For many, the purpose of visiting Siem Reap and Cambodia is to see the great temples of Angkor. Hidden in the dense, humid jungles of Cambodia, this incredible complex was only found in the 19th century by British explorers. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple in the 12th century before being converted to a Buddhist temple, it was built to be the main temple of Angkor, the capital of the Khmer (pronounced Kah-my) empire. “Wat” means temple, so naturally Angkor Wat just means the temple of Angkor. Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest religious monument ever constructed, and the city of Angkor is believed to have been the largest pre-industrialization city in the world.
Arriving in Siem Reap
I arrived in Siem Reap, the gateway city to the temples of Angkor, via a Jetstar flight from Singapore. The airport is what you’d expect from a touristy hub in the jungles of a third world country but I’ve seen worse. Arriving at customs, all Western passports must obtain visas to enter the country. Visas are available for purchase upon arrival so no need to make plans beforehand. I met some American travelers working in Dubai on my flight and we ended up hanging out for the duration of my stay. They also all brought with them passport photos as apparently it was a requirement for the visa process. Nope. Not true at all. Just make sure to have some US Dollars before entering; the visa costs $30 and they will take “photos” of you for another $2 which funny enough, was less than what we would pay for passport photos back home.
While the official currency of Cambodia is the Cambodia Riel, US Dollars are widely accepted in Siem Reap. In fact, almost all prices and signs will be quoted in US Dollars. The Riel is hard pegged to the $ at 4000 Riels to $1 so perhaps they’ve just realized it’s easier for people not to have to multiple 4000 constantly, or that the locals really love the smell of the greenback. Either way, paying in Riel or $ is accepted everywhere and some street vendors will only give you change in Riels. Whatever you do, just make sure to get rid of your Riels before leaving as the currency is useless outside of Cambodia.
The town of Siem Reap is your standard SE Asian tourist hotspot town. It immediately reminded me of Patong in Phuket or Kuta, Bali in the sense that it was once a sleepy local town with few visitors, but has since become a huge draw for tourists and turned into a subsequent shitshow. So I’m talking about terrible traffic, constant noise, streets that only contain bars/restaurants catering to Westerners, seedy strip clubs, etc. Siem Reap has all of these. However, if I had to choose, I’d say it is still better than Patong or Bali.
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For starters, it is the cheapest of the bunch. I thought Thailand was dirt cheap (and it is), but Siem Reap is even cheaper. Local dishes of Amok or Cambodian curry was $2-3 at a tourist level restaurant, while a full hour massage can be found for $5 (of which I got many of). A private room at a hotel was $18 a night, and Angkor beers are flowing for $0.50! It’s certainly a place where your money will go a long way.
Once you get past the nonstop traffic and street noise of Siem Reap, the locals are incredibly friendly and always had a smile on their faces.
Before this trip, the only exposure to Cambodian food I had was a sandwich chain in NYC called Num Pang. Sadly, this is like someone saying the only exposure they’ve had to Mexican food is a Chipotle burrito. While the latter is delicious, it is by no means Mexican and the same can be said about Num Pang. I found Cambodian food to be…delicious! Cambodia’s food is often all about the contrasts—sweet and bitter, salty and sour, fresh and cooked. It shares many dishes with its neighbors, and you’ll find noodle soup similar to Vietnamese phở and sandwiches like bánh mì, Thailand’s refreshing salads and sour soups, Indian-inspired curries, and noodles and stir fries handed down from years of Chinese migration.
Sadly, I wasn’t here long enough to experience as much food as I’d liked but with the help of my tuk tuk driver, I was able to eat more of the good stuff than the average tourist. Here are a list of my favorite foods that are readily available all throughout Cambodia.
As close as it gets to the national dish of Cambodia. It is made with kroeung, an aromatic curry paste made with lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric, shallots, garlic, and a little chili. The kroeung is mixed with coconut milk, which turns a beautiful golden yellow. Mild white fish, chicken, or beef and shredded kaffir lime leaves are added to the curry, which is steamed in a banana-leaf cup. Every restaurant prepares fish amok slightly different—some are saucier and others becomes custardy as they steam. I tried this for the first time at breakfast stalls near the Angkor Wat temple, and had it many more times thereafter.
Bai Sach Chrouk (BBQ Pork and Rice)
One of Cambodia’s most popular breakfast dishes, and one that would be great all day if there was any bai sach chrouk left past 9 am. No two recipes are the same, but all feature pork marinated in garlic, soy, and coconut milk slowly grilled over charcoal, where it becomes smoky and caramelized. The pork is sliced thin, sprinkled with scallions and served over rice and fresh sliced cucumbers and green tomatoes, with a small bowl of gingery, lightly pickled cucumber, daikon, and green mango on the side. The best way to eat bai sach chrouk is to scoop a bite of pork, rice and pickle all together.
Not to be confused with Plantains, these things were like crack to me. Fried bananas become melty from their swim in the hot oil, and the crunchy outside is just a little sweet. The only hazard is making sure you don’t burn your tongue as you nibble away.
Khmer Iced Coffee
It’s important to stay cool in such a hot country, and Cambodians have figured out a winning method: Rich, dark, strong-brewed coffee poured over a full cup of ice with sweetened condensed milk. The drink is similar to Vietnamese iced coffee, but Cambodian coffee beans are roasted with a little fat, either butter or lard, which deepens the flavor. The intense coffee combined with the sweet milk tastes like chocolate to me. Khmer iced coffee lies at the intersection of morning pick-me-up and milkshake.
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