Tasting Siem Reap

May 26, 2019 Updated: June 2, 2019

SIEM REAP, Cambodia—“The idea is that I take people to the places I would take my friends,” Evi-Elli La Valle tells me, as we sip cool glasses of pinot gris, the late-day sun now almost gone, most of the light coming from lanterns hanging overhead, and our two chilled glasses helping hold the humidity at bay. Meeting me at my hotel in the back of a tuk-tuk, La Valle guided us here to Balthazar, which serves up fine gastronomy descended from Cambodia’s days as part of French Indochine.

balthazar siem reap
Grazing at Balthazar. (Tim Johnson)

As we sit on the small front patio—perhaps seven tables in all—and graze on a giant platter of charcuterie, the busy city swirls around us. A man with a long beard smokes a pipe at the next table, the smoke pleasantly fragrant. More tuk-tuks zoom by, their little engines roaring up and down the busy street before us. A friendly stray dog trots by, tail wagging, looking, maybe, for a few stray scraps. La Valle says that while most travelers come to this river city to see the temples, or to hop on a river cruise, there’s a whole lot more to see and do.

“Most tourists just scratch the surface,” she says.

I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s culinary and cultural capital. Set on the Mekong River, it’s most famous for the sprawling, magnificent, 12th-century Angkor Wat and a series of surrounding temples—so prominent a site that they’re drawn onto the national flag. The well-preserved structures were built during the Khmer Empire, which once ruled much of Southeast Asia. Largely closed off to foreigners during the dark days of war, and Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, Siem Reap is now surging, attracting travelers in unprecedented numbers.

This is my fourth visit to Siem Reap—and I won’t see the temples at all, having visited them on my first two trips to town. I’ll also steer clear of Pub Street, that dense collection of small bars, steaming grills, and neon signs that draws the curious and the thirsty to its plastic tables and chairs every night of the week. This time, I’m here for one reason—to eat.

And some of my meals are cooked with a purpose. Soon after arriving in town, I climb into a different tuk-tuk, first stopping at the Old Market (known locally as Psar Chaa) to tour the dozens of food stalls, selling everything from fresh fruit to recently-slaughtered meat. Then I head down an unpaved side street to a tucked-away spot called Spoons. An open-air restaurant built out of traditional Cambodian materials (mostly bamboo), it’s run by a nonprofit called EGBOK—an acronym for “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.”  

Opened three years ago, Spoons was created to train young men and women from small villages in the culinary arts, giving them a chance at jobs in hotels and restaurants that would otherwise be unreachable. Student chefs and servers range in age from 18 to 24 and come from 18 Cambodian provinces. Some 60 percent are women, and almost half are orphans or come from poor, single-parent families.

But that doesn’t mean you need to feel charitable to come here for a meal—the food is traditional Khmer street food, elevated to a higher form, presented with slashes of color and intricate arrangement on gleaming china. I feast on tiger prawn curry and forest sausage and coconut chicken, pausing to give my compliments to the young executive chef, who tells me that most of the recipes came from his mother—although she feels that she still cooks them better.

Later, I meet up with La Valle, who runs a culinary tour company called Taste Siem Reap. Having grown up in London, she’s a former travel agent who specialized in this part of the world. “I love Asia—I always loved selling Asia,” she remembers. After the French flavors at Balthazar, we shift gears, motoring in the tuk-tuk to Sugar Palm, which cooks up traditional Khmer in a fine-dining atmosphere. We enter on a wooden walkway that hangs just above a lush garden, entering the restaurant to find a world of bamboo and teak, doors open to the outside, ceiling fans swirling overhead.

tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap
Tuk-tuk driver, Taste Siem Reap. (Courtesy of Taste Siem Reap)

Sugar Palm was opened by chef Kethana Dunnett, whose family fled to New Zealand during the war. She returned to Cambodia in 2002, opened Sugar Palm in 2003, and since then has become one of the country’s biggest (and only) celebrity chefs. She even accompanied Gordon Ramsay for three weeks, serving as an adviser for the Cambodia episode of “Gordon’s Great Adventure.” Kethana isn’t here tonight, but we still order plenty of her food, dining on fish amok, minced pork, and eggplant, all served family style, with steamed rice.

sugar palm dish siem reap
Grilled Eggplant With Minced Pork at The Sugar Palm. (Courtesy of The Sugar Palm)
sugar palm
Sugar Palm. (Courtesy of Taste Siem Reap)

The night finishes at the Village Café, which—despite its homey name—evokes a chic, 1930s art deco feel. I’m met by owner Stewart Kidd, a Glaswegian by birth, who shows me around, telling me the goal was to create a space that mixes together iconic bars—Raoul’s in New York, Harry’s Bar in Venice, and Rogano in Glasgow.

“We’re trying to create a little romanticism here in Siem Reap,” he tells me in his brogue, adding that while the café is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, art is perhaps their most defining feature. “The gallery—it’s the protagonist.”

He shows me the portrait gallery on the main floor, then takes me up to the second-floor space, which was originally two apartments that have now been styled to look like a New York loft. But the art is from right here in town, the purpose of the gallery being to promote young Cambodian artists in a rotating roster of shows. The current exhibition is a combination of sound and photography, and next up, a show featuring Khmer graffiti artists—with all profits going to a local art school.

village cafe
The Village Cafe is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Courtesy of Taste Siem Reap)
cake at village cafe siem reap
A sweet treat at the Village Cafe (Courtesy of Taste Siem Reap)

Ready for one last course, we descend the steps to perch on bar stools, graze on tapas, and sip cool cocktails.

Some nights, there’s music—they even host top European DJs—but tonight there’s just the buzz of the place, the crowd clearly filled with a number of regulars, people greeting each other in familiar fashion at the bar. The heat still hangs in the air, pushed around by swirling ceiling fans. Somewhere out there, in the darkness, not far away, those grand and ancient temples loom. Pub Street pounds, louder with each passing hour. But for my part, I’m happy here, cool drink before me, surrounded by new friends, enjoying a Siem Reap never seen by the masses.

When You Go

Stay at the Park Hyatt, set right in the heart of town, just a couple blocks from the Old Market and some of the city’s best shops and restaurants. Public spaces and rooms, some of which feature their own private plunge pools—the perfect relief for the steamy weather—include elements of Khmer design. Eat out, or in—their signature restaurant, The Dining Room, serves up both French and Cambodian classics. 

Tour with Taste Siem Reap, which charters a tuk-tuk and offers private tours to three or four dining venues in a single evening. Itineraries fall into three categories—Khmer fine dining, art and cocktails, and hidden gems, but they’re willing to mix and match, if you have any special preferences. Guides know their stuff, and tours include the price of food and drink. 

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.