Call me a philistine, but though I've lived a short plane ride away from Angkor Wat for over a decade, in Bangkok, I've never felt inspired to visit it. Truth be told, what finally propelled me in the direction of Cambodia's famed temple complex wasn't the monuments, but the escalating buzz about the new hotels, restaurants, art galleries, shops, and nightspots in the nearby town of Siem Reap.
What a pleasure to be someplace where entire streets are transforming into fun zones faster than you can say, "Let's restore another two-storey colonial shophouse!" And none of this, mind you, comes at the expense of any architectural heritage; a once-dusty market town that was largely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s, Siem Reap is no Luang Prabang. Meanwhile a proscription against building anything taller than Angkor Wat, the area's main temple, has kept new constructions below the four-story mark, save for the odd decorative turret.
Thanks to nearly 100 years of French colonial presence in Cambodia and the preponderance of Francophones lurking behinds the scenes of the town's hippest businesses, Siem Reap's newest lodgings and restaurants exude a gracious old Europe feel more than anything like traditional Khmer or modern Asia.
Many of Siem Reap's newest hotels
and restaurants exude gracious old Europe more than traditional Khmer
or modern Asia. The stylish Hotel Victoria Angkor (Central Park;
You can contemplate all this, as I did, while sipping a twilight cocktail under the canopy of trees at the FCC Angkor (855-63/760-280; Pokambor Avenue). Popular with resident expats and stylish tourists alike, this restaurant/shopping/hotel complex is run by the same people who revitalized the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh. (The new Siem Reap venture is journalism-related only insofar as any writer would love hanging out there.) Upstairs, the restaurant's ceiling fans, shutters and low-slung arm chairs refer to another era, but the tasty and affordable snacks (tapas, pasta, salads, wraps, pizzas) are ultra-contemporary.
Also under the FCC umbrella but designed to exist separately on the large plot of riverside land opposite where the French ambassador's residence once sat, is a low-slung commercial building. Opened last year, it houses Visaya Spa (855-63/760-814), a silk-clothing shop called Jasmine (855-63/760-610) and the best two art galleries in townt). Filled with light from its wall of windows, the spacious and modern McDermott Gallery (855-12/615-695; www.mcdermottgallery.com) would fit comfortably on any western gallery circuit. Owner John McDermott's has been photographing Southeast Asian cultural sites for a decade, and the result is a spectacular series of sepia-toned images.
One spa and 180-degrees of intention away from McDermott's, Beyond (855-63/760-60) is a small, dark and intensely riveting gallery. It features etchings, scrapbooks, sculptures and a weird assortment of artfully arranged junk scavenged by owner/artist Jerry Swaffield during his nearly two decades of Asian peregrinations. From the wall of dusty electrical paraphernalia to the collage of antique photos of Asian families entitled "Wreckollection," everything is arranged according to feng shui principles. One alcove is devoted to the gruesomely powerful black and white photography of Philip Blenkinsop. The award-winning Australian photographer has spent 16 years in Asia documenting the forgotten struggles of rebels, refugees, and others living on the edge.
As young well-heeled tourist has begun to arrive in Siem Reap, they want to stay somewhere classier than a backpacker guesthouse, cheaper than a five-star bastion of respectability and hipper than either. The FCC's year-old FCC Angkor Hotel (855-63/760-280); www.fcccambodia.com; doubles from US$120) caters to this demographic. Its 31 affordable rooms adhere to the 1960s modernist look of the other buildings while incorporating 21st century technology (flat-screen TVs, broadband) and design elements.
Another similarly priced option
is the intimate 18-room Shinta Mani (Om Khum St.; 855-63/761-998;
Visitors to Siem Reap are also spoiled for choice when it comes to food. Viroth's (246 Wat Bo St.; (855-16/951-900) caters to those craving local Khmer food in a non-local setting. Seating is on high-backed cloth-covered chairs under a tall open-air structure framed in metal and roofed with thatch. The similarly contemporary-meets-traditional menu includes popular favorites like yahorn (curry with vermicelli) and pork kari (with eggplant, green beans, carrots).
Opened in late 2004, Abacus
(Om Khun St.; 855-12/644-286) remains one of the town's hottest
new dining spots. The relocated wooden Khmer house three blocks has been
completely refurbished by its French owner. The upstairs rooms make great
private dining spaces and the downstairs bar is great for catching up
on expat gossip, but go for a table in the verdant garden. Scrawled on
a blackboard, the daily menu items might include smoked salmon guacamole,
grilled fish curry (foil-wrapped fish on a bed of thinly sliced lemon
grass) or ostrich in red wine sauce.
A slew of smaller eateries are dotted along Rue de la Soif (a.k.a. Pub Street) and the adjacent streets and alleyways that make up Siem Reap's Psar Chaa, or Old Market. The French-owned and minimalist designed Blue Pumpkin café (365 Mondol 1, Svay Dang Ku; 855-63/963-574) bakes the breads and yummy patisserie for many big-name hotels around town. The Zen-like space also serves freshly mixed health drinks and provies a welcome respite from the area's heat, smells, and touts. It also connects Kokoon (855-63/963-830), which sells a stylish array of curries, flavored teas, soaps, and oils, all beautifully packaged in handmade bamboo boxes, as well as silk bags and hammered copper pots. A few doors down, admire incense burners and candles shaped like temple statuary at Angkor Candles (565 Pi Thnou St.; 855-63/760-778).
The still-nameless alley behind
Pub Street currently boasts a number of small enterprises: Hagar Designs
(855-63/390-007) for slik handbags and scarves; Frangipani
(855-12/982-062) for massages; and Khmer Kitchen (855-12/763-468)
for good curries and stir-fries-Mick Jagger ate here a few years ago,
putting the place on the map. But the alley's hippest resident-at least
at the time of this writing-is undoubtedly Linga Bar (855-12/246-912),
ostensibly the town's first gay bar but actually overrun with straights.
It's a thoughtfully conceived space with chill-out music and an array
of US$3 martinis, mojitos, and Cosmopolitans
just the thing to resuscitate
you after a day of touring Angkor's temples.
© 2005/2006 Jennifer Gampell