snacking on siem reap
there’s nothing quite as electric as siem reap after dark. by day the jungle bakes under the hot, hazy southeast asian sun while ancient ruins teem with thousands of tourists. after a day that usually begins with a sunrise over angkor wat, tourists flock in hordes to downtown pub street to slug frosty, cheap bottled beer and mingle with other like-minded backpackers before stumbling back to their hostel of choice.
but what do the locals do? they’re certainly not on pub street, unless they're behind the counter at the nearby italian restaurant slinging pizzas, or serving beer at one of the variety of bars. but when the sun goes down, lifting the thick heat of the day, locals of siem reap are shopping, eating, worshipping, and socializing. if you want to see this side of siem reap, then a tour with cambodia vespa adventures is a must.
i was in siem reap in october 2015 for a short four days, crossing angkor wat off my bucket list. while there i wanted to get a taste of the local flavor, and being in asia and having recently fallen in love with motorbike travel, i signed up for vespa adventures’ after dark foodie tour of siem reap - all of which takes place at night on the back of a vespa.
my guide picked me up at my hotel at 6pm. i hopped on the back of the bike as we sped off toward pub street for a wander through the local market, brief drink, and chat about the history of cambodia. but from then on it was pure cultural immersion, far away from the drunken howls of lobster-faced white people after a day temple touring.
our first stop was to preah ang chek preach ang chorm temple, a shrine devoted to two ancient angkorian princesses. inside the shrine are two statues, which are thought to be around 1,000 years old. the air was cloudy and thick with the smell of burning incense and tall, orange candles burned at the foot of the shrine. my guide showed me how to properly light the incense and make a wish before inserting the burning incense into an urn to blaze alongside the other wishes for the rest of the evening.
the next stop was almost, if not equally, as spiritual - dinner. a common custom among locals is to sit alongside the river and have a night picnic. while the rest of the tourists are chowing down on pub street or at the old market, locals are wandering the stalls of 60 road, lined with local fruit vendors, grilled meats, tiny fish on skewers, grilled corn, and all sorts of charred creepy crawlies. nothing was off limits as my guide filled his hands with cold coconut water, ears of corn, chicken wings, and yes, even a skewered spider. we made our way over to a bamboo mat and spread our feast before us, cracking open a couple of angkor beers.
i can’t lie to you. cambodian street food is...not great. when you’ve had the street snacks of thailand and vietnam, which are so fresh, flavorful, crispy, salty, sweet, tangy, spicy, and about amillion other orgasmic things, it’s hard to put cambodian street snacks on the same playing field. the chicken is dry and tough, the fish flecked with bones, and the spider essentially flavorless, much to my relief. the corn and fruit, however, are absolutely delicious, most likely because there was very little done to them. this all said, it’s the experience and the atmosphere that you’re here to see. you’re not in siem reap to sloppily make out with someone from the u.k. or australia (or maybe you are, i don’t know you). but why i hope you’re in siem reap is to get in touch with what it is that makes it unique, makes it special, and makes it worth learning about a culture thousands of miles away from your own.