There is potentially a lot to do in Cambodia, from hiking in the Cardamom Mountains to kayaking along the Kampot River. But if you have limited time and you want to see the most famous site in the country, head to Siem Reap.
The internet lists Siem Reap as a “resort town,” but take that with a big ol’ grain of salt. It’s a resort in the sense that the numerous bars, restaurants, hostels, hotels, and other businesses exist purely to feed and entertain the masses.
Why do the masses flock to Siem Reap?
Angkor Wat is a … yes, lady in the back … a UNESCO World Heritage Site! The name translates to “City of Temples” in Khmer, because, well, it’s a city of temples. The complex is known as
Jurassic Park Angkor Archaeological Park, and Angkor Wat is just one of many temple sites. We did what all tourists do in Siem Reap and headed out to the temples before sunrise. Who else is up at 4:45 am? One lone bar cart, with some ladies of the night, and one Western schmuck who may or may not have been in way over his head.
Our wonderful hotel helped us book a tuk-tuk driver for the day and we headed out into the night. Some drivers double as guides, ours did not, so we literally headed into the dark to find the famous towers before the sun came up. Luckily everyone and their mom was out so we just followed the crowd to a good spot.
Angkor Wat is the arguably the most famous temple, but the benefit of a tuk-tuk driver is that you get to see other parts of the park in relatively quick succession. Other prominent temples include Angkor Thom (Bayon), Ta Phrom, Ta Keo, and many more, all varying in size and prominence. Honestly, the temples all look the same (especially that early in the morning) and the background history is extensive so here are some shortcuts:
Bayon = Face temples
Ta Phrom = Tree temples aka Tomb Raider temple
Other temples = still cool to see, but not aesthetically famous. We posted some more photospheres too, check them out here!
All the temples we saw on our mini tour were compelling, impressive, and fun to explore. You have limited access to some based on construction, but for the most part, you can wander where you please. There are many ways to explore the park but we highly recommend a tuk-tuk driver. They know the park well, can squeeze past car traffic, the open back provides some much needed breeze, and a local gets a paid gig for the day.
While the day at the temples was fun, we didn’t feel the need to go back for a second or third day. Siem Reap isn’t a town full of vibrancy and extracurricular activities that don’t involve alcohol, so what to do, what to do … FOOD TOUR.
This time, we opted for an evening tour and were met by our guide, Jen, an American! Jen has been living in Cambodia for 7 years, is fluent in Khmer, and is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Cambodian facts. All the places we visited on this tour were not only locally owned and run, but also patronized by locals as well.
We started lightly, snacking on a dish known as sach ko ang. You take toasted bread (which also has butter and sugar on it), put on some marinated beef, and top it off with picked green papaya salad. Sounds odd, but this was one of our favorite dishes of the night.
At the next restaurant we sampled a few dishes, all traditional Cambodian cuisine. Since many restaurants in Siem Reap cater to foreign tourists, many menus offered don’t feature truly authentic dishes. Cambodians are timid about their cuisine and are sensitive to how foreigners will react to it, so they feature dishes like beef lok lak, simply beef smothered with gravy, served with rice. It’s good, but lacks the depth and flavor of a real Cambodian recipe, like the dishes below:
Dish #1: Prahok ktis – a popular ground pork dish seasoned with fermented fish and finished with coconut milk. You can eat it by itself or you can dip vegetables in it (green plate to the right). This was listed on the menu as “vegetable cheese,” I think because the fermented fish paste in the curry-like sauce makes it have kind of a cheesy texture. This was my second favorite dish of the night, reminded me of mapo tofu.
Dish #2: Sour lemon fish soup – a very typical Cambodian sour soup with galangal, lemongrass, onion, thai basil, mushrooms and fresh fish. It tasted clean, fresh, and actually not that sour.
Dish #3: Smoked Fish Green Mango Salad. Also very good, but quite spicy.
Notice we had fish three different ways? Well, that was intentional. Siem Reap is very close to the Tonle Sap Lake, a lake home to many different species of fish which are caught and sold at the morning markets where many Cambodians purchase their produce and meat. Electricity is very expensive so many establishments and homes do not have refrigerators. So between the wide variety of fish and no fridge, one must learn to use their groceries intelligently. When fish can’t be cooked and served immediately, it can be salted, dried, fermented, whatever it takes to preserve the fish for later use.
Our next stop took us far, far, far away from the city center. I found myself looking ahead to see if we could see the other tuk-tuk, just to make sure we were still on the tour. We eventually stopped at a BBQ stand on the side of the road, a place recommended to the tour company by their very own tuk-tuk drivers (they eat there with their friends).
It is illegal to butcher a full cow on the street, mostly out of respect for the monks. But also, without refrigeration, a whole cow would spoil before you could serve it. Above, the chef is cooking ko dot, slow roasted Cambodian beef that’s finished on a hot coal grill. It’s served with fresh vegetables like cucumber, carrot, frog’s leg herb, sawtooth coriander and long beans. You dip the beef and vegetables in a typical Cambodian dipping sauce called dteuk prahok (prahok is fermented fish) to which we added sliced lemongrass, lime juice and some red chili. This is Mark’s favorite dish, he loved the contrast between the cold veggies, the juicy meat and the peppery dipping sauce.
The BBQ didn’t stop there, our next destination was to Road 60 Night Market. This market is very popular with locals, especially when family is in town visiting. There is some shopping, a small carnival, and lots of food vendors. We sat on mats on the side of the road and sampled some delicious BBQ meats.
We ate barbecued Khmer chicken, stuffed frogs, pork rib and snakehead fish (asian carp). The fish is the same fish we had in Vietnam, in a dish known as cha ca. These were served with with great dipping sauces — salt and pepper with lime juice, green tamarind pounded with chili, and sweet fish sauce with chili and garlic.
We also tried a variety of in-season tropical fruits: durian (the famously stinky fruit), sugar palm fruit, rose apple, custard apple, rambutan, longan, mangosteen, langsat, snakefruit, tamarind and jackfruit. Some were gross (durian), some were delicious (mangosteens, custard apples).
There is always room for dessert, so we headed back towards the city center, to a little stand that sold bong’heim. The literal translation is “mixed sweet things,” and it’s quite accurate. It has shaved ice, condensed milk and coconut milk served over sticky rice, mango, small cakes and coconut milk custard. It was quite yummy. Some young men at the next table over were eating pong tea kon, or baby duck egg. It’s not the same as the Filipino balut dish as the age of the duck fetus differs. Pong tea kon is popular with locals, especially at night because it serves as an energy boost of sorts, like a Red Bull. It’s also high in protein so it’s popular with pregnant women. We declined an offer to try it, I’m not ready for that kind of adventure.
Entering into Cambodia, I had no idea what Cambodian cuisine was. I couldn’t tell you a popular dish, a common ingredient, or even what flavors are present in Khmer food. I found that Cambodian cuisine is highly underrated. The country’s extensive and rich history plays a direct role in the development of its food. Khmers are foragers and survivors, and this is evident in their use of obscure plants and herbs, as well as their use of the land. Those who live along the Tonle Sap live in houses built on stilts. This isn’t for flood protection, it’s so that when the lake recedes, they can plant in the rich soil that’s left behind. Curries are popular because they can be made in one pot, can use either many or just a few ingredients, and are perfect for feeding a large family. If you find a Cambodian restaurant in your area, I recommend you give it a try. If you live in the Bay Area, Nyum Bai in Oakland just won a Michelin star!
I’ll leave you with this final note: our tuk-tuk driver drove Angelina Jolie around when she was in Cambodia! In this very tuk-tuk! We’re basically besties now …