June 28, 2022
SINGAPORE – Even with the resurgence of travel, Siem Reap is uncrowded enough for travellers to explore it at a slower pace than before.
This is an ideal time for seekers of peace to rediscover the Cambodian city, the famed gateway town to temples, and home to natural wonders and a buzzing artisan scene.
Here, I also find resilient Cambodians filled with hope for the future even as they endure the fallout from a prolonged pandemic.
On one of my mornings, I stand with a handful of people by a pond in front of Angkor Wat. It is 6am and we are waiting for that moment when the golden sun rises behind the five towers of the Unesco World Heritage Site.
I hold my breath as the towers are cast as a reflection on the pond, against the backdrop of a sky painted in tie-dye lilacs and yellows, even though it is overcast.
I had last visited Siem Reap on a weekend break in 2017, and in those pre-Covid-19 times, I had jostled with sweaty strangers, trying to peer over a sea of mobile phones whose owners clamoured for the perfect Instagram shot.
Then, the beauty of Angkor Wat – the complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples built between the 9th and 15th centuries – was somewhat lost on me.
This year, with Siem Reap still largely bereft of crowds, I discover what it is like to explore the Angkor Wat complex in peace.
Longer stays, a more leisurely pace
A slower pace in the formerly busy Siem Reap is why visitors from Singapore are opting for longer stays.
In the past, they would have settled for weekend getaways. Today, many also opt to splurge on a post-Covid-19 trip as a treat, especially since the luxury properties that were previously packed with guests are now more available for bookings.
At Amansara by Aman Resorts where I stay, only four of 24 villas are occupied in February, meaning I am sharing the compound with just five other guests. Mr Tom Rutherford, regional director of Aman in Indochina and general manager of Amansara, tells me tourists are staying longer “to savour the sights slowly”.
He adds that I will also probably never get to see Angkor Wat in such serenity again.
Back at the pond, I finally turn from the water to seek out more of the glories of the Khmer empire.
I drift towards what I remember to be my favourite temple, Ta Phrom, one of the top three highlights at Angkor Park (see other story).
Bathed in dappled sunlight, Ta Phrom – which has been largely left to the mercy of Mother Nature – is hauntingly beautiful. Over the centuries, banyan, fig and kapok trees have grown and flourished. Roots have penetrated foundations, while branches have broken through roofs of buildings and wrapped themselves around columns.
On this day, stillness abounds. You can almost hear the trees breathing. The silence is broken only by the occasional rustling sounds of the bats that have made their home inside some of the 39 towers that make up the temple.
I head for breakfast at Khmer House, a well-preserved traditional wooden house on stilts in the village of Srah Srang, located near a 10th-century royal bathing reservoir in Angkor Park.
Amansara has taken a long-term lease on the property. This means guests get a peek into local village life while having access to modern amenities.
In the yard, I watch a local woman cook num ban chok, a dish of fresh handmade noodles made from fermented rice flour dough. It is bathed in a light green curry gravy that has been cooked over a charcoal fire.
Eating this seated on the second floor, I watch village life happen below as wild-ranging roosters scuttle around the villagers.
New players in an updated city
The Angkor Wat complex and its surrounds are not the only things of note in Siem Reap, where changes are afoot. Over the past 24 months, many roads have been widened and improved. There has also been an exodus of expatriates, while Cambodians who previously lived in the city to ply their jobs – usually in tourism – have returned to their homes to other parts of the country.
Last week, Mr Philip Kao, president of Siem Reap Tourism Club, said international tourist arrivals fell from more than 4.2 million in 2019 to just 534,005 in 2021.
Out of 493 registered hotels and guesthouses, 125 have closed for good. Another 246 suspended operations and have yet to reopen. Only 122 are open for business.
In a meeting arranged by Mr Rutherford of Amansara, Siem Reap governor Tea Seiha says that in order to create jobs for the some 40,000 tour guides and drivers out of work, the government decided to bring forward plans to improve the city infrastructure and to keep improvements running.
Aside from the road works, the city drainage system has been improved while a new airport is under construction and is slated to be completed in 2023.
And there are other plans in the works to diversify tourism and draw visitors to other attractions. “We have over 200 temples in Siem Reap, many of which are worth a visit,” says Mr Seiha.
Where does one go for kicks, if one is visiting? As Covid-19 wiped out the tourist trade, the city itself went into several lockdowns in 2021.
Now, despite Siem Reap reopening to tourists, the infamous Pub Street, where one would wander in search of drinks in better times, is still a veritable ghost town.
This is no loss to me, as during my last visit here, few of the watering holes made a lasting impression.
There was one notable exception: Miss Wong, a Chinoiserie-themed bar known for creative cocktails. But there has been a change of location: The red lamp that beckons customers now hangs south of the Siem Reap River in a trendy enclave between Streets 26 and 27, in the Wat Bo neighbourhood which is quickly becoming the place to be for hip Cambodian creatives.
I am delighted to see that just across the street from Miss Wong is Banlle, where owner Pola Siv serves vegan versions of Cambodian classics. He had initially closed the inventive Mie Cafe in the early days of the pandemic and it is good to see this reappearance.
Mr Stewart Kidd, Glaswegian and Siem Reap resident since 2013, also took a chance to launch a food and beverage outlet, Stewart on 26, in January 2022. He previously ran The Village Cafe in Kandal Village on Hap Guan Street, but was forced to close in December 2020.
Mr Kidd’s new place is a bar, restaurant and nightclub with a facade that channels Brooklyn and serves a robust espresso martini. Like many others I speak to, he feels a certain duty to keep business going.
“After eight years, my dishwasher has become head chef, and all my staff have bought land and built houses,” he says of why he did not simply leave Cambodia in tough times.
His Stewart on 26 outlet has a firm eye on the future: It also houses a gallery, giving up-and-coming photographers a platform to showcase their works.
I stop at Phare, The Cambodian Circus where the shows still go on. That is even though senior marketing director Craig Dodge and his team struggle to fill even 50 per cent of the seats – with the capacity halved for social distancing – on most nights.
The home-grown social enterprise is holding just three weekly performances in the Big Top – down from 10 a week in pre-pandemic times – but remains a must-see for any out-of-towner.
There is one other reason to patronise the ever-entertaining Phare: It is the primary source of funding for 1,200 students at Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts school in Battambang.
Inside a half-full Big Top, the performers spin in mid-air, juggle and dance to live music played on a medley of Cambodian classical and electric instruments. They give it their all and their exuberance fills my heart. Judging from the rapturous applause around me, many others feel the same.
A sojourn by the lake, mindfulness lessons from monks
One thing I cannot miss on this trip is a visit to Tonle Sap, South-east Asia’s biggest freshwater lake. I head for the jetty of Chong Kneas with my tour guide.
There, we board the Amanbala, an Amansara-owned vessel that is motor-powered but handcrafted in the style of a wooden Cambodian boat. From this impressive vantage point, I get a glimpse into the Cambodian landscape outside of the city on a private tour.
We drift past settlers on the river banks into the lake where we see floating villages, mainly populated with ethnic Vietnamese who have been in Cambodia for generations. I see a church, a temple and a school.
The trip has been so tranquil that I find myself booking a meditation session with a monk through Amansara. Like many others, I have found grace and peace in mindfulness practices amid the pandemic.
Sadly, I keep nodding off during my guided meditation with the Venerable Chhom Mao at the Svay Ramiet temple one afternoon. I am shame-faced as I nod off again after chatting with him on Buddhism and meditation.
The Venerable One is kind, gently assuring me that it is okay to meditate while walking, if a seated stance is making me drowsy.
I follow him as he rises and, as he suggests, I focus on each foot fall on this walk and strive to truly feel the cool floor tiles. Keep at it, the kindly monk assures me. Meditation is a practice that is cultivated over time.
Back to nature
Feeling refreshed after a trip to the lake and by the mindfulness exercises, I take a forest walk at Angkor Park, where I started this journey. Since the surrounds are so ancient, it is dense with woodlands and wildlife.
I am a little doubtful at the description posted of the experience, but I sign up with Amansara for a “guided forest bathing” session in the tropics. It turns out to be just what I need.
My forest bathing guide, Canadian expatriate Michelle Morin, and I meander past the ruins of Preah Palilay into an ancient woodland where parakeets peek at and tease us from between the trees that shade us from the sun.
At a marsh, we see ibises, herons and egrets. A Lesser Adjutant flies over our heads as we walk east, past the walled south gate of Angkor Thom.
Though we walk for nearly 90 minutes, Ms Morin reckons that by the time we emerge from the north gate, we have covered less than 2km. Along the way, we occasionally stop for breathing exercises and light stretches.
“The idea is to relax and still the mind in order to be present,” says Ms Morin, who has been studying meditation since moving to Cambodia 16 years ago. I return to my villa feeling refreshed and more empowered than before.
Another nature-oriented must-do is to visit Kulen Elephant Forest, a 445ha community forest in the Prasat Bakong district, an hour’s drive from Siem Reap.
There, elephants retired from the business of giving rides wander about and graze happily. I feed some bamboo to the gentle giants and watch them amble slowly into a large pond where they play, frisk and roll around, letting out grunts and bellows of joy. Guests are also invited to go for a walk with the animals.
Mr David-Jaya Piot, 25, owner of this lush sanctuary which opened in December 2019, has been holding the fort even though the tourist trade is down. His parents were the owners of the first luxury resort in Cambodia and he is not ready to give up on life – or business – in Cambodia.
“The light at the end of the tunnel seems to move further away every time I think I am getting close to it. I just keep going because I love what I do,” he says.
That spirit seems to permeate Siem Reap, lost somewhere between hope and wonder. What I know is that this is a time to experience this city differently – perhaps as never before.
Three must-sees at Angkor Archaeological Park
Until the end of this year, the price for entry to all the temples is US$37 (S$51) for a two-day pass. Here are the must-sees if you can afford only a day.
1. Angkor Wat
It is the largest and most spectacular of the Hindu and Buddhist temples built between the 9th and 15th centuries. It is the emblem of the Khmer empire’s golden age which, at the peak of its power, stretched from southern Vietnam northwards to Yunnan in China, and to the west of Bengal from the west of Vietnam.
Angkor Wat is where you will see those famous bas-reliefs of women of the court with their voluptuous figures and ornate jewellery. These are relics of the prosperity enjoyed by the Khmer empire in the 12th century when the temple was built.
That glimpse into the golden age of Khmer history – a time when the nation was ahead of other civilisations and before atrocities ravaged the city, setting it back by decades – can be truly haunting without the crowds.
It is the famed collection of towers carved with over 200 huge, looming faces of Bodhisattva. It has been described as both awesome and mind-bending, with travel guide book Lonely Planet hailing it as the “creative genius” and “ego” of King Jayavarman VII, who had it built as his state temple in the 12th century.
Be warned that if you go today, you will face a top level that is under restoration, thus shutting out some panoramas you will otherwise see. It is slated to reopen later this year.
3. Ta Phrom
Built in 1186, Ta Phrom is a Buddhist temple that King Jayavarman VII built in memory of his mother. Today, it is known as Lara Croft’s temple after it was featured in the 2001 Tomb Raider movie, starring Angelina Jolie.
With ancient tree roots spilling over ruined buildings, it is a testament to Mother Nature’s constant, effortless work and how it can undo all that mankind builds.
Shop, eat and stay
Though many popular haunts have closed due to the pandemic, there are now other must-sees.
Hap Guan Street, Siem Reap
This enclave is known for hip cafes and cool lifestyle shops.
While many have closed due to the pandemic, Little Red Fox Espresso (#593), an institution in Siem Reap, is still standing.
The Australian-owned and Cambodian-run cafe also stocks some heavenly-smelling eco-friendly products made with ethically sourced ingredients from the brand Saarti by Rebecca Scougall.
She once sold these wares in a now-defunct shop. While she has returned to her home country of Australia, she has kept her Cambodian production team. Saarti products are also available at Satu (shopsatu.com), a new lifestyle store at the FCC Angkor by Avani.
Also at Kandal Village is Louise Loubatieres (#632), where I buy lacquered buffalo-horn bangles and a pretty houndstooth babydoll dress designed by Louise Loubatieres herself. The lifestyle boutique run by Ms Loubatieres is now twice its original size after a six-month renovation that was completed just before the onset of Covid-19.
Ms Loubatieres, French-Vietnamese by heritage and of British nationality, is a Chelsea College of Art and Royal College of Art alumnus who moved to Cambodia in 2012. Her style of marrying contemporary designs with traditional influences in products such as lacquered homeware and ceramics has won her a following.
Another discovery is DSK The Workshop (#636), an atelier which opened in June 2019. Run by Korean husband-and-wife owners Jin Sang-hoand Chang Eun-shil, it offers locally crafted, hand-stitched leather accessories, including bags, wallets and hairpins.
Besides shopping, I have returned to Kandal Village for another reason: to visit the brightly-coloured tree-lined block of French colonial-inspired buildings with balustrades full of unruly plants bursting out of their pots. When the afternoon sun casts its rays on the famous T-junction, it takes on the patina of a bygone era.
Lum Orng, a farm-to-table restaurant by Cambodian chef Sothea Seng located a 20-minute drive away from the city centre, opened in April 2019.
From what I experience, it has the makings of an establishment ready for the San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I savour a six-course tasting menu (US$32) and a delightful fusion of Cambodian ingredients and flavours, with Western cooking techniques and plating.
My Cambodian beef carpaccio has a beautiful contrast of textures and big bursts of fresh flavours. Also memorable is the langoustine coconut soup. The menu can be adapted for vegetarians.
If you cannot make it to Lum Orng, chef Seng, who is also a cooking show star, is also behind Mahob, a Khmer restaurant in town.
A love of nostalgia is partly what draws me to Amansara. The building it is housed in, Villa Princiere, once belonged to King Norodom Sihanouk, who commissioned French architect Laurent Mondet to build it for hosting visiting dignitaries like former American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and president Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia. During the country’s halcyon days, it was considered a masterpiece of New Khmer Architecture.
In 2002, Amansara opened with 24 villas (half with their own plunge pools), a spa, zen landscaping and a canopy of majestic, old trees.
Room rates start at US$1,400 a day and are inclusive of breakfast and a choice of lunch or dinner with non-alcoholic house beverages, as well as a daily excursion to Angkor temples with an English-speaking guide (excluding temple pass)
While many hotels in Siem Reap remain closed, there are still options for those looking for affordable accommodation.
The residence of the French colonial governor at the turn of the 20th century was reopened in late 2019 as the FCC Angkor by Avani after a major restoration.
The hotel recently launched its Cambodia Reopening Experience Package. Guests who stay three nights or more in the 80 colonial-style rooms and suites get breakfast, airport transfers, a guided tour of Angkor’s temple by tuk-tuk, a blessing with Buddhist monks, in-house spa treatments and a dinner for US$129+++ a night.
The Viroth’s Hotel, a 1950s-inspired property on Streets 26 and 27, has packages for a variety of guests – from adventure-seekers to history buffs – that will save them between 20 and 30 per cent.