Look what’s at the gate

Colonial style ... Le Grand Cafe. Photo: Michael Coyne/Lonely Planet

The dusty doorway to the wonders of Angkor is actually a whole lot more, writes Anthony Dennis.

No one, save for the locals, goes to Agra, Giza or, for that matter, Siem Reap just for Agra or Giza or Siem Reap. These are cities that are a means to the traveller’s end and those ends are invariably the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids and Angkor Wat, respectively.

In the case of Siem Reap, the Cambodian city of nearly 1 million that serves the tourist hordes who flock to the World Heritage Angkor Archaeological Park (as it’s officially known), it’s another story entirely.

Unquestionably, Siem Reap, described by one guidebook as “a dusty hole”, exists almost entirely for the ancient Khmer monument on its outskirts, having emerged from a long Khmer Rouge-induced decline until the mid-1990s. Without Angkor, Siem Reap would probably be, at least by Western standards, just as that guidebook declares it to be, and a village at that.

In reality, Siem Reap offers more than just Angkor, though unrestrained hotel development does threaten to rob it of some of its appeal. Already, the local water supply has had to be relocated, as part of a Japanese aid project, away from the town because the city’s water table was being drained by the oversupply of hotels and imperilling the foundations of Angkor Wat.

Inevitably, the visitor’s focus will be on Angkor and it pays to remember it’s not just Angkor Wat on offer but a whole park extending for about 400 square kilometres and encompassing the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the ninth to the 15th century, such as the massive Angkor Thom.

But do avoid the real dangers of “stupa-fication”, especially in the hotter months, and divide your tours in to half-days, heading back to Siem Reap for rest, relaxation and stimulation at the city’s myriad attractions.

By factoring in the allures of Siem Reap, you could easily add a day or two to a pilgrimage to Angkor.

Sleeping

From the colonial splendour of Raffles Grand d’Angkor (raffles.com) to the boutique style of Hotel Be Angkor (hotelbeangkor.com), Siem Reap has an outstanding choice of accommodation for all tastes and budgets.

One affordable option, without sacrificing comfort and a little style, is Tara Angkor (taraangkorhotel.com). It’s conveniently located on Vithei Charles de Gaulle, the main drag to Angkor.

The more upmarket Victoria Angkor Hotel (victoriahotels-asia.com) offers expensive, though unique, tours, with driver, to Angkor in one of three vintage Citroen vehicles dating from 1927. These include a sunset tour at Angkor Wat and a full-day trip to the major Angkor sites.

The aforementioned tiny Hotel Be Angkor is located in The Passageway, a narrow, pedestrian-only laneway full of cafes, restaurants and (legitimate) massage shops, slap bang in the desirable Old Market area. Hotel Be Angkor features just three spacious and affordable rooms, named Bamboo, Saffron and Sepia, each designed by local artists. The reception area doubles as a shop with a range of tasteful local artwork and fashions.

Eating

All of that Angkor appreciation will undoubtedly create a fierce appetite and thirst. Happily, there’s no shortage of quality dining options in Siem Reap. Inside Hotel Be Angkor is the fashionable AHA, one of the choicest dining spots in Siem Reap and a venue hip enough not to be out of place in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

AHA serves a selection of small-plate or tapas-style Khmer dishes and is owned by the swish, nearby Hotel de la Paix (hoteldelapaixangkor.com), which is best known for Meric. It’s a fine-dining restaurant serving contemporary Western and Khmer-inspired dishes.

In the same hotel is the terrific, street-front Cafe de la Paix, which serves surely Siem Reap’s best coffee, baguettes and light meals, in sleek and stylish surrounds. Don’t be surprised if you adopt it as a base, as we did, during your Siem Reap sojourn.

To experience a little of the French colonial era, and its cuisine, try Le Grand Cafe, also in the Old Market area. Snare a table upstairs in the airy, tiled room overlooking the street where you’re less likely to be be plagued by the omnipresent hawkers, touts and tuk tuk drivers.

If you’d rather not interrupt your Angkor sightseeing by heading back to town, consider lunch at the excellent Angkor Cafe (www.artisansdangkor.com) near the car park opposite Angkor Wat.

Run by the silk specialists Artisans d’Angkor (see below), the cafe has a shop full of quality Khmer textiles.

Drinking

In the elegant and airy art deco mansion of the former French governor, the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club, fcccambodia.com) is one of the smartest, most happening places to hang out for a drink or meal in Siem Reap.

Even if you’re not staying at the elegant Raffles (see above), it’s well worth a visit to soak in the atmosphere of this gorgeous French colonial-era hotel, which is more than 75 years old. Order the signature cocktail, the Arivata, in the famed Elephant Bar.

If you’re after something softer, or just a spot for breakfast, head to the fun, all-white Blue Pumpkin (tbpumpkin.com), a mod cafe in the Old Market area. It’s a good place for a cool drink as well as ice-cream, sorbet and pastries after you’ve been out for the day at Angkor.

Sophisticates who fancy a drink tend to favour the central Hotel de la Paix, which features an impressive exhibition space called the Arts Lounge, which also doubles as a bar.

It’s dedicated to the revivalist Cambodian arts and culture scene (including paintings, sculpture and photography) that has emerged in the decades following the fall of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation. Afternoon tea with “a Cambodian twist” is also served at the Arts Lounge.

Shopping

Siem Reap, perhaps surprisingly, has a plethora of engaging, quality shops.

Any visit should include a trip to the “haute texture” shop of Eric Raisina (ericraisina.com), a charismatic Madagascar-born designer who settled in Siem Reap in the late 1990s. Some of his creations, such as his “silk fur” invention, are sold to the top French couture labels. On an unsealed, dirt street just out of the town centre, Raisina’s “villa boutique” (which is also his home) is a destination as much as a retail opportunity. It can be visited by appointment. The best buys are vibrantly coloured silk scarves and shawls but there’s also an extensive range of dresses, hats and handbags.

Elsewhere, Garden of Desire is a contemporary jewellery shop founded by a French-Cambodian, Ly Pisith, who fled the country during the Pol Pot years. It recently relocated to The Passageway, where it specialises in locally designed, high-calibre sterling silver jewellery.

Back at the FCC is a small selection of excellent boutiques and galleries, such as Orange River (named after the Mekong River at sunset) and Jasmine, featuring the designs of expat Kiwi Kellianne Karatau. If you’re after a frock at affordable prices, these are the places. Next door is a small and upscale art gallery, Tiger Lilly (tigerlilypnh.com).

Back in the Old Market area is the flamboyant, French-owned Wa Gallery and Concept Store. It features artworks inspired by Buddhist and more modern influences, including way-out fluro-coloured Buddha busts and statues.

Seeing

Aside from the obvious allures of Angkor, there is plenty to keep a visitor entertained between temple tours.

A model fair-trade organisation, Artisans d’Angkor (www.artisansdangkor.com) was established to revive the skills of silk weaving and dyeing, along with stone and wood carving, to provide employment in the challenging years after Pol Pot.

It operates arts and crafts outlets within Siem Reap and at Angkor but it’s more fun to hop in a tuk-tuk and head out of town to the collective’s Silk Farm in the Puok district. There you can observe Cambodian weavers at work and take a free-guided tour of the eight-hectare property.

On a completely different note, the Cambodian Landmine Museum (cambodianmuseum.org) is worth a stop on your way to or from Banteay Srei inside the archaeological park. Landmines are a legacy of Cambodia’s relatively recent violent past and remain a significant problem.

The museum, modest though moving, features displays of deactivated mines and booby traps and information on the museum’s owner and former Khmer Rouge soldier Aki Ra’s campaign to rid Cambodia of this scourge.

Housed within an architecturally disappointing faux-Angkor-style building, the new National Museum (angkornationalmuseum.com) is worthy of a visit if you have some spare time, with one of the galleries featuring a collection of 1000 Buddha statues and relics. The museum’s galleries contain original Angkor civilisation artefacts and there’s a fine bookshop, too. However, you may care to avoid the attached, tacky shopping mall populated with ill-advised fast-food outlets.

Not far from Siem Reap is Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in south-east Asia and linked to the mighty Mekong River.

In its own way, the lake is nearly as significant as Angkor, being one of the world’s richest sources of freshwater fish, feeding millions of people in the region. Tonle Sap is populated by floating villages that can be easily visited by boat.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights to Siem Reap from Australia. Bangkok Airways offers regular and affordable connections between the Thai capital and Siem Reap, see www.bangkokair.com. JetStar Asia flies regularly from Singapore, see www.jetstar.com.

WHEN TO GO

The peak season is in the cooler period between December and January but you should be fine to visit either side of those months. Avoid the still warm days in the peak season by visiting Angkor in the early morning and late afternoon.

TOURS

A private tour by an accredited local Cambodian guide, arranged through your hotel, is a wise investment so to avoid untrained impostors. Official guides wear uniforms and display identification and will direct you away from the crowds. Your guide can also take you to other Siem Reap attractions such as Tonle Sap Lake.

[Courtesy of http://www.smh.com.au/travel/look-whats-at-the-gate-20100416-sj69.html”]