Fine fusion cuisine from the Khmer twin chefs

The talented chefs Pol Kimsan (left) and Sok Kimsan (right).

Siem Reap is a food heaven where visitors, locals and expats can try everything from traditional Cambodian food, Indian food to fine French cuisine.

I was very happy I was introduced to two very talented Khmer (Cambodian) women who have worked their way up to become executive chefs at Embassy restaurant, one of the nine restaurants in the Angkor W Group of Restaurants.

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Pol Kimsan and Sok Kimsan have humble backgrounds and have worked hard to integrate their experience working at hotels, restaurants and Michelin Star training in France to create a unique fine dining experience at Embassy.

They first met when they worked at the five-star Victoria Hotel in Siem Reap and have been together through the development of their skills, food experimentation and running the Embassy kitchen.

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I went with friends to experience their five-course menu and was very impressed with the incredible and unique flavours they created. We listened to a personal introduction of each dish by staff before indulging in each of them.

I feel honoured to have had a chance to sit with these inspiring women so they could tell me about their journey first-hand.

Pol Kimsan

Pol Kimsan moved from Kampot to Siem Reap in 2002 and studied at Paul DuBrule hospitality training school for nine months. Her mentors and former colleagues pushed her to challenge herself and her skills.

“I’m from Kampot in the countryside and when I finished high school, I didn’t know what to do and applied to be a teacher. I came to Siem Reap because people said there are lots of tourists. So my uncle brought me here and sent me to Paul DuBrule school where I studied kitchen.

I came and learned English for one year and it was very difficult for me. I got a lot of experience when I trained at the hotel.

After I finished school, I came to work at Victoria Hotel cold kitchen to make things like salad. When I studied, I wanted to be bakery chef because around the world, women chefs cannot become an executive chef. My family is from the countryside so they don’t have a strong opinion on it or know what it is to be an executive chef.

The executive chef at Victoria told me to learn more about cooking food and transferred me from cold kitchen to hot kitchen and I learned a lot from him. When I work with him, I can follow everything that he taught me and he pushed me to make French food.

After I resigned at the hotel, I became the head chef at Champey and controlled the kitchen for another restaurant and got a lot of experience from the owner.

He is one of my mentors and he thought that me and Sok could create our own menu.”

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How did you choose which dishes would make the menu?

The restaurant opened on December 6, 2014 and we invited 15 customers from different backgrounds to try our food. We wanted to keep the traditional Cambodian flavours but with a Western twist. We tried different things but we just had to finally make decisions on the menu.

What message do you have for this next generation of Cambodian women?

We want to grow the young generation of cooks. We want Cambodian women to be a chef like the man.

Sok Kimsan

Sok Kimsan’s culinary skills were developed in Sala Bai training school and she also spent two years at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai. Her family grew up in the Siem Reap province.

Before I did not think I would be a chef. I never wanted to be a chef when I was young. But everybody said if you are a cook it’s better.

I just started learning at Sala Bai and I learned myself. They showed us many kinds of skills, provided training at the hotel and a cooking show in the kitchen. We worked in many difference places to get experience.

I was working in Dubai for two years at Grand Hyatt. It’s good for business but I prefer to live in Cambodia and came back in 2008.

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What message do you have for this next generation of Cambodian women?

My boss is very kind and it is only him to push and he pushed me when my family didn’t. I try to share my experience and teach what I know for the new generation and I tell them to work hard. They have to have confidence in themselves. I want women to be leaders. Women have many ideas.

Both women are part of the chef Association, which aims to promote Khmer food and encourage more Cambodians to go abroad and gain ideas.

When you are in Siem Reap, experience the twins’ fantastic fusion of flavours for yourself and the culmination of all of their culinary experience will be reflected in their food and presentation.

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Phai San BBQ: My favourite street restaurant in Siem Reap

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I first met my friends Phai and San, who are married, in 2013 when their restaurant was next to 9 other restaurants by Sivatha Road in SIem Reap. After ignoring all of the people who were hollaring for tourists to eat at their restaurants, my friend and I finally caved and decided to try Phai San. And we have been good friends ever since.

Not only is all of their food delicious at amazing prices (between $1.25 to $3.00 US), the couple is extremely generous and hospitable with their staff and guests. Phai San also happens to make my favourite stir-fried vegetable yellow noodle and I find it tastier than anywhere else I’ve been around Cambodia.

I was surprised when Phai told me that even when he is not making a profit, he pays his staff double the average Cambodian salary because he wants to give them a fair wage. He said, “One of my staff is having baby, so I want to pay her more.” When they invited me to their home town south of Cambodia, of course I didn’t expect them to pay any of my costs. But they offered to pay for my boat ride to San’s village, which I was very touched by. I spent three days with their family who hosted me so generously.

I’m always happy to support local Cambodian businesses that provide great service, delicious food and are run by very honourable people. If you’ve had a good experience at their restaurant, please write a review on Trip Advisor.

17 most memorable times of 2013

On March 3, 2013, I left my friends, family and jobs to satisfy my curiosity and parts of Asia I’ve never set foot in. I’ve lived in Vancouver, Canada for the 26 of the 28 years I’ve been alive and I felt change was years overdue.

While most people fear change, I have a much bigger fear of not having new experiences after awhile and feeling stagnate. I wanted to take a longer time to travel so my days wouldn’t be rushed and I could have more flexibility have more time to build relationships than simply passing through areas. While I’m very lucky and grateful to have had many unique adventures around North America with fantastic friends, I’ve had the best year of my life in Asia.

I’ve been curious why my friends in Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia have all told me, “Don’t forget us.” I always respond by saying, “How could I ever forget you?!” I wonder if they’ve had people passing through in their lives that they lose touch with their traveling friends.

I initially started this blog to share my experiences with friends and family, but it has evolved to be a living diary of memorable conversations and times I’ve had with the many wonderful people I’ve met. That’s why some of my posts are so long and probably have too much detail that won’t be interesting for some of you to read. My head and heart are often filled with new experiences in a short period of time and it is easy to bury the subtle moments and conversations I’ve had with people. So I write to so that I won’t forget.

These are the most memorable days I’ve had in 2013:

1. Last days with friends, family and colleagues

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My great food-loving and outdoorsy friends in Vancouver, Canada.

I was not expecting the number of going away meals that I had with friends, the university students I worked with, former colleagues and my family. I felt so loved and supported in my journey.

2. Bike ride in Phnom Penh, Harlem Shake and pizza

With Rithy at SmallWorld

I last saw my friend Rithy Thul in 2010 when he led a cross-Cambodia fundraising bike ride. He is an entrepreneur, community-builder and cycling lover.

I went to Phnom Penh the first week I landed in Cambodia to see my friend Rithy Thul, whom I met doing a cross-country cycling fundraiser for the educational NGO PEPY in 2010. I stayed at his enterprise space Small World and in one weekend I:

  • Made pizza with some fantastic university students who had nothing but two gas burners
  • Was part of our version of the Harlem Shake YouTube video
  • Met a couple from Hungary who is cycling around the world (literally!) for their honeymoon
  • Went for a bike ride on the countryside and through train tracks where kids run up to us to say hello
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Learning how to make pizza from scratch. The pizza this student made was better than most pizzas I’ve had in restaurants in Cambodia.

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Sign at Small World

 3. Khmer New Year celebrations

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Enjoying dinner in our friend Tin Tin’s hometown.

Cambodians celebrated Khmer (Cambodian) New Year from April 13-16. I was lucky to spend those days with my friends from Canada, Japan, and America along with Khmer people. One of my closest friends was so generous and flew from Vancouver, Canada to see me for 10 days in Cambodia and we were lucky she just happen to be here during this most festive time in the country.

My friend and I also went to our Khmer friend Tin Tin’s family’s house for dinner about an hour away from Siem Reap. We ate a lovely meal and stayed to dance with his family and the kids in the community.

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Dancing in Tin Tin’s home town.

Of all the festivities, one of the most beautiful memories was when my other friend and I took a tuk tuk late at night to see the Bayon Temple light up at 2:12 a.m. as part of the opening ceremony for Khmer New Year. There were no more than a few hundred Khmer people and we felt like we had the temple all to ourselves as we walked through.

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My friend and I at Bayon temple at 2:30 a.m.

4. Full weekend in Phnom Penh

Taking a swim at Romdeng social enterprise restaurant. We're swimming Khmer style with our clothes on.

Taking a swim at Romdeng social enterprise restaurant. We’re swimming Khmer style with our clothes on.

I went to the city with the perfect girls who were also working in Siem Reap. In one weekend, we:

  • Had breakfast by the riverside
  • Spent the afternoon with our two funny and kind Khmer friends
  • Saw a Khmer play put on by the Cambodia Living Arts, an organization dedicated to reviving and preserving the arts culture after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime killed artists along with other intellectuals
  • Ate at two social enterprises, Romdeng and Daughters of Cambodia and had a beautiful night swim in our clothes at the restaurant
  • Checked out three bars
  • Ended the night dancing

We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Daughters of Cambodia social enterprise cafe.

 5. Days at Golden Temple Villa

My friends at Golden Temple Villa who rushed to get me some lovely gifts when they found out it was my birthday. They gave me a beautiful coffee mug, a bear and beautiful bracelets.

My friend visiting from Canada and I lived at this lovely guesthouse for a week and we quickly became friends with the staff. After only knowing them for a week, I decided to have a birthday lunch at their restaurant and gave them just two hours notice. In those two hours, they rushed to get me small gifts with personalized notes. One of them even apologized for not having time to get me a small gift on time!

In the months I was in Siem Reap, the staff has always been so generous to let me use their Wi-Fi anytime and offered free tea, coffee and snacks. When I thanked my friend who is the manager there and works so hard all the time, she said, “My whole team must take care of you while you are away from your mummy.”

6. Second birthday abroad

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This is only the second time I’ve celebrated my birthday outside of Canada since I was two years old. My biggest fear was being alone on my birthday and I was just happy to be with one or a few people over dinner. I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday until someone found out because I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to do something for me. But when people found out they showed up at the social enterprise Soria Moria to celebrate with me and it was a lovely evening. I appreciated new friends making time to be with me.

7. Week with three Cambodian families for the Pchum Ben festival

Picture of San’s family in the Kampong Cham province.

I had a fantastic time spending Pchum Ben, a two-week religious Cambodian festival honouring ancestors, with three Cambodian families over five days. I first went to the Kampong Cham province to visit one friend’s family during flooding season. We took a five-hour bus ride, an hour and a half boat ride on the Mekong River, and a boat taxi in the flooded villages to get to my friend’s home.

I participated in one pagoda ceremony with them, ate with them and laughed with the family. I love being the only foreigner when I visit places because I know it’s away from the places short-term tourists go.

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The wonderful girls who laughed at my pictures with me at the pagoda.

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Taking the boat taxi to get to San’s home in the flooded village.

I spent two days in Banteay Meanchey and my friends showed me around nice parts of their district, offered to pay for my meals and their family was happy to see me for a second time. My friend’s mom was so busy preparing for the celebration and helping with the daughter’s newborn son. But when they found out I was visiting, she spent a lot of time making my favourite dish Amok fish, which was incredibly sweet.

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My friend’s adorable and smart 6-year-old niece. She is at the top of her class in school and speaks quite a few words in English in the Banteay Meanchey province.

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The wonderful girls who took me around Banteay Meanchey.

8. Meeting students in Sronal Commune, Siem Reap

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These are the high school students who come to practice their English in my friend Seng’s village. He volunteers to teach them English every week.

I was very happy to visit my friend Seng and his students in Sronal District, Siem Reap. He volunteers to teach high school students English several times a week and he said I could visit as a guest because they had never had a foreign visitor before. The students were shy at first but when they warmed up to me, some asked me a lot of questions and laughed at my bad Khmer. One student said, “I am very happy you came to my village. You can see my home next time.” I’m looking forward to seeing them again in March 2014.

9. Spending time with my adopted Khmer family

My Khmer family at Pchum Ben, a religious festival honouring their ancestors. How beautiful is this picture?

My Khmer family at Pchum Ben, a religious festival honouring their ancestors. How beautiful is this picture?

I’ve spent a few months living at my friend’s apartment and have fully integrated with their family, whom I call my own now in Cambodia. My favourite times with them is when we eat together, catch up on the day and just laugh. I was a bad influence and introduced Dexter to my friend who would watch with me when she had time. They often tell me, “We really want you to live in Cambodia, think of how you can start a business. You are never alone, you always have family in Cambodia.” **Tear** I’ve been to Cambodia for two rounds now and it’s hardest to leave them every time.

10. Weekend in Bangkok

Friend that I met semi-randomly who ended up hosting me so generously the whole weekend in Bangkok.

Ploy (right), is the friend that I met semi-randomly who ended up hosting me so generously the whole weekend in Bangkok.

Bangkok is one of those places where you can either have a really crappy time or an amazing time depending where you are and who you’re with. My only plan was to just pass through the city and I was getting so fed up with several things. But within the same day, I ended up meeting a new Thai friend named Ploy and friends from Siem Reap who just happened to in Bangkok for the same weekend. My completely unplanned weekend ended up being filled with a bike ride around the quieter part of Bangkok, the largest market I’ve ever been to, dancing and enjoying the unforgettable view at Banyan Tree Hotel, the second highest skybar in the world.

11. Family reunion in Ratanakiri, Cambodia

A Cambodian family feast.

I was very happy to be invited by a friend to see her family in Ratanakiri, east of Cambodia for a few days. We saw my friend’s family farm that grew longbean, pumpkin and other foods, a beautiful lake, two waterfalls, drank Cambodian rice wine, went for karaoke and danced at a club. And we were the only 6 out of 10 people in the club.

12. Meeting local people in Lombok, Indonesia

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The beautiful kids who hung out with us when we took a break from riding our mottos.

This is one of many recurring times that remind me that the best things happen when they are unplanned. My friend was great at not being so concerned about needing a map to get around and we should just drive around the island and stop whenever we felt like it. We met some of the friendliest people wherever we went, particularly the kids who came up to us to sit, talk and laugh with us in the middle of the farm fields.

12. Being pulled into a traditional wedding in Lombok

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A traditional wedding ceremony was hosted at our guesthouse. Hundreds of people accompanied the young couple from one part of the village and ended at our guesthouse.

We stayed at Diyah Homestay guesthouse for a few nights and they apologized to all of their guests in advance for all the music and sounds because there was a wedding that was going to happen the next day. They were so kind and shared meals with all of us, invited us to the ceremony and also dressed us up in traditional clothing to be part of the celebration. We stood in line with many other people with a bowl of fruit baskets to offer the bride and groom.

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The awesome mobile wedding band.

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Thanks to our hosts, I was now properly dressed in traditional clothes and makeup for the ceremony.

13. Fun-filled days in Bali

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We visited the Tirta Empul Temple in central Bali. The spring feeds purification baths, pools and fish ponds that flow to the Tukad Pakerisan River. Various sites throughout the region and many other archaeological relics relate to local myths and legends.

I met up with a friend who was living in Bali for a few months and we just met for two days in Siem Reap around August. I took her up on her invite to visit Bali and thanks to her, we saw an endless stream of beautiful landscape, rice patties, temples, traditional dance performances, jungles and night life.

On day 2 in Bali, we went river rafting in the jungle that included a lunch buffet ($25 US for everything), had dinner at a very local restaurant, went to a surfing fundraiser for an NGO, went to a place with beautiful Latin dancers that involved basic lessons, a gay club with awesome ladyboys and one more club before having dinner number 2 at 7-11, which was instant noodles. And yes, this was all in one day.

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One of the seven traditional dance performances we saw in Ubud, Bali. Indonesia’s varied dance styles are made up of beautiful colours, stories and complex rhythms. I’ve never seen a dance like the ones we saw in Ubud.

Rice terraces in Jatiluwih, Bali

14. My unforgettable couch surfing experience in Yogyakarta

Attempting to make curry at Lalha’s home where I stayed for one night.

I met some fantastic university students through couchsurfing.org and were incredible hosts for the few days I was in Yogyakarta. The first night a group of us hung out, I jokingly requested that Ayumita, a wonderful 19-year-old student who sings at hotels weekly, sing a song just for us. So without hesitation, she went up to the live band and sang Rolling in the Deep for us by Adele.

We spent our last hours together at the town square to make our wishes and rode an LED-covered bicycle playing club music.

The next day, I took a motorcycle ride with one of the friends to the famous Borobudur Temples, we cooked curry together at Lalha’s house, went to a local coffee place with great live music, went to the wishing tree at a local park and took a bicycle for a few laps that was lit up and played club music. I regret not staying longer in Yogyakarta with these wonderful new friends, and it’s my lesson that I should just chance it at the airport and not buy a ticket out of the country.

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Why take a two hour bus with a bunch of tourists when you can catch a ride on one of these with a local person who knows where they’re going?

Why go to a club when you can listen to club music while taking a bike ride with friends in these creative works of art?

15. Reuniting with a close friend in Taiwan

I stayed with one of my closest friends Susan for a week in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The last time we saw each other was when she came to visit me in Cambodia in April. It was my turn to visit and we were very happy to reconnect.

The only reason I came to Taiwan was to see one of my closest friends from Vancouver, who also came to visit me in Cambodia. I spent a week with Susan, which wasn’t long enough, but we saw some beautiful national parks and neighbouring island, drank the best milk tea I’ve ever had, and spent Christmas day with her classmates and mom eating take out food from a restaurant called Yaletown Bistro (a restaurant in Vancouver).

15. My first Cambodian engagement party

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My friend Lida in her beautiful traditional Khmer dress for the first part of the ceremony.

When I came back to Cambodia for a few weeks after Laos, my friend gave me one day notice to come to her engagement party. The next day I went with her by bus and motto to her family’s home for the weekend. I was happy to stay with her family and see everything that was involved with the preparations, including decorating their house, all the food that was cooked, the many colourful fruit baskets for offering and huge sound speakers for the day’s music.

I enjoyed playing games and dancing with the kids in the village the most that weekend. Even when some of the kids didn’t speak English and my Khmer was very limited, they tried to converse and connect and I’m looking forward to seeing them again for the wedding in March 2014.

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My dancing buddies at the wedding. They totally made my weekend.

16. Hiking, pizza hopping, dancing and lantern wishes in Laos

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Our picnic spot by the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

It was great hanging out with people who live in Luang Prabang and other foreign visitors. We went on small walks, had a picnic by the Mekong River, danced at a club with a dance floor filled with beer kegs used as tables, and went night bowling at the only place in town that opens past midnight.

My Laos friend Tou was very sweet to bring me an extra lantern she had so I could send a wish to the sky and she also gave me a beautiful silver necklace. I told her that was too big a gift to give me and that wasn’t necessary. She said, “No it looks nice on you, please take it. I have many necklaces.”

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The extra lantern Tou brought for me so I could make a wish and send it to the sky.

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17. Country bike rides in Cambodia

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I always loved going with friends to bike around the villages and rice fields around Cambodia. I mostly did this in Siem Reap and the last ride I did in 2013 was with my great friend Cho who spent the day leading us around the Angkor Wat area. We stopped by for lunch at his cousin’s wedding in his village.

I know 2014 will be filled with more new connections, unexpected events and more adventures. When we try to swim against the currents, we can only go so far until we realize that there is a path that’s already set out out for us. So it’s best to let go, ride the wave see where we end up.

Brown Rice: A new Cambodian-owned restaurant in Siem Reap

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Chorch Cho and Has Piseth, two of the four ambitious Brown Rice owners.

I’m very glad I was in Siem Reap for the opening of Brown Rice, owned by Ing Somaly, Choch Cho, Has Piseth, and Seakngoy Try. The restaurant is the product of the owners’ shared love of food and their dream of having their own business. “I really loved the idea of having healthy food for people and providing a peaceful environment for them to meet and build connections,” said Somaly.

Quality food

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Vegetarian spaghetti

The fact that I am friends with the owners doesn’t affect my opinion of the restaurant having a welcoming atmosphere, delicious food and fantastic service. I tasted a variety of the menu’s dishes, which was a great blend of Khmer and Western food, including curries, BBQ and Italian dishes. And don’t forget to try the cocktails. Drinks and food costs between $1.00 to $3.50.

Brown Rice’s dishes are cooked by the talented chefs who also work at Soria Moria, an award-winning training hotel and restaurant and the popular restaurant Molopor Café, which are both in Siem Reap.

Values

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Students enjoying dinner.

Brown Rice is a values-based restaurant that prioritizes quality food, taste and service.

1. Health

All around Cambodia most restaurants serve white rice by default. But it’s important for the owners of Brown Rice to promote healthy eating because of the benefits to the customer. “The cost of brown rice is double that of white rice. But we sell it at the same price as white rice because we want people to have the affordable option of eating healthy,” said Piseth.

2. Respect

The owners work hard to treat their staff with respect and want to be role models for other businesses on how to treat staff well. “We are not just making this for profit. 5% of our profits go to staff on top of their salary, whether the staff is a cook or cleaner so we can share our success,” said Cho. The owners also want to give their staff opportunities to learn new skills and get professional development training.

3. Community contribution

Brown Rice provides a meeting room upstairs for anyone to use, whether it is an organization or students. “We want to provide a space for youth to share ideas, do research or organize social events for free,” said Seakngoy.

The owners are also discussing how they can use their profits to contribute back to society. That way, guests who eat at Brown Rice will play an integral part in the restaurant’s community contribution. “But ultimately, we want guests to come here because we have good food, not because of the little things we do,” said Cho.

How to get to Brown Rice

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When you’re in Siem Reap, try one of your meals at Brown Rice and chat with the staff. They would love to have you as a guest! Whether I’m at the restaurant to catch up with friends, enjoy a cocktail or use Wifi, I always enjoy the environment.

Brown Rice is a five-minute bicycle ride from the centre of town. You can tell the tuk tuk driver it is 200 metres after Pannasasra University of Cambodia (or just say PUC) if you are driving from Wat Bo road and it will be on the right side of the road. If the driver still has trouble, he can call one of the restaurants’ numbers for directions: 017886422, 0979064300, 092669645, 017370132.

“We chose this location because it is a quiet area. I know it sounds strange for a business to be in a quiet area but we wanted our guests to be able to chill and relax,” said Cho.

Bon appétit!

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Morning glory

Guide for your 3-6 day stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’ve met so many traveler’s in Laos and Thailand who are going to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a few days. I feel overwhelmed when they ask me for recommendations of what to do or where to eat because after spending 8 months in the country, there is much to experience beyond temples and food.

But to save you some hassle and research, here are my recommendations to enjoy the lovely town of Siem Reap, including non-tourist activities short-term visitors would likely not know about. This will be an evolving post, so if you have any must-see suggestions to add to this, please email me at marcokokotravels@gmail.com. All of the costs are in US dollars.

You can click on your section of choice:

ACCOMMODATION

Budget ($10.00 or under per night)

Photos of Happy Guest House, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I don’t know anyone who has stayed at the following budget guesthouses but they’ve gotten some decent reviews on TripAdvisor.

Mid-range ($13.00 to $40.00 per night)

Photos of Golden Butterfly Villa, Siem Reap

This photos is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I highly recommend Golden Temple Villa  or their other guesthouse Golden Butterfly. Both buildings are within the same block of each other if you have budget for about $13.00 to $25.00 per night. My friend and I lived at Golden Temple Villa for a week and we ended becoming great friends with the staff. The service is fantastic, people are so friendly and you get the following services for free:

  • Bicycles: You can easily get around the centre of Siem Reap on a bike and this will save you tuk tuk money (tuk tuks are small motor taxis)
  • 30-minute Khmer massage
  • Tea, coffee, bananas and wifi
  • Picnic basket to take with you on your day trip to Angkor Wat (only at Golden Butterfly, not Golden Temple Villa)

While it may seem lame to eat at the restaurant of your guesthouse, I have to say, the food is amazing! For the price of $2.25 or just a bit more per dish, you get good quality, Khmer food with good flavor. I’d save a dinner meal to try your guesthouse dinner. You’ll definitely find me there on a regular basis.

Four and five star hotels ($40+)

This photos is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I have not stayed at these hotels but you can find amazing deals at agoda.com. My friend’s mom stayed at a four-star hotel for $40.00 a night when she booked through Agoda and the regular rate is $120.00.

TRANSPORT

Bicycles

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Cycling around Siem Reap

Bicycles is the second cheapest and easiest way of getting around the small city of Siem Reap next to walking. You can find shops and rent bicycles for as low as $1.00 a day. Some guesthouses may provide you with a free bicycle.

Tuk tuk

If you want to get out of the city, you can hire a tuk tuk off the streets. To get within the kilometer or two costs $1.50 to $2.00. Of course if they know you’re a tourist, they’ll try to charge you more at first, but you can do a friendly barter to a lower price. Rides from the Siem Reap airport to the center of town is $5.00.

To save you some hassle though, you can use one of these two tuk tuk drivers who are also my friends. I used them because they always drove for a good price and very punctual, including days that needed a 5 a.m. call. You can ask the guesthouse to make a call to one of these drivers. I’ve also met with them to tell them I am sending people their way and they can charge a fair price.

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Tin Tin (left) and Somroeun (right).

  • Tin Tin’s contact: 017865255 (Cambodian phone number), sotserm@yahoo.com
  • Somroeun’s phone number: 0977528869 (Cambodian phone number), samoeurn2008@yahoo.com

Of course, if you are happy with the service and have the ability to tip at the end, I would encourage it even it’s not a tipping culture. Please tell them Melissa from Canada says hello when you see them, I’d appreciate that.

DAY ACTIVITIES

Free Sombai tasting

Photo courtesy of Sombai

If you have at least an hour and a half to spare in your day, take the time to treat yourself to a free tasting of Sombai, a rice wine that is produced in Siem Reap. This product integrates local spices, fresh fruits and the talents of Cambodian artists who hand-paint the bottles.

Sombai was developed by a woman named Joelle from my native country, Mauritius, and her husband. They took time to fine-tune the ingredients and the packaging and successfully grew the business. Have a drink and enjoy a conversation with this wonderful couple.

Took book a tasting session, call +855 (0) 95 810 890. You can have them talk to your tuk tuk driver to give you directions for the tasting at their welcoming home just a ten-minute drive outside the city centre.

Get your Cambodian wedding photos done

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You don’t recognize me do you?

If you have a few hours to spare to get your hair and make up done (girls specifically), have fun doing the Cambodian wedding photo shoot. Most of the expats who live in Siem Reap do it, but you can get them done at many studios. Most of the costumes are $15.00 per person and $25.00 if you choose to be an Apsara.

Warning: If you are a guy and doing this shoot, know they charge $5.00 every time you change the jacket.

Get your Cambodian hair wash

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Most tourists would never know about the relaxing and refreshing Cambodian hair wash while they’re in Siem Reap. After a day at the temples, bike ride or if you simply want an affordable treat for yourself, you can get a wash, head massage and blow dry that lasts 30 minutes. You can bargain for $2, or more if you have a good experience.

I always go to the salon that is on the same small road as Golden Temple Villa. If you’re coming down Sivatha Road towards the roundabout, turn right where the sign says “Golden Temple Villa.” You will see two salons almost side by side on your left side, go to the second salon with the nail polish on display inside the store. You’ll know not to go to the first one anyway because they will try and charge you $5 and no bargain room.

Baray in the Angkor Wat area (best in dry season between December to May)

IMG_3532You can spend the morning or afternoon hanging out at the hammocks and water at Baray and include this trip as part of your temples day around Angkor Wat.

Many local people hangout by the Baray and you can buy drinks, BBQ, fruits and other merchandise in the area. It will of course be a bit more expensive so you can stock up and buy snacks in town and bring it with you. It costs about $1 US dollar for one spot with three hammocks. It’s a great place to see sunset as well.

King Oudayavarman II built this human-made reservoir one to keep water in rainy season and dry season for the farmers and people who llive nearby.

You can share the cost of a tuk tuk to get there or you can rent a bicycle, go straight down National Road 6 (the way towards Thailand) and cycle 14 km to get there. You will make a right turn at a blue sign and go all the way down until you reach the Baray. If you’re not sure of the way, you can ask people along the way and just say, “Baray?”

Landmine Museum

If you can spare at least two hours in your day, I highly recommend visiting the Landmine Museum where you can learn about Cambodia’s inspiring founder Aki Ra and the organization’s work. He is a former child soldier who spent almost 20 years in war. After the war, he has dedicated his life to clearing as many landmines, unexploded bombs and artillery rounds as he could find. He started working alone and diassembled landmines with his own hands and homemade tools, up to an incredible 300 landmines a day.

He was named one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes in 2010. Not only has he accomplished a lot,  but he is an extremely modest man. I read an article about him in the museum and when the interviewer asked him what he will do once Cambodia is free of landmines, he said, “I will farm.”

You can take a tuk tuk to get to the museum. See the map here and learn more about the Landmine Relief Fund.

Temple Club cooking class on Pub Street

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As much as I try to avoid very touristy spots while I’m staying longer at a place, the Temple Club cooking class was well worth $10.00 when my friend and I went. Over the course of three hours, we walked through the old market, made spring rolls, several curries, soup, sauces and dessert, which was a lot of food! And we got to take the rest home. You can also sign up for the class through Golden Temple Villa or Golden Butterfly in addition to making a reservation at the restaurant.

Free tour of the Silk Farm

Photos of Angkor Silk Farm, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

You can take a free shuttle bus daily from Artisans D’Angkor that leaves at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. You can go there (on the same small road as Golden Temple Villa) and sign up for a bus ride. The ride is about 7 km away, the tour lasts for about 30 minutes then you can spend some time looking at all of he products made from the traditional methods of weaving. Getting there and back will be about 2 to 2.5 hours.

NIGHT ACTIVITIES

Cambodian Circus

This nightly show is definitely a must-see performance. By going, you’re supporting this generation of artists, all of whom have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, including orphans and former street children. You can pick up tickets at the venue for $15.00 before the show starts at 7:30 p.m. every day.

Road 60: the local hangout
Road 60If you want to get away from the usual tourists spots, you can take a 15-minute tuk tuk ride to get to a popular Cambodian hangout called Road 60. Two big strips of the road are reserved for street vendors, carnival games, rides and BBQ. I love coming here with my Cambodian friends because not many tourists hang out there and it is a place where local people hang out with their friends and family. Road 60 is open from around 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night. Click here for more pictures.

Free ladyboy show at the night market

On Monday to Friday, between 8:45 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. the beautiful ladyboys put on a funny show at the Night Market with the rooftop on Sivatha road. It’s the only market with a rooftop on that road. Walk to the end of the market where the stage is and you can get a massage while you enjoy the show.

Free Apsara Show at Temple Club

If you eat dinner at Golden Temple Club, price ranges from $2.50 to $7.00 per dish, you can see a free traditional Apsara dance show that runs from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Rosana ladyboy show

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This is the biggest ladyboy production in the city and a good show with costumes, lip-synching and beautiful ladyboys. The price for this show depends where you get the ticket, it can range from $12.00 to $30.00 depending on the agency or contact.

Clubs and Drinks

You can get in for free at the clubs Hip Hop (just over the bridge on the river) and Temple Club. If you want drinks and shots for $1.00, ask around for a place called Angkor Famous around the Pub Street area.

EATING AND DRINKING FOR GOOD CAUSES

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If you want to eat and drink while helping support valuable social programs, there are a range of options!

  • Green Star restaurant serves mostly Khmer food and was set up to support the Green Gecko Project which works with street children in Siem Reap. The project provides an education, skills, security, and health initiatives for former street children and their families.
  • Joe to Go is one of two businesses run by the NGO The Global Child that works with street children in Cambodia to give them and education and life skills.
  • Sala Bai is a hospitality training school for disadvantaged children from the villages around Siem Reap. They train about 100 students a year on hospitality skills including skills like waiting tables, cooking and housekeeping, Sala Baï has a proud record of finding work for every single one of its 700 graduates.
  • Soria Moria Boutique Hotel won a Condé Nast Traveler award for excellence in social and environmental responsibility. For deals at their restaurant, check on their $3.00 buffet breakfasts in the morning, their $1.00 tapas and drinks on Wednesdays, and 50% off their menu every Thursday. If you’re planning to go on Wednesday, though, call to book a reservation because it gets busy quickly. One of many impressive aspects of Soria Moria is all of their employees come from disadvantaged backgrounds and own 51% of the hotel. 14 of their staff have graduated from college thanks to their scholarship program. Check out more articles from Soria Moria.
  • The Haven is a training restaurant for vulnerable young adults from orphanages and safe shelters, as well as underprivileged young adults from very rural poor areas. The food is delicious and the restaurant has a very homey feel to it.

EATING ON A BUDGET ($1.50 to $3.50)

Brown Rice

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My Cambodian friends opened up this fantastic restaurant that serves a variety of Cambodian and Western dishes as well as great cocktails. Brown Rice is a five-minute bicycle ride from the centre of town. You can tell the tuk tuk driver it is 200 metres after Pannasasra University of Cambodia (or just say PUC) if you are driving from Wat Bo road and it will be on the right side of the road. If the driver still has trouble, he can call one of the restaurants’ numbers for directions: 017886422, 0979064300, 092669645, 017370132. Click here to see the map.

Phai San BBQ

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You can find small Khmer restaurants around the city that have great portions and prices. If you’re close to the centre of town, you can find about 10 of these restaurants side by side by the roundabout of Sivatha road on the same street as Golden Temple Villa.

I keep going back to my friends at Phai San BBQ, the second restaurant on your right if you are walking from Golden Temple Villa to Sivatha road. While I can’t comment on the food of the other places so much, Phai San makes fantastic fruit shakes for $1.00 and mix and match your fruits!

RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS FOR FOOD BETWEEN $2.00 TO $8.00

La Boulangerie

Photos of La Boulangerie-Cafe, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I love going to this café to relax with friends, use wifi and their delicious range of food from panninis, shakes and pizza. My friend Davann is Cambodian and he studied culinary school in France for a few years and returned to Cambodia to open this successful café. He makes fresh pastries for hotels as well with his well-trained bakers.

Mie Café

Photos of Mie Cafe, Siem Reap

This Photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

This restaurant was started by a Cambodian man who began as a dishwasher. He got a scholarship to study in Switzerland and opened this restaurant with high quality food. I haven’t yet tried the desserts but I hear fantastic things about them.

RECOMMENDED FOR FOOD BETWEEN $5.00 to $25.00

  1. Nest Angkor Cafe Bar
Photos of Nest Angkor Cafe Bar, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

This has one of the best flavours of all the restaurants I’ve tried in Siem Reap. We tried the lasagna, steak, lobster and it was all good all the time.

Le Malraux

Photos of Le Malraux, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

The food at this restaurant has great flavour.

Festival of Lights in Luang Prabang

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Lights at one of the decorated pagodas

I came to Luang Prabang, Laos so I could participate in the Festival of Lights, or “Lai Heua Fai” on October 21. Every year, people around the country spend time crafting boats made of bamboo and banana trucks. These crafts are given colour with flowers, candles and money to be sent down the Mekong River for good luck while people pay respect to the spirit waters.

During the week leading up to the festival, we saw monks and people in different communities spending a lot of time decorating the pagodas or building their own boat to compete for the most beautiful one. I was grateful for a lesson in making the small crafts by the owner of the guesthouse I was staying at. She grew up Luang Prabang so she knew how to make every kind of design.

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A beautiful design made with banana leaves by a Laos woman. I wish I was this crafty.

It was amazing to watch this quiet city turn into a vibrant festival with music, fire, lights and dancing. Some of us went to the Mekong and sent our good wishes to the river along with the other 20,000 boats.

I actually lost some of my friends along the way and even though I was in a crowd of thousands of people with music, dancing and this beautiful celebration, I felt very alone for a bit. I’ve learned I can’t enjoy even the must beautiful celebrations if I am alone. I’d rather be doing something simple with friends or family.

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Nevertheless, I loved watching people lighting up lanterns that floated up into the sky. I couldn’t but think, “Why can’t we do these kinds of things in Vancouver?” There was a lantern festival for awhile but unfortunately funding went down and there have been less of these kinds of community events. The sky lantern originated in China and were used strategically in wars. As years passed, they were included in festivities.

It was an unforgettable experience and the days after the festival only got better as I spent more time with the people I’ve met in Luang Prabang.

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Parade of floats that were made by different communities.

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When traveler’s find each other

At Dyen Sabai by the river in Laos

On the left is a lovely couple I met from the Netherlands, my friend Tou and another friend from Italy. We’re enjoy the fantastic food at Dyen Sabai by the river.

It’s a weird, and sometimes hard, transition for me to be living comfortably in Siem Reap to being a backpacker again. Ok, I admit, sometimes I’ve done the touristy things but unfortunately I have to switch my mentality and can’t completely avoid being a tourist sometimes; especially when I’m in a country for a month or less. It’s not going to be the same as Siem Reap where I’ve spent an unforgettable seven months building relationships with Khmer people and some expats (foreigners who live in Cambodia).

My experience now reminds me a lot of when I was backpacking in Europe and meeting other travelers who are looking to explore together. I forgot how easy it was to meet people as you go along and plan day or multi-day trips.

Boat ride on the Mekong

Friends from Italy, China, Laos and a fellow Canadian!

I’ve met some of the most interesting and diverse people the past year. It’s really refreshing to meet other people who have also quit their jobs to travel where they please or found jobs in Asia because it’s where they want to be. We don’t have to justify what we’re doing to each other. Rather, we simply share stories and understand each other.

For some of our families, taking a long time to explore the world is really unthinkable. We’re often pressured to take life’s “normal” course and get your degree, get a job, get a mortgage and settle. Many of our circles of friends are buying places, having babies, getting married and settling into the same place. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that lifestyle, it’s just not the place some of us want to be at this time in our lives.

After eight months of being in Asia, I finally met a few people from Vancouver at Elephant’s Village in Luang Prabang. I also met a woman from UK and their friend from Australia during the tour.

Here are just a few of the many incredible global explorers I’ve met in Cambodia and Laos:

  • A Hungarian couple on a two-year honeymoon trip bicycling around the world. They had never left Hungary before this trip and by the time I met them during my first week in Cambodia, they had cycled through Europe and the Middle East.
  • A young American couple in their mid-20s who quit their jobs to travel for two years and they are now making up to $15,000 a month with their travel blog
  • A French couple who are taking two years to travel. They worked in Australia on the farm to save up money and lived and cooked in the car while they were trekking. Interestingly enough, they spent more money in Asia than they did in Australia
  • A Canadian mother of three who was sent to Hanoi, Vientam to do training for staff in the maternity department. She worked in Uganda many years ago for three years while her now husband was in Zimbabwe. She has taken six months to work in Vietnam and travel.
  • A 23-year-old woman from the Netherlands who’s doing a research fellowship on fair trade in Luang Prabang, Laos
  • A woman from the UK who works for a renewable energy company in Bangkok. She’s worked there for two years now and is returning in the UK for a bit but finding it very hard to leave Asia and the wonderful life she built for herself in Bangkok.
At Secret Pizza in Laos

Enjoying the delicious food at Secret Pizza in Luang Prabang

My mistake when I was backpacking in Europe in 2008 was pre-booking everything. It was my first time traveling alone and I wanted to make sure I had a place to sleep every night. But now, the benefits of long term travel is I can keep my schedule open and if I find a nice group to do some outdoor activities with and just go.

So far, everyone I’ve met and done day trips with have been very laid back. Even though we only see or know each other for a few days or less, we share unique experiences and have new people in our global network. Sometimes it feels like a mutual friend fling, but it works and that becomes the norm when you’re doing a global trek.