course relaxing but there is no gym. However, there are now two modern gyms within an short drive (or run in our case) from the Amansara, one towards the airport and one in the center of town. The Amansara also provides yoga instruction if you’re feeling zen or Californian.
There is a pleasant on site library with board games etc. and a romantic rooftop terrace. The former king’s screening room now serves as a spectacular dining room and there is a cozy bar with a walk in wine room and formidable selection of spirits. The Amansara offers a partial board deal of breakfast and either dinner or lunch. And they will also arrange tours to the ruins which are about fifteen minutes away. The staff here is always gracious, polished, plentiful and polite.
Nowadays, Siem Reap is a pretty exciting place to eat with young Chefs opening new and fun restaurants it seems on a daily basis.
Near the center of town and set in a modern style Khmer garden, Viroth’s with its perapatic Chef Viroth at the helm has in the past served some excellent Cambodian cuisine at reasonable prices in a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere. Lately though, reports are that the emphasis has been put on cranking low quality bus tours through the restaurant. Despite this sort of crowd, on a recent visit the food and service remained adequate if not stellar.
This is currently the best restaurant in Siem Reap and perhaps the country in our opinion. The so called “Kimsan twins” are the dynamic Chef duo that are the brains and power behind this excellent real fine dining establishment. The two Chefs, graduates of the Paul Dubrule School (which is well worth a tour in itself), have joined a number of culinary competitions around the globe and studied with the Michelin starred Chef Regis Marcon. But their elegant take on Khmer cuisine that strictly utilizes the best of local ingredients, showcased in a prix fix menu, is what makes for a stellar experience.
The classically proportioned menus typically consist of a amuse bouche, Appetizer, soup, main course, refresher and dessert. If you like one of the courses a lot they will bring you a second helping as well for no extra charge! When was the last time that happened in New York or San Francisco...ah, NEVER. And folks this elegant repast is priced at $36 and $28 for a wine pairing of excellent wines! This is radically expensive by Cambodian standards but not for westerners...There is also an outstanding wine list to be had.
The small dining rooms are pleasant airy and chic. The modern upholstered chairs are comfortable. But what sets this place on another level is the intense attention to detail at every step. Here the monogrammed plates are made locally for the restaurant as are the beautiful uniforms. The service is pleasant and gracious if at times a bit too wordy, but this is a small fault in an otherwise almost flawless experience.
Don’t let the rather odd name put you off: Phou is actually the ancient name for Angkor. This is the “new” and second Phou restaurant founded by the energetic and friendly Chef Mengly Mork. Note that the first Phou is still operating and is more of a simple cafe, so ask to go to the new place
The restaurant has an appealing store front rustic feel with a spotless open kitchen and large murals of local food on the wall as well as antique cooking utensils. The food is updated Khmer cuisine presented in hearty and colorful presentations using excellent local ingredients. The cocktails here are also creative and fun utilizing ingredients that you will rarely find outside of Cambodia. What the staff lacked in polish during the opening week it easily made up in friendliness and efficiency.
The star of the show here though is the sparkling Chef Mork who will be happy to stop by for a chat and show you around. His English is outstanding and his understanding of the culinary scene is pretty impressive. This is the perfect place to experience updated Cambodian food in a contemporary setting run by a great group of people.
A bit out of the typical “tourist gulch”, is the brand new Meric Khchei Khmer Kitchen. Recently opened by the accomplished young Khmer Chef Ratana Ke, this is a definite “must try” stop for excellently prepared Cambodian cuisine. Meric Kechei means “green peppercorn” in Khmer, and this spectacular spice is definitely the centerpiece of the cooking here.
The dining room and spacious garden patio are tastefully outfitted with lots of top notch touches such as fine linen and flatware. There is a full bar and a decent wine list to compliment the abundant expertly prepared fare that is very reasonably priced. Mr. Ratana often makes the rounds of his guests and is the perfect host.
CUISINE WAT DAMNAK
This lovely restaurant set in a traditional Khmer style house surrounded by gardens is one of the nicest places to dine in town. It was also one of the first restaurants to present refined Cambodian cuisine in a high end atmosphere. For this achievement French Chef Joannes Rivière has received a place on the prestigious Asia 50 best restaurants list
The four course tasting menu is served either in the romantic garden setting in the serenely chilly air conditioned first floor dining room or the more rustic upstairs. The food is nicely executed and presented. One has a choice of a five or six course tasting menu at $24 and $28 respectively. Again this is a huge amount of money in a country where the average monthly wage is $120. But for this kind of cuisine it represents a bargain for those of us used to international prices.
Service here can be excruciatingly slow at times, but the lovely atmosphere and tasty cuisine normally makes up for the deficiencies
THE CHANREY TREE
This may not be the most daring of new restaurants in town, but for a consistent experience in a great setting you can’t go wrong with The Chanrey Tree. Set on the banks of the Sohkai in the center of town the restaurant has a peaceful chic atmosphere. You can choose to dine in the front garden area with some view of the river or pass by the gorgeous glass walled kitchen to an open pavilion dining room in the rear of the building.
The restaurant calls its food “country Khmer”, and that is probably fairly apt although one assumes that you must be visiting a rich uncle’s country place and he happens to have a pretty good Chef on hand! The menu is a bit too extensive and varied to achieve the best results, but if you stick to the basics of the Khmer repertoire the food is quite good. There is a full bar and a decent wine list. The staff is friendly and efficient and deals well with larger parties.
18% of Cambodians still make less than $1.25 a day. The EBOK school, was created to train deserving kids to have useful job and a career. The stylish Spoons is their training ground and the results are pretty impressive!
The restaurant has a stunningly designed outdoor garden and pergola that looks like something from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. This serves as a pleasant place to dine while the ardent young student/servers practice their service skills under the watchful eyes of their instructors. The food here, is also prepared by the students and the results are pretty impressive. Plate after beautiful plate of meticulously prepared Cambodian street food and home dishes will be brought to your table. It’s a real pleasure to see the strict attention to detail that is obvious here, in both the service and the presentation of the food. But don’t be afraid that it’s too formal or stilted, the marvelous charm of these Khmer youth is always apparent and makes any evening here a real joy.
MOLOP WAT DOMNAK
The name of this unassuming cafe’s means “In the Shadow of Wat Domnak”. This being the temple that anchors the neighborhood. Owned and operated by Rith, this is casual place that one might easily walk by as it doesn’t have a slick facade, elegant garden or chic interior. What it does have is delicious, simple Khmer food that is reasonably priced. Pass on the western options and go directly to the traditional Khmer fare, you won’t be disappointed.
Rith, which means “power” in Khmer, will also be happy to take you to the market and to the farms that grow the produce for his restaurant. He’ll also give you private cooking lessons if you feel like it. This is a great place for a leisurely and authentic lunch or dinner that certainly won’t break the bank.
Siem Reap’s nightlife is an interesting mixture: first off, many people have been out seeing the ruins since dawn and so there is a bit of fade some nights earlier than one might expect. But, in contrast to this you also have a huge group of young visitors from all over the world out to have a good time! Add to this a burgeoning young local population on motorbikes and a smattering of hipster/chic expats and you’ve got quite a cool scene!
Most of Siem Reap’s nightlife, but not all, is clustered in the center of town around Pub Street. Here you will encounter plenty of drunken revelers (beer is usually only a dollar) wandering from bar after bar. If you don’t like a place just walk a little further and you will probably find something more to your taste! Or if you’re looking for specific places, it’s easy to hire a tuk tuk for the night, at very little cost, and have him take you to each place. The following are a few highlights.
PHARE THE CAMBODIAN CIRCUS
This is one of the best things about visiting Cambodia: seriously! First, like so many things in Cambodia you need a little background. This artistic association was founded in 1994 by nine young refugees returning home from the Khmer Rouge’s death camps. Greatly helped by an art teacher using drawing classes as therapy, this group went on to found an art and music school and finally a circus/acrobatic school to assist poor and at risk youngsters. Today Phare has over 1200 students and offers its students a place to perform. We are the happy recipients of the talented graduates of this amazing school.
Under a small but well air conditioned circus tent Phare presents a series of different and frequently moving tales of life in Cambodia. The music is great and the acrobats are truly some of the best. Moreover, after the show you will have the pleasure and the opportunity to meet some of these talented performers, take selfies and generally mingle. Tickets aren’t cheap, and yes, they will ask you for further donations (which you should give) but when does such a good cause give so much?
This classy cocktail bar just outside Pub Street is a great place to start an evening. The decor is 1930s Shanghai, and the clientele is an intriguing mixture of high end travelers, expats and gay and straight funsters. The cocktails are well prepared, and if you want creative.
MEZZE LOUNGE & NIGHTCLUB
A little further into the night Mezze Lounge can be a fun place to drop in. Everyone here seems ready to party and the crowd seems to be made up of equal mixtures of locals, expats and tourists. The Lebanese tapas are actually pretty good and the drinks are cheap. Local and occasionally international DJs play house tunes on most nights.
This place is a fairly new addition to Pub Street, but it’s already proven pretty popular with locals and visitors alike. The atmosphere is laid back and the music played is popular soul,reggae and funk. They are also happy to play requests that you might have.
This iconic bar in at Raffles Hotel is another great place to end or start an evening. You’ll certainly get away from the sweaty hipster crowd on Pub Street, as drinks here are priced to international standards. The ambience of course is classy colonial and you can even step onto the terrace to sip your cocktail and smoke a fine Cuban cigar if you like
This cozy wine bar set overlooking the river on street 24 in the center of town is oddly enough, a “hidden gem” for several reasons. First, it’s small terrace is a bit hard to see as it’s covered happily by vegetation, but the illuminated sign above is a bit of a help in locating the place. Second and most importantly, it has a unique (for Siem Reap) selection of top quality wines by the bottle and the glass. A good cheese and choucrouterie selection is also offered. The congenial owners, Fred and Drew are gracious hosts and happy to make recommendations. In short, Balthazar offers a great alternative to the usual run of drunken backpacker bars on Pub Street.
Almost directly across the river and down a small street from Balthazar, is one of Siem Reap’s best known gay bars. This is one of those places that pretty much everyone feels comfortable; women, men, locals, expats etc. etc. In fact this small comfortable lounge is the de facto local watering hole. The drinks are ordinary but the bar is well appointed and the music isn’t so loud that you can’t think.
WILD-CREATIVE BAR AND EATERY
A small door, at the end of a small alley leads on to this charming outdoor garden bar recently founded by a husband and wife team from Paris. To say the least the atmosphere is restful and a world away from obnoxious Pub Street. You can have your creative cocktails and tasty snack served to you in a tree house (yes you read that correctly) or on the lawn or on the small terrace overlooking the garden. In addition to cocktails this charming couple serve nicely selected and properly handled wine by the glass. This is a great place to unwind after a busy day at the ruins!
This is Asia, and so of course the shopping is amazing. Khmer civilization has created spectacular design and crafts in all areas including lacquer, clothing, ceramics, painting and silver. Galleries and shops can be hard to find and spread out over the town, while others are concentrated in a single area. Be patient when you are looking for these places as addresses can be useless or non existent. We once walked for twenty blocks searching for a knife store only to give up and realize it was literally two shops away from our hotel!
KANDAL VILLAGE- HAP GUAN STREET
Near to the market and Pub Street, is one of those “concentrated” areas I mentioned above. Along Hap Guan street you will find a small collection of more upscale boutiques and shops, most of which have been opened in the last few years by expats from around Asia and Europe. Here nestled between chic coffee cafes you’ll find handmade parisian eyeglass boutiques such as EYE SEE as well as soap shops and a plethora of women’s clothes and accessories stores including MAISON SIVIRIN CONCEPT STORE. While there, be sure to stop at one of the ever present grilled banana stands and sample a local Khmer sweet treat!
THEAM’S HOUSE GALLERY
This place is worth seeing even if you don’t buy a thing, as the artistic director here, Lim Muy Theam, has created a museum and gallery set in a beautiful home surrounded by lush gardens. His paintings alone, while harrowing, are well worth seeing and buying. Slightly less exciting is the monochromatic lacquerware of elephants and other animals that actually made Mr, Theam famous: they seem to be churned out by the lorry full by a group of sullen workers. Under close examination the lacquer itself, though quite pricey, seems of indifferent quality. Getting to the house, which is several miles outside of the center of town is a bit of a challenge as addresses here are merely imaginary. But again, the house and its museum and gallery are well worth the time to see!
Using bullet casings, recycled leather and silver, jeweller, Madeline Green who is originally from the U.K. has been practicing her craft in Siem Reap for the past decade. In 2013 she opened Amo which comprises a store and her workshop where young Cambodians are taught the skill of jewelry making. Every Thursday, apprentices are encouraged to create their own pieces which are potentially added to the collection of unique items. Madeline’s mission is laudable, here zeal impressive and the results are pretty special. Amo is located at 120 Wat Bo Road.
ANGKOR ARTWORK E&T STOCKER
this lovey gallery and studio presided over by two French master craftsmen purveys some of the best quality of natural lacquerware married with the application of gold leaf. The gallery is located on Sala Lodge road, and is easy to get to from the center of town.
Founded in 1990 to revive handicrafts that the Khmer Rouge had tried so hard to wipe out, as well as to assist Cambodians in rural areas develop livelihoods, Artisans d’Angkor now provides employment to over 1100 people, 800 of whom are artisans. The results are stunning and this huge gallery has some of the highest quality and beautiful Khmer items to be found in the country. From ladies handbags to lamps, lacquerware, stone carving and stunning contemporary and traditional table ware this extensive gallery showcases it all. If you have limited time to shop in Cambodia,and want the best, head directly to Artisans d’Angkor located on Stun Themey street.
GOING TO THE RUINS OF ANGKOR
It’s hot, it’s very crowded, it’s dusty, it’s frustrating it’s Angkor Wat. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Years ago when Mark and I first visited Angkor, the vast temple complex was relatively peaceful, monks in saffron robes sat under ancient covered verandas and Cambodians dressed in traditional garb made up most of the “crowd”. Today with millions of visitors coming every year, all this has changed. But don’t despair, with a little bit of planning and forethought you can still have an amazing and enlightening experience here. Most visitors to Cambodia come for three nights and their main objective is to trundle up to the most famous temple complex of them all, Angkor Wat, take some pictures, climb to the top and go back to the pool at their hotel. If you’ve ever been to Egypt, you’ll find a similar phenomenon there: eighty percent of all tourists go to the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx and depart.
So, do yourself a favor and don’t rush through this experience. Allow four or five days to digest this vast and amazing place. Why? Well first off, understand that Angkor, while the largest temple complex here, is merely one of literally dozens of spectacular temple complexes spread over 400 square Kilometers! Second, it’s not just about temple complexes: this area was once a vast city with roads, canals, reservoirs, homes, palaces and markets, and set amongst this huge metropolis, guilded from top to bottom were these glittering temples that remain today. Why you ask, are the temples the only remaining structures? Well actually they’re not: immense Barays (reservoirs) and walls also remain intact. But, yes, buildings for the Gods were built in stone, for mere mortals they were built of wood and when the city declined sometime in the late 14th century these structures disappeared and the cleared land was gradually reclaimed by the jungle.
So here are our recommendations for getting the most out of a visit to this incredible place.
Study the history before you go! It will open your eyes to what you are actually seeing and you will get a lot more out of your visit.
Hire a car and driver. Don’t waste time with a guide unless you know ahead that they actually speak fluent English and really know the history. Don’t take a tuk tuk, try to ride a bike or hire a motorcycle: it’s too hot and dusty.
Do buy a three day pass. In three days you’ll barely scratch the surface anyway.
Bring water, it’s HOT and dress in cool long pants and a light shirt. This IS a place of worship so dress respectfully.
Wear good walking shoes.
Go to the major attractions such as Angkor, Banyon and Thom around noon when most tourists go to lunch. Skip the sunrise at these places, it’s a zoo!
Ask your driver to take you to less well known sites at the other times of the day, such as Phnom Kulen, Beng Mealea, Banteay Srei and Chauncey Srei Vibol. Visit the West Baray, the 11th century reservoir that covers 16 square miles: its impressive and usually deserted. And if you have enough time, visit the Kabal Spean hills north of Angkor. From there one can get a feeling of what this vast city must have been like.
TONLE SAP LAKE
To understand ancient and modern Cambodia, you have to go to the Tonle Sap. This Great Lake is the beating heart of Cambodia, and its beauty and challenges, its poverty stricken but enchanting floating villages, it’s almost overwhelming flora and fauna, it’s bird life, it’s people life make it something you must see. From Siem Reap to the lake is about an hour. Have your taxi driver take you there, assist you in hiring a boat for the day, and have him patiently wait for you. When you return from your trip you won’t regret it!