In the mid-16th century, Portuguese historian Diego de Couto wrote what is now considered the earliest account of the Angkor Archaeological Park. His writings thereby helped subsequent Western explorers to discover the complete ruins of the majestic temple complex.
Today, five whole centuries later, Siem Reap, the town that houses the Angkor complex, is a world-famous tourist destination. While the temples stand as a testament to the rich cultural traditions and history of Cambodia, I realised that not much of the same reflects on the main roads of the tiny town of Siem Reap. I was on holiday in Cambodia recently, if you haven’t guessed that by now.
I strongly believe that learning about the cuisine and the sources of economy of a place are quintessential in understanding the people and their lifestyle. Hence, the first things I look for when visiting a new place are local food and handicrafts.
My search for authentic Khmer cuisine began right at the beginning. As I walked through Pub Street, located at the centre of the town, I found the place too commercial. It felt like the entire backpacker brigade had descended there. There were cafes, Italian restaurants, the ubiquitous ‘Khmer Kitchen’ (tailored for western taste buds), bars offering Angkor draft beer for 50 cents and even a dosa joint. In between, places blared old classics like ‘Hotel California’ and newer songs including ‘Temperature’.
While Siem Reap has modified Pub Street to make it tourist-friendly, the pandemonium left me craving authenticity. After some generic yellow noodles with vegetables and a large glass of dragon fruit shake (just a dollar for a glass), I decided to search for the real stuff.
The next day, on the Sunrise tour to the Angkor, I made a couple of friends, Sarah and Hélder, who were equally keen on ditching the ‘tailored-for-tourism’ Siem Reap behind and foraging into the dimly lit, hyper-local areas of the town to track down authentic Khmer cuisine.
After reading several blogs online, we found the Khmer Hidden Home Restaurant, in the narrow by-lane next to the famous Onederz hostel. The restaurant stands for everything it is named after; and it easily surpassed our expectations of finding authentic food in the town. The lovely family that runs this place recommended their best dish—samlor kthih trob with chicken/ tofu—to us, sending us straight to the Khmer gourmand’s heaven. After a long and tiring day at the Angkor temple complex, this piping hot curry with rice was all we needed. Most things on their menu are worth trying; you can also opt for the aubergine curry or the spring rolls, which are stuffed with par-boiled vegetables and are slightly different from the variants available in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. The nice people at the restaurant also served us free local iced tea and freshly cut fruit on the side of our orders.
The next day, determined to find more local eateries, we left the touristy side of Siem Reap behind and headed to Kdeung Road, located in the bylanes behind the Siem Reap Night Market and Arts Centre to try the authentic nam banh chok (which people here simply call ‘Khmer noodles’) at Sam Khmer Noodles. The roads leading up to this small joint were dimly lit, and most locals advised us against going there. However, that didn’t stop us from exploring this hidden noodle heaven. The fermented rice noodle dish, Cambodians claim, is what inspired the Chinese to invent noodles. The people of this country typically have the noodles topped with fish gravy, crisp raw vegetables, banana blossom, water lily stems and fresh herbs for breakfast or lunch. However, do note that this restaurant closes as early as 7pm, so make sure you get there well within time.
There are several other eateries on the Kdeung Road where you can sit with the locals, share a table and devour some truly local dishes. We went to a food joint with no menu—they only had one dish that they served to everyone. With no conversation or interaction at all, we were given some fresh salad, fresh honey-laden bread and roasted beef. We quietly sat with the rest of the locals, ate the food we were served while observing the many Cambodian families chattering away in Khmer. When we were leaving, we were charged only 50 cents each (the cheapest we paid for a meal in Siem Reap)! Later, upon inquiry, we discovered that what we had had was the sach ko ang, a local favourite that is had for dinner.
We also ventured into the Old Market beyond the Pub Street to see all things indigenously Cambodian – fresh fruits and vegetables, various kinds of tea and spices, raw meat, silk, precious stones, handmade products, rare alcohol bottles with critters (think snakes and scorpions) inside them, fridge magnets are all available here for almost half the price of what you’d pay in the several night markets surrounding the Pub Street.
Finally, if you’re visiting Southeast Asia and are looking forward to trying some adventurous local food, like my friend Sarah did, you must take a guided tour (available on the Klook app for 18 USD; remember to book in advance) to Road 60. Are you thinking bugs, bees, duck foetus and crickets? This is where they’re all at. However, in case you are a vegetarian or all these things sound overwhelming for your appetite, the list of these critters shouldn’t discourage you as the guide will lead you to experience other dishes such as the Khmer noodles or fresh palm fruit. At Road 60, there’s always a choice!
As for me, I am always going to associate my memory of Cambodia with the warm and delicious samlor kthih trob from the Khmer Hidden Home Restaurant, until I go back to this historical land to devour this dish all over again.
Getting There: There are no direct flights to Siem Reap from anywhere in India. You will have to connect via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Air Asia, Air India, Spice Jet and Thai Airways among others have daily direct flights to these major cities. You can book yourself on Air Asia or other airlines such as Lanmei for your onward journey to Siem Reap. You can also land travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap, or reach Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and head to Siem Reap on a night bus.
Visa: Siem Reap airport issues a 30-day tourist visa on arrival to Indian passport holders for a fee of 30 USD. Carry a 4X6 cm passport size photograph, a printed copy of your accommodation details and your return ticket to acquire the visa.