There’s a cocktail bar in Siem Reap called Miss Wong. You might have guessed by the name, but it’s got a kitschy Chinese theme incorporating crimson painted walls, lantern light fixtures, latticework wood partitions and contemporary paintings. With its crafted cocktails and buzzy vibe, it could be New York, Paris or Hong Kong. But this is Siem Reap, the Cambodian city better known as the gateway to Angkor Wat than a centre of sophistication.
Siem Reap has long attracted tourism, thanks to its historic edifices – Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, gets more than a million visitors a year – but until the past decade, it was still an adventurer’s destination. Apart from a small number of the very wealthy seeking exoticism, Siem Reap mostly attracted backpackers.
‘When I opened Miss Wong Cocktail Bar, it was the only commercial premises in the lane and my friends thought I was mad to open in a dark alleyway that was completely residential,’ says New Zealander Dean Williams, a pioneer in the city’s burgeoning lifestyle scene when he opened the bar in 2009. ‘Now there are 15-plus businesses in the street, a night market with dozens of stalls, and we’re a stone’s throw from the throng of Pub Street.’
So much has changed. Today, the city is increasingly catering to a broad spectrum of travellers seeking shopping, world-class cuisine, stylishly modern hotels and nightlife.
‘For years Siem Reap was considered a one- or two-night destination, with tourists coming to visit the spectacular 12th-century temple complex,’ says Sarah Moya, general manager of the Anantara Angkor Resort. ‘Nowadays a longer stay is charmingly rewarded with an old and new world mashup, from trendy bars and restaurants to an emerging contemporary art scene amid the striking colonial-era French architecture. Siem Reap is definitely becoming in vogue and worth your while to linger longer.’
Anantara Angkor Resort is part of the city’s chic new persona. It recently emerged from a multi-million-dollar refurbishment, with suites decorated with teak wood and sandstone statues of Apsara dancers – a common motif in the city – a luxurious spa, superb restaurants and a fleet of Anantara tuk-tuks that whisk its mostly fashionable guests through the city streets.
Another newly renovated resort is Shinta Mani Angkor in the city’s leafy French Quarter. It’s boutique, with just 62 sexy, minimalist rooms, and 10 glorious new villas, called the Bensley Collection. Named after the hotel’s famed designer Bill Bensley, these villas come with private gardens and butler service.
‘Siem Reap’s newest hotels cater to its new culture-loving and adventurous millennial visitor,’ says Bensley. ‘We’ve kept an eye on Siem Reap for some time and really watched the city grow and evolve. The temples will always be a major drawcard, but the city offers so much more now, making it an ideal setting for this new level of hotels.’
Credit: Cedric Arnold
Bensley’s new projects are in good company. Just outside the city, Phum Baitang Resort offers 45 villas designed to mimic a traditional Cambodian village, while the coveted Belmond La Residence d’Angkor in the city centre has been given a dramatic facelift. Rosewood recently announced it would open a luxurious new hotel here in 2019.
The evolving food scene reflects this changing market. The Anantara’s Chi Restaurant does ‘progressive Khmer’ cuisine, while newcomer Spoons, with its elevated Cambodian street food, also trains would-be chefs from local villages.
Credit: Cedric Arnold
But it’s Malis Restaurant that epitomises Siem Reap’s changing culinary scene. It’s the city’s most talked about spot, less thatch and rustic charm, and more Soho in London. It’s the place to go if you’re looking for a Khmer culinary experience, with dishes like the moringa soup laced with local medicinal herbs; smoked river fish with green mango; kampot rock crab curry with coconut milk; and Bang Kang river lobster marinated with prahok and chilli.
Much of the new development in Siem Reap is centred around two long, elegant boulevards. The first is Pokambor, home to Malis as well as the stunning colonial architecture of the Siem Reap Post Office and the ancient beauty of Wat Preah Prom Rath. The other is Charles de Gaulle Avenue, where you’ll find the Raffles Hotel, the Royal Gardens and the Angkor National Museum. On these leafy streets and on the maze of alleys branching off them like winding tributaries, it’s easiest to see Siem Reap’s past and its future. Here luxury fashion boutiques and bold art galleries can be found beside chic cafes, fusion restaurants and refined homes.
Apart from international brands such as Longines, Salvatore Ferragamo and T Galleria by DFS, there are Cambodian businesses, including Kokoon – the place for local spices, homewares and jewellery – and silversmith Ly Pisith’s Garden of Desire boutique, among other shops specialising in local crafts.
‘Compared with the proliferation of stylish boutique hotels – such as the stunning 1960s New Khmer Architecture-inspired Viroth’s Resort and the lovingly restored houses that make up Sala Lodges – the retail scene has been slower to mature,’ says Williams. But he is a fan of Artisans Angkor, a social enterprise that employs people in rural areas to create products with traditional Khmer craftsmanship. ‘And in the past few years, a vibrant group of retailers has opened boutiques in Kandal Village, a small street of shop owners selling homewares and clothing that’s peppered with cafes and restaurants.’
Indeed, while people-watching in Siem Reap, it’s hard not to notice that among the sunburnt backpackers with their guide books and sensible shoes, the designer handbags and stylish stilettos are coming into vogue as a new generation of travellers arrive to explore this ancient land.