In a matter of two decades, Cambodia has transformed from a country divided by civil unrest to one well on the way to becoming anAsian powerhouse. Tourism is contributing tothis economic revival with the two gems in the tourism crown being the capital, Phnom Penh and the Siem Reap which adjoins the famous Angkor archaeological site.
Siem Reap is the gateway to the ancient temples and a civilisation that, at its height from the 9th to the 15th centuries, was considered the world’s largest pre-industrial city with an estimated one million residents.
Now millions throng here to admire temples and other structures that cover a vast area of the northern Cambodian plains.
Two of the most significant sites of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are surrounded by moats, and it is possible to boat on the latter to appreciate the importance of water to this ancient civilisation.
Siem Reap has evolved into a tourist town with many activities from duty-free shopping, heli-tours, spas, bike touring as well as archaeological tourism.
Tourism has created innovative retailing too with excellent local products like Mondulkiri coffee and Kampot pepper. Made in Cambodia Market is home to innovative designer products including jewellery crafted from ring-pulls and seeds and items made from recycled materials.
Tourism has well and truly arrived in Siem Reap with direct international flights and most of the leading global hotel groups represented. The latest opening is Courtyard by Marriott and Rosewood will open in 2019.
The Grand Hotel d’Angkor is the preferred address for those who love heritage hotels as it is the original grand colonial property dating back to 1929. It was the place to stay for royalty, writers and movie stars but fell into disrepair during Cambodia’s years of civil unrest. It reopened as Raffles in 1997 after meticulous restoration and refurbishment efforts. There are 131 rooms with the majority opening onto private verandahs. The famous Elephant Bar is the most impressive of the many bars to visit in the town.
In its short history, Jaya House RiverPark has made a mark with its personalised service and chic accommodation. With just 36 rooms there is the sense that you have the property to yourself and with two pools, there is ample recreational space. There is a funky rooftop bar and Trorkuon Khmer Restaurant provides an enticing introduction to Cambodia’s spicy food. The hotel has implemented extensive sustainable practices and staff work with the community for their mutual benefit.
Shinta Mani Angkor delivers similar eco-friendly and community activities as well as some of the town’s most stylish accommodation. Rated as one of the world’s best hotels, the 39-room property is a designer’s delight thanks to the input of leading architect, Bill Bensley. The interplay of texture and light is evident, and rooms are boldly decorated in white, black and grey highlighted by stark monochromatic temple photos.
Design-conscious travellers will revel in the hotel’s public spaces and the neighbouring Shinta Mani Shack (a play on words as the accommodation is luxurious) and the just-opened Bensley Collection villas.
Siem Reap’s latest luxurious accommodation, Shinta Mani Angkor Bensley Collection of ten super-luxe, two-storey villas are opposite the main property. At 156m2 each, luxurious space is an understatement and nothing is a trouble with Bensley Butlers to deal with the necessary arrangements for a luxe stay.
The Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa is a modern hotel but built to reflect French colonial architecture typical of Indochina. Its Bar l’Explorateur with deep armchairs is the ideal setting to relax over cocktails after spending time at Angkor’s ruins. Dine here at Le Connoisseur Restaurant and spent time in Healthysens Spa. Other services include bicycle hire, three 1930s Citroen cars for hire, Khmer cooking classes and a saltwater pool.
Sakmut Boutique Hotel, one of Siem Reap’s many smaller properties, is situated in a peaceful residential precinct between the lively town centre and the airport. Guests can dine on local dishes and learn to cook with the chef. Take time out to relax in the saltwater pool, work out in the gym or be pampered in the resort’s Infinity Spa.
Night out in Siem Reap
Phare, the Cambodian Circus is not to be missed, so start the night with sunset drinks, move onto the marvellously uplifting and skilful circus before booking a late dinner.
While visiting Pub Street is a rite of passage for young travellers, there are some fine bars, cafés and restaurants here too and in other parts of the town. Siem Reap Brewpub offers premium locally-brewed craft ales and great food.Seek out restaurants such as Spoons, Cuisine Wat Damnak, The Steakhouse, Chanrey Tree, Bugs Café (for the adventurous who are okay with eating local bugs) and excellent hawker food in the Old Market.
Joining the Dots
Most visitors to Cambodia fly between the two main destinations but there are other alternatives like road and river travel.
While Khmers have travelled between these two destinations and across the vastness of Tonle Sap (Great Lake) for centuries, it is only recently with the introduction of the RV Indochine 11 that visitors can travel by ship all the way in style and luxury while enjoying a window on the life along the lake and Tonle Sap River.
Phnom Penh of the 1960s was considered the Paris of the East and while it is now more contemporary and Asian, there are still colonial architectural references for visitors to reflect upon what was. Once emptied to a ghost town by the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh is now booming.
The Tonle Sap River flows into the Mekong River here and a promenade along Sisowath Quay and the riverbank provides an orientation to a city on the move. Its outskirts are extending and tall buildings reach ever-skywards but there are still many old buildings to admire.
A visit to the Royal Palace (including the Silver Pagoda), National Museum, Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (an ex-prison from the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge era) are the essential tourist sites.
Phnom Penh has seen an increase in hotel offerings with the heritage focus being on the Grand d’Angkor’s sister property, Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Like Raffles in Siem Reap, Le Royal has been restored with modern conveniences incorporated into the heritage structure. Elegant public spaces are just the place to relax with a book, enjoy afternoon tea and imagine celebrities arriving via the grand entrance.
For some Khmer charm combined with French colonial flair, the Hotel Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra is a wonderful five-star property with excellent dining options. Enjoy buffets with Khmer dishes, Italian in Do Forni and Japanese cuisine in Hachi.
Some small hotels include Circa 51 Boutique Residence of just eight rooms and The Plantation with its minimalist design and Khmer inspiration.
Night out in Phnom Penh
There is a vibrant and lively food, café, bar and club scene in the city. After shopping in Central Market and the Russian Market, it is time to take a break over coffee or a pint of Cambodia’s much-loved Angkor beer.
The capital’s coffee scene is well-developed with international concepts plus more interesting stand-alone concepts. Java Café and Gallery kick-started the trend and has established itself as the go-to venue for caffeine and sweet treats as well as gallery exhibitions.
Other smart coffee shops include Bloom Café (artisan coffees with the proceeds helping at-risk Cambodian women), Sugar n’ Spice (similar concept to Bloom), Blue Pumpkin and La Chronique (rustic ambience near the Russian Market).
Happy hour beer prices are as ridiculously low as in Siem Reap but there are also refined outlets where prices are more competitive than other regional capitals. The city’s smartest bar and an essential stop is The Elephant Bar in Raffles. This cool and chic bar is the place for heritage hounds to relax in deep leather chairs and sip a cocktail while listening to the pianist in the corner. Legendary cocktails include the Residents’ Gin and Tonic and Singapore Sling. A special tapas menu complements the regular bar menu with international and local snacks including fried crickets, stuffed frogs and Kampot cockles.
Move across the corridor for elegant French and royal Khmer cuisine in the capital’s most stylish restaurant, Le Royal. While the surroundings are grand, historical and elegant like the Khmer dishes, the contemporary French cuisine served firmly places diners in the 21st century. Other places to impress in the capital include Topaz, Van’s, Tamarind and Miró.
While the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (simply, FCC) was never really an official club, truth should never get between drink and a thirsty traveller. Overlooking the river, it is still a charming venue with walls lined with historic photographs. Hangar 44 and Chez Flo are two places to dine and drink along trendy Street 308 in Tonle Bassac
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