Obeying the geek within, I decided to go to Cambodia to see the temple of Angkor Wat. I admit Cambodian food was my ulterior motive as I wanted to find the missing Cambodian piece that fitted into my jigsaw of Southeast Asian food.
I decided to avoid tormenting myself with the grisly sites that are testament to Cambodia's troubled past. I didn't need to see piles of skulls. I already knew about them. Seeing the movie The Killing Fields and the horrifying newsreel image from the 70s of the Khmer Rouge soldier waving a revolver and telling everyone to leave Phnom Penh was enough for me. So I headed for Siem Reap, the city in Cambodia where the famous temple is situated. This trip was about food and culture.
No longer a sleepy provincial town, Siem Reap, in the northwest of Cambodia, is the service centre for the more than one million visitors who come to see the "big three" temples, Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. In my ignorance I knew of only one temple, Angkor Wat, but was soon to find out what the area had to offer. It is the heart of hip Cambodian tourism with a long history of famous tourists such as the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Kennedy, Mick Jagger and Angelina Jolie, as well as the thousands of ordinary tourists like me who make the pilgrimage to these Unesco World Heritage Sites. Knowing that visiting the temples was something to be savoured, not rushed, I first got to grips with the town.
Siem Reap is the sort of city I love. It is walkable, which means you can appreciate its gentle Southeast Asian charm at a leisurely pace. The Siem Reap river runs down the middle, with the city's hotels, shops, bars and restaurants surrounding it. The centre is where the Old Market and bar- and restaurant-packed Pub Street are found. Just 8 kilometres away from the temples, the centre of Siem Reap is relaxed and interesting while at the same time bustling with locals, tourists and the occasional saffron-robed Buddhist monk.
I strolled along the river on the first day. It is tropical, so it is seriously hot; it is Third World, so it is dusty and messy. But the vegetation is attractively lush with plenty of frangipani trees and palms, as well as shops, a working temple and a few old French villas lining the road.
The river is a sluggish beige artery spanned by the occasional mix of ornate traditional and utilitarian municipal bridges. At dusk, its banks are the scene of the Cambodian version of the Italian passeggiata, the stroll the locals take to relax, to see what is going on and to be seen. The benches along the tree-lined riverbanks are occupied with courting couples, people relaxing and highly focused Cambodians working away at laptops. During the day there are keen fishermen catching something extra for dinner, an activity that looked a little foolhardy to me going by the state of the water. I was assured, however, that the river was now "relatively" pollution free.
I was dubious and made a mental note to check the provenance of any fish I ordered. The river is also used by the local craftspeople as a useful resource. I saw a very businesslike woman stride across the road from her basket-making shop, with a bundle of cane slung over her shoulder, down to the river to give it a good rinsing before it was transformed into one of the beautiful baskets for sale.
The Old Market has a reputation for bargains and is a fascinating labyrinth of stalls selling Cambodian handicrafts and food. This is where the locals, not to mention many tourists, eat breakfast and lunch. This is also where you will see an amazing array of Cambodian fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices and kitchen equipment. I plunged into it, forgetting that the heat would ensure it was like shopping in the sauna from hell. But being a compulsive gift-giver, I was after a particular silk shawl for someone special. The first rule of market shopping is never buy the first thing you see so, after trawling through the many stalls selling silk, comparing products and prices, I overcame my growing paralysis of indecision, settled on my target and got ready to dance the bargaining dance. The woman in charge, and her baby, were most helpful. I asked for a shawl without the stripes so she handed me the child, a most brilliant ploy to prevent a customer getting bored and drifting off, and disappeared to her sister's stall to get it. After the obligatory to-ing and fro-ing over the price, I staggered out of the market's crematorium-like depths clutching my purchase and headed to a cafe for a beer. In the next few days I braved the market for a lot more loot to take home.
One of the first things you notice about shopping in Siem Reap (apart from the fact that the currency of choice is American dollars and there are plenty of money machines if you run out), is that everything is unbelievably cheap. That beer cost me 50 cents American. In the Angkor Mart supermarket in Sivatha Rd, unsurprisingly a favourite expat haunt, you could buy everything from traditional Cambodian food to French champagne, Spanish Jamon or a lump of Italian parmesan as big as your fist. After standing transfixed in front of the liquor shelves, I wondered why I had bothered with duty free in New Zealand. One litre of Absolut vodka cost $7.95. I also wondered why the place wasn't littered with drunks.
A 90-minute spa treatment in many of the high end establishments costs only about $25. The catch when I was waiting for my mine was listening to two pyschobabbling muslin-clad European women of a certain age talk about removing toxins from their bodies. I was pleased I had two kidneys and a liver to do the job.
A highlight of my culinary activities was Cuisine Wat Damnak, a restaurant run by French chef Johannes Riviere and his wife, Carole. Set in a tropical garden in a modern version of a traditional house, Monsieur Riviere serves contemporary interpretations of Cambodian dishes in modern French bistro style. There are two tasting menus, a five and a six course. As I was the loser on the table for one and needed indulging, I naturally chose the six-course option, and also drank two glasses of white burgundy from the excellent wine list (the most expensive wine was $48 a bottle - wine isn't a problem in Cambodia) and a large bottle of fizzy water.
After enjoying an impressive meal of seared beef tenderloin with young morning glory, steamed fermented fish and toasted rice with minced pork, herbs, flowers and local crudites, rice paddy crab yellow curry with Mekong crayfish and tamarind shoots, panfried Kay fish, green star fruit salad and freshwater krill (from Tonle Sap, the huge lake near Siem Reap) and a fresh rice pancake with banana, Cambodian cinnamon and a chocolate pot de creme, I paid the tiny bill of $30.
Good, glorious food
If a returning traveller from anywhere ever tells you the food was no good, it means they didn't find the good cooks.I was happy to find that good cooks are thick on the ground in Siem Reap. From the excellent restaurants, to the street vendors selling tasty baguette sandwiches (Cambodia used to be French and baguettes are definitely a positive result of colonisation) to the noodle curries and fried rice pasta-wrapped vegetable cakes in the market, and the Cambodian penchant for grilling palm sugar and soy sauce-marinated bits of skewered protein over charcoal, good food wasn't a problem.
While I enjoyed the traditional Cambodian food I ate, it had an odd but not unpleasant familiar feeling. A green mango salad with dried shrimps and smoked fish, basil, coriander, peanuts, fried shallots and chilli, while familiar, was also different to such salads I have eaten all over Southeast Asia. The more I became used to Cambodian food, the more I realised that while it may be reminiscent of dishes from neighbouring countries, the Cambodians give them their own often more mild but no less aromatic and flavoursome stamp. Num banchok seemed to be the staple breakfast dish of rice noodles with fish broth, fragrant herbs and mixed vegetables. It was so good, all I can say is "my name is Ray McVinnie and I am a num banchok-aholic".
The most Cambodian of dishes is perhaps amok, a mild curry of fish, with spices, coconut and lemongrass steamed in a banana leaf. This may sound similar to many other Southeast Asian dishes but what makes this curry different, like many Cambodian dishes, are the ingredients. Amok uses fish from Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong river which are particularly sweet and tasty. Cambodian lemongrass has an intense zesty, lemon flavour, stronger than the lemongrass I am familiar with. Kroeung is a traditional mix of fresh herbs and spices which includes chilli, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, krachai (also called Chinese keys) and shallots, used in soups, fish cakes and sauces. Prahok, a fermented salted fish paste, is so widely used that some say Cambodians can't cook without it. Aromatic Kampot pepper from the south coast of Cambodia is a star ingredient, with a range of flavours depending on its size and age. These ingredients, as well as the skill of the cooks, are what makes Cambodian food unique. I have heard it criticised as being merely bland Thai food, but this takes no account of its fragrance and subtlety.
There is also something else about Siem Reap which is special for New Zealand visitors. Maybe I'm biased, but the best hotel, the best bar and the best traditional Cambodian restaurant are all run by Kiwis. Sally Baughen, originally from Kaeo, is the general manager of the luxurious Amansara hotel. A former guesthouse of Prince Sihanouk, the Amansara's drop-dead cool 1960s decor would have Tom Ford eating his heart out. I was picked up from the airport in the hotel's 1961 white Mercedes. Talk about stylish! This is the place to splash out.
The best bar, Miss Wong (cocktails $4.50) is the old Shanghai-style decorated domain of Dean Williams, now resident in Siem Reap, but whose voice some Kiwis will recognise from National Radio from a few years back.
Kethana Dunnet is Cambodian by birth but lived in New Zealand for many years where she met her Kiwi husband, Bruce. They now run Siem Reap's Sugar Palm restaurant, set in a traditional house and serving robustly flavoured traditional Cambodian food. Kethana led me through my Cambodian food 101, with a tasting plate of all the best dishes. This is definitely the place to start when looking for traditional Cambodian food.
Oh yes, the temples
But my reason for visiting Siem Reap was the temples. The best preserved is Angkor Wat and it is a study in grandeur. Bayon is larger and still being restored and Ta Prohm is the temple in the jungle that has huge tree roots growing all over it. They started out as Hindu temples that were later used as Buddhist ones and were discovered in the 19th century by Europeans. The Khmer Rouge added the bullet holes and grenade scars. This is National Geographic territory and you don't need me to describe their magnificence. I would say, however, give yourself two to three days if you are intent on seeing them all. Get fit – it's hot work, the sites are huge and there are quite a lot of steep stone staircases and terraces to clamber over. But it is all worth it. Get a good guide who will take care of tickets (a two-day pass was $40).
I was lucky enough to have the Amansara guide who took me at dawn, an occasion not to be missed as the rising sun stains the ornate stone buildings a beautiful rose colour. Since we started very early and in the opposite direction from the usual tourist route, I had a very calm, uncluttered tour, meeting busloads of sweating tourists toiling into the main entrance as I was leaving. The Amansara also has an exquisite wooden village house on the road where you stop for traditional breakfast cooked by a chef sent out from the hotel. Sheer enchantment!
Ray McVinnie flew to Cambodia with Cathay Pacific Airlines.
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