For most travellers, Siem Reap has been little more than a departure point for exploring Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples. Yet it hasn’t always been that way. And once again the riverside city is offering visitors more to do than scramble archaeological sites.
Until the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Siem Reap had been something of a celebrity hot spot. Its heyday was the 1960s, when King Sihanouk built a groovy guesthouse (now the Amansara) and everyone from the dapper Charlie Chaplin to fashion icon Jackie Kennedy visited the Cambodian city.
In recent years Siem Reap has become something of a destination in itself, especially for Asian travellers – and Americans too, if Siem Reap’s #7 spot on Travel and Leisure’s 2011 World’s Best Cities list is any indication – which is how we came to find ourselves there for a week discovering the cool little shops, restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels that are luring travellers here once more.
Like Phnom Penh (see my shopping itinerary for that city here), Siem Reap’s most interesting shops are small, independently owned businesses, started by Cambodians, Cambodian emigrants returning home, or expats with a strong connection to the place. Which is so refreshing to see. If there’s one thing that drives me nuts as far as cities are concerned, it’s that all the main streets are starting to look the same, lined with global franchises found all around the world.
So here are my picks of Siem Reap’s most stylish shops, in an easy-to-follow shopping itinerary for you.
YOUR SIEM REAP SHOPPING ITINERARY
START on the vibrant little lane called Alley West, at the Sivutha Boulevard end, in the centre of Siem Reap. Alley West runs parallel to backpacker party zone Pub Street, which should be avoided at all costs. Whereas the latter is crammed with loud, characterless bars selling cheap beers, the former is lined with chic boutiques, jewellery and accessories stores, interior décor shops, art and photography galleries, a handful of cafés and bars, and even a boutique hotel.
First stop, on your right, should be Wild Poppy (855 77 568 874), owned by an Australian couple, which has rack after rack of very feminine cotton frocks in pretty vintage-inspired patterns and florals made from Cambodian cotton that are ideal for Siem Reap’s sticky heat. There was also some gorgeous jewellery crafted from colourful beads and buttons when we dropped by.
Next is Poetry (855 63 963 207), an edgy store that wouldn’t be out of place in inner city Sydney or Melbourne. Ran by Filipino creative entrepreneur Loven Ramos, an artist, designer and gallery-café owner, Poetry stocks an engaging mix of avant-garde fashion, quirky jewellery and accessories, along with cool stickers, posters, and badges branded with bold political slogans. In the back room and upstairs, you’ll find vintage clothes.
A bit further down the alley on the left, you’ll see two more pretty stores. At Waterlily (855 12 812 469), there’s plenty of flirty boho-chic fashion, funky belts and flatties, and French designer Christine Gauthier’s gorgeous recycled jewellery made from buttons, resin and electrical cables. Next door is Wanderlust, owned by New Yorker Elizabeth Kiester, which had racks of summery shirt dresses and retro-inspired smock when I last called in, as well as clutch purses made from recycled rice bags.
Opposite, on the right side of the alley are a couple more beautiful shops, including Tendance Khmere which is crammed with lovely colourful Cambodian silk quilts, curtains, cushions, cushion covers, and bags, and Smateria (www.smateria.com), which has a huge range of recycled, eco-friendly bags, handbags, wallets, and purses, all of which are Italian-designed but locally made.
Back on the other side, you should spot Art Deli, a bohemian café owned by Loven Ramos, in case you need a coffee or cold drink. Pass the restaurants clustered at the end of the alley and cross the street to a continuation of Alley West which is also called The Passage.
About halfway down the lane — after the bars, AHA restaurant (see our review here) and the McDermott Gallery, which sells black and white photographs of Angkor sites and shows art in the upstairs gallery — you’ll spot Garden of Desire (855 12 319 116), the exquisite jewellery store of Cambodian Pisith Ly, who makes wonderful jewellery from precious gems, quality metals and natural materials, like stone and wood.
We talked to Pisith at some length about the symbolism, meanings and stories behind his jewellery pieces. Pisith fled Cambodia as a young child after the Khmer Rouge murdered his family and moved to Paris where he studied fine arts and designed for Alain Mikli and Phillipe Starck. He returned to Siem Reap to try to come to terms with his past and his jewellery tells his stories, reflecting his own process of coming to terms with his tragic early life.
On Pithnou Street, grab a tuk-tuk to take you to your next destinations. Tell the driver you’re going to want him for a couple of hours and that you’ll need him to wait for you. It shouldn’t be a problem but if it is simply grab another.
Get the driver to take you to Phum Veal or Veal village, just a 10-minute drive away, to Theam’s House (www.theamshouse.com), a stunning gallery of quality Khmer art and crafts set in the inviting home (and tranquil garden) of artist Theam Lim, who was the artistic director of Artisans d’Angkor for 10 years. Here you’ll find original art, lovely lacquerware, cute colourful elephants, and carved and sculpted Buddha images. If you have a passion for art, ask to see the studio out back where you can watch artists at work.
Around the corner is the atelier of Madagascar-born Eric Raisina (www.ericraisina.com), a handsome Paris-trained fashion designer who is something of a celebrity in Siem Reap, his home for the past seven years. Eric makes the most enchanting flowing silk dresses, skirts, blouses, and scarves, made with the attention to detail you’d expect of a designer who has worked for Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent. What’s even more wonderful than his gorgeous clothes are the fabulous prices — which are very affordable for the quality of workmanship. Make sure you phone ahead before dropping into Eric’s atelier, and if a visit isn’t convenient, you can always drop by his store at your next stop…
Get your driver to take you to the Foreign Correspondents Club Angkor (FCC; www.fcccambodia.com), which, while famous for its bar, a lovely spot for sundowners, is also home to half a dozen more gorgeous stores. Starting out front, there’s another branch of Wanderlust and, adjacent, Jasmine (www.jasmineboutique.net), an elegant boutique owned by Australian Cassandra McMillan and New Zealander Kellianne Karatau (I wrote about their Phnom Penh shop here), where the specialty is dressy frocks and accessories in Cambodian silks.
Around the corner, you won’t be able to miss Wa Gallery (855 92 746 287), which actually consists of two shops. Wa Gallery is the place to pick up kooky gifts and kitschy souvenirs, such as bright-coloured statues of Buddha and Ghanesh in glass and plastic, colourful Perspex salad servers, and zany jewellery. They also have handwoven karmas, the traditional checked Khmer scarf, which, while more expensive than those at the market are better quality. Have a drink upstairs at the FCC Angkor if you’re thirsty, otherwise…
FINISH by directing your tuk-tuk driver along River Road to your last stop, a funky two-storey Sixties-era villa housing 1961 (www.the1961.com), an edgy art gallery, artists’ retreat, performance space, and breezy café-bar opened this year by Loven Ramos. If you can’t find any art you want to buy, there’s also a boutique selling unique arty-inspired gifts. Otherwise, have a well-deserved drink in the café.
UPDATE 2014: Sadly, some of the above shops and venues have shut down: Poetry, Waterlilly, Wanderlust, Tendance Khmere, and Art Deli. Eric Raisina has opened a couture house at Charming City and a third boutique at Cassia, while Loven Ramos’ The 1961 has transformed into a co-working space although it still has a gallery and holds arty events. We’ll be providing a comprehensive updated Siem Reap shopping guide in mid 2016.