Cambodia Chronicles: Going Amok in Siem Reap

Most travellers come to Siem Reap for the temples, but the smart ones stay on for the food and the nightlife. In under a decade, what was once just a dusty village on the bumpy road to the Thai border has blossomed into Cambodia’s hippest tourist destination, and palm-frond shacks hawking instant noodles have transformed into stylish yet affordable restaurants featuring cuisine from all around the world – not to mention some really cheap booze.

For a quick break from sightseeing, Café Moi Moi, conveniently located just before the main entrance to Angkor, is an unpretentious alfresco restaurant with a delightful little garden, serving up Khmer dishes, some traditional, some with a Japanese twist. Their version of amok, the classic dish of fish stewed in coconut milk, is cheap and tasty ($3.50), while more adventurous diners can opt for minced pork mixed with the pungent Cambodian fish sauce prahok ($3) and served with sliced raw onion to ease the pain. Nibble some pickles and sweet peanuts, try their famous pumpkin pudding for dessert and wash it all down with a large beer.

At the upper end of the gastronomic scale, try Meric at Hotel de la Paix for what many consider the best Khmer food in the country. Run by renowned French chef Joannes Riviere, their $28 seasonal set course is justly legendary and often features authentic but unusual flavors like dried snake salad and stuffed frog. For more continental style, L’Angelo at Le Meridien is probably Siem Reap’s most daring restaurant, serving fusionesque Italian cuisine like foie gras on a bed of white asparagus and balsamic vinegar ice cream in a setting so achingly modern that the only decoration is a cloud of black dots on the white wall. There’s a price to pay though: a full meal with a glass or two of wine on the side can easily set you back around $100 for two.

For a cheaper meal, after the sun has set over the Tonle Sap, join the crowd and make a beeline for Pub Street, a busy strip of bars and restaurants set in old shophouses near the Old Market (Psah Chas). Here you’ll find restaurants catering to every taste, including Khmer Family for tasty local grub, In Touch for Thai, Kamasutra for Indian, Viva for Tex-Mex, and Soup Dragon for a merry mix of everything. All are nicely done up, very popular, hygienic and cheap – a meal for two will cost under $10. Alternatively, on the road leading to Pub St are Happy Herb Pizza and half a dozen imitators with increasingly silly names. These days, though, your choice of happy herbs is limited to basil or oregano, as the original hippie-style marijuana pizza now makes the local cops very unhappy indeed.

Pub Street still has plenty of legal ways to get a buzz, and thanks to heavy competition happy hours run from 10 AM to 10 PM and many watering holes will gladly sell you a pint of draft Angkor for as little as 50 cents. Angkor What?, the pub that started it all and is covered in years of scribbled notes from travellers to prove it, is still going strong after ten years. Popular neighbors include Le Tigre du Papier, good for free movies, a huge selection of used books upstairs and cheap shots of the aniseed liquor pastis, and the luridly decorated Red Piano, the favorite hangout of Angelina Jolie and the “Tomb Raider” filming crew, commemorated with a cocktail of the same name. There’s even an alfresco Irish pub, Molly Malone’s, at the other end of the street. Just around the corner, opposite the Old Market, are The Warehouse, whose appropriately industrial-looking brick-tiled ground floor hides the cool white Art House gallery and bar upstairs, and Laundry Bar, where the only suds you’ll find are floating in beer mugs.

Last and least, if all this poncing about in bars sounds like too much hard work and you’d just like to get properly sloshed Khmer-style, then head down to the nearest drink shop or dodgy nightclub and pick up some Golden Muscle Wine. Advertised on tuk-tuks everywhere, this pitch-black concoction made from deer antlers and assorted herbs packs a 35% punch and tastes vile when drunk straight, but can be made reasonably palatable (if not exactly tasty) by the addition of tonic water or cola. At $2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting $3 for the “X.O.” version, it’s also the cheapest tipple around. Cheers!