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.
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
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/
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/
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
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
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
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/
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
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.