Aug 09

Savour Siem Reap – Book a Vayable Experience with Lara

Appetisers at AHA, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Along with my Inside Siem Reap itineraries crafted around your interests, I’m also offering food focused Savour Siem Reap itineraries, introductions and a city orientation aimed at foodies, food writers, chefs, and restaurant owners.

My Savour Siem Reap experiences are specifically aimed at people who don’t want to waste a meal in Siem Reap, people for whom food forms an important part of their travels, whether it’s sampling street food at markets and local stalls or savouring gastronomic meals in the best restaurants, or doing cooking classes and street food tours.

Unbeknownst to most visitors to Siem Reap, there is plenty here to satisfy food-lovers – fragrant markets, authentic street food, cooking lessons, street food tours, restaurants serving up refined versions of Cambodian cuisine, off the beaten track eateries, laneway cafés and bars, Khmer cocktail making classes, and shops selling covetable culinary objects, from kitchen utensils made from coconut shells and handmade basketry to Cambodian pepper, spices and coffee, and cotton kramas that make cool table runners.

Why Savour Siem Reap with Lara

Wasting a meal is easy to do in Siem Reap unfortunately. Just take a look at the Trip Advisor listings. You’ll invariably find everything in the top ten but Cambodian cuisine, from German to Brazilian, Indian to Italian. Yet what most visitors to Siem Reap want to try when they’re in town is authentic Cambodian and Khmer cuisine, one of the most misunderstood cuisines in the region.

Strangely enough, the best Cambodian restaurants aren’t at the top of Trip Advisor’s list and some are bewilderingly buried deep within the listings. The best local food stalls don’t even make it to the list. Guidebooks don’t always provide the best advice either. Some of the most popular recommended restaurants for travellers are serving up a sort of Thai-Cambodian fusion because they think tourists won’t understand Cambodian food and they’re more familiar with Thai. They’re right. But that’s no reason to pass off Thai as Cambodian. Cambodian food is infinitely more interesting.

As food and travel writers, Terence and I spend much of our time working on food stories and researching Cambodian cuisine. That means we’ve eaten at almost every restaurant in Siem Reap, and drank at almost every bar, and we have our finger on the pulse. That means I can help you to eat and drink well while you’re here. Because we all know, there are few things more disappointing when we travel than a bad meal.

How it works

Book my Savour Siem Reap experience on Vayable. Contact me via Vayable to let me know what your requirements are before you leave home and I’ll work with you to create a bespoke food-focused itinerary just for you. Just let me know what your interests are, whether it’s learning about local produce, cooking or trying authentic Cambodian cuisine, sampling street food and home-style cooking, Khmer desserts, contemporary Khmer cuisine, or even Khmer cocktails, and I’ll suggest an itinerary around your interests. If you’re a professional, I can also introduce you to chefs and organize cooking experiences.

If you simply want to eat great food, and not necessarily Cambodian, whether it’s Italian, Russian, French or Japanese, you’re travelling with kids, or you have dietary restrictions I can help there too. I can provide you with a list of suitable eateries, suggest tour companies or local guides to match your budget and interests, and make introductions. Or if you prefer to go it alone, I can recommend local tuk tuk drivers and craft self-guided experiences you can do independently.

What the experience includes

In addition to the bespoke itinerary, when you arrive I’ll meet you at your hotel and take you on a tuk tuk ride to orientate you to the town, so you can hit the ground running. Then we’ll head to my favorite café or bar to introduce you to Siem Reap, Cambodian cuisine and customs. I’ll share my strategies for dealing with tuk tuk drivers, bargaining at markets, and eating street food safely, and I can answer your questions so you don’t waste a meal.

What the experience does not include: if you want me to take the extra step to make bookings for you, I am happy to make those arrangements if I have the time, however, that will incur an additional fee.

How to make a booking

Feel free to make enquiries and leave questions in the comments below, however, if you want to make a booking, head directly to my page on Vayable to book my Savour Siem Reap experience. Note: the current rate is a special introductory low season rate which will rise in high season (December). Book now for high season and you’ll still pay that rate.

If you use my special friends’ invitation code when you join Vayable you’ll get $10 off your booking.

If you want more of a general experience or an itinerary crafted around other interests, check out my Inside Siem Reap experience.

See you in Siem Reap!

Aug 08

Inside Siem Reap – Book a Vayable Experience with Lara

Phsar Chas Market, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

For some time now, I’ve been providing an informal itinerary and trip planning service for friends and acquaintances visiting Siem Reap. I’m now offering a similar Inside Siem Reap experience that you can book on Vayable.

What I’ve been doing is working with friends and acquaintances to plan their trip, recommending hotels, tours and independent experiences, and introducing them to travel companies, guides and tuk tuk drivers. Then when they arrive in Siem Reap, we catch up so I can point them in the right direction, introduce them to the place (generally over a drink), and share my local knowledge and insider tips to how best experience the place. I’m then on hand if they need me while they’re here.

I’m formalizing and structuring that experience now, inspired by my friend Anne of Pret-a-Voyager who offers a Navigate Paris tour that introduces visitors to the French capital and helps them find their way around, so they hit the ground running.

If you’re one of those people who hates trip planning, who doesn’t have time to spend doing research, or who would just rather arrive and have their time planned for them, then I’m here to help.

Why Book Inside Siem Reap with Lara

Nothing beats local knowledge and insider advice from a person who lives in a place. There is so much misinformation out there on Siem Reap — especially from people who were only in town for a few days. Whether they’re ordinary travellers posting tips to Trip Advisor or professional writers or bloggers, the advice is often bad.

I don’t blame them. Siem Reap may be small but it’s tricky to get to know quickly. The heat can be disorienting and the abundance of temples can overwhelming. I remember the first time we visited to do a story for a magazine in 2009 we didn’t get it entirely right either. I felt the distances were longer than they were and I see other writers make the same mistake, advising people not to go somewhere because it’s too far away when it’s actually not at all. It’s annoying when that place is something that shouldn’t be missed.

Siem Reap may be a popular tourist destination but it’s not all touristy. I get irritated by complaints about how touristy it is. Siem Reap’s tourist centre is only confined to a few main roads, the commercial centre, and historic quarter. Siem Reap has a lively everyday life with some of the friendliest locals you’ll meet and a warm, welcoming expat community. It doesn’t take long to get off the beaten track to experience local culture and/or the expat scene.

Some of our friends haven’t ventured to Pub Street in many years. It’s easy to avoid. We only live two blocks from the river and the French Quarter yet we have chickens and cows on our street. If you’re interested in getting a taste of everyday life, let me know and I can create an itinerary that shows you the local side of Siem Reap.

The temples aren’t all that hard to navigate if you know how and it is possible to experience them without the crowds if you know when to go. You don’t need to pay exorbitant prices for tours with companies claiming to have figured it all out. It’s not rocket science. We’ve tried most local tour companies and the best experiences have been because of the savviness, knowledge and personality of the guide.

Having said that, as stupendous as the temples are, and I do love them dearly, Siem Reap has so much more to offer visitors beyond its extraordinary archaeological sights. There are tranquil villages, lively markets, boat cruises, authentic street food, secret boutiques, after-hours ateliers, art galleries, artisanal crafts, affordable spas, a quirky circus, and more.

As a travel and food writer who spends most of each waking day researching and writing on Siem Reap, you can be confident that I have my finger on the pulse — whether it’s a whisper about a new shop, a one-off music gig, or directions to an out of the way bar. If you want to experience what’s new in the city or simply want a taste of the side of Siem Reap that locals and expats love, then let me introduce you to that captivating place beyond the temples.

How it works

Book my Inside Siem Reap Experience on Vayable. Contact me via Vayable to let me know what your requirements are. I can craft an itinerary focused around your interests — whether it’s archaeology or contemporary art, nature and rural life, traditional culture or handicrafts, fashion and shopping, or food and drink, or maybe even a combination of all those things. If you want to go slow and sustainable, hands-on and experiential, or you want a taste of local life, just let me know.

Your stay here might be dictated by budget or time or the challenges of meeting the needs of a family or group of friends with myriad interests. Whatever it is, tell me, and I’ll work with you to create a plan that will make everyone happy. As part of the itinerary I create, I can also suggest hotels and tour companies, recommend guides, and make introductions.

What the experience includes

In addition to the itinerary, when you arrive I can meet you at your hotel and take you on a tuk tuk ride around town so you quickly get your bearings, and realize distances aren’t as great as they seem. Then we can go settle into my favourite cafe or bar and I can introduce you to my Siem Reap.

Over coffee or cold beer or glass of wine, I can allay any concerns you might have, brief you on Cambodian customs and etiquette, and answer any questions that you have about the itinerary. I will share my strategies for the best ways to experience the temples, how to avoid the crowds, how to deal with tuk tuk drivers, bargain at markets, and eat safely, so that you make the most of your time here.

Note that bookings and arrangements are not included. If you want me to book those for you, I am happy to help you do that if I have time, but that will incur an additional fee.

How to make a booking

Feel free to make enquiries and leave questions in the comments below but head to my page on Vayable to book my Inside Siem Reap experience. Note: the current rate is a special introductory low season rate which will rise in high season (December). Book now for high season and you’ll still pay that rate.

If you click through to use my special friends’ invitation code when you join you’ll get $10 off the booking.

As a food writer, I can also ensure that you eat and drink well while you’re in Siem Reap and that you taste authentic Cambodian food, one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated of Asian cuisines. Terence and I spend much of our time working on food stories and researching Cambodian cuisine, so if you’d like a food-focused introduction to Siem Reap and Cambodia’s gastronomy, click through to book Savour Siem Reap.

See you in Siem Reap!

Aug 06

Our Guide to the Arts and Architecture in Battambang in Cambodia

Streets of Battambang, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

There’s much to experience in the way of arts and architecture in Battambang in Cambodia. In recent years the charming colonial city has blossomed into an arts hub as graduates from its excellent arts school have collaborated to set up art galleries and collectives and organize group shows and arts events. Battambang’s impressive architecture is everywhere.

Our guide to the arts and architecture in Battambang

Battambang wasn’t necessarily a centre of art and culture prior to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime’s coming to power in 1975, however, it did experience Cambodia’s cultural renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, dubbed the Golden Age, which was felt right across the country and gave rise to Cambodia’s unique brand of Khmer Rock and Roll and the New Khmer Architecture movement.

Battambang had also been the birthplace of beloved Golden Age singer Ros Sereysothea, who was named ‘the Golden Voice’, while the most legendary crooner of them all, Cambodia’s Elvis, Sinn Sisamouth sang a melancholic song about Battambang, ensuring he’d always have a special place in its people’s hearts. Look closely as you amble around town and you’ll spot murals, stencils and stickers of the two of them on walls.

When the Khmer Rouge took over, the Golden Age singers, along with musicians, painters, actors, academics, and educated professionals who hadn’t fled the country, were executed or shunted out of the cities and into the countryside to work the rice fields, where most would die of starvation or disease if they weren’t murdered. A generation or artists and intellectuals were lost. For those who survived, it would be a long road to recovery.

It is the next generation of artists, most born in the 1980s and 1990s, who have been the main participants in the cultural revival that is currently underway. However, it many cases, it is the older Khmer Rouge survivors, such as the group who started Battambang’s Phare Ponleau Selpak arts school, who have been the inspiration.

While arts enthusiasts should make an effort to head out of the historic centre to Phare Ponleau Selpak in Anch Ang village, you don’t have to go far to get a taste of the arts and architecture in Battambang. Slap bang in the centre of the old town, Street 2½, pictured above, is home to a handful of arty addresses, galleries, cafés, and bars with exhibition spaces and a programme of regular arts events.

Art Galleries

Many of the graduates of Phare Ponleau Selpak have gone on to open their own contemporary art galleries, including artist Mao Soviet and his wife Phin whose small gallery Make Maek (Street 2½), located in a whitewashed Chinese shophouse, hosts regular exhibitions and events and an artist-in-residence programme, and has a small art library.

Mao, who worked as a graphic designer, now specialises in sculpture and installations, and it’s his white sculptural basket piece that dramatically hangs from the gallery’s balcony. Mao’s work has shown in France, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. Phin is a painter and her colourful canvases focus on women’s issues and the challenges women face in Cambodia now. Ask to see their work if it’s not on display.

Diagonally opposite, curator Darren Swallow and his artist wife Khchao Touch own Lotus Gallery and Bar (53, Street  2½) which opened late 2013, and has a cafe-cum-bar downstairs with bare brick walls and colonial-style tiles and a contemporary art gallery upstairs hosting regular exhibitions. On weekends Lotus has documentary and experimental film screenings, poetry nights, avant-garde sound events, performance art, DJ nights, and live music. The events draw an interesting mix of locals, expats and tourists, who spill out onto the pavement, chatting animately as they down beers.

Also check out their funky little shop, Jewel in the Lotus, just down from Make Maek, which sells hippy clothes and hill tribe bags and quirky knick knacks including vintage cigarette boxes, retro movie posters and postcards, and Cambodian rock and roll music from the Golden Age.

A few blocks away, artist-ran Sammaki Gallery (87, Street 2½), a community arts space supported by the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), also has frequent art shows and workshops, as well as a resource centre and work space with a computer where artists, designers and filmmakers meet to thumb through books on painters and edit films or animations. Don’t hesitate to pop your head in the door. They won’t mind at all if you say “Sues’day” (hello) and see what they’re up to.

Sammaki is also home to Battambang’s first barista school, sponsored by Australia’s Vittoria Coffee, which also provided funding for CCT’s sleek Jaan Bai restaurant and bar (Street 2), launched in October 2013, which we wrote about here and here. A social enterprise eatery established to provide training and employment for disadvantaged Battambang youths, Jaan Bai has had the support and guidance of culinary luminary Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok and restaurateur John Fink of Quay in Sydney, whose involvement has ensured it’s delivering some of the best food and drinks in Battambang.

The idea behind offering the barista classes at Sammaki is that the gallery’s visitors will be able to sip a coffee while browsing the art. Although Jaan Bai technical advisor Tom O’Sullivan, who managed social enterprise cafes in Melbourne, and has been training staff in barista art among other things, said he would love to see it operating as a fully fledged cafe adjoining the gallery. We would too.

Don’t miss the vibrant mural that enlivens the exterior of Jaan Bai. Painted by a handful of young Battambang artists, you can get a close look as you enjoy cocktails on the wooden pallets stacked on the astro turf that creatively serve as coffee tables and seats.

Artist Chov Theanly painted the portrait of Golden Age great, Ros Sereysothea; Khchao Touch (co-owner of Lotus) was responsible for the ‘Morning Sun’; Long Kosal created ‘The Scream’; Nhem Pearun painted the ‘Face with Bird’; while Ot Veasana was responsible for the wild mural on the first floor exterior that you’ll have to cross the road to appreciate.

There are plans to open an art gallery in the bar upstairs, which will also function as a creative co-working space. In the meantime, there is work by Battambang artists on the restaurant walls downstairs, all of which is available for purchase. Make sure you check out the striking art installation by Mao Soviet of Make Maek in the stairwell between the dining room and kitchen.

While not an art gallery, petite Battambang Provincial Museum (Street #1; 8-11am, 2-5pm; $1) has displays of pre-Angkorian and Angkorian art, including sculptures, carvings, bas reliefs, lintels, and pottery. Frustratingly, though, it is rarely open when it’s meant to be.

Artist Collectives, Art Spaces and Arts Events

The Trotchaek Pneik collective of 12 independent Battambang artists and art lovers came together in 2008 but formed more formally in 2011. Their motto is “arts and culture as revolutionist!” Their founder, curator and performance artist Reaksmey Yean has put together some interesting shows under the umbrella of Trotchaek Pneik and as a 2013 curator-in-residence at JavaArts in Phnom Penh. Their Facebook page is a good source of information on art shows, events, seminars, and conferences across Cambodia.

Stroll Street 1½ and you might see artists and students sketching and painting on the ground floor of Battambang Art Studio, situated in a sunny yellow shophouse. The studio was opened in 2012 by Sokhom Roeun and Bo Rithy, both graduates of Phare Ponleu Seplak, as a place for artists to come and learn, work, and exchange ideas and skills. Sokhom’s work, which includes sculptural installations, has been shown in France, Japan, Thailand and Cambodia, while Bo’s art, which embraces a range of techniques and styles and attempts to capture Cambodia’s transition from traditional and modern, has been shown in France and Thailand.

Launched in April 2014, BCi Battambang‘s Arts House is an artist-ran space in an old shophouse opposite the Royal Hotel that’s been decorated with floor to ceiling street art style murals. The space quickly established a reputation for holding artsy parties incorporating exhibition openings, live music, break-dancing, and live painting. They also have open mic nights, film screenings, and run workshops in stenciling, screen printing and other creative techniques.

A number of artists in Battambang have made a name for themselves as live painters. The artists combine performance art and entertainment with the creation of paintings from scratch, beginning with a blank canvas. If there are events on while you’re in town, look out for artists such as Sin Rithy, Nov Cheanik and Prak Ke who often produce live art with performance artist Long Kosal. Long, who often appears near-naked, his body covered in white paint, is simultaneously the canvas, artist and work of art. At Jaan Bai’s opening party his precarious balancing on a stool while being painted upon transfixed guests.

Selpak Kandia was a live painting event held in March 2014 on the riverside in front of Phsar Nat market that brought hundreds of artists and art lovers out into the streets. Made in Battambang, held in April 2014, which showcased the work of local and expat artists in city-wide exhibitions at Make Maek, Lotus, Sammaki, and Jaan Bai, also featured live painting.

Architecture

You can amble Battambang’s dusty streets aimlessly admiring the well preserved architecture in the compact old town, which is classified as a Heritage Protection Area. The protected area contains some 800 heritage buildings, including an atmospheric 150 year old Chinese Temple and Spirit House, the oldest building in the conservation quarter.

Expect to ogle everything from grand 19th century French-Classical edifices on the riverside, now used as banks and administrative buildings that date back to when Cambodia was a French protectorate to charming two storey shophouses introduced by Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century that serve as both businesses and private homes.

The ugly modern signage and advertising hoardings on buildings conceals delightful facades with ornate reliefs, pretty balconies, and louvered shuttered windows. Most have been fitted in such a way that they can easily be removed and many hope that will happen next year when it’s rumoured that Battambang may receive a UNESCO World Heritage listing.

A few further blocks inland you’ll find traditional Khmer timber houses that are normally seen in the countryside, because just a few centuries ago Battambang itself was little more than a village. You’ll find an abundance of these, in all manner of styles, surrounding Battambang, but Wat Kor Village has the largest proliferation including a couple of century-old ‘Ancient Houses‘ that can be visited (sign-posted; free, but leave a donation).

The star attraction for many architectural buffs is the Art Deco gem that is Phsar Naht, the old market in the centre of town. Built in 1936 from reinforced concrete, it was by the same French engineers responsible for the handsome Art Deco-era Central Market in Phnom Penh.

Other noteworthy buildings include the faded modernist cinemas and apartment buildings of the New Khmer Architecture era, including the Sangkar Cinema and warehouse, inaugurated by Prince Sihanouk in 1965; the 1960 corner apartments beside it with its double facade and decorative screen to give shade; and the groovy Battambang Cinema, built in the early 1970s. Terence adores the typeface of the cinema’s sign and I love the built-in apartments.

Performing Arts

You can’t say you’ve fully experienced the arts and architecture in Battambang until you visit Cambodia’s largest performing and visual arts school, Phare Ponleau Selpak, which means ‘brightness of the arts’.

Since 1994 the Battambang village of Anch Ang has been home to the school, which was established by a group of Cambodians who met in 1986 in a Thai refugee camp following the Khmer Rouge period. There they participated in a transformational art workshop offered by a French visual arts teacher as a form of therapy.

Six years later they regrouped in Battambang to offer art, music and theatre classes to the poverty-stricken community, particularly the vulnerable, orphaned children, and in 1998 they introduced gymnastics and martial arts and established the circus school. Some of the original founders still operate the school and teach.

Now, there are some 1,500 students studying circus skills, theatre, music, painting, drawing, design, and animation. The main big top for the Cambodian Phare Circus, where final year students and graduates perform, is in Siem Reap, however, regular circus shows are held in the Battambang big top too, where the students learn, train, rehearse, and develop their own shows.

One-hour circus shows are held at 7pm, Mondays and Thursdays, although less frequently in the monsoonal low season, so get your hotel to check ahead (+855 (0) 7755 4413) and book tickets (adults $10, kids under 14 $5). Take a tuk tuk as it’s a 15 minute ride from the centre. Arrive around 6.15pm so you can sip a welcome drink while you can take in the visual arts exhibition.

Art and Architecture Tours

You can do a behind-the-scenes tour of Phare Ponleau Selpak in the afternoon to see the students in classes and training and rehearsing for circus performances (get a peek at the kind of exercises they do here!), and then you can return after dark to see their kooky Cirque du Soleil-style circus shows under the big top.

Instead of wandering around Battambang aimlessly gawking at the city’s architecture, print out the self-guided walking tour from the Khmer Architecture Tours website so you don’t miss something special. The map and explanatory notes will suit independent travellers who like to explore on foot.

For those who don’t cope well with the heat and would rather have some wheels, Au Cabaret Vert hotel offers an interesting audio tour by antique cyclo which allows you to slowly cruise the narrow old streets and leafy boulevards, stopping at significant buildings along the way.

Highlights of the cyclo tour include the modernist railway station, glittering Buddhist pagodas such as Wat Pipetharam, which dates to 1888, and Wat Damrey Sor, built in 1904, and the elegant Italian-designed Sala Khaet or Governor’s Residence. Built by the last ‘Lord Governor’ of the Chavfea Baen family, who ruled for six generations under Siam (now Thailand), from 1795 to 1907, it was sold to French authorities after they persuaded the Siamese to return Battambang to the Cambodians, when the palace became the French Governor’s Residence.

Sala Khaet lies in an area south of the old centre that some call the French Quarter, due to its wide avenues and colonial administrative buildings. Established during Thai rule in 1837 it was once home to Kampaeng Fort, where the Lord Governor lived with his wives, female dancers, and 56 elephants, but no men!

You’ll also find the Royal Residence or Royal Bungalow here, a striking building designed by the legendary architect, Vann Molyvann, the star of a generation of talented architects who formed the New Khmer Architecture movement of the 1950s and 60s, after they developed a unique modernist style incorporating traditional Khmer elements from the Angkor period and vernacular residential architecture.

Artist-curator Mao Soviet from Make Maek also give art tours, as does Chov Theanly, one of the artists who contributed to the Jaan Bai mural. If you don’t find him upstairs at the Lotus Gallery chatting to visitors about Cambodian art history, book a tour through Darren Swallow.

Tha and Jam of Battambang Bike (60 Street 2½) offer art and architecture themed bike tours as well as village tours. The latter runs along the riverside, passing through sleepy villages and dropping into attractions such as ‘Ancient House’. You can also hire their retro bicycles to do your own self-guided tour.

If you prefer to have someone else take care of arrangements, Asia-based Backyard Travel offers multi-day trips with knowledgable guides such as Beyond Angkor: Battambang and its Countryside, departing from Siem Reap, which includes the Au Cabaret vert cyclo tour, Battambang Bike ride, Phare Ponleau Selpak tour and a night at the circus, among other Battambang experiences. We tested it out and were impressed.

How to get to Battambang and get around

See our guide on Things to do in Battambang for detailed information on how to get to Battambang and how to get around Battambang once you’re there.

Where to stay in Battambang

Battambang is home to some beautiful boutique hotels and we’ve been able to try all of them (a number of times) on our trips to the city. You can read our reviews of Battambang’s best boutique and budget hotels in this post on Where to Stay in Battambang.

Where to eat and drink in Battambang

Fantastic local markets, street food tours, rustic cafes, and sleek restaurants, Battambang has a small but satisfying culinary scene. See our comprehensive Guide to Eating and Drinking in Battambang.

Aug 05

Where to Stay in Battambang

Maisons Wat Kor, Battambang, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Battambang has become one of our favourite places in Cambodia. With each visit we’ve done over the last year, we’ve become more familiar with the colonial riverside city and its laidback villages, and as a result we’ve become more fond of it. We were just there again and we have to say that one of the things we love about the place is its delightful and very affordable boutique hotels and their charming owners. Here’s where to stay in Battambang:

Bambu Hotel

The finest hotel in the centre of Battambang is two blocks from the waterfront on the riverbank opposite the historic centre and main commercial part of town. Don’t let that deter you as it’s a fascinating 20-minute walk into the centre or a five-minute tuk tuk ride ($2). It’s worth staying just to experience the hospitality of owners, Irishman Pat and his Cambodian wife Chan, who also owns the excellent little Smiling Sky Bookshop in the centre of town when you need something to read.

The warmth and generosity of these people will draw you back again and again, from Pat’s copious notes (regularly updated) that you’ll find in your room, crammed with insider tips and local advice on how best to experience Battambang to Chan’s warm smile that lights up the room — or bar, where she occasionally joins her husband.

Pat can often be found hosting the nightly happy hours (5-7pm), which are something of a local institution. While tourists come for the cheap drinks, expats are here for the friendly staff, nostalgic music, and entertaining company. If you want to make new friends in Battambang, prop yourself up here for a couple of hours and Pat will introduce you to the whole town.

The hotel itself is splendid, seamlessly incorporating the three main architectural styles you’ll see in Cambodia. The main two storey building is colonial-inspired with lofty ceilings, potted palms, wicker furniture on the balconies, and antique tiles on the floors. I like the rooms upstairs in this building, especially the ones overlooking the pool and the rear buildings, which are inspired by the traditional Khmer timber houses. With polished floorboards and timber walls these are more atmospheric, although the ones at the rear of the building can be a little dark, so, again, try and book one overlooking the pool.

And that alluring pool is much appreciated after a sweaty day out and about. (Don’t even think about booking a hotel without a pool in Battambang.) Pat can organize all sorts of excursions in Battambang, but if you stay tell him we recommended you book Mr Ol for a tuk tuk tour around the countryside. Nobody knows the province like Mr Ol and while he can take you to the main sights, he’ll bring you home by the most scenic backroads.

The food at the Russey Restaurant, particularly the Cambodian cuisine, is a treat and is some of the best in Battambang, so even if you don’t stay here, get along to happy hour and stay on for dinner at least one night. Book ahead, it’s easily the best hotel in town.
www.bambuhotel.com 

Maisons Wat Kor

Just a fifteen-minute tuk tuk ride out of the centre of Battambang in lovely Wat Kor Village, you’ll find beautiful Maisons Wat Kor. Wat Kor is the name of the local pagoda. This diminutive boutique hotel is ran by another welcoming owner, Cambodian Kim Nou, who is passionate about Battambang and the leafy riverside community where he has located his property.

Kim Nou splits his time between a business in Phnom Penh and Battambang, so hope he’s there when you stay. If he isn’t you’ll still be looked after by his well meaning yet shy staff, some of which are from villages smaller and more isolated that Wat Kor village, so be patient.

Set in tropical gardens there are three traditional Khmer timber buildings, two of which host guest rooms, with wooden decks look onto a lotus pond, illuminated at night by striking lanterns made from traditional fishing baskets, and another tantalizing pool. Each building has four comfortable rooms with polished wooden floorboards, timber furnishings, and silk cushions and throws. The rectangular, deep blue pool was lined with sun-beds when we recently visited, but Kim Nou’s boys were busy building bamboo salas (like double-size daybeds) by hand, which will be more in keeping with the traditional style of the place.

There’s a small restaurant and bar off the reception area with an outdoor terrace and shaded deck, from where you could lean out and pick a banana off a tree (in season). Indeed, the grounds are dotted with tropical fruit trees and there’s an organic garden where fresh herbs and vegetables are grown for the kitchen. The restaurant offers terrific value set menus ($12 for three courses when we stayed) of authentic Cambodian dishes that you won’t see on many menus.

Maisons Wat Kor is a wonderful place to relax and swim and read that book you haven’t found time to get to so far on the trip, however, there are two great reasons to stay here. One is for the chance to simply kick about the riverside village and get an insight into local life that you won’t get in Battambang, that you could see in Siem Reap province but there’s the distraction of those temples, and that you definitely won’t find in Phnom Penh. So do make the time to wander down the road, especially early in the morning or the late afternoon.

The hotel also provides a great base for discovering the countryside. Hop in a tuk tuk and head in the opposite direction to town and you’re there. Kim Nou has also created one of Battambang’s best tuk tuk tours that takes in small cottage industries like rice noodle makers and producers of the krama, the Cambodian checked cotton scarf. You can read about the tour here but we recommend you just do it.
www.maisonswatkor.com

Battambang Resort

Not far from Maisons Wat Kor, overlooking rice paddies, and set within tropical gardens, Battambang Resort couldn’t be more different. More modernist inspired with clean contemporary lines, there’s an open al fresco restaurant and bar serving Cambodian and Western dishes, off an oval swimming pool, surrounded by sun-beds. It’s a nice spot for a quiet meal if you’re not in the mood to go out.

The comfortable light-filled rooms are minimalist in style, with clean lines, cold hard surfaces to help keep them cool, and an airy feel to them. The rooms overlooking the small lake are more spacious.

While the resort, like Bambu and Maisons Wat Kor, is the kind of place you could happily linger for a few days, one of the best things about Battambang Resort is the lovely Cambodian owner Phary’s superb tours, so make sure you allow enough time to do two or three.

As an alternative to the breakfast buffet, you can do a breakfast bike ride with owner Phary to a soup stall to do as the locals do and slurp the quintessential Cambodian pork noodle soup kuy teav, from a nearby soup shop. You can stick to the succulent pork slices, but locals love the pork offal with liver, intestines, heart, lung, and pork loaf. Add fresh herbs, lime juice and chilli, and dip in the deep fried breadsticks or Chinese doughnuts called ‘youtiao’.

Phary also offers a breezy bike ride along the riverside through sleepy little villages to meet a local fishing boat for a cruise along the river to absorb life on the water. You then alight and ride back to the resort through different yet equally fascinating hamlets. Phary also offers a snack food tour in the evenings to sample Cambodian street food, by bike or tuk tuk, which we highly recommend. Book in advance, as this is also a popular hotel, especially in high season.
www.battambangresort.com

In many cities and towns around the world, hotels are just meant for sleeping and you never get to meet the owners. In Battambang, they’re not only very much a part of the lovely places they operate, they’re part of their charm. The experiences they’ve created will really make an impact on your stay and could even become some of the most meaningful and memorable of your Cambodia trip.

Budget hotels in Battambang

If those beautiful boutique hotels are a little out of your price range, there are a couple of budget hotels in Battambang that we have tested out and recommend.

Seng Hout Hotel (Street #2) is slap bang in the centre of town, just one block from Phsar Nat, the old market, and a block from the riverfront. Staff speak very little English, however, the English-speaking owner Mr Seng can be found at his pharmacy across the street if he’s not sitting at the counter, for when you need help organizing activities, transport etc.

There are a variety of clean rooms (from $8-25), with air-conditioning and fans, and good modern bathrooms, ranging from extremely basic standards to slightly fancier rooms with access to public balconies or terraces with sweeping views of the city and/or pool. Yes, there is a pool! And an elevator. Book a balcony room on a high floor, not only for the stunning vistas; if there’s a wedding or funeral on, you’ll wake to a soundtrack of monks chanting, a melancholic Khmer xylophone or Cambodian pop echoing across the city.
www.senghouthotel.com

The Royal Hotel is also in the heart of town and only a block from the markets, but while there are small balconies unfortunately the views aren’t as pretty. There are three room types, but while spacious they are basic with few amenities and bathrooms where the shower sprays all over the toilet and sink. There’s no pool nor elevator here, so book a low floor if you have heavy luggage (although staff can carry it to your room) or are feeling weary from your travels.

The Royal does have a pleasant rooftop area and the added bonus of a multi-lingual owner and smiling staff with reasonable English skills who are eager to please and always on the front desk ready to help you organize your stay. This is important in Battambang, as most of the sights and activities are in villages out of town and best experienced on tuk tuk tours.
www.royalhotelbattambang.com

How to get to Battambang and get around

See this post on Things to do in Battambang for detailed information on how to get to Battambang and how to get around Battambang once you’re there.

Jul 30

The Best Bars in Siem Reap

Miss Wong Bar, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

After a sweaty day scrambling temples, cycling Siem Reap’s villages or spending too much time at the swimming pool, come sundown the best spot to be is downing icy cold Beer Laos or sipping killer cocktails. Leave Pub Street to the backpackers and hit the best bars in Siem Reap instead.

Miss Wong

Hands-down this is Siem Reap’s most stylish bar and is home to the city’s best cocktails. Hidden down a lane parallel to Pub Street called, um, The Lane, Miss Wong is also the most atmospheric bar in town with Chinese lanterns, red walls, retro posters, and black lacquer screens that evoke old Shanghai. Head here around 6pm for pre-dinner drinks or after your meal for a nightcap to mingle with expats. The waiters are warm, friendly and welcoming and the Kiwi owner Dean is a wealth of knowledge if you’re after insider tips. A warning: the cocktails are heady. Don’t leave without trying my favourite: the Rose and Lemongrass Martini. We also recommend the China White with jasmine tea syrup, lychees, gin and Cinzano. The dim sum makes a fine appetiser or late night snack.
The Lane, Old Market quarter, enter lane opposite Siem Reap Referral Hospital, 5pm-1am www.misswong.net

Asana

Tucked away in an alleyway around the corner from Miss Wong, Asana remains something of a secret. Set in the last standing antique Khmer timber house in the old town, it also oozes charm. Owned by an equally charming young Cambodian woman called Pari, who invented the Khmer cocktail – a mixed drink that must contain at least two or three Khmer herbs, spices or roots – Asana is also the spot for some cocktail lessons, but more on that later. Even if you don’t sign up for a class you can still sink back in the comfy seats and listen to smooth jazz sounds as you sip a Little Sweet, Pari’s favourite cocktail, made from Bombay Sapphire, wild ginger, turmeric, lime, and sugar cane juice.
Off The Lane, main entrance on Street 7, Old Market quarter, 11am-2am www.asana-cambodia.com

Foreign Correspondents Club Angkor

Located on the riverside in the leafy French Quarter, which was home to the administrative buildings of the French protectorate, this handsome modernist building was once the governor’s mansion. The interior lounge bar and restaurant upstairs are in a colonial style with leather armchairs and ceiling fans and the balcony is the spot to be for dinner, but there are few more sublime spots in Siem Reap than the FCC courtyard for a sunset drink. The cocktails are unimaginative but the cold beers hit the spot and there are decent wines by the glass, as well as delicious Asian appetizers, such as fresh spring rolls, satay sticks, and fried calamari. Happy hour: 5-7pm
Pokamber Avenue, French Quarter, 7am-midnight http://fcccambodia.com/

Elephant Bar

A cocktail in the elegant old bar in the historic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, which opened in 1920s, is a must-do, simply to soak up some history. As Siem Reap’s most luxurious accommodations for decades, the hote, along with its majestic sister-property in Phnom Penh, the Hotel Le Royal, had countless famous guests check in. One of those was former American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1967, after whom the hotel in the capital named a cocktail, the Femme Fatale (Champagne, Crème de Fraise, Cognac). The Siem Reap property’s signature drink is the tropical Airavata (rum, Crème de Banana, fresh coconut juice, sugar cane, lime juice). Note that there’s a dress code of collared shirts and shoes so leave the t-shirts and flip-flops at the hotel.
Raffles Hotel, opposite Royal Gardens, 6pm-midnight www.raffles.com/siem-reap/dining/elephant-bar/

Martini Lounge

As martini-lovers, a long martini list is very alluring, but so is the romantic dimly lit atmosphere of this sophisticated lounge bar upstairs in the main building of one of Siem Reap’s most beautiful hotels. The traditional Khmer timber architecture is a big appeal, but so are the pool and tropical garden views and the breezes that waft through on a balmy evening. It’s ideal for a quiet pre-dinner or pre-show drink – the hotel also hosts one of the city’s best Apsara dance performances – or nightcap. There’s a happy hour from 6-7.30pm.
Belmond La Residence d’Angkor, East River Road, 8am-midnight Martini Lounge Webpage

Heritage Cocktail Bar

The lofty lobby bar of this luxury hotel is hidden down a dirt lane off Wat Bo Road (turn right opposite Marum), within earshot of the monks chanting at nearby Wat Polanka. Drop in on a Thursday night when it’s the place to be in Siem Reap and all you’ll hear are the beats of a live jazz band (from 6.30-9.30pm) as you sip happy hour cocktails (5-7pm). You could snag a spot at the bar or sink into a comfy chair, but if you’re up for making new friends, this is the place to do it – jazz nights see Siem Reap’s friendly expat crowd catching up in between songs.
Heritage Suites Hotel, Wat Polanka area, off Wat Bo Road, 8am-11pm www.heritagesuiteshotel.com

AHA

Boasting a sleek, contemporary, almost-Scandinavian sense of style with its clean lines, sculptured wooden feature wall, and striking light fixtures, this chic wine bar and casual restaurant could be at home in any cosmopolitan city – if it weren’t for its views onto Old Market on one side and on the other, The Passage, another bustling little alley that’s home to bars, restaurants and shops. While you can dine on contemporary Cambodian tapas, among other things, there’s a long list of good wines by the glass as well as bottles and the high tables and chairs are made for sipping and snacking. The air-conditioning is bliss on a sweltering day.
Off The Passage, Old Market quarter, 11am-10pm AHA Website

Laundry Bar

This laidback French-owned bar, one block from Old Market, is a favourite of European expats, locals, and savvy tourists for its dirt-cheap drinks, pool tables, dart boards, and funkiest soundtrack in the city. While it is often low-key early in the evening and on weeknights, late at night and on weekends it can get boisterous. When there’s a DJ or band on, such as the massively popular Cambodian Space Project, the small dance floor heaves and punters spill out onto the footpath and street. The bartenders and waiters are very sweet and although the drinks are nothing to write home about they’re budget-priced. A night here is all about the music, relaxed vibe and conversation – it’s another spot where it’s easy to make new friends.
Street 9, Old Market quarter, 5pm-late Laundry Bar on Facebook

Linga Bar

For a quintessentially Siem Reap experience, plan on a cocktail or two at Linga while you watch their drag show. Tucked down the buzzy little lane known as The Passage, which is dotted with shops, eateries and bars, and opposite The One Hotel and AHA (above), this relaxed gay bar is legendary. Located in a colonial building with shuttered windows it’s fairly low-key when it opens at 4pm when it’s not unusual to see no more than a dozen or so people, gay and straight, quietly sipping cold beers and cocktails on the leather sofas outside. Come 10.30pm on a Friday and Saturday night, when the spotlights go on and the sound is turned up, the atmosphere is decidedly different. The outrageous drag show has patrons spilling onto the alleyway and passers-by of all ages stopping to watch the flamboyant acts.
The Passage, Old Market quarter, 4pm-late http://lingabar.com/

Charlie’s Bar

Next door to Linga, Charlie’s Bar has a retro American theme – think: neon signs, classic pinball table, and a vintage motorbike hanging above a door. Popular with travellers and expats alike, especially big groups of backpackers and volunteers and NGO workers, this is the bar you go to when you want cheap drinks and music that’s not so loud you can’t have a conversation. Don’t come here if you want good wines by the glass or creative cocktails; come if you have good company and don’t care where you go or you’re alone and want to make friends. Check their Facebook page for specials, from $1.50 Frozen Margaritas on Tequila Tuesday, $1 spirits on Thirsty Thursday, and $6 jugs of sangria on… you guessed it, Sangria Sunday. It’s okay to wear singlets and flip-flops here.
Street 11, Old Market quarter, 8am-late Charlie’s Bar on Facebook

X Bar

With its rooftop half-pipe, pool tables, tattoo shop, regular live bands and DJs, and late opening hours, this alfresco spot is Siem Reap’s party bar. You can expect anything from reggae to hip hop, acoustic to rock, including resident band The X-Rays, which usually performs on Tuesdays and Fridays. Check their Facebook page for details. There’s food if you get peckish, however, most people aren’t here to eat. Not sure where it is? Walk to the end of Pub Street where it meets Sivutha Boulevard and look up to where all the noise is coming from. That’s it.
Corner Sivutha Boulevard & Sok San Road, upstairs, 3pm-sunrise X Bar on Facebook

Tuk Tuk Bar

This quirky little bar belonging to Cambodian local Hong has been built around a tuk tuk. While it’s the novelty factor that first drew drinkers here, now they come for the late opening hours (it’s open 24 hours, meaning it’s open when everywhere else has closed), dirt-cheap drinks (US$1.50 promotions from 6pm-3am), and mix of punters, from hard-drinking expats and locals to well, um, hard-drinking travellers. People tend to settle in so don’t plan anything else if you’re heading here – except sunrise at Angkor Wat, because at least you won’t sleep through the alarm clock.
Sok San Road, at the far end, so take a tuk tuk, 24 hours http://tuktukcocktailbar.com

UPDATE 1/9/14: Things change fast in our sleepy little city. Sadly, since writing this Linga Bar has closed and Charlie’s Bar is moving. We’ll have a new address for the latter soon.

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