When Alan invited me to join him and Raffy in Siem Reap last week, I said yes - as soon as I found cheap airfare on Cebu Pacific. We didn't have any particular agenda since we had all been there before, but we weren't especially keen on seeing any temples, given that they seemed to be overrun by busloads of Chinese and Korean tour groups, armed to the tooth with selfie sticks.
So we ate.
Here's the rundown of the restaurants we tried, and then some:
Lunch: Peace Cafe - Hippie hangout with cushioned seating underneath trees.
The clientele speak in hushed tones...
... unless you are Alan and me.
I was, um, "on a diet" and only had fresh spring rolls (- I think it was only US$1.50) while Alan had the curry and red rice. Not a bad place to graze.
Dinner: Flow - A newly opened restaurant, so new that they still don't have a real sign. (They have a banner draped outside.) They are right across Peace Cafe and are the sister restaurant of Sugar Plum which, according to Cyrene de la Rosa of Chow Buzz, has the best fish amok. Again, I found it too sweet so I didn't eat much of either amok (- we ordered two and Raffy liked the shrimp amok better than the fish one). I tucked into the beef cheeks slow-cooked in red wine instead.
We loved all the starters we ordered: the chicken liver pate, and the spicy eggpant dip, but the clear winner of the night was the scallops gratin.
We ordered their creme caramel for dessert and, while it looked lovely, it was really quite boring.
Afterwards, we headed for Pub Street for a night cap but were shocked to find that it had turned into Khao San Road. When Alan was here 12 years ago, he said there was only one bar and the streets were dark. The Pub Street I knew had a lot of small, indie-looking bars and cafes, and had a chill, laid back vibe. Now it's neon lit and hectic. You can hear the music from blocks away. We didn't stay long and ended up checking out the night market instead.
Note: You no longer need to change money at the airport. All prices are quoted in US dollars, except maybe for the small street stores that sell bottled water. Bring lots of notes in small denominations.
Lunch: L'Annexe - Mike Torres (who is Raffy's cousin and whom you met in this post) was with us for one night and, on the day that he was leaving, he had to meet some friends for lunch so, naturally, we all tagged along.
We weren't very hungry since we had just had breakfast but we liked the Flammekueche. And the cordon bleu, which was hyped to the max on TripAdvisor, was just okay.
But this lunch wasn't about the food, it was about meeting Mike's friends, Andrei from Moldova, and Natalie from Argentina. We were the only ones at the restaurant and the staff spoiled us rotten. The wine flowed and we capped the meal with birthday tiramisus and a bottle of prosecco, especially ordered by Andrei and Natalie for Mike.
Dinner: Mahob - Traditional Khmer, but they can adjust the taste of the food to your taste. I naturally asked for my food to have as little to no sugar at all. Raffy made the mistake of ordering his curry as is and ended up not enjoying it.
What we liked:
Frogs' legs coated in rice crispies! YUMMY. Of course, they taste like fried chicken, but that's the beauty of it. You wouldn't want them all slimey and warty, would you? Oooh! I've missed frogs' legs. Can no longer find them in Manila. Boo...
Although this was good, it was very acidic and made Raffy's tummy and mine hurt. We left it to Alan to polish off.
Oh, in the photo, on the plate in front of the carpaccio is some boring mushroom thing. We didn't rate it but, of course, we ate it anyway.
This was delicious. Even with the soya beans.
This item is not listed on Mahob's current menu online so I can't tell you exactly what it is. 'See, this is why I am not a food blogger. I can't be bothered to take down notes or use words like "scrumptious" - Eek! I hate that word! I think I sound more like Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier in their "Men on Film" sketches for "In Living Color", with only two ratings: "Loved it" or "Hated it". I'm surprised I even took photos. I'm usually too rabid to bother and like to pounce on the food as soon as it is served.
But I digress...
Back to the fish. It was a beautiful, delicate river fish with something like a ginger chili jam. Among the three mains that we had (- Raffy's vegetable curry and Alan's beef loklak), I think it was the best. Except that I also ordered the seafood fried rice which turned out to be Chinese fried rice - which was an unexpected treat, but it was so incredibly rich and tasty that it overwhelmed everything else and my fish tasted flat and bland afterwards.
Moral of the story: Do not order the fried rice. Unless you are craving Chinese fried rice, in which case, knock yourself out. It was awesome.
We transferred outdoors afterwards for some tea.
Our last full day and night in Siem Reap. We thought we should finally see some temples. We chose to see the ones that were out of town, as recommended by a friend. We went to Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and Bang Melea.
Banteay Srei is known for its intricately carved red sandstone pediments. It is relatively miniature in scale compared to most of the temples in Angkor. It is also the only temple in Angkor that wasn't built by a monarch.
I totally recommend visiting the archeological site, Kbal Spean, and the Beng Mealea ruins, but perhaps take a guide along or read up on the temples beforehand.
Bear in mind that Kbal Spean entails a three-kilometer hike (1500 meters each way) so wear comfy shoes.
When you get to the top, it will look rather underwhelming, but follow the river down to the waterfalls, and the carvings on the river bed and along the banks are rather fascinating.
Beng Mealea makes the whole trip worth it. It's a massive temple ruin that is mostly unrestored, with huge piles of bricks all over the place, and lots of nooks and crannies to explore.
Afterwards, we were all templed (- and touristed) out...
… but I thought that we should, at the very least, pay our respects to the Bayon. We drove past Angkor Wat and saw the tourist hordes congregating for sunset. We saluted the Khmer's crown jewel, but were only too glad to be heading somewhere more serene.
Car and driver recommendation: Luy Kongheng II Ticket Services, 7 January Road, Wat Damnak Village (near Royal Crown Hotel), phone: 063-50-46-777, email: email@example.com - Look for Soreth. For Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea, we only paid $65. Our hotel quoted $90 and another travel agency quoted $120. We paid the driver extra for Banteay Srei and sunset at the Angkor complex.
And, yes, you'll still need a Visitor's Pass to see the temples, with an extra $5 fee at Beng Mealea.
Lunch: Ny Shar Kbal Spean No. 1 Restaurant - Order the fish soup ($4) and stay away from the fried pork spring rolls ($5).
Dinner: Cuisine Wat Damnak - One of Siem Reap's top restaurants. Reservations are a must. There are only two menus to choose from:
Alan and I ordered Menu 1 but substituted the dessert for the one in Menu 2. Raffy had Menu 2 but substituted the beef shank for the fish, and the frogs' legs for the langoustine. (Photo ℅ Alan Montelibano.)
What we liked:
This was the first time I had ever had malunggay (moringa) and ubud (coconut tree heart) outside of the Philippines! Although the tastes were familiar, the way they were used in a curry was fresh and exciting for me.
The dessert may not look like much but that rice praline lurking underneath the chocolate was beautiful. And the passion fruit tempered the sweetness and gave it a nice zing. Dang, now I'm craving for one of these...
Our flight was in the evening so we had the whole day to do our own thing. We split up and went shopping.
Lunch: Pizzeria Presto Coco - Along Wat Bo Road, near the corner of No. 24 Street. Buy one, take the next one for $1. How could I resist that?
Because I am me, I ordered two pizzas: one vegetarian with extra goat's cheese, and one pepperoni with extra bacon. I sandwiched both pizzas together. Yum! With one beer, my total bill came out to about $12. Oh, and plus another $2.50 for the panna cotta, which I didn't like. The pizzas were really good though. They even had one with Roblochon and potatoes! Sounded like the pizziflette (a tartiflette pizza) that I had in Avoriaz.
Dinner: Viroth's - We booked an early dinner at Viroth's before leaving for the airport. Raffy liked the kale with seafood more than his squid salad. The pork ribs were tough but tasty. Alan had a fish dish that we liked. I ordered the "Louver cake" for dessert which Alan liked but I didn't. Compared to the other restaurants that we tried, the food here was just okay.
*Average cost per meal, except where otherwise indicated, was about $24, including drinks. Corkage at Flow was $5 and, at Viroth's, $10. Average price per glass of wine is about $4 so it was well worth it to pay corkage for a bottle.
Where to Stay in Siem Reap
Whatever budget you're on, I recommend staying close to the river. I prefer to stay within walking distance of the Old Market, but on the other side of the river where it is quieter. Further up the river, closer to the temples, it gets quieter and staying at either end of the river is fine.
For those with the cash to spend, there's the Foreign Correspondents Club (although I prefer the one in Phnom Penh, perhaps because it's older and has more history). For something more exclusive, there's Shinta Mani. And then, of course, there's the Raffles Grand Hotel D'Angkor. We don't like their renovations to the exterior but the inside is still classy and has retained its old world charm.
For flashpackers like me, there's Pages Rooms. We absolutely loved it. According to Alan, it's "for design lovers on a budget."
The location was perfect. It's at the very end of No. 24 Street where, funny enough, I also stayed when I first visited Siem Reap ten years ago, except that I stayed right by the river where No. 24 Street starts, at Bopha Angkor. Right around the corner from Pages is Wat Bo Road where there's a massage place (- only $6 for an hour of traditional Khmer massage) and Pizzeria Presto Coco, of course! A few blocks down is Viroth's and a mini mart. There are small cafes and restaurants everywhere, and it's a decent enough walk to the Old Market.
Our 33 sqm. room only cost $68/night on Agoda.
The room was spacious, the bed and pillows were comfortable, there was a lot of place to put things and there were electrical outlets all over the place. The staff was friendly and helpful. Breakfast came with the room, and it was small but decent.
The only thing I didn't like about Pages was the open shower, which was visible from the bed.
I don't understand the fascination with open showers. Am I supposed to be performing for somebody in there? Geez. It's definitely not the best situation when you're sharing the room with two other friends. But even if I was there for a hot rendezvous, I would still like to have a bit of breathing space in the shower, if you please.
Pages has enough space to install a sliding door for the bathroom, if it wants to. And if someone really wants to watch their partner shower, then they have the option of leaving the door open.
Oh, FYI, the architects of Pages are building a hotel right in front of it for the owners of Viroth's. Or, at least, this is what we understood. It should be open by February.
Advice for First-Timers at Angkor
Don't start with the main event. Build up to seeing Angkor Wat. Give yourself at least two days of temple-seeing. Get a good map and do some research, then lay out a plan of the temples you want to see.
From the Visitor's Center, I recommend taking the path to the right, so that you deliberately miss seeing Angkor Wat. Maybe see Prasat Kravan, Pre Rup, and Preah Khan before entering the Angkor Thom complex from the North Gate. In the Angkor Thom complex, you'll see Baphuon, Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of the Elephants, and the Bayon. Watch the sun set from Phnom Bakheng.
The next day, see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Other temples to see: Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, and Thommanon. After that, you're bound to be templed out. Head for the Old Market for some retail therapy.
Should you wish to see the temples out of town, I recommend Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea over the Roulos Group.