When I first visited this boho-chic Cambodian city in 2009, I was immediately besotted by its artistic vibe, ambling Parisian-inspired avenues and subtle energy. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I was finally able to return to this little enclave that I had fallen in love with four years ago, and I had to wonder…during the time passed, had I idealized Siem Reap’s charms? The resounding answer is a big fat no. In fact, the past few years have only added to its surprising allure, delighting with a plethora of new galleries, restaurants and hotels to occupy those non Angkor peeping days.
For the artistically inclined, a visit to The 1961 is in the cards. This imaginative art space owned by friendly Filipino artist Loven Ramos is decked out in whimsical sculptures created from repurposed items, vibrant paintings, handmade jewelry, striking photography, vintage inspired posters–you name it art-wise and it’s probably there.
During my visit, the gallery featured an exhibit called Seedlings: Young Cambodian Voices. This multimedia exhibit tastefully showcased the photography, words and films of local Cambodian students. From photos of a mother and baby to a film about the day-to-day playing out in a Cambodian village, I felt that the exhibit was a keen snapshot that captured the nuances of life for modern young Cambodians.
In addition to the gallery and cafe, The 1961 acts as an artist’s retreat and hotel, where “artists, art enthusiasts and travelers seeking creative nourishment” are encouraged to add personal flourishes to the space during their stay. Next time I’m in Siem Reap, I’d love to stay and let the creative energy imbue my writing with newfound vibrancy.
Be sure to say hi to Vuitton the poodle, The 1961’s cute little mascot.
When stomachs start to rumble in Siem Reap, there is no shortage of places that will take care of said problem, pronto. As I mentioned in a previous post, Steve and I simply couldn’t get enough of Viva, the city’s resident Mexican restaurant, where the food was as close as I expect Mexican can be to authentic when served over 8,000 miles away from Mexico.
Though I love Mexican food, Italian also holds a special place in my palate, and thus I was thrilled to discover Il Forno Restaurant & Winery tucked away down a quiet alleyway off busy Pub Street.
A quick glance at the specials scrawled across the chalkboard, and I knew what I would order already. A frigid glass of prosecco (I love bubbles!), bruschetta and a plate of decadent homemade tagliatelle al pesto. Yum! The owners of Il Forno also own the indulgent Navutu Dreams Resort just outside of Siem Reap, which was so fantastic it deserves its very own post, coming later this week.
Due to unfortunate circumstances renewing our Thai visas, we were forced to stay in Siem Reap for nearly a week. Luckily, we stayed at the Golden Banana Bed & Breakfast Superior Hotel which made our time in Siem Reap feel more like a luxury vacation than a forced exile.
The $25 per night price tag seemed astonishingly low when compared to the boutique hotel ambiance of the place. Fountains adorned swimming pools, red lanterns cast a festive glow above tranquil gardens, and the rooms, though simple were more than adequately adorned with Cambodian art and textiles. Did I mention there was air con? That alone was cause for celebration to which I certainly raised my glass!
What Not To Do:
The most expensive day on our entire two week trip was an illl-advised visit to Chong Kneas Floating Village. Now, I am all for tourist attractions–my family alone probably supported Disneyland through the 70s and 80s–however this floating village falls under the “trap” category, and not “attraction” by any means. After arranging with our tuk-tuk driver to transport us the supposed 20 kilometers (which was really only about 10) for $15, we arrived at the dock where we were promised a two hour boat ride at a shocking $25 per person–daylight robbery in a place like Cambodia. We forked over the money though–we were already there after all.
The ride through the floating village consisted of 30 minutes past some houseboats lining the river, a 20 minute stop at a “farm” where we saw sad looking crocodiles lounging lazily in a pit, and a few small children (some clad in pythons…eek!) in plastic tubs charging $1 to tourists who wanted to take a photo. I snapped away as it was infinitely more interesting than the “farm.” Next was the uneventful 30 minute ride back through the floating village.
Maybe I am just spoiled having traveled so much and seen so many things, but the floating village of Chong Kneas was a tad disappointing. Consider yourself warned.
Perhaps inevitably, there still remain the countless land mine victims wandering amidst the raucous tourists on Pub Street, and the bands of small children asking for milk or small change to feed the grubby babies clinging to their hips. These sights are hard to see, and the temptation to hand over a few dollars is strong, though not encouraged. Much better to donate to the Cambodians through reputable charitable organizations such as CamKids or the Landmine Relief Fund.
Photos courtesy of Steven Moore