Why We Love Much-Maligned Siem Reap

1$ Tapas night at Ivy Guesthouse is hard to beat

1$ Tapas night at Ivy Guesthouse is hard to beat

Siem Reap gets no respect. It’s true, it’s a western enclave. There isn’t much to see in town, and it exists mostly as a basecamp for Angkor Wat. And if you’re looking for immersion in Cambodian culture, this isn’t where you want to be. But having said all of that, it’s wrong to conclude, as so many people do, that Siem Reap isn’t “real” or is somehow inauthentic. Siem Reap is very much a real city, albeit a heavily westernized one. I say that because there are plenty of places in the world where people live and work that are very much like Siem Reap. We know, because we used to live in, and still love, one such place.

To us Siem Reap felt like the Hoboken of South East Asia. Now that probably doesn’t mean anything to anyone who hasn’t lived in our former city, but suffice it to say, Siem Reap felt a bit like home to us.

There are bars and bakeries; banks and brewers; laundromats, restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, clothing stores, doctor’s offices and optometrists, all within an easy walk. Said another way, there’s everything anyone needs to live a normal life, right in town.

That’s very different from the typical chotchky and t-shirt shop bedazzled tourist town. This place has a real life to it.

Oh, and also, we ate better in Siem Reap than anywhere else in Cambodia. And when I say better, I don’t mean to say we ate exclusively authentic Cambodian food. What I mean is that the dishes we had here were tastier than anything else we ate while in Cambodia, “authentic” or otherwise.

A couple of our favorites include:    

The Ivy Guesthouse

Ivy Guest House

This has to be the best math ever: 4 tapas + 2 deserts + 8 drinks = $14

Every Friday the Ivy Guesthouse runs a special where everything on the menu is just $1, including drinks. It’s all tapas, but the menu is quite large, the portions generous, and the food surprisingly excellent. Where Ivy really impressed us is with their attention to detail. Each dish had little extra flourishes that seemed to go way above and beyond what you’d expect for a place plating $1 tapas.

The vegetable samosas were served with a delightful mint yogurt dipping sauce. The fried sweet potatoes, meanwhile, came with a nicely spiced and terrifically complementary mayonnaise-based sauce. A dish of tender beef fillets and crisp beans had its own garlic soy sauce. And marinated grilled fish medallions were served on sautéed morning glory. Each dish seemed carefully crafted, and every flavor worked really well together.

The mixed drinks weren’t such a hit. At $1 each they’re a great bargain if what you’re looking for is generous amounts of liquor. But after a terrible margarita and a so-so mojito we switched to $1 glasses of white wine that were actually quite tasty and a welcome respite from all the mediocre beer we drank throughout South East Asia.

9999 BBQ

Siem Reap-3Or at least that’s what we think this little road-side eatery found at the corner of Taphul and Achamean is called. In any event, this place became our go-to restaurant when we wanted a quick and tasty meal. One day we’d have a white broccoli and vegetable medley stir fry, another day some concoction with baby corn, both with heaping sides of rice. It was more than enough food for us to share for lunch with drinks for less than $3 each.

The best part of this family-run establishment is that at lunch time the owners’ children, who were off from school (and still in their school uniforms), help mom and dad wait tables. They gave us the best service we had anywhere in Asia. And that includes the hoity-toity and totally overrated Sugar Palm where service was absolutely abysmal.

And one to Miss: Sugar Palm

Sugar Palm-1

Sugar Palm’s crispy spring rolls looked cool, tasted meh.

This place gets high marks from foodies, but it’s pretension and mediocre food left us totally cold. Their signature amok was just a run-of-the-mill fish in red curry sauce. The satays were below average with a tasteless peanut sauce. And while the crispy spring rolls get high marks for appearance (they’re little woven bundles), they get low marks on flavor.

Making maters worse, we had far better service from the 10-year-old girl who waited on us at budget 9999 than we got from the entire team at Sugar Palm. Our entrees weren’t served together, we couldn’t get a glass of water to save our lives, and everyone in the place treated us like they were doing us a favor.

It was by far the most expensive meal we had in Cambodia and easily our worst experience.

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9 Comments on “Why We Love Much-Maligned Siem Reap”

  1. Bill April 17, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    Borrow bicycles and ride the fourteen k’s around Angkor. You don’t have to stop at the prescribed tout stops and there are wonderful locals only lunch shops on the way. Enjoy!
    Also..Go to the ‘woman’s temple’ out of town. It’s really worth it. And..on the way there stop at the butterfly farm.
    Bill
    NYC~

    Like

  2. lovetotrav April 17, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    We will definitely be heading to the little bbq place then at Xmas. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  3. Daedalus Lex April 17, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    I like your attitude about authenticity. Yes, it’s nice to experience the grass roots culture of other places, but some people fetishize authenticity unnecessarily. I like “authentic,” out-of-the-way places, but it’s also nice to stop in places where international travelers cross paths, sometimes adding new layers to the indigenous culture (Freak Street in Kathmandu might be an example). Anyway, your open attitude enhances your credibility at travel writers.

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    • Brian April 18, 2015 at 10:02 am #

      So true. I could write a long post on the fetishization of authenticity and maybe I will. But for here I’ll just add that we’ve found huge differences between vacation traveling and living on the road. One of those differences is that you can easily endure, and even enjoy, hardship for short periods of time. Living like an “authentic” Cambodian may feel like an experience when done on vacation but when done week in and week out it starts to feel more like what it actually is: poverty. And most people wouldn’t live that way if they had a choice – us included. So finding places with modern comforts and conveniences, not to mention places that remind us of a home we haven’t seen in a year, doesn’t feel inauthentic to us. It feels like vacation – a welcome respite from the daily grind – and we look forward to that as much as anyone.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. tinkadventures April 17, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

    I totally agree with Bill, cycling is the way to see Angkor and the women’s temple is the best of all of them in my opinion (and quieter). Butterfly farm is definitely worth a visit too!

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    • Brian April 18, 2015 at 11:21 am #

      If you’re into cycling I can see that being a good way to explore the temples. We decided not to do it that way because the “big loop” is a 40 km round trip from Siem Reap without any diversions, it’s very hot even in the morning, the road is very dusty, and we’d be breathing tuk-tuk exhaust the entire time.

      On the other hand, cycling is by far the cheapest way to see the temples.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bill April 24, 2015 at 10:27 am #

        As I remember..The roads are paved and not dusty and there were few tuktuks..

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        • Brian April 24, 2015 at 10:53 am #

          The roads are definitely paved. Dusty may depend on the weather (it was quite dry while we were there.) But I think the days of few tuk tuks is long since gone. There were so many when we visited that we spent about 20 minutes searching for ours in a sea of tuk-tuks in the parking lot outside of Angkor.

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