My kind of place: The gateway to Angkor is developing into a cultural hub beyond its enticing historic landmarks, writes Sarah Gilbert.
An uprising of art
Why Siem Reap?
Siem Reap is the jumping-off point for the dazzling temples of Angkor – the world’s largest complex of sacred temples and a Unesco World Heritage site – but now it’s rapidly reinventing itself as a destination in its own right, with luxurious hotels and stylish guesthouses, world-class dining from international and home-grown chefs and relaxing day spas.
Slower paced than Cambodia’s frenetic capital Phnom Penh, the diminutive city is a place worth lingering, with its broad, French-influenced avenues and shady, tree-lined riverfront.
It’s also at the heart of the country’s burgeoning arts scene. The Khmer culture can be traced back to the ninth century but, as well as killing millions of Cambodians, the brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s tried to obliterate its artistic, culinary and musical heritage. Now, chic boutiques and galleries stock the work of native and expat artists and designers, nurturing local talent and preserving and updating Cambodian crafts.
A comfortable bed
The French colonial-style Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor opened in 1932 and it’s kept its period charm with its black-and-white marble floors and Khmer furniture. The lush gardens are an oasis of peace and a dip in the swimming pool – the largest in Cambodia – surrounded by frangipani trees is the perfect antidote to a hard day’s sightseeing (www.raffles.com/siem-reap; 00855 63 963 888; doubles from US$386 [Dh1,418]).
The 64-room Shinta Mani Resort opened in August after a Bill Bensley design makeover, with sleek interiors, spacious suites and swing-seat dining. Both the Resort and the Shinta Mani Club opposite give $5 [Dh18] per room per night to the Shinta Mani Foundation, an NGO that focuses on education, small business start-ups and health care. (www.shintamani.com/resort; 00855 63 761 998; doubles from $147 [Dh540]).
For something completely different, Sala Lodges has transported 11 traditional wooden stilt houses from the countryside to Siem Reap, rebuilt and restored them, adding a contemporary restaurant and swimming pool (www.salalodges.com; 00855 63 766 699; doubles from $190 [Dh698] per night).
Find your feet
It’s easy to walk around Siem Reap. Life centres around the riverside, which is lined with restaurants, shops and galleries, including the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC) and the Old Market. Flag a tuk-tuk if you’re going further afield – they can take you to the temples, or you can hire a driver.
There are four must-see temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm. The pink temple of Banteay Srei has the most elaborate carvings. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was is believed to be world’s largest religious building, with one kilometre of bas-relief sculptures.
It’s worth visiting the floating fishing villages on Tonlé Sap Lake or the Angkor Silk Farm – take the free shuttle bus from Artisans Angkor (www.artisansdangkor.com) at 9.30am or 1.30pm.
Book a table
Le Grand, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor’s award-winning, fine-dining restaurant offers Khmer royal cuisine and international dishes, such as steamed duck in a lotus leaf with local spices or seared beef tenderloin with coconut, coriander and peanuts (both $29 [Dh107]).
The Chanrey Tree restaurant serves up traditional Khmer cuisine in a contemporary setting, such as beef lok lak – beef stir-fried with onion, pepper and wilted green leaves – or roasted river fish with Kampot salt, both $7.90 (Dh29).
For dining with a philanthropic twist, try Haven (www.haven-cambodia.com), which supports adult orphans and trains them in hospitality, and serves up dishes such as Khmer noodle soup ($4.50 [Dh17]) and equally good beef burgers ($5.50 [Dh20]), washed down with fresh pineapple, apple and ginger juice ($2.50 [Dh9]).
Cambodia is home to some of the world’s most beautiful silk, and Madagascan-born designer Eric Raisina (www.ericraisina.com) is taking it to the next level with his ethereal and colourful creations. At Theam’s House (www.theamshouse.com), the Cambodian artist Lim Muy Theam’s neon-bright sculptures update traditional Cambodian handicrafts. There’s a shopping arcade at Raffles, including the American photographer John McDermott’s gallery (www.mcdermottgallery.com), where you can buy stunning prints of the Angkor temples. He also has a branch at the FCC Angkor (Pokambor Avenue), alongside the French-owned Wa Gallery, with its funky homeware and jewellery from around the region.
On Alley West and Passage, you’ll find a row of boutiques such as Smateria (www.smateria.com), which sells bags made from recycled material, and unique silver jewellery by Ly Piseth at Garden of Desire (www.gardenofdesire-asia.com). A tuk-tuk ride from the centre, Artisans Angkor sells beautiful silk clothes, bags and soft furnishings made in its own on-site workshop.
An unforgettable helicopter ride over the temples of Angkor Wat will reveal its magnitude and the splendour if its jungle setting. An eight-minute ride with Hanuman (www.hanuman.travel) costs from $90 [Dh331] per person.
What to avoid
Visit the most popular temples early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds and the heat.
Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Siem Reap via Bangkok from Dh3,759 including taxes; the Bangkok to Siem Reap leg of the flight is on Thai Airways, and the total journey time is nine hours.
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