Exploring Siem Reap’s French Quarter

Shinta Mani Resort’s lobby is the work of interior designer Bill Bensley, who believes in the philosophy of “the odder the better.”

The stand-out reason for visiting Siem Reap in Cambodia is to see the stunning Angkor Wat temple complex, which is one of the most visited sites in Asia. But this does not mean the city lacks other attractions. No longer a sleepy town, Siem Reap now has all the trappings that come with tourism, which include bars, restaurants and massage parlors on downtown Pub Street to top-end eateries, bustling day-and-night markets and designer boutiques and handcrafts.

The Shinta Mani Club, on a quiet leafy street in the French Quarter, just five minutes and a two-dollar tuk-tuk ride away from downtown, and 15 minutes from the temples, is across the road from its sister property, Shinta Mani Resort. Smiling staff rushed to greet us at the curbside with cool towels and offered us glasses of chilled spumante while checking in. The staff ratio is 2.2 for each of the 39 rooms, which explained why we were given such constant, friendly, yet discreet, attention.

We loved the lobby’s quirky style, the work of acclaimed interior designer Bill Bensley, whose philosophy is “the odder the better.” The candle niche on the wall has an artfully placed black smoke stain, while on the ceiling is framed art of an Angkor temple — a recurring theme in the property — and the bookcase is stacked with jade-green-colored, glazed ceramic vases.

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Our Deluxe Room had a spacious balcony and overlooked the courtyard with the long black lap pool and tall palm trees. Black and white have been used to maximum effect in the rooms, along with many Bensley touches like the ceiling art over the beds. Ours was of a monk with an open umbrella and was strangely hypnotic, and the bed was one of the most luxuriously comfortable we can remember.

Chanra Oum ([email protected]; 011-855-012-490-390), the director of rooms, says the two Deluxe Living Rooms are perfect for couples traveling with children, as they can take two extra beds. The connecting Superior King and Superior Twin rooms can also work for children. From the three Superior Poolside Rooms you can step out to the pool and, being on the ground floor, we think this facility will be appreciated by golden-agers.

Occupancy is very high from December to March, and Chanra says, it is necessary to book at least six months ahead for a stay during December 23 to January 3. For exclusive requests, advisors can reach out to Indra Budiman ([email protected]; 011-85-512-680-700), the Club and the Resort’s general manager.

Kroya, which means food in the Khmer royal language, also happens to be the name of the all-day restaurant at Shinta Mani. For breakfast, there are counters with pastries, cereals, fruit and juices and an à la carte menu with international and Asian choices. Lunch and dinner menus follow the seasons with market-inspired Khmer (the majority of Cambodians have descended from the ancient Khmer people) and international dishes. The four-seater swing couches on the street-side terrace are a big attraction and should be booked in advance for lunch and dinner. The swings have deep seats, so it means dining either cross-legged or with legs straight out.

We ate inside and started with the signature Open Heart cocktail, which is a luscious blend of rum, passion fruit, mint and palm sugar. Sochea Oun ([email protected]; 011-855-1278-8511), director of sales, tells us that the motto of the Shinta Mani Foundation is “Open Doors. Open Hearts” and that $5 of each night’s booking, both in the Club and the Resort, goes to the support of education and training projects for young Cambodians. Executive Chef Vuthy Ear ([email protected]; 011-855-1276-7818) had prepared the Khmer Tasting Menu based on traditional recipes, and the seven courses were beautifully presented and balanced. Another interesting tip? There is also a vegan menu.

To make spa bookings, contact the Spa Treatments Manager Sam Somalena ([email protected]; 011-855-1299-3675), who suggested the Shinta Mani Signature Massage. The treatment makes use of four aromatic body oils, and we came away feeling wonderfully relaxed. Request one of the three most popular therapists: Lida Choun, Lyna Leoum or Savin Poev.

The Deluxe Room at Shinta Mani Club has a balcony that overlooks the courtyard with lap pool and palm trees.

Two or three days in Siem Reap are enough to visit the main Angkor temples and the water villages on Tonlé Sap Lake. During the high season, the temples swarm with visitors, so it is a good idea to use one of the local travel companies to avoid the jostling crowds and the sea of selfie sticks. Tip: Choose the June and July low season months; there will be rain showers but they don’t last long. 

There is much more to see than the immediate Angkor area, and we visited three of the more distant temples, Koh Ker and Beng Mealea, which are a couple of hours by car from Siem Reap, and Banteay Chhmar, which is four and a half hours away and where we were number five on the visitor’s register! Sure, they don’t have the majestic appeal of Angkor — which gets 7,000 visitors a day — and they are mostly ruins, but thanks to Sorin, our great guide, we found them every bit as fascinating and really loved their stillness and remoteness.

Tip: You won’t find any international restaurants here. We ate local food at roadside stalls and loved the fried noodle and rice dishes. While these are a pretty safe bet, they may not be everybody’s cup of tea, so ask the hotel for a packed lunch and, of course, plenty of water.

Across the road from the Club is the Shinta Mani Resort. The two-story, black and white buildings around the central garden and the large swimming pool have a laid-back, contemporary colonial feel. And they are full of fun elements like Bill Bensley’s humongous teddy bear hanging from the ceiling in the lobby. Guests staying in the Club can use this salt-water pool; relaxing here is the perfect antidote to a long day of temple visits. 

There are 38 Pool View Rooms on the first floor, and 24 Poolside Garden Rooms that open to the gardens and the pool. We loved the wrought-iron beds with padded backs that are rakishly askew, which is a Bensley way of adding a playful twist to everyday situations. A giant black Aladdin’s lamp hangs over the bed, bright orange cushions give a splash of color and the bathrooms, while not huge, are well appointed. The first-floor Junior Suite, measuring 645 square feet, has a separate living room and a large terrace overlooking the pool. For families, there are two pairs of connecting Pool View King and Pool View Twin rooms, and two connecting Poolside Garden Kings and Poolside Garden Twins.

Siem Reap is worth getting to know as, apart from its swinging nightlife, trendy new precincts are also attracting attention. The new Made in Cambodia Market on Kings Road is three minutes by tuk-tuk from the Shinta Mani and has a great range of artisan products, all made in Cambodia.Kandal Village, which is a short walk away, has galleries, arty housewares, fashion boutiques and barista cocktail haunts. The Little Red Fox is said to serve the best coffee in town. Artisans d’Angkor is a showcase of the finest Khmer workmanship, with beautiful fabrics, stone and wood carvings, lacquerware, ceramics and jewelry. They are also in the international airport, but there is a far wider selection in the downtown store close to the Old Market, where there are over a thousand examples of handicraft.

Pub Street and the Old Market are abuzz in the evenings, and at The Steak House at Pub Street it’s fun to sit outside on the pedestrianized Passage and watch the world go by.

We fell in love with Spoons Café and found the fantastic Cambodian street food of ridiculously good value. It is run by EGBOK, an American NGO that trains young Cambodians for the hospitality industry. We had a Green Papaya Salad and Fresh Spring Rolls with Prawns. Chef Mengly Mork brought us some crispy coconut Num Krok dumplings that melted in the mouth, and the signature EGBOK cocktail of Campari, basil, lime and palm sugar.

For a dinner show, reserve a table at the Cambodia Night on The Apsara Terrace in the gardens of Raffles Hotel Le Royal with traditional Cambodian dances and martial arts, and a pan-Asian barbeque. For fine dining, there is also Malis, the concept of Celebrity Chef Luu Meng, where you can eat either inside, in private rooms, or in the courtyard of a handsome colonial villa. Manager Lundy Taing ([email protected];) is the one to contact for reservations. We had rice with crabmeat and a beef curry in lotus leaf, and then Taing offered us a memorable crème brulée with kampot pepper, a luscious creamy pot with an explosive peppery kick.

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