We awoke to loud, high-pitched voices vibrating through megaphones. It was election time and the locals were enduring a month of sloganeering by regular passing vehicles.
In the fading coolness of the early morning, we hopped on the bicycles lent to us by Apple and cycled through the streets, avoiding the potholes and motorcyclists. We passed the line of people already queuing to see a doctor at the public hospital. We passed a wedding reception and its deafening music cascading out onto the street.
We crossed the river to one of my favourite cafés on the edge of town – the tranquil Peace Café. The cycle felt so familiar – once again I was rushed with a sense of return to my home away from home. Many of the staff at the café, including the lovely owner Songim, recognised us – just like in old times. My yoga teacher stopped to chat with me, even though I wasn’t attending his class that morning (as much as I wanted to!).
After breakfast, we cycled back to Garden of Universe, where Sokna was waiting for us in his tuk-tuk with blue satin cushions . We had prearranged for him to take us around for the day.
Living in the area for a year meant that we had seen most of what Siem Reap and its surroundings have to offer. There were, however, a few must visits we just had to make while in town.
Here’s the list for our full day in Siem Reap:
1. Peace Café: this hidden oasis in the southwest of town offers tasty Khmer and Western food for a great price. It’s vegetarian and vegan friendly and no dishes include onion, garlic or MSG. I had the trusty Khmer noodle soup for breakfast with a refreshing energy-booster juice.
It’s easy to spend time here, either reclining with a book on a lounge chair under the palms or eating a feast at the tables under the fans. The café trains local youth in professional hospitality as a way of empowering them to step out of poverty.
Peace Café also has a small fair trade shop where you can stock up on Cambodian goodies. It runs vegetarian cooking classes, which you can book online, as well as Ashtanga yoga classes with Prasad from India. Each 1.5-hour class only costs USD5 if you buy a pack.
Note: Ashtanga Yoga is quite physical so prepare to sweat and work out your mind, body and soul!
2. Artisans D’Angkor: the shop at Artisans D’Angkor is pretty touristy and expensive, but they do produce beautiful Cambodian arts and crafts. I have bought my fair share of silk scarves from there, as well as a beautiful silk bed runner for a wedding present. This time we were on a mission from my mum to buy a mint-coloured silk scarf.
Artisans D’Angkor also offers short, free, guided tours of their workshop spaces so that you can see how Cambodian crafts are made. This includes wood and stone sculpting, metal and copper work, lacquering and painting. It’s interesting to see how the paper designs transform into beautiful objects.
Note: if you have time, hop on their mini bus and they’ll take you for a free tour of their silk plantation and museum outside of town. It’s here that you’ll see silk weaving in action. The shop is the same at both locations in case you really did want to buy that scarf!
3. Old market: in the centre of town you’ll find the Old Market (aka Psar Chaa). It still functions as a food market. In the mornings, a long strip of greengrocers forms along the floor, starting at the entrance, and as you make your way further into the centre of the building, your senses are suddenly confronted with a potent mix of meat, poultry and fish. The atmosphere is vibrant and colourful, but you may have to fight to move through the crowds as many locals come here to buy produce.
It’s a great spot to snap photos. Rows and rows of shoes and fabrics surround the food section and the women vendors wear bright pyjama-like outfits. It’s also a handy place to purchase anything you might need for the trip ahead at a cheap price. Having said that, not many of the products are made in Cambodia, so if you want fair trade or to support the local industry, it’s best to buy souvenirs at places like Peace Café or at the Made in Cambodia markets at Shinta Mani hotel.
Note: if you’re an avid photographer, I suggest you check out Psar Leu markets on National Road 6, especially in the morning. It’s basically the Old Market on a much larger scale.
4. Frangipani Spa: it’s not the cheapest option for a massage in town, but Frangipani Spa still offers great value when you compare it with what we pay back home! Plus it is run by two very lovely Cambodian women, who treat their staff properly and support the empowerment of all women in the community (their support even extends to Women’s Resource Center).
No matter which massage you get, you’ll be treated with a foot scrub at the beginning, complete with frangipanis in the water, and an exotic flower juice that changes colour when you add lime. At the end, you’ll receive a warm tea and rice cake to snack on.
We had aromatherapy massages with lemongrass-scented oil (they still remembered me so I got my member’s discount).
Note: if you’re ready to splurge, you should definitely go for the four-hands massage. It is divine!
5. Old Wooden House: tucked around the corner from Old Market and Pub Street is the peaceful Old Wooden House aka Asana. It’s an ideal location to step away from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding streets and to have a Kingdom Beer (Cambodia’s premium beer) and nibble on some lemongrass and chilli flavoured peanuts (which are always free with alcohol). Or you could order a yummy cocktail if you’re that way inclined.
The little garden bar has wooden, swinging beds underneath the house to recline on and at the weekend, they often host the local farmers’ market.
Siem Reap Brew Pub: is the only place in town that brews their own beer. The microbrewery only opened recently by a guy from Singapore. I wouldn’t recommend the food there, but it’s a nice place to taste-test their brews and play a game of fusbol. We invited Sokna for a drink (he always drinks juice when he’s driving) and taught him how to play. It was so much fun, we swapped sides and still, I kept winning!
6. Garden of Universe: if you feel like Thai for lunch or dinner, then Garden of Universe is the place to go. I went there so many times while living in Siem Reap, that I became friends with the Thai owners, Apple and Pêe-Terb.
And boy, do they know how to cook! They buy their produce from the nearby markets and cook everything fresh and spicy. They also often have visitors from Thailand who bring fresh produce with them, so they change up the menu for these special occasions. I love the deep-fried tofu and the spicy basil-mushroom curry with a bottle of Singh or Thai sweet wine.
Yet you don’t just go to Garden of Universe for the food – the atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, and it’s simply nice to sit in the garden and veg-out.
Stay tuned for more on my favourite spots in Siem Reap.
Transport: Bicycles are the best way to travel around or explore the town, but if you’re heading to Angkor Wat, definitely get a tuk-tuk (unless you’re prepared to cycle a long way in the heat!). There are plenty of places that rent out bicycles, including most hostels and b&bs. You can also hire electric scooters.
If you plan on shopping, I recommend getting a tuk-tuk. You’ll need to barter for it though. Make sure you always arrange the price for the trip (or the complete day) before you head off. I highly recommend Sokna’s tuk-tuk service.
Travel advice: when using any service in Siem Reap, I would encourage you to think twice about what you’re paying for. Sometimes paying a little more means you’re actually supporting the local industry and the local community. Products and services are never ‘truly’ cheap – someone is missing out somewhere along the line.
Photo: the brightly-coloured vendors at Siem Reap’s Old Market.