Postcards from Siem Reap

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia’s borders are currently closed for tourists and nonessential travel. This post is about my trip to Cambodia in September 2019 and is meant as a guide for future travel once it is safe and responsible to travel abroad. 

I can still smell the lemongrass. I can still hear the tuk-tuks zipping by on the streets. I can still taste the tamarind. I can still feel the refreshing rain on my skin in the middle of a very hot and humid day. I can still see Cambodia. Two years ago this month, I embarked on one of the most memorable adventures in my life. I’ve always been an adventurous person, and I’ve always been someone who likes to trek off the beaten path. Cambodia had always been on my list, and during my first visit to Hong Kong in September 2019, I decided to scratch it off my bucket list and hop on a quick flight southwest to Siem Reap. In fact, this was a last minute trip. I was actually all booked and ready to go somewhere else, but I decided to save my original destination for another time. My beau asked me where we would like to go instead, and our top choices were between Hoi An, Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia. We decided to save Hội An for Tết during Lunar New Year, so off we went to Siem Reap.

This was the first true adventure for my beau and me, as he had never been to Cambodia before either. The first of many, we hope (*ahem* hurry up COVID-19 and go away). I was not sure what to expect for my first visit to Cambodia. All I felt was pure excitement at getting to visit and explore a whole new country for 3 incredible days. Even now as I write this post two years later, I can still feel that excited feeling as I reflect on such an adventure. This was not a work trip but a private vacation paid for entirely by myself. No sponsors. No partnerships. Of course once I arrived in Cambodia, I knew I’d just have to share all about it. But when the pandemic hit, I wasn’t sure if travel posts were appropriate while we were all in lockdown and, to top it all off, Cambodia sealed off their borders. But nostalgia and wanderlust have helped to keep a lot of us going during these times, so here it is – my long awaited recap on my trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Siem Reap is about a 2 hour flight from Hong Kong, so we hopped on a Cathay Dragon flight (RIP Cathay Dragon) that brought us to Cambodia just as the sun began to set. Summer thunderstorms were slowly departing the region, so to the east were these dark, voluminous thunderheads but to the west was a pink, purple, and orange sunset beckoning our arrival. A visa is required when arriving in Cambodia, even as a tourist, and it is best to do your visa approval online a few days prior to your arrival. Since we had applied for our visas and were approved just before we arrived in Siem Reap, we got to skip straight ahead to immigration and then onwards to baggage claim. Just a note: at Siem Reap airport, you disembark and embark your plane outside, so be prepared to go up and down stairs to get off and back on to your airplane.

By the time we emerged from the arrivals hall, the sun had mostly set. While the sun was no longer visible, the heat and humidity were still abundant, and so we felt the warm, gentle breeze of summer air as soon as we exited the airport. Our hotel had arranged to greet us at the airport with their luxury car, so it didn’t take us long at all to find our very welcoming driver. He encouraged us to quickly get into the car for some air conditioning while he loaded our suitcases into the back. Upon entering the car, we found two fresh young coconuts and two cold washcloths waiting for us. For the next 15 minutes as we drove to our hotel, we sipped our coconuts and placed the cold cloths on the back of our necks as we got a peek of Siem Reap from the car windows.

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Our Hotel

For our first visit to Siem Reap, we stayed at a familiar hotel brand that I have previously featured and worked with before – Belmond (see my previous posts about Belmond El Encanto and Belmond Splendido). For the next few days, we were to call Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor home. Located under 15 minutes from both the airport and the world famous Angkor Wat temple, this luxury hotel was conveniently located where we wanted to focus for our visit. Since I had stayed at other Belmond hotels before around the world, I knew this hotel would be the perfect spot for our first visit to Siem Reap.

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Our Suite

Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor is an all-suite hotel, featuring 59 suites all centered around the massive and breathtaking swimming pool. We stayed in a poolside junior suite, the smallest suite option, but not lacking in space or luxury. It featured a sitting area, a large king-sized bed, a large clawfoot tub next to the windows in the bathroom, and decorated with Cambodian art. It also featured a balcony overlooking the pool, which became my favorite spot for winding down after long days in the sun. For our next visit, we have our hearts set on a garden junior suite, since you can walk right into the pool from your own private terrace.

Hidden behind lush greenery just off the Siem Reap River, Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor‘s traditional Khmer architecture peaked beyond the front gates, gently lit up for the evening. We were greeted by several welcoming staff members, most of them local, who were very eager to bring us inside. We were escorted over a wooden bridge flanked by tropical flowers, beautiful greens, and flowing water into the grand lobby. After a brief check-in at the front desk, we were then brought to our room on the first floor (second floor for us Americans), which was a beautiful poolside junior suite. The corridors for all the suites are half-outdoor, so from the moment you step outside your suite you are immediately welcomed by Cambodian nature.

Just outside of our room, along with crickets and other nighttime bugs, we could hear bullfrogs singing their evening songs by the water, a sound you never forget that I actually find myself missing so much. Don’t worry – the suites are soundproof so you won’t hear them when you’re trying to sleep. But since all suites surround the pool, don’t forget to apply bug spray if you plan on spending any time on your balcony or terrace. I learned that the hard way after becoming a lovely midnight snack for a whole town of mosquitoes!

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Dinner at Circle Restaurant

After being escorted to our room, I quickly hopped in the shower to rinse the travel day off of me before getting ready for our 9 pm dinner reservation at Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor’s Khmer restaurant – Circle. This was my first time trying Khmer cuisine, and after giving the hotel my lengthy list of allergies in advance, the chef was more than happy to accommodate and to give me a wonderful culinary experience. The menu has changed since my visit in September 2019, but they still offer similar dishes to what we ordered, including Khmer spiced wagyu beef and spiced crispy chicken.

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We didn’t spend too much time at our hotel, because Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor offers a plethora of activities and sights to see beyond the hotel walls. I dive deeper into our visit to Angkor Watt in this post as well as one of the most special dinners I’ve ever had in this post, but one activity that the hotel offers is a cooking class with the head chef at Circle. On our second full day in Siem Reap, we ate a very light breakfast since we knew we were in for a fun morning learning to cook Khmer cuisine for lunch. One thing I always, always, always make sure to do when I am in a new country is book a cooking class, since I am very much a foodie at heart. We had been mostly eating Khmer cuisine since we had arrived, and now we wanted to learn how some of the country’s most popular dishes were made. We booked a private class for just the two of us plus the chef for a more one-on-one experience.

Our morning started with a lovely 15 minute tuk-tuk ride with the chef to Phsar Leu Thom Tmey, a wet market and indoor market selling food and fresh produce, textiles, electronics, and jewelry. It’s the most common and popular spot for most locals to shop for their produce. Although there is a supermarket in a different part of town, it’s much more expensive to shop there, so most locals continue to come to Phsar Leu Thom Tmey. It was my first wet market experience, so it was definitely quite new to me. After about an hour of wandering through the market, we returned to the hotel and donned our aprons and chef hats to begin learning to cook Khmer cuisine. Since the class was 2 years ago now, I do not remember all the exact dishes we made, but the two I do remember are spring rolls and amok (Cambodian fish soup made with cod and coconut cream) in a coconut. I also had fun being shown how to wrap banana leaves on top of my rice.

For our last afternoon in Siem Reap, we decided to relax after 3 days of nonstop activities. You cannot come to Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor and not take a dip in their gorgeous, large swimming pool. Since we were there on a weekday in the middle of September, and with most guests being out and about exploring Siem Reap, we pretty much had the pool to ourselves. Even Siem Reap’s typical, brief afternoon rainstorm from the heat did not stop us from enjoying the water. In between dips, we lounged in the sun after its return post-storm while sipping rosé.

Later that evening, my beau surprised me with an appointment at Kong Kea Spa at the hotel. A lengthy thunderstorm arrived late in the afternoon and remained over Siem Reap for a couple of hours, so while my beau took a nap in the room, I went off to the spa for a 70-minute aromatherapy massage. My treatment began with a luxury foot therapy session before my massage began. Scents of florals and lemongrass filled the room, relaxing my body and my mind.

When I emerged from the spa, the sun had already set but the rain was still ongoing. Summer rain at night is so blissful and relaxing that I found it the perfect greeting post-treatment at the spa. I returned to the room to get ready for dinner, slicking my hair back into a bun while slipping on a flowing silk dress.

Circle was not open on our last night, much to our disappointment. It was for a very good reason – they were setting up for Bon Om Touk (also known as the Cambodian Water Festival and typically coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival in China), which was to occur in a few days. We decided to head up to the Martini Bar for a drink upstairs overlooking the pool as we decided on dinner. The Martini Bar is an indoor-outdoor space, so we still got to listen to the rain fall on the tropical gardens around us as we sipped carefully selected international wines. We ended up ordering food up to the bar from Belmond’s other restaurant Ember, as we were quite comfortable in our lounge seats watching the rain.

This blog posts only talks about our hotel experience at Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor, so it’s only a snippet of our entire Siem Reap experience. Thanks to Belmond, we got to take part in several memorable activities that helped us feel more connected with Cambodia. They include our visit to the famous Angkor Wat, and a dinner in a small village outside Siem Reap that remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life to this day. Siem Reap left such a lasting impression on me, and I’m already counting the days until I can return to see more of the city and more of Cambodia (and visit the hotel’s resident cats Shadow and Rossi!).

Despite Cambodia being one of the last countries I visited before the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains high on my list of countries I wish to return to as soon as possible once borders reopen. At the beginning of the pandemic, I kept finding myself daydreaming about Cambodia. Evenings are a very particular time for such fond memories in Siem Reap. There’s still so much of Siem Reap I’d love to explore, with special excursions arranged by the team at Belmond. Here’s hoping that this can happen sooner rather than later, as I am very anxious to return!

Please note that as of writing this post, Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor is currently closed until January 2022. 

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