The reception staff scolded me when I arrived in Siem Reap. “You booked your tours already?” she tutted. “That’s my job!”
Their recommendations graced my open days with a cultural extravaganza, high-flying adventure, and a culinary exhibition. For the outings I had pre-determined, the staff arranged all my transport departing and returning to the hotel. Truly, Golden Temple outdid themselves in surpassing all my expectations of what a hotel might offer their guests.
Their information booklet alerted me to an event I wouldn’t have missed for the world: a dinner dance showcasing traditional Cambodian art forms. The five course menu delighted my palate with sea bass, stuffed chicken, coconut ice cream, and a divine pumpkin-orange custard.
Even this delectable menu could hardly compete with the performances: a welcome song with cymbal and drum, myths executed in classical dance, martial arts and comic village scenes. A giant clashed with a sorceress in pursuit of her enchanting crystal orb. Grasshoppers decked out in coconut shells defied gravity. Monkeys tumbled across the stage, battling a school of mermaids until their respective leaders fell in love.
I felt the same way as the dancers assembled on stage for a final curtain call – enraptured with the beauty of the night.
I kicked off the next day with a journey through the treetops: via cable bridge and zip line, with two safety rangers to deliver me from one platform to the next. Off season accounted for the sparse numbers, they explained – I monopolized the course for the morning, chatting with the rangers about the Cambodian economy (overmatched by its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam) and the hardships of lockdown.
“If I ever have a son, I’ll name him ‘Covid,'” announced one. ‘My daughter, I’ll name her ‘Nineteen.'” So you’ll always remember? I suggested. He nodded. The government had closed all the roads out of Siem Reap, he explained. He couldn’t work, couldn’t go home. Tourism has recovered since then – but slowly.
We hiked back through the forest, inspecting termites and respectably-sized spiders en route. The termites bite, they warned. During the civil war, soldiers used their jaws to substitute for sutures.
I ordered room service to the poolside that afternoon – a perfect follow-on to the buffet breakfast upstairs. Overall, southeast Asia shines for its fruits: dragon, passion, papaya, and mango crowd out watermelon and pineapple on every menu. The rice cakes garnished with coconut deserve an honorable mention, though, as I discovered that evening at the Phare circus.
The Phare art school launched to provide therapy for survivors of the communist regime and guerrilla fighting, but it has since developed into thriving employment for generations of artists. The school lifts children out of poverty, equipping them with skills to support themselves and their family.
The small but mighty theatrical troupe performs nightly to a rapt crowd, flexing their muscles in dazzling feats of balance and flexibility. Burlesque overlaps baroque as the scenes careen from the slapstick to the intense. They invited the audience into the ring afterwards, to pose alongside the acrobats.
The next day, I followed the concierge’s advice to book their in-house cooking class. My course commenced with a tour of the market, where the locals purchase their ingredients. We threaded between stalls overflowing with produce, skirting a bucket of turtles and basins of fish – the snakeheads still alive and propelling themselves on feet-like fins. I picked out samples of dried crocodile and a local favorite: rive dough stuffed with bean mash and pork, wrapped in banana leaves. The chef insisted on “preparing” these snacks: they arrived at my room in style while I rested before the cooking lesson itself.
In the hotel restaurant, the chef had laid out the ingredients for a gourmet spread. He steered me through the steps of constructing spring rolls, fish amok, and sticky banana pudding — circulating ingredients and tools in a well-orchestrated programme that delivered a three-course meal in under an hour.
I marveled as I tucked into the meal. “On the TripAdvisor website,” the restaurant manager had revealed, “we are number two — but I want to be number one.” They deserve it!
The morning before my flight, I skipped across the bridge to the Old Market. Vendors haggled with me over polished coconut shells and silver necklaces, urging me to contemplate silk scarves and wooden Buddhas. I bid Cambodia farewell with gratitude and regret, already eager to visit again.