Our Culinary Guide to Siem Reap
Temples are at the top of every Siem Reap visitor’s to-do list and there are so many of the things that few travellers think of anything else. They are sublime — but so is the food. Don’t believe us? Then cast your eyes over our culinary guide to Siem Reap. Prepare to salivate.
The temples are magic — we’ve lived here for two years now and had visited Siem Reap a few times before we moved here and scrambled loads of archaeological sites yet we’re still not ‘templed-out’. However, there’s so much more to the city and surrounding province, that you’re really missing out if exploring temples is all you do.
There’s eating, for instance, and Cambodian food is wonderful. However, the Khmer and Cambodian cuisines (there is a difference) are Asia’s most misunderstood and under-appreciated cuisines. Khmer cuisine refers to the indigenous dishes of the country, while Cambodian cuisine takes in dishes that have their roots in or incorporate influences from China, Vietnam, Thailand, and France.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there (chicken amok is not the national dish and a good beef lok lak should not be made with ketchup) and many restaurant reviews are misguided, often written by writers who parachute into town for a few days and rely on their hotel concierge for all their eating recommendations.
We’ve been doing in-depth research on Cambodian cuisine for over two years now, eating our way around the country, and learning about Khmer cuisine from local cooks for a cookbook project. You can expect to hear more about that soon, but in the meantime here’s our culinary guide to Siem Reap.
Our Culinary Guide to Siem Reap
Siem Reap Markets
Hit the local markets around 7-8am to get an insight into everyday life. Small, local, neighbourhood markets are sprinkled all over Siem Reap, however, Siem Reap’s best market is Phsar Chas or Old Market, in the historic centre of town.
Our tuk tuk drivers who live out in the villages call Phsar Chas the “tourist market” although admit to never having been inside. Yes, this is where you can purchase your souvenirs and as you stroll around you’ll undoubtedly be subjected to annoying shouts of “Buy something! No charge — just looking!” But it’s not just a tourist market.
Head into the heart of Phsar Chas to the wet market (named as such because the floors are generally wet from the melted ice which was used to keep the fresh seafood cold) and you’ll see locals shopping too, albeit more affluent Cambodians who live in and run businesses in the centre of Siem Reap.
In the early morning, small-scale farmers and vendors spread out their produce on the ground in the aisle between the shoe shops, laying out everything from freshly picked fruit and vegetables to home-grown herbs and foraged leaves and roots. They’re only there in the morning, so go early.
However, in the centre of the market, at stalls stretching all the way to the opposite side of the building, you’ll find the permanent vendors selling fruit and veg, herbs and roots, fresh kroeung, palm sugar, and dried spices; just-caught fish from the nearby Tonle Sap, South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake, along with seafood and crustaceans from the southern coast; free-range local chicken and pork, along with poultry and meat from Thailand; Siem Reap’s famous Chinese-style sweet sausages, dried fish, prahok, and fish sauce.
These permanent vendors are here all day until around 5-6pm, but mornings are still best. By the end of the day, the produce has been sitting out since morning, so, let’s just that the market is, ahem, ‘aromatic’ at best.
The quality is so good at Psar Chas that it’s not unusual to see Siem Reap chefs shopping here, including Siem Reap’s finest, Chef Joannès Rivière of Cuisine Wat Damnak. You can read about one of our market trips with Chef Jo on Fine Dining Lovers. You might also bump into us picking up some seafood or fruit and veg. The produce is so inexpensive that if you’re a chef or foodie you’ll be very tempted to swap your hotel for an apartment so that you can do some cooking.
Phsar Leu, Siem Reap’s biggest market, is on National Route No 6 and it’s even more local and more fascinating if you can handle the ‘fragrances’. If you’re still half-asleep when you arrive, the prahok (Cambodia’s famous fermented fish; an ingredient used in many dishes, such as prahok k’tis) and fresh meats will wake up your olfactory system.
Phsar Leu is also a great spot to buy kitchenware and household goods if you are settling into the city for a while or have a generous luggage allowance. My picks: mortar and pestles, coconut shell utensils, colourful floor mats, and sarongs, which I use as table cloths and picnic sheets.
There is also some fantastic street food at Pshar Leu, both early in the morning inside, in the wet market at the back, and in the late afternoon at the front of the market, including lort cha (stir-fried short rice noodles with pork, spring onions, and sprouts) and nom kachai (also written as num kachai and num kachay, they’re Chinese-style rice flour chive cakes).
On the opposite side of the road, toward the centre of Siem Reap, dimly-lit Phsar Samaki is even grittier and more dimly lit and is worth a look if you’re a market enthusiast. Some locals swear the fruit is better at Samaki than other markets. In the late afternoon and evenings, stalls set up out the front selling everything from fried noodles to grilled meats.
Another bustling little market is Phsar Polanka on the quieter upper riverside, which has a few good food stalls inside, while the mobile carts outside are the place to buy glistening, roasted char sieu duck and pork. One stall sells delicious num pang, the Cambodian version of the Vietnamese banh mi, a baguette stuffed with pork, salad, pickles, mayo, maybe some fish, and pâté, when it’s called num pang pâté.
Breakfast in Siem Reap
For a typical Cambodian breakfast hit the food stalls at the centre of Phsar Chas, slap bang in the middle between the seafood and fruit and veg sections, and at Phsar Leu, at the back of the market in the morning and during the day. Note that these food stalls close in the late afternoon, when the stalls at the front of the market are busy. Most of the cooks sell just one or two (or at most, three) local specialties and because the food is mainly made for vendors, it’s authentic and fresh.
At Phsar Chas, the most popular stalls specialise in the quintessential Cambodian breakfast dishes. You’ll see bai sach chrouk, sweet, sticky grilled pork, slowly barbecued over charcoal, sliced up, and spread over a generous mound of white rice, with pickled cucumber and carrot, and chilli sauce on the side.
Locals will be slurping on the popular Cambodian rice-noodle pork broth soup, kuy teav (similar to Vietnamese pho and Thailand’s guay tio), which is served with thin slivers of pork, beef or chicken (offal optional) and a mounds of greens, which might include chopped lettuce leaves, sawtooth coriander, spring onions, and bean sprouts. A small dish might be served on the side with a quarter of lime and black pepper and perhaps garlic. There will also be a condiment tray on the table so you can add your own extras.
You’ll also spot people eating Cambodia’s congee or rice porridge called bobor (also written as babor, borbor or borbo). Generally made with pork or chicken broth, it’s usually served with sliced spring onions, bean sprouts, and garlic oil. Sometimes you’ll find slice omelette or dried fish.
Num banh chok is another Cambodian breakfast favourite, although you can find a stall on some street corner, produce market or tiny family-owned eatery serving it up at any time of day. The cold white rice noodles are a sister to Thailand’s kanom jeen, and the dish itself shares other similarities. There are countless regional variations but generally the soup is a coconut-based fish curry (which leads to comparisons with curry mee and laksa), made with kroeung, and so distinguished by the yellow/green colour and turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime flavours. A warning: it’s often served cold to luke warm, never piping hot.
There will usually be a mound of fresh greens provided to heap on top of the noodles and combine, which might include finely sliced banana flower, sawtooth coriander, Vietnamese mint or Thai basil, bean sprouts, green beans, julienned cucumber, edible flowers, chilies, and so on. At some stalls, especially in villages, the vendor will place these in the soup for you, sometimes beneath the noodles and not provide a DIY bowl.
Expect to pay anything up to R5,000 or US$1.25 for these dishes. You may also see fried noodles, fresh and fried spring rolls, and Chinese chive cakes, although these are traditionally snacks served a little later in the day, and, a little later in the morning, you’ll see sweets sellers. The stalls at Phsar Chas are a tad more hygienic than those at Phsar Leu, Phsar Sammaki, Phsar Krom, and others. Having said that, I’ve never been sick after eating at any Siem Reap markets, however, it’s worth being cautious if you’re only in town for a few days.
If you’re worried about eating at markets and street food stalls, make a beeline for Mony & Noodles (two doors down from New Leaf Book Cafe, off Street 9, behind Angkor Trade Centre) for superb kuy teav soup, easily one of the finest examples in Siem Reap. Cambodian owner Or Sereymony (‘Mony’ for short) started his 16-year old hospitality career at Raffles as a waiter, working his way up to F&B director at Hotel de la Paix and Sofitel. Mony opened the noodle shop last year after returning from Phuket where he’d been working at a resort for three years. He offers nine different types of noodle dishes (from US$1.50-3) from Cambodia and beyond, and as you’d expect, they’re all delicious, made from good soup stocks that he and his chef wake in the wee hours to make, and with top quality ingredients.
If you’re heading to Angkor Wat for sunrise and want to have breakfast at the temples, skip Blue Pumpkin and the travel company/hotel lunch boxes and ask your tuk tuk driver or guide to take you to their favourite breakfast spot. There are loads of excellent street food stalls in Angkor Archaeological Park but for breakfast soups there is an excellent eatery, always jam-packed with Cambodians, on the road opposite the Angkor Wat causeway which leads to the airport. It’s the second shack on the right if you’re heading toward the balloon.
Cooking Classes in Siem Reap
A number of restaurants and hotels offer cooking classes in Siem Reap, from the more exclusive cooking lessons at five-star hotels such as Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and Anantara Angkor Resort, which are outstanding but expensive, to the more accessible, affordable and fun Cooks in Tuk Tuks experience offered by the River Garden hotel. All cooking classes are conducted by professional chefs and offer a pre-class trip to a market to introduce participants to Cambodian ingredients and produce before returning to the hotel to get stuck into prep, cook the dishes, and enjoy them over lunch.
When we tested these out, we found the Raffles class to be the most interactive, the Anantara more demo-style, and Cooks in Tuk Tuks somewhere in between, combining both hands-on prep and cooking with presentations of different techniques. The Raffles and Anantara experiences are private, so if you’re eager to meet fellow foodies you will prefer Cooks in Tuk Tuks. All the dishes taught are authentic renditions of Cambodian classics, such as fish amok and beef lok lak.
Cambodian-Kiwi chef Kethana Dunnett, who owns Sugar Palm restaurant, also offers a rather special Cooking with Kethana experience at her splendid Khmer timber home, set amongst the rice fields, booked through Backyard Travel or Exotissimo, that can be as participatory or as relaxed as you like. We also did some basic Cambodian country-style cooking with a lovely local on a mat on the ground as part of Beyond Unique Escapes Day in the Life of a Village tour. There are many more cooking classes offered by restaurants around town but not all teach authentic dishes. Stay clear of anywhere that has beef amok on the schedule. More on Siem Reap cooking classes soon in a post dedicated to the subject.
Cambodian Desserts in Siem Reap
Combining myriad textures, from silky glutinous surfaces and crunchy shaved ice to smooth medicinal jellies and creamy coconut milk, and flavours that are exotic to foreign palates, from yellow bean to durian, Khmer desserts are an acquired taste for many visitors. Sweets are often eaten as a snack during the day, especially in the afternoon, when you’ll find elderly ladies selling desserts that they’ve been up since the early hours of the morning making at markets such as Phsar Chas (Old Market) and Phsar Polanka (Upper West River Road).
Look out for a little old lady at Polanka Market selling one of my favourite desserts num plae ai, glutinous rice flour dumplings stuffed with palm sugar syrup, rolled in fresh grated coconut and sprinkled with sesame seeds, which swim in coconut cream or milk (2,000R or US$0.50c per serve of about ten balls). Pop them in whole so that they burst open in your mouth. Cambodian women jokingly call this glutinous sphere-like dessert genre (of which there are a handful of varieties) ‘killing husband’ because of the chance of the balls becoming trapped in the throats of drunk spouses.
If you’re concerned about hygiene, try Kaya, a lovely café opposite Old Market that specialises in Khmer desserts, drinks and shakes made from Cambodian fruits, herbs and spices. Desserts are made fresh daily with just a few on the menu, so you can keep returning to try a different one each day.
Street Food in Siem Reap
Street food is eaten throughout the day, but mostly early in the morning (soups, noodle dishes, and pork and rice) and in the late afternoon (fresh spring rolls, steamed buns, corn on the cob, prawn fritters, stir-fried noodles, chive cakes, etc) and early evening (fried noodles, BBQ ducks, small smoky grilled sausages and skewers, dried squid, etc).
There are street food streets and corners, permanent food stalls that appear at particular times, and mobile carts that you’ll see pushed or biked around Siem Reap. See this post on Footpath Feasting: Cambodian Street Food in Siem Reap.
But you do need to be careful where you eat in Siem Reap and other parts of Cambodia. It is true that poor water quality, low hygiene standards, lack of education, and the prevalence of communicable diseases make it more risky to eat street food in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh than, say, in Hanoi or Bangkok. See our Footpath Feasting post on How to Eat Safely in Cambodia. Risk-adverse travellers should consider doing a street food tour for your first outing.
The best (and first) street food tour in town is offered by the Cambodian cooks at River Garden hotel and it’s fantastic, taking in a couple of markets before hitting the street food stalls on Road 60, often referred to as ‘Khmer Pub Street’, although there is also one of those, and Road 60 is more like a fun fair with the focus on food. I’ll be writing more on both the River Garden street food tour and Road 60 in another post.
The culinary adventurous should hit one of a handful of smoke-filled corrugated-iron roofed shacks and fancier open-sided eateries on Wat Damnak Street (one block from the pagoda) in the late afternoon and early evening, for one of Siem Reap’s most popular street food snacks, sach ko ang jakak (1000r/US$0.25 per skewer), beef skewers marinated in palm sugar, soy and kroeung (a paste of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime, garlic), and then barbecued over coals on a traditional clay grill. Locals love them with pickled radish and cucumber and chilli sauce on a buttered baguette. There’s another much-loved local barbecue skewer stall on a quiet lane perpendicular to River Road on the upper reaches of the river that sets up around 5pm; arrive earlier and you’ll only see tables and chairs stacked up.
More stalls start up about the same time on the streets around Phsar Chas, from Street 11 running by Pub Street up to Sivatha Boulevard, and in the other direction toward Pokamber Avenue, where they also dot the riverside. Aimed at tourists rather than locals, you’ll nevertheless find some decent fare, including everything from fresh coconut water, sugar cane juice, iced coffee, and fresh sliced fruit and fruit shakes, to crunchy insects, num pang (Cambodian banh mi; see above) and the ubiquitous ‘roti’ pancakes.
The roti pancakes are, in fact, more like thin French-style crêpes than the roti of Indian and Malay heritage typically found around Southeast Asia, and are a legacy of the colonial days when Cambodia was a French protectorate (1863-1954). A backpacker favourite, they’re served with banana, and, ahem, chocolate sauce or Nutella.
You’ll also find vendors selling pickled fruits served with chilli, salt and sugar (a favourite with local women and mostly sold by women bearing baskets) and nom pao, the Cambodian version of Chinese steamed buns, stuffed with pork, grilled eggs, and sometimes the sweet Siem Reap-style Chinese sausage (sold by men usually, in mobile carts boasting steamers and glass display cabinets).
Siem Reap Cafés Serving Cambodian Food
If you prefer the comfort of a café with fans/air-conditioning, click through to this post for our comprehensive guide to Siem Reap’s best cafés. If you’re in the Old Market area, try lovely Kaya Café (Hospital Street, opposite Old Market, one block from riverside Pokamber Avenue) or New Leaf (virtually directly behind on Street 9; slip down the lane). Both serve affordable and authentic Cambodian food, including good Cambodian soups, noodles and curries. In the Wat Bo Road area, Cour de Maison (Street 21) also has fantastic local soups and a wonderful turmeric-tinted Cambodian curry.
Cambodian Restaurants in Siem Reap
There are countless restaurants in Siem Reap serving Khmer or Cambodian cuisine, but sadly most of them are offering up anodyne versions of local dishes that leave out the sour (chou), bitter (l’evign) and pungent (chat) notes that Khmer people love so much.
If you’re keen to experience authentic Cambodian flavours, book a table as far in advance as you can at fine dining restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak, where you can order one of two tasting menus for a wonderful introduction to contemporary Cambodian cuisine. This is not only Siem Reap’s finest restaurant, in 2015 it was named the Best Restaurant in Cambodia, placing at #50 on the 2015 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Here, long-time resident Chef Joannès Rivière creates refined renditions of Cambodian dishes, some prepared with French technique, others cooked using traditional methods. The chef changes the menu weekly, based on the availability of ingredients that he finds at the markets. Hope that the Mekong langoustine in rice paddy crab curry is on the menu. Based on a traditional rice paddy crab brain soup, here it’s prepared without the shells used in the countryside (Cambodians love texture, especially anything that crunches), and with the addition of fresh coconut milk and sweet, meaty Mekong langoustines. Although an amuse bouche is always served at the start and a plate of exotic Cambodian fruits at the end, we recommend you opt for the six-course menu ($28) and pace yourself. The restaurant is set in an elegant Khmer timber house; book upstairs for traditional atmosphere, downstairs for air-conditioning in a modern space, and the garden terrace in winter. Open Tuesday-Saturday for dinner only.
For authentic, traditional home-style Cambodian food, also served in an atmospheric Khmer wooden house with wide verandas, Sugar Palm is the best in town. Everything on the menu is delicious, although you can expect the pungent prahok to be tamed down a tad when used, as it is at most restaurants. The Cambodian-Kiwi owner Chef Kethana is the go-to person when celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Luke Nguyen are in the country doing television cooking shows, and she really knows her stuff. Sugar Palm serves up a superlative version of Cambodia’s national dish, amok trei (also written as amok trey) or fish amok. Snakehead fish from the Tonlé Sap is combined with fresh coconut cream and a kroeung (paste) of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, and chili. Here it’s served in a coconut shell; it’s usually served in a banana leaf bowl (never in a ceramic bowl). While it strays from tradition, the shrimp amok is sublime. We also love Kethana’s fried spring rolls; prahok k’tis with crudites; smokey eggplant with pork; and her Cambodian chicken curry, which is easily one of the best in Siem Reap. The restaurant is one of the most popular in town, so book ahead. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner.
On the riverside, stylish Chanrey Tree offers slightly more refined traditional Cambodian dishes, including a few that you won’t see on other menus at restaurants at this level, along with some of owner Soann Kann’s mother’s recipes. Order the crispy sticky rice crackers with natang sauce, made with minced pork, shrimp, coconut milk, and peanuts, served with fried tempura-like frangipanis and vegetables; the char kroeung of frog’s legs (or pork, chicken or beef if you’re not a fan of the frog), stir-fried with a kroeung paste of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, lime, garlic, and spring onion; and the free-range Khmer chicken, roasted with honey, rice brandy, young jack fruit and lemongrass, and served with a prahok dip and fresh vegetable crudites. The prahok k’tis at Chanrey Tree is also superb. There is air-conditioned seating upstairs in the traditional house, however, we prefer the alfresco tables in the front garden. There is a breezy back section too, however, this is currently a tad noisy due to the construction next door of a new restaurant. Also book ahead, as this has quickly become one of Siem Reap’s most popular restaurants since opening last year. If you forget to book you can take your chances. Soann’s adjoining French restaurant, Sokhak River, takes some spillover and offers both menus. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
For contemporary Cambodian and Asian-fusion tapas-sized dishes and sharing plates (pictured above), along with generously-sized portions of authentic Cambodian specialties, try Marum. This hospitality-training restaurant ran by Friends International is set in a timber house with vibrant art on the walls and boasts alfresco seating on a terrace in lovely, leafy gardens. The menu is constantly tweaked, but if they’re listed when you dine, sample the red tree ant fritters, barbecued pork ribs with apple and daikon salad, and the roast duck and pumpkin croquettes with citrus and hoisin sauce. Choose carefully as not everyone like the imaginative pan-Asian flavour combinations. Please don’t forget it’s a training restaurant so the student chefs are learning by experimenting and adapting in response to customer feedback. And because it’s a hospitality school, the student waiting staff are also learning and this is their first time working in a restaurant. They can be very shy and nervous, and their English is fairly basic, so please be kind, patient and speak slowly and clearly (yes, that does make a difference). If you’re concerned your order might not have been taken correctly or you’re having communication difficulties, ask politely to speak to an Instructor. Both are clearly identified by their t-shirts. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Restaurants to Avoid in Siem Reap
If you want authentic, quality Cambodian and Khmer cuisine, avoid the tourist restaurants on Pub Street, which tend to offer tame renditions of Khmer dishes and curries that are closer in flavour to Thai food, with which most visitors are more familiar. If you’re here over a national or religious holiday such as Khmer New Year when the best restaurants are closed or if you’re not fussy, you’re not a fan of Cambodia’s pungent, sour and bitter notes, or you prefer the busy Old Market/Pub Street atmosphere over good food, then try Amok (on The Passage) for lane-side action, well-meaning staff and Fawlty Towers-like service, and Old House (opposite Siem Reap Provincial Hospital), which has great value set menus of decent Thai-Cambodian food.
Updated: December 2015.
If you’re looking for more eating and drinking tips, see our Eating Out in Siem Reap (soon to be updated), Best Bars in Siem Reap, Best Cafes in Siem Reap, and Cambodian Street Food in Siem Reap from our Footpath Feasting series on street food around the globe.
If you’re planning to visit Cambodia, consider Savour Siem Reap, the bespoke culinary experiences I offer, or our 2016 Culinary Travel Writing and Photography Retreats, which we’re hosting in Siem Reap in May and October 2016.