AS captivating as the temples of Angkor may be, Cambodia’s scorching sun, gritty air and pot-holed roads inevitably take their toll on even the hardiest travelers. Perhaps it’s by necessity, then, that Siem Reap, the town that lodges and feeds Angkor’s million annual visitors, has evolved into a chic haven of rest and relaxation. An international group of chefs has set up the country’s finest tables there, and bartenders in the vibrant night life are versed in sophisticated cocktails. Contemporary art has also found itself a home, with a gallery scene intent on nurturing local artists. It’s as though Siem Reap is finally picking up where the Angkorian kings left off some 600 years ago, resurrecting itself as the center of Khmer taste and culture.
1) ANGKOR ART
With Angkor Wat’s inspiring beauty just five miles away, it’s not hard to see why Siem Reap is at the heart of Cambodia’s flourishing art scene. Galleries are popping up in renovated shop houses, and hotels now exhibit the work of young Khmers and regional expats. Art Venues, a free brochure available in upmarket hotels, maps out walking tours to the town’s best spots. McDermott Gallery (FCC Complex, Pokambor Avenue; 855-12-274-274; www.mcdermottgallery.com), known for its emotive, dreamlike photographs of Angkor, takes Asia’s cultural heritage as its curatorial focus. At the Arts Lounge inside the fashionable Hôtel de la Paix (Sivatha Boulevard; 855-63-966-000; www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com), contemporary works fill the minimalist space, where well-heeled guests sip designer cocktails like the Oolong Kiwi Sling, made with tea and vodka.
2) SWINGING CURRIES
Cambodian cooking doesn’t get the attention it deserves, especially compared with the fare of its food-trendy neighbors, Thailand andVietnam. Though the basic ingredients are similar — lemongrass, garlic, ginger, fish sauce — Khmer cooking is subtler and lighter, employing less chili, pungent herbs and coconut milk. For an innovative lesson on local flavors, sample the seven-course Khmer tasting menu ($31) at Méric, a dimly lighted Art Deco-themed restaurant, also at the Hótel de la Paix (note: dollars are widely accepted in Siem Reap). Dishes, which change daily, might include chicken and pumpkin saraman (a type of Khmer curry) and stir-fried frog’s legs with holy basil served in hollowed-out bamboo reeds and miniature woks. To heighten the experience, dine on one of Méric’s hanging cushioned daybeds, which swing alongside a flame-lighted pool.
3) FLOWER BATH
Prolong the post-dinner buzz with a pre-slumber rubdown at Frangipani Spa (617/615 Hup Guan Street; 855-12-982-062;www.frangipanisiemreap.com). With modern art on the walls and fresh orchids in vases, the spa feels like the plush digs of a fashionable friend’s home. Sink into the low sofa as you sip tamarind juice while your feet are bathed in a frangipani-filled tub, the prep to a glorious 60-minute massage (from $22).
4) VIEW FROM ON HIGH
It might be brutal, but it’s worth getting up this early to experience the famous Buddhist temples of Angkor Archaeological Park (admission, $20), the 155-square-mile area that counts Angkor Wat among its more than 100 temples. Less crowded at this hour is the ninth-century Phnom Bakheng, a five-tiered, rectangular temple built on a hill. The few lotus-shaped towers that remain are testament to the 108 that once stood. You’ll have to work for the view: it’s a 15-minute hike up to the sandstone terrace, which overlooks an endless expanse of jungle and mist-shrouded hills. It’s a mesmerizing spot from which to watch the sun paint the sky in blues and oranges.
5) MINING FOR HISTORY
It’s on an idyllic country road lined with stilt houses and lush, neon-green rice fields, but the Cambodia Landmine Museum (20 miles northeast of Siem Reap on the road to Banteay Srei; 855-12-598-951; www.cambodialandminemuseum.org) is a jarring reminder of the country’s three decades of war. Established by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier named Aki Ra, the museum provides a detailed account of Cambodia’s political and social upheaval, including the Khmer Rouge insurgency, which ended only 10 years ago. Efforts to clear unexploded ordnance and millions of land mines have been made since the 1990s, yet it’s estimated that fewer than half have been cleared. Mr. Aki Ra has deactivated about 50,000 of them; many are on view.
6) COLONIAL COOKING
Cambodia’s heat and intensity demand long, replenishing lunches. Only a Frenchman could dream up Chez Sophéa (across from Angkor Wat; 855-12-858-003), an open-air restaurant with wooden tables and white linens that serves rillettes de canard, charcoal-grilled steaks and crème de chocolat — all next door to the temples. The owner, Matthieu Ravaux, lives on the premises, so you’re technically eating in his dining room. Set menu for $18.
7) FAIR-TRADE SHOPPING
After a lunch-induced nap, it’s time to put your dollars to good use at some of Siem Reap’s community-friendly shops. In the center of town, Senteurs d’Angkor (Pithnou Street; 855-63-964-801; www.senteursdangkor.com) sells spices, coffee and bath products, wrapped in palm-leaf packages. For flirty frocks and custom-made quilts, try Samatoa (Pithnou Street; 855-63-96-53-10;www.samatoa.com), a fair-trade label that specializes in silk. The hand-painted cards and cute canvas bags at Rajana (Pub Street; 855-12-481-894; www.rajanacrafts.org) are produced by Cambodians down on their luck.
8) COMMUNIST KITCHEN
There’s no need to reserve a table at Restaurant Pyongyang (4 Airport Road; 855-63-760-260) — it seats over 400. Besides, it would be anti-Communist. Every evening, between servings of fantastic bulgogi ($8.70) and bibimbap ($6), pretty North Korean waitresses in short red dresses put on elaborate song and dance routines. Though the tile floors and faux-wood paneling aren’t exactly impressive, the cultural pageantry is. With a karaoke screen displaying waterfalls and snow-capped mountains, the girls perform peppy propaganda tunes to a compliant and clapping audience.
9) RED LANTERN DISTRICT
With a name like Pub Street, you won’t have any trouble finding Siem Reap’s prime night-life drag. But if beer girls, big-screen TVs and $3 pitchers aren’t your style, head a block north to Miss Wong (the Lane; 855-92-428-332) for a taste of vintage Shanghai. The cherry-red lantern that dangles from the doorway beckons passers-by. Inside, slip into one of the intimate leather booths for an Indochine Martini, a mixture of vodka, ginger cognac and fresh pineapple juice ($4.50). For dance beats and late-night snacks, take the party two blocks to trendy Linga Bar (the Passage; 855-12-246-912; www.lingabar.com), a mixed, gay-friendly lounge with killer mojitos.
10) BARGAIN BREAKFAST
Early morning is social hour for Khmers, with men filling outdoor cafes to sip iced coffee and women gathering at local markets to shop and eat breakfast. At Psar Chaa, or Old Market, the butchers and produce sellers will be in full force, peddling dried fish, fruit stacked in neat pyramids, and freshly pounded kroeung (an herbal paste used in many dishes). Pull up a plastic stool at one of the food counters and order a bowl of baay sac chruuk — superthin pieces of grilled pork served with white rice and a tangy cucumber and ginger salad (about 5,000 riel, $1.27, at 4,029 riel to the dollar).
11) SLEEPING BEAUTY
Until a few years ago, tough road conditions meant that only the bravest travelers ventured to Beng Mealea (45 miles from Siem Reap on the road to Koh Ker), a sprawling sandstone temple that has been nearly consumed by the jungle. But a new route replaced the single-plank bridges and motorbike-only track, cutting the travel time from a half-day to just under an hour by car. Built in the 12th century, this forgotten sanctuary is nearly as big as Angkor Wat but gets a fraction of the visitors. The destruction is breathtaking: towers reduced to tall mounds of rubble, thick webs of tree roots snaking through the walls, and faceless carvings, their heads cut out and sold. Still, the place has seen worse: until 2003, the surrounding grounds were littered with land mines. Now it’s ripe for a fresh start.
Flights to Siem Reap from the United States require a plane change. A recent online search found an Asiana Airlines flight fromKennedy Airport to Siem Reap, via Seoul, starting at $1,200 for travel in January. From Siem Reap Airport, it’s a $5 taxi ride into town.
The Khmer-chic rooms at La Résidence d’Angkor (River Road; 855-63-963-390; www.residencedangkor.com) have hardwood floors, silk and bamboo accents and giant whirlpool tubs. Rooms start at $175.
With its minimalist aesthetic, neutral palette and saltwater pool, the seven-room Viroth’s Hotel (0658 Wat Bo Village; 855-63-761-720;www.viroth-hotel.com) provides a welcome respite from temple overload. Rooms from $80.