Siem Reap, Cambodia sees more than 2 million visitors each year, with a majority headed towards the captivating temple monuments within the Angkor Historical Park. It is an established tourist destination that draws holiday-makers and explorers alike from across the globe, becoming a nexus point for hotels, entertainment and a plethora of related services, and sumptuous cuisine.
Siem Reap, is however, somewhat of an exception and a dichotomy when juxtaposed against almost every aspect of the rest of the country – it is an oasis. There are beautiful resorts and fine dining options that take your palate from the Mediterranean coast to the Côte d’Azur. There is also a distinct nostalgic romance in the lingering vestiges of its colonial past an yet towards the South of the town there is a bustling quarter packed side by side with bars, pubs, restaurants and clubs to keep the vibrant night scene alive until the sun comes up. Elsewhere in the country, with the exception of the capital, the day usually ends at dusk for the largely agrarian nation. Yet, beyond all this modernity, the centuries old Angkorian edifices underpin the identity, culture and economy of Cambodia.
Great Finds Outside of Siem Reap
The reasons to visit Cambodia are many. I, as have many others seeking the mystique of South East Asian travel, strapped on a backpack, straddled a motorcycle and roared down a dusty country road towards a languidly descending sun. A two week circuit around the Western region brought me to the foothills of the mighty Cardamon and Elephant mountain ranges, the smarmy border towns of Pailin and Poipet, the hidden splendours of Banteay Chhamar and Preah Vihear and Siem Reap’s immensely charming riverine sister town of Battambang.
Life on the road
To say that it was enjoyable and also grueling is an understatement. The end of each day would see me caked in dust, sun burnt to a vibrant lobster red, and thoroughly exhausted from being on the go, from the get go. Each day was a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells that was as jarring in its sheer variety as it was disarmingly exciting. Road travel was also harrowing. Several times, vehicles would inadvertently try to run me off the road or plough into me headlong. Yeah, I absolutely loved, relished very minute of the 2 week long journey.
Shinta Mani – “A gem that bestows all desires”
My return to Siem Reap after 14 days away in the country was very much like coming home. The Shinta Mani’s attractive neo-modernist vertical lines on its facade, open design second story bar that evokes images of a colonial era veranda and courtyard swimming pool all collude to sap your energy and seduce the visitor into a deep state of relaxation. There are actually 2 separate compounds. The first, being the Shinta Mani Resort, and the other, located just across the access road, is called the Shinta Mani Club. Acclaimed architect, Bill Bensley designed both residences but the latter is where the eponymous bar – Bensley’s bar and Haut Khmer cuisine restaurant, Kroya are both located.A perfect way to spend a day’s dying hours as well as several enervatingly humid afternoons is at Bensley’s bar. The cocktails are expertly mashed, mixed and muddled by the knowing hands of the resident mixologist. And, all made to order.
The best dinner I had in Cambodia, period!!
Dinner at Kroya however, took the cake. It doesn’t just serve Khmer food that practically every third restaurant does in the country. Forget about fish amok and loc lak at this establishment. Kroya serves up individually plated portions of traditional Khmer food that you won’t find on any other menu.
I sampled a number of the appetisers not because I was starving but due to a combination of curiosity, the fact that most of the items could not be found anywhere else except at a local’s home and the chef’s vehement insistence.
The Sun Dried Fish, Watermelon & Mango, true to the South East Asian origins of Khmer food, the saltiness of the sun dried fish was the dominant flavour that anchored the dish. Watermelon and mango slices gave it some levity with its fresh and fruity flavours.
After that came the crispy fermented pork with roasted eggplant and papaya slaw. Somewhat similar to the more familiar Thai papaya salad, except with an interesting crispy providing interesting texture variations.
Since I was already planning for a big meal, I also had the Pomelo salad with poached prawns and toasted coconut. I can’t stress enough on how nicely each dish was presented, especially considering that locals eat the same thing in the villages surrounding the city. Certainly what one would call home cooking elevated to the next level.
The smoked fish soup was clear, much like a consommé. Spinach, pumpkin and lemon basil in the soup helped to make it more substantial.
Moving on, I had a choice between chicken with locally famous and craved over Siem Reap sausage and Kampot pepper steak. The beef was flavourful and nicely seared but, the interesting note to this dish was the pickled morning glory, as it is an ingredient that I had recently discovered to be used as a colouring in purple rice dishes in the South of Thailand.
Rounding it all off, dessert was a pleasing black rice ice cream with toppings of sticky rice, jelly, pumpkin custard and basil seeds. If there is one thing to say about the selections here, is that they are authentic renditions of traditional dishes presented in a contemporary fashion. The primary focus of the menu items are seasonality because, certain times of the year influences cravings for certain types of food; such as broths in the cool rainy season, and sour foods in the hot season as the taste is thought to be cooling.
Siem Reap has always had a special place in my heart, it has given me numerous wonderful memories and the meal at Kroya definitely became the latest addition. So, to those contemplating a trip to Indochina, to them I say, come. Come to Cambodia, tour the country, bask in the history, soak in the culture and then come home to Shinta Mani and a meal at Kroya to have your mind blown all over again.