If you ever find yourself in Siem Reap, you can rest assured you’ll never be bored. There’s a lot to do, be it eat, shop or temple hop. My favourite thing is eating so that’s what I did the most of. (With a lekker dollop of drinking too!) As I’d made friends with a rad American girl (Amanda) on the plane ride over and a German dude staying at my hotel (Russel with one ‘l’) I had dining and dopping companions before Salomie finally arrived.
The first place you’ll probably check out upon arrival is Pub Street which is actually like a little cross-section of streets. It’s full of restaurants and bars; relentless tuk tuk drivers who’ll offer you drugs; the odd pharmacy (where you can buy even more hardcore drugs without a script) and mobile food carts serving up pancakes, ice cream and fruit shakes. Pub Street is always busy by day, but it’s at its most vibrant, neon best at night.
If you’re a dorkasaurus like me, you’ll want to check out Pub Street’s The Red Piano. It’s the bar Angelina Jolie used to frequent when she stayed in Siem Reap to film Tomb Raider. (You’ll see her face everywhere. She might as well be Cambodia’s patron saint and I wouldn’t be surprised if she one day pops up on one of their bank notes.) You can order her favourite cocktail, a citrusy mix of Cointreau, lime juice and tonic water which is now called, you guessed it, The Tomb Raider. My travel buddy Salomie and I thought it was refreshing while hardcore German Russel, a boy who basically brushes his teeth with Pilsner, declared it ‘piss’ before ordering up another beer as tall as a small child.
Drinks are cheap (but strong!) in Cambodia. The average beer is 50c to a dollar (R6,50 to R13) and you can always find a cocktail going for $1,50 (R19,50). Sure, some places are fancier and charge more but, due to such fierce competition, most don’t. And either way, a ‘fancy’ Cambodian price is still cheaper than what you’d pay in Cape Town.
Once you’ve knocked back your Tomb Raider (every tenth person to order one gets it for free), you can roam from bar to bar getting hammered on dirt cheap booze or find something to eat. I most enjoyed Viva for its enormous Tex-Mex menu (they also do a great fish amok and whiskey sours!) and V Design Restaurant who do a killer good pizza. Finding pizza with a thin and crispy crust in Asia and is pretty tough and they totally nailed it. (Their ravioli, however, was ultra bland and super overpriced.)
I also made a point of popping into The Angkor What? Bar. It’s one of the strip’s most iconic/notorious spots so I felt obliged but, for me, it wasn’t a highlight. Still, despite being out of season it was busy, but nobody was exactly busting a move on the dance floor. Russel and I sat in a booth getting fantastically pissed (buy 2 cocktails get one free!), sneaking handfuls of Kimchee-flavoured chips we’d bought from a fake 7-Eleven under the table while daring each other to dad dance like Ned Flanders (Diddly doodly!) in the centre of the club every time a particularly shit song came on. TLC’s Waterfalls almost got us moving but ultimately we both stayed put, if only due to the fact that we’d become lazy, bloated sloth-people after waaay too much food and booze. If someone had pushed me out there in a wheelbarrow I’d have at least put my hands up in the air (and waved them around like I just don’t care). The only time I developed moves like Jagger was to make a fast escape from Angkor What?’s hideous bathroom.
Pub Street isn’t the only place to find good food in Siem Reap. In fact, the best restaurants I ate at were all at the back of it. The one that impressed me the most was Father’s House where Salomie and I devoured a tamarind fish dish that rocked our world plus a top quality lok lak beef served with a pepper sauce that, as wanky as it sounds ‘sparkles’ in your mouth. We were served by father himself (and his lovely wife) and learned that the pepper comes from their very own farm. The fish amok was great too, but I couldn’t appreciate it fully because I was so stuffed from the two other dishes.
Two doors down, you’ll find Taj Mahal, the little Indian place where I sweated and snotted my way through a magnificent vindaloo. I also liked that they bring four different condiments to the table so you can jazz up your naan and give each mouthful a different flavour.
Another gem? The Christa, a Siem Reap TripAdvisor favourite that deserves its great rep. The service was super friendly and everything we tried, particularly the fish amok, was utterly delish. Russel, when he’s not drinking beer like water, is a ‘sun’s out, guns out’ health and fitness freak, so he ordered up a whole bunch of strir-fried veggie dishes and I was all ‘Sigh. Fine. I’ll indulge him…’ (not that I don’t like veggies, but I can think of more exciting things to eat when you’re travelling) and even those were delish!
Amanda, who has me to thank for the string of dirty Afrikaans words she’s recently added to her vocab, wanted to try an upmarket French place (also near Taj Mahal and Father’s House) called L’Annexe. I wondered how ‘fancy Cambodian French’ would compare with ‘fancy South African French’ and the two are definitely on par. My escargot (6 for $7/R91) where actually nicer than some I’ve eaten in Saint Tropez. Price-wise, it was very, very expensive for Cambodia but pretty much the same as an upmarket restaurant (like a Harbour House or Carne) in Cape Town. I mean, my God, have you seen the price of a steak at Spur lately?
Last but not least, here’s a shout out to Moringa Bar & Restaurant. Salomie and I wandered in here randomly on our last night in Siem Reap and the place had a real ‘Cape Town’/hipstery feel to it. So much so that if I’d been flown in blindfolded I’d never have guessed I was in Cambodia. They have a great cocktail menu and served up a huge platter of crazy delish spicy buffalo cauliflower bites ($3,50). Salomie and I felt bad for the amount of food and booze we were gorging on so this was our attempt at being ‘semi-healthy’ but we soon ruined things by caving in to a garlic baked brie served with English pub-style chutney and French bread ($5). I now totally regret was not trying their Cambodian craft beer sampler ($3 before 6pm then $4 after).
As far as shopping goes, you’ll find a giant market right next door to Pub Street selling food, touristy nick knacks like sarongs and fridge magnets, traditional clothing, knock off fashion items and lots of cosmetics, both real and fake.
The food section is one hell of an experience. Explore it if you’ve got a strong stomach but not in the middle of the day when it’s boiling hot as the smell from the meat section becomes pretty intense. I’m not affected by blood, lopped off animal heads and the like – a side-effect of playing everywhere I probably shouldn’t have as a child on my grandparent’s farm – but Salomie had to leave for fear of vomiting.
In the end, I walked away with two pairs of faux Dior glasses for $7 a pop (both incredibly cheaply made so they probably won’t make it back to South Africa) and a pair of knock-off Adidas Stan Smith Superstar Hologram shoes for $10.
If you’re in the Pub Street area, your closest shopping centre will be Lucky Mall which is a few minutes away via a $2 tuk tuk. Amanda and I found it completely underwhelming, although it does have a small Miniso which is similar to Moshi Moshi but not as cool. (Both are kind of like Asian versions of Typo.)
Obviously no visit to Siem Reap would be complete without a trip to Ankor Wat, the giant temple complex a few minutes away from the city. Obviously I wanted to see it, but I wasn’t keen on devoting an entire day to it and am on a budget so I opted for ‘free hour’. It turns out that, after five you can get into the temple for free, but you have to be out of there by six. Like, on the dot. The very moment the clock strikes six, guards literally come rushing out from the sidelines and corral you like a bunch of sheep, herding you back over the giant water bridge and into your tuk tuk.
The only cost associated with ‘free hour’ is $10 to pay a tuk tuk driver to take you there at 5 and wait outside until the mass exit to return you to the city. It’s about a 20 minute ride either way, so the fact that this costs $10 when a quick five-minute trip in the city itself can cost $2 is a bit odd, but hey. There are lots of things about Siem Reap that don’t make sense and you just go with it.
Other cheap skate shizz we learned? Every time you order an Angkor beer with a pull tab, don’t throw away the ring without checking it first. You might have won a free one. This tip came from a super cute Ozzie that Salomie and I initially suspected was out to ‘Brokedown Palace’ us (butter us up before sticking drugs in our bag) but he turned out to be super nice. His other tip was less fabulous, however. It involved digging through the trash to find an empty box of a particular brand of cigarettes. If you hand in two of them, your next box will cost just 50c. Yoh! It’s hard out here for a pimp!*
*Hello dad. No, he wasn’t a pimp. This is a reference to a song. It is a joke. We did not hang out with a sex trafficker. And yes, I have checked. He did not put drugs in our bag. No, I’m not smoking. He was. Yes, I love you too. Ok, bye.