Welcome to my place . . . Siem Reap, Cambodia
Dubliner Robina Hanley shares her tips for visiting Ankor Wat and finding a great Khmer curry
Monks make their way to Angkor Wat, five kilometres north of Siem Reap. It is hidden among forests. The temples took their place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992
Born in Dublin and raised in Castleknock, Robina Hanley grew up beside the Phoenix Park, which she fondly refers to as her back garden. Robina moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia 13 years ago and founded Siem Reap Art Tours, an art-intensive experience for visitors to Siem Reap who want to brush shoulders with the strong creative community who live there.
Where is the first place you always bring people to when they visit Siem Reap?
The ancient temples of Angkor should be everyone’s first stop in Siem Reap. Built during the height of the Khmer Empire, they are sacred sites and home to a vast complex of majestic monuments built between ninth and 13th centuries. The largest (and most famous) of these is Angkor Wat, a 12th century structure that is an active house of worship to this day and one of the largest religious temples in the world. There are over 4,000 temples dotted throughout Cambodia, but Siem Reap houses the most revered.
The top three things to do there, that don’t cost money, are . . .
Cycling to the local lotus farms and witnessing a stunning sunset over the pink and green-filled landscape whilst swinging in a hammock and sipping a beer. The lotus is the national flower of Cambodia and grows in abundance in rivers, lakes and ponds. Seeing thousands of them for miles as the sun disappears in the distance is a vision not to be missed.
A visit to One Eleven Gallery in the heart of Siem Reap is a must. This chic space showcases a range of work from locally based artists such as renowned Belgian painter Christian Develter and his vibrant Chin Series, works of art dedicated to the beautiful facially tattooed women of north-western Myanmar.
It also features work by emerging Cambodian artists such as Kek Soon and her impressive limited-edition woodcut series. Pull up a pew, order a glass of wine or one of One Eleven’s delicious signature cocktails (the gallery has a bar too) and take in the peaceful artistry. Alternatively, relax outside on one of the cushioned benches and watch in awe as the mayhem that is Cambodian traffic whizzes by.
One of the most beautiful pagodas in Siem Reap, Wat Preah Prom Rath is right across from One Eleven Gallery in town and everyone is welcome to visit.
Brightly painted statues of animals and Cambodian mythical creatures adorn the gardens and the monastery itself boasts incredible wall paintings.
Just ensure you are respectfully attired when visiting active religious buildings and remove your shoes before entering (you will know when to do this when you see piles of shoes at entrances).
Where do you recommend for a great meal that gives a flavour of Siem Reap?
Cuisine Wat Damnak is hands-down my favourite restaurant in the entire country. Established in 2011 by chef Joannès Rivière and his partner Carole Salmon, this restaurant is a true tribute to authentic Cambodian food.
Having arrived in Siem Reap in 2003 Joannès immediately immersed himself in Cambodia’s culinary culture. Fluent in Khmer, this highly talented chef personally visits local markets each morning to source the freshest local fish, meats, herbs, spices and fruits.
They keep themselves on their toes by changing the menu every two weeks to guarantee seasonal and market dependable produce. Cuisine Wat Damnak is the only restaurant in Cambodia ever to be featured in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. (Joannès spent time in Allihies near Castletown Berehaven in the early 1990s and has very fond memories of his time in Ireland).
Where is the best place to get a sense of Siem Reap’s place in history?
Some 15km east of Siem Reap lie the Rolous group of temples. Built during the reign of King Jayavarman II, they mark the beginning of the classical period of Khmer civilisation. Comprising of three main temples (Bakhong, Lolei and Preah Ko) they are paramount in Khmer history as from this spot emerged one of the richest empires in Southeast Asian history.
What should visitors save room in their suitcase for after a visit to Siem Reap?
Kampot peppercorns are famed throughout the world and, like a bona fide Champagne, can only be grown in one specific region. The peppercorns are organically grown and produced in green, black, white and red varieties, all from the same plant. They are incredibly fragrant and were recently described as “black gold” by renowned Momofuko restauranteur David Chang. Stock up, you won’t be disappointed.
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