Although I’m getting used to Phnom Penh and all its crazy ways, I really fell in love with the Siem Reap in the ten days I spent in the city. (Okay, yes I lied in the post title. But it rhymes*, and we all know the auditory aesthetics of the words are more important than the truth.) First, Siem Reap is a lot calmer than Phnom Penh: the traffic is more relaxed; it’s less crowded; the public places are a lot more open. Also, as I explored it, I felt I go to know it reasonably well. Just like there’s a divide between cat and dog people, there seems to be a divide between Phnom Pehn and Siem Reap people. Although I wouldn’t really say I have a preference of feline versus canine, I definitely felt a bit more at home in Siem Reap. That’s good, because I’m spending the majority of my time up there. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Phnom Penh and I’ll probably miss it after the ten or so weeks I’m here.
First, I discovered that I really love tuk tuk rides. Which is good, because we had quite a few of them, including to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, as well as various venues in Pub Street and the local area (which somewhat lacks the insobriety the name would suggest).
Near our hotel and conference venue, there was a Vietnamese restaurant. I’m useless so I can’t remember the name, but I can tell you it’s on National Route 6 and it has what seemed to be a picture of the smiling cow from Dairylee on the doors. It was pretty good, and there was a reasonable amount of variety. On the first day of the conference, many of the team ended up there quite independently of each other. It was nice being able to be introduced to one another before the meetings had started. The start of the meeting was slightly delayed because there was a torrential downpour and we had to wait for a minibus to pick us up to do what would have been a five-minute walk. We also went there later in the week as it was so close and the food was nice.
We also tried various places in and around Pub Street. One of the two of note are La Boulangerie. Here the food is good and there’s a make your own pizza option. You get a little sheet and you tick what options you want (like ordering school dinners when you were little). I had to resist ticking all the options (except the anchovies, they can keep them). I was ridiculously excited given as it was just pizza, but it seems especially exciting when you’ve been consuming a lot of rice.
Then there’s Blue Pumpkin. More people advised going to Blue Pumpkin than Angkor Wat when I mentioned I was in Siem Reap on Facebook. It’s an ice cream and cake shop, with a ‘cool lounge’ on top. Often when things promote itself as cool, you think it probably isn’t. It’s like the embarrassing uncle that dances at weddings, and says things like “hey kids, I’m cool, I’m hip.” (Fortunately, I’ve never had an uncle like that. Unfortunately, my cousins have.) However, Blue Pumpkin have got the meaning of cool spot-on. First, their air conditioning does work very well up there, which, to the sweaty Brit, is a relief. (“How many times are you going to mention your sweat on this blog?” you may well ask. I don’t know, is the answer to that.) The design of the upstairs lounge is brilliant. It has great seating areas and colourful pieces of print design on the wall. However, the pièce de resistance is the long bench along the wall. It’s about the width of a single bed, and high enough that you pretty much have to climb onto them. I wonder how many people have fallen asleep there.
We also went to the Angkor Mondial restaurant. It’s a buffet restaurant, selling Cambodian and South-East Asian cuisine (very much like a Global Buffet in the UK). Some people will say that the food is not as high a quality as you would get elsewhere, which is true, but it’s really good for people who are just starting out on trying local dishes. Rather than ordering a whole dish you don’t like, you can try little bits of a variety of dishes. You can experiment with the various sweet desserts and there’s an urn of tea so you have a constant supply.
It’s not just the food, however, which makes the place worth visiting. There is a stage, and while you are eating or choosing your food you are also treated to traditional apsara dancing. Some of it is slow and stately, where each turn of the hand has a particular meaning (that I don’t know). However, these were interspersed with folk dances, which put our Morris dancing to shame. They essentially tell a story (usually of love) with different characters. My favourite was the fisherman’s dance. It was just a sweet love story between a fisherman and a fisher girl, using baskets as props. I can tell you, these Cambodian dancing girls know how to toy with a boy’s heart (the character’s, not mine). All this for $6 (£4.60).
Here are some tips that I learnt or have picked up off others along the way:
- don’t order the beef- it’s probably not going to make you ill, it’s just quite tough. When you see the cows out in the countryside it might give you an idea to why. If there are fish, chicken or vegetable options, go for those instead (and it’ll also help your cholesterol)
- check your ice. Some people avoid ice completely, but that’s not always necessary in Cambodia. If it’s round with a hole, it’s been ordered in and it’s clean. If it’s crushed up or oddly shaped, it’s probably not. You can see people making the crushed ice at the back of the Russian markets
- clean your cutlery and your cans. In most Cambodian restaurants, there is a box of tissues on each table, and a bin at one end. Give your cutlery and cans a quick wipe with a tissue and chuck the tissue away. You can also put any bones or bits you don’t want in the bin too rather than have them hang around your plate.
- Spoon not fork. You only get provided a fork and spoon in most places (or chopsticks if you’re eating noodles). It’s the spoon that goes to your mouth not the fork- that’s just used to manoeuvre food into the spoon.
I also had the chance to visit Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but I’ll upload that later (when I’m on a Wifi network and not using my mobile data- there may be a video).
(*More technically, it is the assonance of the “ee” sound in weeks and Siem Reap that makes is interesting. Note how it’s pronounced See-em (as in “look, I can see ’em over there!”) not Sigh-em. You could go completely local and just call it Sim Rip- much like how we render Southampton “soufam’un”.)