I’m embarrassed to admit that my travel experience in Southeast Asia is almost nonexistent. Having lived and holidayed in North and South America, various parts of Europe, and even Japan and Korea, it seems like I simply forgot to explore my own backyard – which, given the beautiful photos and pieces of travel writing I’ve seen from friends who have been to the region, is a huge shame. Which is why I decided to fly to historical Siem Reap in Cambodia over the recent long weekend. My girlfriend K had been anxious to visit the magnificent Khmer temples of the sprawling Angkor archaeological park, and I wanted to find out more about the country’s cuisine. Both of us came back happy campers.
Although not as popular a destination as, say, Bangkok or Bali, Siem Reap still draws millions of tourists a year, most of whom journey to awesome Angkor Wat and its neighboring temples. K and I were mindful of this when we were looking for a hotel – we both don’t like big, kitschy affairs that cater to throngs of tour groups, and which tend to be located along noisy thoroughfares in the city center.
We were thus extremely happy with our choice of accommodation for our five days in Cambodia – Navutu Dreams Resort and Spa, an exquisite new property that only opened in August 2012.
Navutu Dreams isn’t for everyone, largely because of its location. On the outskirts of Siem Reap proper, this one hectar property hides at the end of a sandy road in a bucolic village, surrounded by nothing but rice fields, old huts, and under-construction villas. It’s also ten minutes by tuk-tuk from the city center, a journey that is extremely bumpy given the unpaved side streets you’ll have to negotiate.
But damn if it isn’t a beautiful place to stay. With its whitewashed, oblong pavilions overlooking two swimming pools, a large thatched centerpiece that also serves as the resort’s restaurant, and an abundance of lush greenery, Navutu Dreams almost feels like a beachfront resort. In fact, the owners of the place also manage a property in Fiji, and they seem to have transferred some of that paradisiacal island aesthetic over to the most improbable of locations.
What we liked most about Navutu was its intimacy and exclusivity. The resort has just eighteen rooms for a maximum of 36 guests, each with a private veranda, a stone-paved shower, and a charming mix of Southeast Asian furniture. I especially loved that the salt-water relaxation pool that was literally two steps from our room.
Thanks to its location, Navutu is also mercifully serene – K mentioned that you could almost hear the silence at night, when the only light came from the candles along the footpaths and the stars in the sky.
Being new to the scene, Navutu naturally has a few kinks, most notably in the quality of its spa treatments and massages. Nevertheless, K and I were more than happy with our overall experience at the resort, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for atypical, yet luxurious, accommodation in Siem Reap. Coming back to Navutu after an entire day of temple-gazing, having a delicious meal prepared by the resort’s talented chef Sopheak, and then going for an evening swim under the moonlight, was a rejuvenating experience, precisely what I needed after a busy six months at the office.
I was equally refreshed by the food I sampled in Siem Reap. Sharing borders with Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia’s vast fields grow many of the same crops, including rice, peanut, mango, banana, and more. It isn’t a surprise that Khmer cuisine thus has many similarities to its Thai and Vietnamese counterparts, including an obsession with coconut milk, an alchemic use of spices such as lemongrass and galangal and ginger, and a preference for lightly dressed or stir-fried vegetables. Pithily put, it’s the humbler, less spicy cousin of its two famous neighbours.
The provenance of the food in Siem Reap was a great draw for me. I loved that you could literally see what we were eating. There were countless rice fields wherever we went, dotted with herds of grazing cows; and quite naturally, those two kinds of produce feature very prominently in restaurants. One of the savory breakfast dishes served at the resort, a house-made rice noodle soup with beef, inevitably invited comparisons with a certain famous Vietnamese dish, but also reminded me once again of the beauty of simple food, prepared with fresh ingredients.
During my stay, I was made aware of the local origins of my food: beef and poultry from Sihanoukville to the southwest, sweet oranges from Battambang city, and fish caught from Cambodia’s aquatic heart, the Tonle Sap lake. These local foods will probably never become household names in the international food scene, but that’s beside the point. There’s a rustic, almost nostalgic quality about them, an unabashed simplicity blithely lacking the bureaucracy of terms such as “organic” or “heirloom” or “grass-fed.”
One thing that did stand out in the Khmer cuisine I had was its proliferation of bitter flavors. The use of banana flowers and other leafy vegetables whose English names the restaurant staff were unable to tell me added a balance to the sometimes sickening sweetness of some of the dishes, including amok, a famous local steamed fish curry made with a red unguent of spices and coconut milk. The use of the same kinds of greens again in a simple sweet and sour salad of peanuts, smoked fish, and julienned just-ripe mango, really expanded the taste profile of the dish, and set it apart from its Thai counterpart.
Of course, this is a very generalised account, based on a short weekend stay, of a cuisine as old as the Angkor empire. Nevertheless, I do think that the local food in Cambodia is well worth a try, though I am yet to find a Khmer restaurant here in Singapore. If you make the trip up to Siem Reap, my advice would be to go native and ignore most of the tourist traps along the main thoroughfares, though sometimes you’ll have to eat at them out of necessity. As with exploring the temples around the city, though, stray as much as you can off the beaten path, avoid the sweaty throngs, and you’re in for a grand adventure.
Navutu Dreams Resort and Spa
Angkor High School Road
Siem Reap 0082
Kingdom of Cambodia
Tel: +855 (0) 12950751 or +855 (0) 17581887