Wed, Aug 19, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Searching for serenity in Siem Reap

Once synonymous with Angkor Wat, the historic Cambodian city now offers travelers numerous Khmer fine dining options, locally-brewed infused rice wine and a world-class circus troupe

By Dana Ter  /  Staff reporter

However, if you’re looking for Khmer cuisine with frills, you can’t get frillier than Kroya Restaurant at the Shinta Mani hotel. Kroya’s distinguishing feature in terms of decor is their sofa swings on the verandah which also double as seating for diners. Most patrons opt for the seven-course Khmer tasting menu which includes a beef soup with tamarind-scented morning glory and wok-fried prawns with mixed fresh herbs — all of which I relished slowly.


The infused rice wines at Sombai are also worth relishing. Opened by a husband-wife duo in 2012, the bright red bungalow where they conduct tasting tours is hard to miss. The husband, Lionel Maitrepierre is French, while his wife, Joelle Jean Louis hails from Mauritius. They speak of their tropical concoctions with much zeal.

“The rice wine we make is not the type of alcohol that you have to force down your throat to get drunk,” Jean Louis says. “It actually tastes good.”

She relates her boozy anecdotes to me — brewing new recipes and testing them on her husband until he’s hammered, a Japanese customer marveling over how he didn’t suffer from a hangover the next morning despite downing bottles of Sombai the night before.

As any devoted thirsty traveler will know, rice wine in its pure form burns your throat. It’s the infusion of fruit and herbal ingredients that makes Sombai’s concoctions not just tolerable, but also tantalizingly tasty. The infusion room on the upper level is where the magic happens. Huge containers of rice wine mixed with various fruits and herbs are stored and meticulously labeled on wooden shelves. When the fruit sinks to the bottom, it means the rice wine is ready. Normally, it takes up to eight weeks to infuse.

Downstairs is where the tipsiness takes place. The standard tasting tour is eight flavors and includes green tea-orange, which whiskey drinkers tend to love, and ginger-red chili, which provides a good base for cooking. My favorite is the banana-cinnamon, a festive sweet-spicy blend. If you’re not big on boozing, Sombai’s hand-painted bottles are also for sale. Painted by young local artists, each bottle depicts a quintessentially Cambodian scene — a temple or a lush village — with bright colors and warm hues. Each bottle top also wears a miniature checkered Cambodian scarf.

Six bottles of Sombai in hand, we bid au revoir to our gracious host and hostess.


Hotels and Web sites recommend visiting Angkor Wat before 6am to catch the sunrise and beat the crowds. We visited during the day which, despite the heat, was quite pleasant as most visitors and tour groups were probably there at the crack of dawn. Built entirely of stone in the 12th century, Angkor Wat took about 40 years to complete, which is impressive considering the degree of intricacy in the bas-relief carvings. It was also one of the few Buddhist structures to remain relatively unharmed during the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979.

The first time I visited was during the dry season. As such, the landscape was more arid and the earth was a glowing red. This time, during the rainy season, vast stretches of green grass greeted us near the huge lake outside the entrance to the temple and weeds peeked out from between stone slabs. Hotels can arrange for a private tour guide, but Rayou recommended that for travelers like us — “couples who like to relax a lot” — it was best to wander the compounds ourselves.

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