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View of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia - Beboy_ltd/iStock/Thinkstock

Just Back From: Cambodia

The Harper Way August 3, 2017 | By Andrew Harper Staff

In this series, we talk to Andrew Harper digital editor Kristen Remeza about her 15-day trip to Southeast Asia. In total, she visited five countries: Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, with short day-trips to Myanmar and Laos. A highlight of her time in Cambodia was visiting Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, and eating her way across Siem Reap.

Overall impressions: Siem Reap pulses with energy. Life happens on the street, at the food stalls, markets and bars lining the dusty roadways that play host to the millions of tourists who visit each year. The country is still recovering from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge, which killed more than 2.2 million people and had guerrilla groups fighting for it as late as 1994, but the people are kind and resilient and there's a new wave of resourceful entrepreneurs helping to boost the economy.

Favorite moment: Setting my eyes on Angkor Wat for the first time, at sunrise. Nothing prepares you for the sheer immensity of it.

Kristen and her husband in front of the Temple at Angkor Wat at sunrise Photo by Kristen Remeza

Insider’s tip: Siem Reap is lively and crowded, but 10 minutes away you can relax at Amansara, a private enclave on the grounds once owned by King Norodom Sihanouk. My husband and I stayed at the absolutely enchanting Phum Baitang, southwest of the city center and 20 minutes from Angkor Wat. Consisting of 45 traditional Khmer-style villas that surround working rice paddies, the property replicates a Cambodian village. It is a favorite of actress Angelina Jolie’s, who stayed there for three months while filming her upcoming work, “First They Killed My Father.”

The pool deck at Phum Baitang in Siem Reap - Photo by Kristen Remeza
A working rice paddy on the grounds of Phum Baitang - Photo by Kristen Remeza
The exterior of the Khmer-style villas on the grounds of Phum Baitang - Photo by Kristen Remeza

You can’t stop thinking about: How to help the people of Cambodia. We had some very honest conversations with locals about the plight of the people and the well-known corruption of the government. With that in mind, we made a concerted effort to put money back into the local economy by using Cambodian guides, eating at Cambodian-owned restaurants and patronizing farmers and cooks at the food markets.

Day-trip suggestions: To see Angkor Wat in comfort, be sure to hire a private guide and car. The sites are far enough apart that walking isn’t feasible, not to mention you’ll appreciate the cold towels and air-conditioning they offer — especially during rainy season. Our Classic tour with Angkor Guide Sam was excellent: Our guide helped us navigate the crowded ticketing center at 4:30 a.m. and escorted us through a near-vacant entrance to some of the quieter temples that weren't overrun with tourists — quite a feat at Angkor Wat.

Surprising fact or tidbit: The entire Angkor Archaeological Park is twice as big as Manhattan. In its heyday, in the early 12th century, it supported almost 1 million people and was the largest city in the world until the Industrial Revolution.

Food tour: Siem Reap Food Tours’ evening excursion was quite enjoyable. Our guide and driver picked us up in a tuk tuk for an almost four-hour tour in which we tried green curry sea bass roasted over hot coals; barbecued beef with prahok, fermented fish sauce; durian, a coveted local — and smelly — fruit; rich duck soup; and sausage-stuffed frog on a stick. Our most colorful stop was the fair and food market on Road 60, commonly called Picnic Lane, where families come to eat next to their favorite street food stalls on pallets next to the road. We were some of the only Westerners there, so it felt like a more authentic and undiscovered night market.

A food vendor selling her wares at the Road 60 night market, part of the Siem Reap Food Tour - Photo by Kristen Remeza
Sausage-stuffed frog from the Road 60 night market - Photo by Kristen Remeza

Favorite dish: Sela Cham’s duck soup at his restaurant, Muscovy Duck Soup, which serves just one amazing dish. Seated at an outdoor table with the owner’s dog at our feet, we were given a bowl of broth containing pieces of duck, precooked taro, fried tofu and congealed duck blood to heat on a portable propane cooktop. We got two bowls of vegetables and greens from which we added baby corn, cabbage and oyster mushrooms, mustard greens, morning glory, Thai basil and plaew kangkep, which translates to “frog’s leg” and tastes like caraway seed. Condiments included tofu sauce, fermented soy bean sauce and chile-based duck fat. Like an intensely layered gumbo, this duck soup was hearty and rich and could have fed eight people.

Our tour guide stirring the large pot of duck soup at Muscovy Duck Soup Photo by Kristen Remeza

Favorite restaurants: I love the mission of Haven, a training restaurant that helps disadvantaged Cambodian youths land jobs in the service industry. It is inexpensive, clean and tucked away off a side street with a lovely garden.

The exterior of Muscovy Duck Soup Photo by Kristen Remeza

Also doing his part for the community is the owner of Muscovy Duck Soup. Sela provides agricultural education to people in the surrounding province, helping them turn their land into small vegetable gardens and teaching them how to compost, recycle and breed ducks. He then buys their produce for use in his restaurant, where he teaches his employees English.

Where to drink: If you are staying at Phum Baitang, the place to drink is the balcony of the cocktail bar there, watching the sun set over the rice paddy fields — an incredibly beautiful and peaceful experience. But if you want to be in the thick of things, watching hordes of tourists and consuming very cheap beer among backpackers and fish pedicure customers, then Pub Street will be your destination of choice.

Backpackers and tourists walking along the illuminated Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia Getty/Mlenny

Souvenir: A linen shirt by Thai fashion designer NoteKo that my husband bought at the Onyx boutique at Phum Baitang. The store is so well curated you might first mistake it for a stylish gallery. NoteKo has another shop in the Old Market of central Siem Reap.

What to pack: When visiting the temples, visitors need to have their knees and shoulders covered. And mere scarves won’t do: One woman waited in line behind us only to be turned away because her scarf was deemed inappropriate coverage.

Good to know: Cambodia primarily uses American currency.

Any regrets? That I couldn’t finish that wonderful duck soup.

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