Adventurous Khmer cuisine provides an unexpected introduction to the gateway city of Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor.
Savory red ants. Grilled beehive salad. Padi crab smashed in coconut broth. Pork sausage with peanuts and mung beans. What’s not to like when you’re dining with Chef Mengly in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second city?
Mork Mengly, 33, is the owner and executive chef at POU Restaurant, an open-air oasis of casual fine dining on Wat Bo Road, a short tuk tuk ride from the urban center. Together with his wife, who runs the front of the house (sometimes assisted by their two young children), and an enthusiastic team of servers and cooks, the young chef has captured the hearts and palates of tourists and locals alike.
Mengly couples his own creativity with time-tested family recipes and a gentle ambience reflective of Cambodian nature. I found my way here on the recommendation of my friend Jeff Hunt, an American chef who travels the world to find unique dishes worthy of his own kitchen. Here, he found a culinary gold mine.
Before my visit to POU, I was already impressed by Cambodian cuisine. The flavors of traditional plates like fish amok (a steamed coconut-cream curry) and beef lok lak (“shaking beef,” sauteed with vegetables) are as ubiquitous in this country as are noodle soups in neighboring Vietnam. These of course appear on Mengly’s menu, though disguised as catfish curry with sugar palm and egg, and chunks of beef marinated in a pepper lime sauce.
Following Hunt’s suggestion, I ask Mengly simply to cook for me. This is what he makes:
- Num kruk dumplings and pomelo salad. Num kruk is a sort of pancake, a rice-flour dumpling that makes a popular street snack. Sweet and spicy, shaped into a plump ball and lightly fried, it’s made with coconut milk and a smidgen of chili paste. Mengly invigorates it with a sauce of beet root and galangal (local ginger). He acccompanies the dumpling with a pomelo salad, garlic-coriander dressing and freshwater shrimp.
- Jungle sour beef with red tree ants. Also known as weaver or fire ants, these tree-nesting insects get large and aggressive as they mature. Mengly uses young ants and larvae for the tangy, mildly sour “pop” they lend to meats, preparing them in a broth or dressing, stir-fried with lemongrass, shallots and chilies. The beef, thinly sliced, is grilled with green peppercorns in prahok, a salted and fermented fish paste, and served with rice and sour krasang fruit.
- Kulen Mountain sausage. Heavily wooded Phnom Kulen, 20 miles northeast of Siem Reap, is a holy highland for Buddhists and Hindus alike. Although it is a wildlife sanctuary, its resident wild boars remain fair game for hunters. Pork is minced, and before it is stuffed into a casing, Mengly blends it with spices such as galangal and turmeric, peanuts and mung beans. More of his red tree-ant dressing goes into a salad of Cambodian leaves and lettuces.
Siem Reap, with a population of around a quarter million, is the gateway city to Cambodia’s internationally renowned tourist attraction, the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. Siem Reap has a sort of fading French colonial-era charm, even as Chinese investment in the hospitality and transportation sectors is steadily on the rise. As a tourism hub, it has scores of comfortable lodgings to complement dining and nightlife options.
I enjoy late afternoons beside the Tonlé Sap River, a sleepy stream not much wider than an irrigation canal. From my sunlit stool at the Scribe Bar on Pokambor Avenue, I gaze at a park strip and watch the human traffic — walkers, joggers, bicyclists, none of the frantic motorists I’ve become accustomed to Ho Chi Minh City — follow the flow of the river southward through the city toward the Great Lake (the Tonlé Sap) and, eventually, the Mekong River.
I finish my chilled chardonnay, easier to find in this Francophile city than in beer-happy Saigon, and join the promenade. More than a dozen colorfully lit bridges, some for pedestrians only, add personality. I pass a long stretch of street-food stalls along the riverbank, then cross to the Psar Chaa, the Old Market, where a cluster of vendors sell everything from gaudy wardrobe additions to tourist-ready Buddha images, day and night.
Unlike most Asian countries, Cambodia accepts American dollars as readily as it does its own currency, the riel. Indeed, nearly every ATM machine dispenses U.S. cash at a rate of 4,000 riel to the dollar.
I pass through the Old Market corner to corner and find myself on Pub Street, at the heart of Siem Reap. Only about two blocks long, not counting a matrix of narrow cross-passages linking to The Lane and The Alley, Pub Street is the hub of visitor activity in the twilight and evening hours.
With its bright lights and colored streamers, Pub Street is impossible to miss. The Red Piano and the Temple Club, which face one another at the intersection of Street 11, are at the center of the action; both start the evening as restaurants but shift their emphasis to alcohol as the night progresses. (Angelina Jolie was said to have been a regular at the Piano when she was filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2000.) Nearby is Angkor WHAT?, a local institution for 25 years.
I see plenty of street food to shock tourists (think scorpions and tarantulas) and more fried ice-cream stalls than I can count. But the restaurant food is good. On different nights, I enjoy freshly grilled seafood at the K.R. Kitchen, Sri Lankan food at Serendib, and enchiladas at Viva! Mexican and Khmer Cuisine (a combination I didn’t believe possible).
At the end of an evening, I can count on finding a tuk tuk driver to return me to my lodging. The motorized three-wheelers are often customized to reflect their owner’s individual exuberance.
Taking in the sights
Aside from Angkor Wat and the Angkor ruins, which cannot be properly appreciated in fewer than three days, there are at least three other essential sites for visitors to Siem Reap, all of them within the city itself.
First is the elegant Angkor National Museum, north of the gracious Royal Residence and the stately Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. After my first-day survey of the grounds of ancient Angkor, I made a point to stop at the museum before returning for a second and third day. It proved to be an astute choice. The museum lays out the historical arc of the Angkor civilization: its precursors, its demise, the kings who directed its fortunes, including the 12th-century turn from Hinduism to Buddhism. Detailed explanation of inscriptions and bas-relief artworks enhanced my understanding, and the Gallery of One Thousand Buddhas displays more icons of the revered spiritual teacher than I’ve seen in any one place before.
As a lover of traditional cultural arts and crafts, I also thoroughly appreciated my visit to Artisans d’Angkor. Designed as a school for artisans, Les Chantiers Écoles teaches job skills to young and not-so-young Cambodians. Free guided or self-guided tours lead through a series of workshops where apprentices study wood- and stone-carving, silk weaving and painting, lacquerware production, and other arts that can produce a reasonable profit in today’s tourist economy.
Of several memorable Buddhist pagodas in Siem Reap, my favorite is Wat Preah Prom Rath, which faces the Tonle Sap River a few hundred meters north of the Old Market. Neither as historic nor as elegant as others, it nonetheless has a sort of pop culture appeal. Cartoon-like murals on gallery walls tell the life story of Prince Gautama Siddhartha, who became the Buddha (the “Enlightened One”) in the 6th Century B.C. Outside, life-size replicas depict some of the chapters illustrated inside, such as the young prince’s discovery of human misery outside the palace walls. Another reproduction recalls a 15th-century monk’s frequent travels by boat.
For anyone coming to Cambodia from Vietnam, the dissimilarities in Buddhist sites cannot be understated. Cambodia, a Theravada Buddhist country, is more like Thailand in its worship and architectural styles, including towering chedi and pavilions covered with gold leaf. Vietnam, a Mahayana Buddhist land with a strong “mother goddess” element in its worship, is more subdued. Indeed Vietnam’s brown-robed monks are seen far less than the saffron-robed adherents I meet in Cambodia. I was grateful for the opportunity at Wat Bo to sit and converse with a young apprentice monk, quietly reading but wanting to practice English.
Flights into Siem Reap are expensive — in part, I’m sure, because dollars are helping to pay for a new international airport presently under construction (thank you, China) — so I take the bus, six hours from Phnom Penh, twice that from Ho Chi Minh City, a bit less from Bangkok, including passport controls at the borders. The journey is not unpleasant, and sleeper buses with reclining seats and private cubicles are widely available.
I stay 10 days in Siem Reap and split my sojourn between two budget hotels. The Okay 1 Villa has spacious rooms and a rooftop pool and restaurant, but it has a dark, outdated feel; I eat breakfast each day at the brighter Bokre Angkor Hostel, just next door. My private quarters are less attractive when I move to the Five Rose Siem Reap Hostel, across the river to the east, but Five Rose has a more upbeat vibe than the Okay 1. And another excellent, low-priced dining spot is nearby at the Brother Bong Café.
Before departing Siem Reap, I return once more to Pou to visit Mengly and dine on green duck curry with num banhchok rice noodles. “When you come back,” says Mengly, who speaks excellent English, “you might like to join one of my cooking classes.”
Wow! Bonus! I don’t know where I’ll find red tree ants at my local market, but I’ll certainly welcome the opportunity to learn how to make fish amok and beef lok lak!