IN the mid-1990's when tourists started trickling back to the temples of Angkor Wat after the end of Cambodia's civil war, the nearby town of Siem Reap was nearly as rundown as the ruins. The town consisted of a few dusty streets that visitors seldom had the time or inclination to explore.
Today, as memories of the area as a danger zone fade, Siem Reap is experiencing a tourism boom. The numbers of paved roads, hotel rooms, international flights and visitor arrivals are all rising rapidly. Though Angkor Wat will always be the main draw, Siem Reap offers exponentially more night-life options than it did even 18 months ago. For Americans, commerce is easy, since transactions are in dollars (small change is returned in local currency).
The newest restaurants and bars -- many occupying renovated, or reproduced, French colonial-style shop houses with overhanging second-story balconies -- lie within the radius of a $1 tuk-tuk ride (those omnipresent two-wheeled carriages pulled by motorcycles). The highest concentration is in the Old Market area at the town's triangular southern end. Except for the busy stretch called Pub or Bar Street, the tiny streets and alleys are nameless. Addresses often refer to a place's proximity to one of the longer running establishments such as ''near the Red Piano.''
When Mick Jagger's visit put four-year-old Khmer Kitchen, (855-12) 763 468, on the map a while back, it was the only restaurant on the pedestrian alley that parallels Pub Street on its southeastern side. By year's end there will be five or six. The owner, Perk Sophal, recently moved her kitchen across the road but retained the unpretentious ambience. Diners ranging from backpackers to upmarket tourists keep returning for local fare like chicken soup with lemon grass, lime and mint ($2.50).
As you head southwest down the fast growing alley, you pass the rear of the new Pissa Italiana (main entrance on Pub Street, (855-12) 440 382, where the owner, a former executive chef at a five-star hotel, often takes a break from his hot pizza oven. Decor and service need improvement but not so the creamy gnocchi ($6) or perfectly sauced and topped thin-crust pizzas ($4 to $10).
Anchoring the top end of the alley, airy Linga Bar (855-12) 246 912, www.lingabar.com , is the town's first gay-friendly lounge-style bar. Opened last November by a hotel manager, it's now frequented by as many straights as gays. The pastel walls and black furniture, chilled sounds and regional snacks clearly have universal appeal. The large drinks menu (most at $3) includes martinis and cosmopolitans. Like most nightspots in Old Market, Linga stays open until at least 1 or 2 a.m.
Pub Street had three occupants in 2000. Today it's almost full, with new places spilling over onto the short block leading to Sivatha Boulevard. Carnets d'Asie, at 333 Sivatha, (855-16) 746 701, fuses Khmer and French cuisine in the elegantly renovated rear courtyard of a former Chinese restaurant. In another country such beautiful presentation (like the lotus flower salad in a crispy edible bowl) and taste (fish tartar) would cost much more than $2.50 to $10.
The minimalist white and air-conditioned interior of Blue Pumpkin (cross the road at the end of Pub Street at the Soup Dragon), (855-63) 963 574, makes a cool alternative to the other naturally ventilated spots. Renowned for its baked goods, freshly blended health drinks, snacks and desserts (nothing above $5), the spacious two-story cafe also features free wireless Internet access.
A few blocks outside
the Old Market area, the French-owned Abacus, just off Srivatha on the
west end of Om Khun Street, (855-12) 644 286, closed Sundays, is barely
six months old and already a favorite with the discerning expat crowd.
Set in a relocated Khmer-style wooden house with a bar underneath and
extra seating in the lush tropical garden, its menu changes daily. Succulent
grilled fish (with pesto, curry or saffron cream), unusual meats (ostrich)
and starters like smoked salmon guacamole -- more than worth the $5 to
$10. Vegetable accompaniments are free.
© 2005 New York Times/Jennifer Gampell