From Amok to Happy Pizza: Eating in Siem Reap

Going from one temple to another is no joke. A full day of touring Cambodia’s prodigious architectural sites can leave one feeling famished. Thankfully, the streets of Siem Reap are abounding in restaurants that are both interesting and reasonably priced! Here, you can find ritzy cocktail bars, laid-back pubs, diverse international fare, authentic Khmer cuisine, and even snacks not for the squeamish (fried tarantulas, grilled crocodile, crispy frogs, and more!)!

I wish my friends and I had more time to explore the food scene of Siem Reap, but because we were only there for 5 days (which actually felt like 4 days because we had a late flight on our first night), and also because our schedule was so packed, we were only able to try the food around the Pub Street area. Anyway, here are the restaurants and food that we had the chance to experience.

The Soup Dragon

 The first meal we had was actually not Cambodian food but Vietnamese. Upon our arrival in Siem Reap, we dropped our luggage off at our hotel, and then went straight to Pub Street, which is one of the busiest alleys in the city lined with bars, restaurants, and night markets. Here, we had dinner in a restaurant called The Soup Dragon. The menu in this place is quite versatile, as they don’t just serve Vietnamese food, but also a number of Asian and European dishes.

This three-level restaurant has a great view of Pub Street and the Old Market are. When you sit on the side of the road, it’s a great spot for people-watching and enjoying the bustling vibe of the vivacious street.

We were very happy with the staff of Pub Street. They were so accommodating, attentive, and polite. I asked one waiter if I could charge my phone using one of their outlets and he happily assisted me. They had a hard time speaking in English though, but thankfully, their menu had photos so we just pointed away at the food or drink that we wanted to order.

Angkor Sunset

($6.00)

What’s the best way to kick start a trip in Angkor? Order a drink called “Angkor Sunset”! This was a fruity and sweet concoction of vodka, malibu, rum, grenadine, and pineapple juice. It tasted very girly, which was appropriate, since we were all ladies and we were in Cambodia to celebrate our friend Alessa’s bridal shower!

Gotu Kola with Ice
($1.00)

Unfortunately, while we all liked the Angkor Sunset, I can’t say that we were fans of this drink called Gotu Kola. I don’t even know why we ordered it. We didn’t even know what “Gotu Kola” was. We just wanted to be a little adventurous! Anyway, I did a little research and found out that gotu kola is called centella asiatica (or just centella) and that it’s actually a plant that is sometimes used as a medicinal herb. In fact, “kola” means “leaf.” No wonder my friend Chin grimaced after taking a sip and said, “It tastes like a plant!” We should have taken the green color as a clue!

Vietnamese Pho

Of course, the most natural thing to do when eating in a Vietnamese restaurant is to have a bowl of pho, or traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. Many people say that The Soup Dragon serves the best pho in the city! I can’t say if that’s true though because it was the one and only pho that I’ve tried while in Siem Reap. They served the bánh phở (rice noodles) with broth and meat together with plates of vegetables and chopped chili peppers, which were placed on a separate platter so that we could “customize” our soup according to our desired level of spice. Eating our D.I.Y. noodles was pretty fun, and it was even more fun sharing it with friends. One bowl was good for 2-3 persons (depending on how hungry you are). I can’t remember how much it cost, but it was around $2.50 to $3.00. Not bad at all! It’s the perfect dish to order if you’re craving for the comfort that only a bowl of delicious, warm soup can bring.

Fresh spring rolls with shrimp
($3.00)

Each of us (or at least 3 or 4 of us) ordered a plate of these spring rolls. It was a mistake! No, it’s not because they tasted terrible, but because one plate was actually good for 4 people! I have never seen spring rolls this huuuuge! For only $3.00, ordering these spring rolls loaded with generous servings of shrimps and vegetables was the right choice. After that, though, we discovered that when Cambodians say dishes are “good for one,” they actually mean “good for two, three, or more!” I also thought it was presented nicely and it reminded me of Patrick Starr from Spongebob Squarepants!

The Soup Dragon is also open in the morning, and it’s actually  a popular breakfast place. If you’re on a tight budget and you want to stuff yourself with good, cheap food, I would recommend The Soup Dragon.

Amok Restaurant

The sign outside this restaurant says that they serve “the best amok in Siem Reap.” We thought we’d find that out for ourselves.

It seemed like in almost all of the restaurants we went to, there was an amok dish in every single menu, so being the curious cats that we are, we made sure that we’d try it at least once in our trip.
Amok is actually one of the most popular dishes in Cambodia, although it can also be found in other countries such as Thailand and Laos. The amok dish uses catfish cooked in fresh coconut milk and kroeung, which consists of lemongrass, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, shallots, and garlic — ingredients similar to that of the Tom Yum soup, but the amok is less spicy and more aromatic. It is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to create a mousse-like texture. Amok is also cooked with onions, cauliflower leaves, and eggs. The dish on the lower right of the photo below is the amok.
Chef’s Set 
($10.00)
We ordered Amok’s Chef Set, which is a combo of fresh spring rolls, Khmer amok, and Khmer curry. This dish is good for two… and I’m glad they specified that in the menu so we did not overdo our orders like what happened at The S
Traditional Khmer curry with chicken cooked with carrot, onion, long bean, potato, and fresh coconut cream served with steamed jasmine rice.

 

We also ordered this oyster mushroom dish (above), which I forgot the name of. I love mushrooms so I couldn’t care less what this one’s called. It was okay, but I did feel like it was something I could cook at home.
The interiors of Amok are bright, colorful, and jazzy, with purple and cerise interiors and various patterns all over the floors, walls, table napkins, and place mats. The restaurant is quite lovely, and looks almost Moroccan in design. Amok has a second floor but we decided to stay on the lower level because… actually, I don’t remember why. I think we were too tired because we just visited four different temples before that.
The place was not packed when we visited but we noticed that most of the diners here were foreigners. There are probably cheaper restaurants around the area but the price of the food at Amok is pretty reasonable, considering that it’s actually a classy restaurant. I would go back here if only for the ambiance. The food may not be exceptionally excitig, but it is still delightful, and the service was first-rate.

Viva Mexican Cafe

Is it weird that my favorite food in Cambodia is actually Mexican food?
To be fair, I was not really able to try that many Khmer dishes, but out of all the meals I’ve had during my trip, the meal I had at Viva was the one I absolutely loved the most.
The girls and I having some crazy good Mexican food along Pub Street
The downside of technology
The señoritas and our margaritas
Everything we ordered from their menu was packed with richness and flavor.
Viva is not exactly what you’d consider “cheap” food but I’d say I definitely got my money’s worth. If you’re a big fan of Mexican food, don’t miss out on this restaurant! The girls and I really enjoyed this place because it was so mellow, and it was really a great place to sip margaritas and chatter away while filling ourselves up with delicious tacos, burritos, and chimichangas. If not for the occasional flying insects and landing on our heads, everything else about this restaurant was just neat.
What we didn’t know is that Viva is actually also a hotel! Yes, they have guest rooms which are just above the restaurant. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could stay in one of their rooms and whenever you’re having some Mexican food cravings, you can just go down and stuff your face with a burrito? Eat, sleep, repeat. Nice!
More on Viva restaurant here.

The Blue Pumpkin

When my friends and I were looking for food to eat in Siem Reap, ice cream was not really at the top of our list. We just stumbled upon Blue Pumpkin while walking around and exploring Pub Street. After eating too much savory food, we thought it was about time that we indulged in a little sweet treat.
Blue Pumpkin is a French bakery and patisserie, and an ice cream parlor with a lounge-type restaurant upstairs. This place is a dessert dreamland! They have a wide array of sweets like ice cream, dried fruits, cakes, French macarons, pies, cookies, tarts, and more.
They also have a wide selection of ice cream flavors that are yummy and creamy. There are the usual flavors like vanilla, mango, and rocky road, and then there are the more odd ones like ginger & black sesame, green lemon & kaffir lime, 4 spices, and Khmer fruits.

They also sell dehydrated fruits (dried fruits) that come in cute, cartoon-like boxes. I wanted to buy them just for the box alone, and then put arms and legs on them! The characters looked so adorable and not dehydrated at all!

Aside from sugared snacks, there’s also something for those that want savory grub like sandwiches and pizza. How awesome is this place?!
The second level of The Blue Pumpkin is a stylish, sleek, and modern restaurant with clean, white interiors where customers can enjoy their meals, work, or simply hang out. We noticed that when we visited this branch in Pub Street, most of the customers were foreigners in their 20’s or early 30’s.
A more quiet and private section on the second floor of The Blue Pumpkin
The coolest thing about Blue Pumpkin are these “beds” where we can loll on while enjoying the other cool thing about Blue Pumpkin (their ice cream). Eating on these beds was so comfy that we didn’t want to get up anymore. If you’re having an actual meal and wondering how on earth you’re going to eat on a bed without making a mess, don’t worry because The Blue Pumpkin provides small trays for you to put your food on.

If you’re looking for a “cultural” food joint in Cambodia, The Blue Pumpkin isn’t the place to go to. BUT, if you want to just chill out after a long and tiring day of traversing temples, it is a lovely and cozy cafe, with a young and fun vibe. It’s a good stopover to get a good snack, or, you can just go there to rest and use their A/C and wi-fi! I won’t judge you, promise. I do that a lot.

Curious about Blue Pumpkin? Visit their website here.

Happy Special Pizza

Let’s get one thing out of the way. In Cambodia, when you’re talking about “happy” pizza, it only really means one thing: it gets you high.

.

And when I say “high,” I don’t just mean “ecstatic” or “on cloud nine.” I’m talking about the kind of high that can only be obtained from… weed!

In Siem Reap, there is an entire block of restaurants specializing in happy pizza, and oddly enough, it is called “Hospital Street.” I wondered if this was because you go straight to the hospital after having too much happy pizza.

Happy Angkor Pizza
Whoever made this sign must have been high already. He forgot the “H” in “Happy OUR.”
French FRIED

There were so many happy pizza places in Hospital Street that it was so hard to choose one! Aside from Happy Angkor Pizza, there’s also Happy Herb Pizza and Ecstatic Pizza. As much as we wanted to be ecstatic, we had to go back to Manila later that day and didn’t want to get too high when it was time to go to the airport and go through immigration. Hence, we settled for Happy Special Pizza. Sure, it wasn’t ecstatic, but it was just the right amount of happy. Plus, it was special!

If you didn’t know that Happy Special Pizza serves “herbed” pizza, you’d think it’s just like any other pizza joint. It has a very casual ambiance, with walls decorated with photos of smiling customers looking happy (as in “jolly” happy) while they enjoy their pizza. There were no brazen signs announcing the availability of marijuana, to think that serving happy pizza is actually legal in Cambodia.

At first glance, you’d think that the pizza from Happy Special Pizza is just like any ordinary pizza, and not special at all. Sure, it looked pretty good, but I’ve seen more mouthwatering, appetizing pizzas before. Also, if you didn’t know that it had “grass” in it, you probably won’t be able to tell, unless you’re a weed expert (or a drug dealer) — or maybe I just didn’t know what weed was supposed to taste like since I don’t really use it. After eating the pizza, my friends and I were expecting to be a bit stoned, but no. Nothing. Nada. We were satisfied with the pizza but not very happy about not being “happy.” After that, we just moved on and walked around pub street and the old market.

Fast forward to about 2-3 hours later…

The next thing I remember was eating dinner with my friends in a restaurant with very dim red lighting. I couldn’t remember much. I couldn’t even remember what I ate. While eating, a waitress approached us and said something (I couldn’t remember what she said either), and after a while, she left. A few minutes later, I almost jumped up from my seat and frantically asked my friends, “Was someone here?!”

“Huh? Who” they asked.

“A waitress,” I said. “Did a waitress actually come here or was I just imagining it?”

Looking at me funny, they confirmed that a waitress did indeed approach our table

“Oh okay,” I nodded. “She said something…”

My friends told me that she came to our table because we have already asked for the bill.

“No!” I replied, getting paranoid and delusional. “She said something else… something with an ‘S'”

At this point, my friends were already wondering if I was going crazy. “S???” They asked.

“Yeah! I just don’t remember what it was, exactly,” I said, trying to rack my brain.

“No, really,” they said in response, “She just said she’ll be back with the bill.”

“No!” I insisted. “She said something with an ‘S’! Wait, it was… sssss… sssss…sssss…”

Okay, I was obviously stoned. The “happiness” of the happy pizza had finally become operative.

Finally, our bill came, and my friend Teetap (who, without our knowledge, was also already high at that time, but not as bad as I was) was the one settling the bill. She divided the total bill among all of us and asked me to give her my share. Since I couldn’t recall how much she was asking from me exactly, for this purpose, I’ll just say 1 dollar.

“Okay, Nadine, can you give me 1 dollar? (As in 1 USD)” Teetap said. Instead of giving her 1 USD, I gave her 1 riel (1 KHR), which is Cambodian money.

“No, Nadine. 1 USD. Not 1 KHR,” Teetap said.

Still, I gave her 1 KHR and said, “Here, you can just use this.” Teetap was looking very impatient.

“Why are you giving me that?! I need 1 USD!” Teetap said in an exasperated tone.

“But I want to use this!” I argued. (Looking back now, if I were Teetap, I would probably have slapped myself in exasperation!)

“WE CAN’T USE THAT!!!” Teetap said, now really, really pissed.

“Sorry po, Miss Minchin!!!” I retorted. And then I saw all my other friends looking at one another and suppressing their laughter, as if saying “You did NOT just say that!”

(For those of you who don’t know who Miss Minchin is, she’s the antagonistic and evil headmistress in a boarding school for young girls in the novel A Little Princess, which was made into a film and TV show. The Filipino version of this is Sarah, ang Munting Prinsesa, which literally translates to Sarah, the Little Princess. And for those my non-Filipino readers, ‘po‘ is a word we use to show respect to a person that we are talking to.)

The effect of the happy pizza was 2-3 hours late, but man, that is some psychotropic stuff! My friends also said that my speech was slurring a little. It also did not help that the restaurant’s lights were red and trippy.

There were other funny things that happened after that, like when we were riding a tuktuk on the way back to the hotel and I commented that “Wow! So this is how Cinderella must have felt like when she was riding that magic carriage!” or when we were in the van on our way to the airport and I was looking out the vehicle’s window and thinking that we were in different places in the Philippines, saying, “Are we in Tagaytay?” or “We just passed by Fairview.” I don’t even go to Fairview, so I don’t even know what it looks like, really. I was hallucinating!

Thankfully, by the time we hit the airport, my head was much clearer, although I was still a little narcotized. However, all of a sudden, Punky and Chin started laughing hysterically for no reason at all. Before that, while in the van, Alessa also started cracking up like a madwoman. Uh-oh. It was their turn to get high! Thank God we have already passed through immigration at that time! Now I know it’s not a good idea to have happy pizza on your last day of your trip!

If you’re going to Cambodia and want a little dose of “happiness” without worrying about being on Locked Up Abroad, check out Happy Special Pizza.

 

Angkor What?

Cambodia is known for the temple Angkor Wat. But have you ever heard of Angkor What?

 

Angkor What is a popular joint for drinking and socializing. Each time we passed by this watering hole, it was always — and I mean ALWAYS — packed, which is why we never actually got to try going here.

From the outside, it’s impossible not to notice Angkor What. Aside from the fact that there’s always a crowd here, the kaleidoscopic glow-in-the-dark graffiti wall with the big black words “Angkor What?” catches one’s eye even from a distance. This place looks like it’s all about fun, fun, fun!

“Promoting Irresponsible Drinking Since 1998.”
Our tuk tuk driver Tom wears an “Angkor What?” shirt

Street Food in Siem Reap

One of the best ways to be immersed in a country’s culture is to experience the local cuisine, and if you want to take that immersion to the next level, then the best way is to sample a country’s street food. No glamour, just delicious strangeness.

A man selling street food in Siem Reap
I don’t know what those are but I’ll take those over cooked insects any day!
Waffles! Yum!
Is that chicken? 
Punky samples some street food
Pretty tasty! But are you sure that’s chicken?

Siem Reap offers a variety of exotic food like snakes, crickets, and spiders, but we actually did not get to try them. Maybe next time… but I think I’d have to get high first so I can work up the courage to eat those!

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