When it comes to finding great food in Southeast Asia, there's very little room for disappointment. Some say Thailand's cuisine is worth the trip alone; Vietnamese pho is staying put in our nation's culinary heart; Singaporean, Malaysian, and Laotian foods all get their fare share of the international food spotlight. But there is one country's cuisine that has been left out of the conversation for too long: Cambodian.
Having just come back from Siem Reap myself, I turned to fellow travel writers and friends to see if my findings (that Cambodian food far surpassed Thai on my trip) were the exception or the rule. As it turns out, I am not alone; everyone that took my rudimentary survey agreed that Cambodian cuisine is the most underrated in Southeast Asia. I'm just here to bust the secret wide open.
Herewith, my story of four glorious, food-and-drink-filled days in Siem Reap. The foods of Phnom Penh and beyond are up next, so stay tuned.
Unexpected Siem Reap
With the modern, boutique Viroth Hotel as our home base, we'd really come to see the temples. But between temples, we rode in tuk tuks and strolled along the river discovering seriously good food.
The first stop was Khmer Kitchen for lunch (and, ahem, dinner another night). Chicken amok and a Cambodian beer for me, fish curry and a Laotian beer for my guy. We licked our plates. The chicken amok, a light and mild curry dish, was delicate and complex filled with spices, coconut, and chicken cooked on an outdoor grill just feet away. Mouthwatering, and one of my favorites from the entire trip.
That afternoon, a tuk tuk toted us along the romantic tree-lined, dusty roads to Angkor Wat, where we watched a magical orange, pink, and purple sunset. A true one-two punch.
We rose early the next day to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat (with every other tourist in Siem Reap), as well: an entirely different experience and not just because you're bleary eyed at 5 am. Watching the sun rise behind the iconic Angkor Wat towers is actually like watching a symphony play out before you (despite the mass of tourists). While it was still dark, we stopped at a little cart hawking sweet, strong iced coffees and warm, crusty baguettes and walked into the temple grounds sipping, chomping, and smiling.
That night, after temple-trekking all day, we dined in another era at Sugar Palm. The upscale restaurant occupies the second floor of an old teak house on a side road not far from the raucous Pub Street. As you enter the dining room, you're whisked to colonial times with dark wood and white accents, small palms, and a wide wraparound terrace that lets in a light breeze. But the best part is the food; they serve authentic Khmer cuisine that's beautifully presented. Think light spring rolls, grilled eggplant with pork, a clear and sour lemongrass soup, and the main event: fish amok.
We spent our final day driving ATVs through the Cambodian countryside, past rice patties and through villages where kids ran out of their homes to wave to us. And we experienced again one of the most fascinating things in Siem Reap—from riding past chickens running wild in villages outside the city we went to dinner at the swank Viroth's Restaurant.
The city, essentially a dusty cowboy town with cheap food and $1 foot massages at every turn can all of a sudden offer you an incredibly modern, chic, and gourmet restaurant that would fit in any major metro. Like the hotel, Viroth's is airy and sleek, serving Khmer fusion foods like Cambodian-style chicken spiced with ginger and Khmer sour soup, paired with an international wine list.
That sort of unexpected hybrid continues with posh places like Le Malraux and at FCC Angkor, among others, which offer gourmet meals in chic spaces. And then a tuk tuk driver will take you back to your hotel for $3.
Food-obsessed travelers tend to seek out equal parts holes in the wall and high end restaurants when visiting a new place—go where the locals go, discover what the place is known for, and try the specialties. Siem Reap delivers in spades. For my money, I'd fly to Siem Reap for the food alone in a heartbeat.
Photo credits: Viroth's Restaurant courtesy of Viroth's Restaurant; all other photos courtesy of Jon Jackson