Saturday, December 25, 2010

Siem Reap: Food, Shops and a Visit to the Spa

note: updated 12/26/10 with pictures!

Our sole focus in Siem Reap was really to see Angkor Wat, as with most visitors, but we were lucky to cram our planned destinations in our first 36 hours, which left us plenty of time just to wander the town. Here are some of the highlights:

First the food: When we first arrived, we ate at a nice, comfy restaurant called Champey. It offered traditional Khmer fare, but was a bit pricey vs "local" menus (the far simpler restaurant across the street offered meals for $1USD while our meal came to over $20). We had Siem Reap sour soup, amok (local coconut curry flavour) with fish, and bar fish with vermicelli in a clay pot, which had a lovely onion sweet both. It really hit the spot as we were starving from landing after lunch. The restaurant, like many in town, offers AC upstairs, but we were happily cool sitting downstairs in the open restaurant. Champey was also our first realization that Siem Reap operates in USD - there was no need to change money!

Our 2nd day in the city was our visit to Angkor, which started at 5AM. We had a breakfast stop after the sunrise back in town at a Chinese-Cambodian restaurant called Thida Spean Neak. We were happy to wolf down a delicious hot breakfast: I had Chinese noodle soup with shrimp (which ironically, boasted the flavour of "Cambodian noodles" I have often had at pho restaurants in Calgary). The noodles were some of the best I've had - in addition to the great soup flavour I love, the egg noodles were freshly made...I suppose that is a great side benefit of eating food where ingredients are made fresh everyday because preservatives/freezers are not so common. Tony had a local dish, loc lac, which consisted of beef cubes marinated with a black pepper gravy, served with rice and a fried egg. We made a second trip back to this place on our way out of Siem Reap (around the corner from our hotel) and although I had different noodles, they were still incredibly fresh and the broth very tasty. This was definitely an unexpected, yet simple, highlight the city!

Our day of hanging out in town started with lunch at Red Piano on Pub Street (or Bar Street) in town. This entire lane is filled with restuarants targetted at tourists - there is almost always AC upstairs, and always an English menu (with some propped up prices as well). We chose the Red Piano because I was sold by the Tomb Raider drink on the menu, created in honour Angelina Jolie who visited while filming. Although I did not end up having the drink, the restaurant was good - I had crab fried rice which was hot and tasty. It never ceases to amaze me that food that sounds so unhealthy comes rather light on oil vs what we usually get in North America.

After lunch, we wandered up and down the few lanes of Siem Reap. A great discovery were the cute boutiques in The Alley, one street over from Pub Street. The lane is quiet and lined with many individual and unique shops, not just tourist trinkets and souvenirs. I will warn you that these unique designer items also came with Western prices. Two of my favourites were the cheeky store Poetry and jewlery from Garden of Delight. It was great just to wander in and out of the local designer shops, a nice escape from the heat and the hustle of the rest of town.

As in any hot city (can't believe it's winter here!), a couple hours of wandering around meant we needed a pit stop to cool off and re-energize. We decided to stop in the popular Blue Pumpkin, which has a cute bakery downstairs and a "cooling" lounge with a fusion menu upstairs. We were happy to plop down along the white couches and let our bodies rest. We also had a taste from the menu, an Amok Fish Ravioli, which I LOVED! I don't know if I was just really hungry, or the fusion was a welcome change, but I basically inhaled the delicious dish and would be happy to return for a taste again. Yums! Plus, Blue Pumpkin boasts free wifi, a great bonus!

Speaking of wifi, the first night we were in town, we ended up hanging out at Island Bar found in the night market. We were exhausted from walking around and just wanted a couple beers...but also found free wifi while hanging out on our daybeds lined with mats. Who needs to pay $15 a day for internet at the hotel when I can hang out over a couple beers with internet for $5?? It was amazing, and chilling out at Island Bar will be one of those "small" treasured moments from our trip.

Back to our day in the city - our day did not end at Blue Pumpkin. We had plans to hit a dinner show to see Cambodian dance, but had an hour to better way than to visit the spa! We hopped next door to the Bodia Spa, which was a GREAT choice. The spa was beautiful, with excellent service. It's a little pricier than some smaller and simpler massage places around town, but our couples massage was still only about $20 each, so a great deal anyhow. It also gave me a laugh to discover that the face cream I have been using was $15 cheaper than at Sephora in Siem Reap! Imagine that. We LOVED Bodia and recommend anyone who is visiting to stop in for some R&R. The service and ambiance were both fantastic.

As I mentioned, we had decided to have our last dinner in Siem Reap at a dinner show. We chose The Dining Room at Le Residence de Angkor for the a la carte menu vs buffet at other places. The restaurant, not unexpectedly, was quite ritzy. In fact, the crowd seemed a little snotty, but we decided to stay anyhow. There was a reasonable 3 course meal for $35 (mind you, a $35 meal in Siem Reap is more than we had spent on any meal to date), but we opted for a couple items that peaked our interest on the menu. I started with a fish soup, that came with a tower of fresh fish served with a lobster froth. It was also served with shredded cheese, and all combined was delicious, I couldn't get enough. Unfortunately, that was the best part of our meal. Tony had a crab risotto to start, and although the crab was fresh, the risotto was a bit hard and even truffle oil couldn't save the dish for me. Our mains were king crab legs (the feature) with wasabi mayonnaise, which was too heavy for the crab. We also had a wok of seafood in Cambodian coconut broth, which came with an abundance of beautiful vegetables...but it was actually too much and in the end, I did not enjoy it. Overall, we were disappointed by our experience, even though the dance show was lovely. The people of Siem Reap work so hard for every penny, and our "lavish" meal just didn't seem worth what we spent.

We loved being in Siem Reap, and although we still have more to travel in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, expect that it will be a highlight in our trip. It has become a bit of a tourist town, with most businesses catering exclusively to tourists, so there is a weird economy. Bring lots of USD, especially $1 bills - it is the default denomination and while little to us, means so much to the people of Siem Reap! Tip generously, the people depend on tourism for a living and your generosity rewards how hard they work for every penny. And finally, haggle with a smile at the markets, it'll go a long way and be more fun for everyone :)

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