You've toured Angkor Wat in your backpacking youth — now what? The Bill Bensley-designed Shinta Mani Club offers a return trip that'll include places where you're unlikely to see any tourists
Angkor Wat's recent price hike isn't much of a scare. The temple complex dates back to the 12th century, with most ethically-minded tourists having no complaints with regards to the increase in prices. From 1 February, the sale of a ticket will increase by more than 50%, with the proceeds going towards conservation efforts. But once that part of your excursion is done and dusted, what else does Siem Reap have to offer? Those on the banana pancake trail will be hard-pressed to find other draws if they don't ask the right people. Evidently, I have, and found myself in the company of everyday Cambodians and their enigmatic way of life, and nothing else.
It started with the recommendation of the folks at Shinta Mani Club, an upscale retreat close enough to the action, but exclusive enough that it isn't overrun with guests — or at least, architect Bill Bensley has designed it in a way that you'll see less than eight people in each space. They've put me in touch withABOUTAsia, a tour group that runs private tours to Meachrey floating village. After wasting most of my morning poolside with complimentary head and shoulder massages — the best I've experienced in Southeast Asia — I took an hour-long drive to the west of Siem Reap.
It wasn't long before I found myself lying on the top of a boat in the north of the Tonle Sap lake to the west of Siem Reap. As far as my eye could see, there was no horizon — just expansive sheets of blue that mirrored the crimson-tinged sky. My guide and I were both waiting for sunset — him eager to sate my appetite with morsels of chicken satay and vegetable spring rolls, and me leafing through Andrew Booth's The Angkor Guidebook. Booth also happens to be the owner of ABOUTAsia. The wood and brass vessel was dubbed Ella — named after Booth's daughter, if I'm not mistaken — and was custom built for the exclusive tour. While it could accommodate up to six guests, I was flying solo that weekend, fully-enjoying the lounging areas on both upper and lower decks.
Along the way, you'll pass by floating villages where locals go about their daily lives. You'll see kids rowing their sampans back from school, mothers working on their chores and fathers and uncles gathering their catch of the day. Most of their income's acquired by fishing, and you'll see the fruits of their labour in the numerous fish farms dotted around every other house on stilts. During the three-hour long journey through the village, we only passed two other tourist boats in an area hardly sees any tourism.
Another slice of Cambodian life can be experienced with an After Dark Foodie Tour by Cambodia Vespa Adventures. Started by Siem Reap native Akim, the route zips you to the old market around Pub Street, where you'll bid farewell to all things touristy there and then. Akim lives and breathes Khmer cuisine, evident in her thorough explanations of ingredients, methods and history surrounding the complexities of a cuisine which borrows both Thai and Vietnamese influences.
The tour progresses to Ploeuv Hoc Sep night market, strictly frequented by locals. Here's where Fear Factor comes alive: Roaches, maggots, frogs, snakes, tarantulas and ants are on the menu. If you're among the faint-hearted, there's also a barbecue option where the catch of the day is feasted on mats overlooking a small pond, with boisterous Khmer chatter in the air. The night winds down with a tasting of infused Cambodian rice wine, where notes of lemongrass, chili, ginger and other local ingredients are infused in a little house in Dan Nak, southern Siem Reap. You'll also get to bottle a little liquid courage to bring home.
WHERE TO STAY
Shinta Mani Club
Nestled within the leafy compounds of the old French quarter of Siem Reap and a 10-minute walk away from the headiness of the raucous Pub Street, Shinta Mani Club is your answer to a hotel that skips the kitsch for an understated, contemporary design. It's the trademark of architect Bill Bensley after all, who's used a sleek palette of grey and monochrome interspersed with bursts of bright oranges while using nature to his advantage. Rooms are tastefully etched with subtle nods to a Khmer identity, and before you fall asleep, you'll look up to a rather imposing yet salutary picture of Buddha on the ceiling.
Junction of Oum Khun and 14th Street. Tel: +855 63 761 998
WHERE TO EAT
Gelato Lab Blink and you'll miss this two-storey café nestled in the alleyways that wind around Pub Street. Edoardo Todaro makes his home's well-loved gelato from natural ingredients, crafting them daily with no artificial preservatives or additives. The proof is in the pudding — or, well, gelato, which you can choose from either a organic whole milk or a vegan and non-dairy option. While most would zero in on a classic chocolate treat, try a pint of the chocolate churned with Kampot pepper in the mix.
Alley West, #109, Alley Westt, Sway Dangkum Commune
Sister Srey Café
Aussie through and through, this café along the river is the brainchild of sisters Lauren and Cassie who strive to bring the good-natured, easygoing Aussie service through coffee. Yup, the menu's a break from traditional Cambodian fare, with shredded coconut and banana bread, matcha smoothie bowls and avocado, banana and chocolate cakes. It's a laid-back vibe with communal tables as you sip and watch mopeds zoom past as touts try and sell you their wares.
The Steakhouse A sister restaurant of the Shinta Mani group, The Steakhouse ticks all the right boxes of an all-American steakhouse: Juicy cuts, generous sides and and service that's as discreet as it is instinctive — a rarity in the tourist-infested town. It's a good option if you and your partner can't decide between Cambodian or "Western" fare. At The Steakhouse, you can have both —we highly recommend the fish amok.
Between The Passage and Street 9. Tel: +855-63-965-501