Until not too long ago, Siem Reap, at the top of central Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap lake, was perceived as a sort of charming convenience stop. Visitors treated it more as a gateway to the Angkor temple complex – that wonder-of-the-world, Unesco World Heritage Site experience that, admittedly, many cities would fall into the shadow of – than a place to be experienced itself (though if there were a few nice hotels, cheap bowls of nom pajok and beer and a market worthy of a browse – which there were – then all the better). Today it’s a different story: the town has cohered into something far more interesting, thanks to a unique culture of engagement among its inhabitants, both Cambodian and expat. Those who love it here truly love it, and they have put down roots, started businesses or philanthropic initiatives, and generally connected to the place – begetting a vibrant small city that has its own very appealing thing going.
Siem Reap has always been able to leverage its immense (if unpolished) beauty. Streets remain unpaved in sections, plied by tuk-tuks and slow‑moving scooters; the pace is quite languid, like the river that flows in a deep-green brushstroke through the centre of town. For a city of relatively small size, it boasts a wide array of architectural styles, referencing the influences of various migrant populations, from Chinese to the French who colonised it early in the past century. There are a handful of impressive mid-20th-century monuments too. One is the Foreign Correspondents Club – now a bar-restaurant and modest hotel known as FCC Angkor – right on the river (charming for an atmospheric visit and a drink, though the food is not nearly as good as that served at its Phnom Penh correlate). Another is the one‑time summer retreat for guests of King Norodom Sihanouk, commissioned in 1962 from a preeminent French architect, that’s all modernist intersecting lines and curves. Today this is home to Amansara, one of the loveliest resorts in the Aman portfolio and arguably the finest accommodation here. Its 24 suites – half of them with their own pools – are stunners, with tall windows facing beautifully landscaped private gardens, and bathrooms flowing gracefully and sensually into sleeping areas. But Amansara transcends mere aesthetic primacy thanks to the many years that its staff, led by superstar general manager Sally Baughen, has cultivated unassailable service inside the hotel and meaningful relationships beyond its walls. Amansara’s network crosses categories, with advice on everything from the most needy philanthropic causes to where to buy the best silk weaves or local fashion designs (and, likely as not, a call ahead of your visit to arrange a private viewing).
But if there’s one thing Siem Reap isn’t short of today, it’s good hotels. Some of those that harness the area’s traditional architecture and landscape are the most appealing. Sala Lodges, opened in 2013, is a collection of 11 indigenous houses dismantled and faithfully reconstructed on a verdant site at the edge of town, dotted with palms and frangipani. The bare (if elegant) wood exteriors belie the fizzy, chic mix of styles and furnishings inside, where Eames-type rockers mix with antique beds and simple cotton-weave rugs line the smooth floorboards; in the gorgeous restaurant, the day’s menu is written on a chalkboard wall.
A more conventionally luxurious iteration of indigenous style opened in September a few miles outside Siem Reap proper. Phum Baitang’s 45 standalone villas are dressed in understated, almost sober linens, with contemporary dark-wood and stone furniture distributed sparingly but unerringly around. All of the luxury-resort boxes are duly and elegantly ticked here, from the seven-treatment-room spa to the long and lovely pool. And for those seeking the comforts of a more traditional (but still first-rate) hotel experience enhanced by a dead-centre location, the obvious choice is Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor, whose 62 rooms are clustered across three stories around a gorgeous internal courtyard. Its open-air martini lounge is an ideal place to start an evening before wandering across the river and into the maze of Siem Reap’s centre.
Punctuated with markets and shops, small hidden alleys and unexpected purveyors of fine food and drink, these streets are where the new Siem Reap flourishes. Adjacent to the FCC Angkor is the boutique of Eric Raisina: Madagascar-born, Yves Saint Laurent-trained and yet another transplanted expat who fell hard for Cambodia. His complex silk-organza and whimsical crochet creations – dresses, wraps, bags – deploy a huge spectrum of rich shades, and every last one is a statement piece. (The truly enthralled can venture out for a larger selection at Raisina’s couture house on Charles de Gaulle road.) Tucked into the ground floor of the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is Galerie Cambodge, where longtime resident Nathalie Saphon Ridel sells ethical accessories and homewares, almost all from Cambodia, meticulously researched and uniformly elegant: woven bags, ceramics, sandals and linen scarves.
Amansara’s Baughen likes to send guests to charming Hap Guan street, recently evolved into a tiny nexus of cool. The young Franco-Vietnamese designer Louise Loubatieres – until recently a lifelong Londoner – has her homewares boutique here, where she sells beautiful lacquerware and textiles, jewellery and fashion accessories; so does American Doug Gordon, whose small concept store, Trunkh, stocks tote bags and menswear he designs from both Liberty-esque and local cotton prints, along with hand-printed correspondence cards. The Little Red Fox Espresso bar, just across the way, became the preferred venue for a pick-me-up within just a few weeks of opening in October 2014. Australian owners Adam Rodwell and David Stirling recreate a little slice of Byron Bay-style bucolia each day, proffering dishes such as muesli with chia seeds and coconut-milk-soaked fruits, perfect flat whites and lovely company.
One of the best ways to experience Siem Reap’s singular union of culture, philanthropy and service is at one of the city’s “training” restaurants – venues where staff are mine victims or orphans or from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, learning skill sets to secure careers in hospitality. Particularly charming (and delicious) is Marum, on the east side of the river, just a couple of blocks from Wat Polanka. An airy, two-storey wooden house set back from the road, Marum has an ample garden scattered with tables shaded by crimson umbrellas. Menus, written on large chalkboards, are strong on inventive dishes that marry Khmer ingredients with western preparation; a spiced, grilled cuttlefish was impressive, but it was a starter of lotus-jackfruit-coriander hummus that wowed.
Just a few blocks to the north is what’s considered Siem Reap’s – and one of Cambodia’s – finest dining experience. Cuisine Wat Damnak is in a traditional house on stilts, with tables lit by sparsely hung lanterns and a surfeit of candles. But the degustation menu’s dishes surpass one another in refinement and subtlety; tiny, rosy Gulf of Thailand scallops came with slices of tender pumpkin and greens in a whisper-light curry broth, and could have competed in any world-class dining city.
Up and across the river, not far from the Provincial Hospital, is Chanrey Tree: a slick contemporary space facing a snazzy bar-garden, with clean takes on traditional Khmer dishes served by a young, smiling, super-capable staff. (This, if anywhere, is the place to sample frog’s legs, done in caramelised palm sugar and spicy green kampot pepper.) Should the idea of a postprandial tipple (and a bit of a scene) appeal, head up Hospital Street and take a left onto one of the cramped alleys leading to The Lane. The scarlet Chinese lanterns will signal your arrival at Miss Wong, still a stalwart after a number of years in business. The lighting is glaringly red, the music is loud and the bartenders specialise in generous pours. Siem Reap, of all towns, doesn’t need much in the way of attractions – the Angkor complex, with its 100-plus temples, could be spread over a week’s worth of visits and still not be
fully experienced. Most good hotels will take you before dawn, matching you with a guide and bypassing long queues – some include the itinerary in the room rate – so you’re in and out before the hordes cross the moat. But if you can take the heat, literally, it’s worth knowing much of the site invariably empties out by early afternoon, allowing for fairly unfettered exploration. Also, ask your concierge about a private visit to the Conservation d’Angkor, some of whose archives can be visited; imagine having a back room or two of the British Museum to yourself.
One thing that shouldn’t be missed, time permitting, is Phare, Cambodia’s first (and only) real circus, with nightly shows at a proper big top. The narrative spectacle, which combines contortion and acrobatics – many of them spectacular aerial ones – with traditional and modern dance forms, is made all the more impressive for knowing the profits go right back into the school at which every performer learnt his or her skill for free. It’s culture meeting philanthropy with style, originality and a decisive sense of place – a true reflection of Siem Reap itself.