PHOTO: Psar Leu Market in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (photo via Flickr/US Mission to the United Nations Agencies in Rome)
The awe-inspiring stone temple complex of Angkor Wat has been on peoples’ Bucket Lists since, well, before having a Bucket List was a thing.
The once sleepy little Cambodian town of Siem Reap has served as the gateway to temple touring for over a century. These days, people still come for the temples, including the now almost-as-famous Ta Promh—courtesy of Angelina Jolie alias Laura Croft the Tomb Raider.
Then, they stay to enjoy all the town offers.
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After Cambodia’s tragic history during the 1970s-80s, Siem Reap has leaped into the 21st century while reclaiming its culture. Today, it’s fun, hip and high-energy.
It boasts a sophisticated food scene. (Don’t miss the temple’s bas-relief carvings of ancient Khmers roasting and relishing some ribs.) Cambodian cuisine has been influenced by its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, Chinese migration and French colonization. Dine on revered Royal Khmer dishes in atmospheric venues, or tuck-in to curries, stir-fries and noodle soups hawked on the street from rolling woks with these edible experiences:
1. Dine at Marum and Support the Training of Marginalized Youth
Dining at Marum means you're supporting a TREE restaurant—TREE being an NGO global alliance of training restaurants that work with the region’s street kids and invest profits to supply them with skills to ensure their future.
The food is fabulous.
Housed in a traditional teak mansion, tables meander out to an enchanted tree-shaded garden. The young staff happily bustles about—they are indeed well trained. Crafted with fresh, local ingredients, the menu includes tapas, creative salads, authentic regional cuisine (think crunchy red ants in your stir fry) and reinterpreted Cambodian dishes with a bit of a western riff. The desserts are divine. They have a full bar, shake a mean cocktail, and are open for lunch and dinner. Prices are reasonable.
There’s no downside.
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2. Take a Food Tour
Specifically, Siem Reap Food Tours.
Ex-pat founders Scottish chef Steven Halcrow and American food writer Lina Goldberg offer a fascinating (and delicious) morning itinerary. They include markets, food stalls, eateries and a jaunt via tuk-tuk into the gorgeous countryside near Angor Wat for a rural breakfast: a bowl of fornum banh chok.
This beloved curried noodle figures in an old Cambodian folk tale that the guides love to share. They know who serves up the best fish amok and will happily introduce you to prahok—the notoriously pungent fish paste. (Be brave!) You'll also be escorted through Cambodian culinary traditions and foodways.
3. Sample Sombai
What’s that you say? Sombai is a craft Cambodian liquor created from rice wine infused with fruits and spices abundant in Siem Reap. Eight flavors range from sweet (coconut & pineapple) to spicy (ginger & red chili). A production visitation to their workshop also includes tastings, plus an optional cocktail class(!) using this elixir.
Sombai is sold in the most gorgeous bottles, hand painted by Cambodian (often disadvantaged) artists. They make for a unique souvenir.
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4. To Market to Market: Visit Phsar Chas
A visit to the vibrant, chaotic and scent-intensive Old Market (Phsar Chas) is a must.
Fish from Tonlé Sap Lake swim in buckets waiting to be speedily beheaded and filleted by squatting fishmongers, while a wizened yiey makes red curry paste while minding her grandbaby. Piles of brightly hued produce, exotic spices, bags of colored rice and tropical fruits beg to be Instagrammed. Try a cashew apple. Stalls are stocked with offal, and tables are laden with chickens with Rockette-like legs akimbo. Turn a corner and come face-to-face with a pig’s head who will likely be wearing an expression as surprised as yours.
Local dishes are served sit-down, lunch-counter style but perhaps would be best enjoyed by the more hygienically adventurous.
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5. Mangia: At the Mamma Shop
Work up an appetite while browsing the boutiques in chicly rebranded Kendal Village, and stop in when you see the cozy little trattoria Mamma Shop.
Its authentic Italian food comes with an inspiring story: Chef-owner Simone Santolini came to Siem Reap from Bologna, Italy as an NGO volunteer, and stayed on. Armed with his nonna’s recipes, he trained a young staff to make fresh pasta and, oh, mamma is it good. Lasagna and Gnocchi a la Gorgonzola are among the most popular dishes. And they serve a delicious thin-crust pizza. The wine list has nothing noteworthy, but no quibbling, one doesn’t come to Cambodia for the vino. Mangia and enjoy.
6. Cuisine Wat Damnak
It’s always nice to end a stay in a destination with a special dinner, and Cuisine Wat Dannak fills the bill. Named as one of the 50 top restaurants in all of Asia, it's widely considered to be the best in Cambodia. Book ahead.
In a traditional home of yore with garden seating, the ambiance is intimate and atmospheric. Using local, seasonal ingredients, French-born chef-owner Joannès Rivière has transformed century-old Khmer dishes—and in some instances street food—into haute cuisine, with a nod to France.
Tasting menus change every few weeks. and dining here also gives you bragging rights with all your foodie friends.