Sleuthing for the Best of Siem Reap, Cambodia
by Mark A. Thompson
In the pale light of the tropical night, I slipped into the room. A ceiling fan purred the warm air. Outside on the terrace, palm fronds rustled and parted to reveal: a swimming pool illuminated blue on the manicured lawn two floors below. No one floating face down—but then this wasn’t Sunset Boulevard or even Mulholland Drive; this was Siem Reap, Cambodia. What I needed was a stiff drink, a cigarette, a fedora. Glancing back at the room, I noted the desk with its black rotary dial phone—and a vintage manual typewriter with a sheet of paper containing a message.
At FCC Angkor, it’s all about the stories. Named for the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh where colorful characters and gonzo journalists gathered to share war stories, the newly-restored FCC Angkor once housed the French colonial governor of Cambodia in what is now the hotel’s elegant Khmer restaurant fittingly called The Mansion. In keeping with the property’s belletrist background, there’s a bar known as Scribe where signature cocktails such as lemongrass daiquiris and kaffir gimlets loosen the tongue and summon Peter Lorre.
Stories abound throughout Siem Reap—and not only about femme fatales named Velma. Ever since the rediscovery of the 12th-century ruins of Angkor Wat, writers and photographers have gazed in awe at the monumental temple with its lotus-bud towers—but as every good gumshoe knows, the best secrets come from locals. FCC Angkor collaborates with seasoned photojournalists for sunrise photography workshops conducted at Angkor Wat in the wee small hours before daybreak. Designated a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor Wat attracts nearly 3 million annual visitors—yet FCC Angkor’s local expertise ensures insider access to popular locales such as the root-covered ruins of Ta Prohm.
For another perspective on the tales of Siem Reap, the high-flying circus known as Phare brings together locals and visitors (including Hollywood stars) for a breathtaking night of theater, music, and dance under the big top. Based on traditional Cambodian fables, the jaw-dropping show is flawlessly executed by performers educated at Phare’s NGO school for the arts which supports nearly 2,000 formerly disadvantaged students.
As Phare’s PR Director, Craig Dodge, remarks, “There has been a huge resurgence of arts, culture, and creativity that was nearly extinguished by the three-decade war. Cambodia has become so much more than ancient temples. By all means, come for Angkor Wat, but stay for food, arts, entertainment, and adventure. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh have become foodie heavens—and, in addition to the bars of Pub Street, there are countless evening entertainment options, such as Phare Circus, Bambu Stage, New Cambodian Artists, Medha, and Sacred Dancers. And in Phnom Penh, there’s Cambodian Living Arts and the incredible all-male, gay Apsara dance troupe Prumsodun Ok & Natyarasa, Cambodia’s first gay dance company.”
According to Dodge, “Cambodia is a delightful country for LGBTQ+ travelers. Buddhist culture is very warm, friendly, and non-judgmental. In my ten years in Cambodia, I’ve never once experienced any kind of homophobic attitudes from anyone.”
Similarly, the two gentlemen behind Siem Reap’s urban contemporary art gallery Tribe are equally enamored of Cambodia. As Terry McIlkenny explains, he and his husband Nat Di Maggio moved from the UK to Cambodia in 2016—but it wasn’t only a reaction to geopolitics that caused the two men to embrace Cambodia as their home.
“Siem Reap has all this green space and a river running through it. Plus it’s full of pagodas,” says McIlkenny. “You’ve got everything from five-star hotels to backpacker hostels and Pub Street with its 24-7 atmosphere. You’ve got restaurants that could score a Michelin star serving meals for less than $15. And just fifteen minutes from downtown, you have a park the size of Manhattan, which also happens to be the largest religious monument in the world. On top of that, you’ve got more than two million annual visitors from around the world.”
Together for 28 years and married since 2008, McIlkenny and Di Maggio cultivate a personal connection with their Khmer artists at Tribe. “It’s the Khmer people that intrigue me,” says McIlkenny. “Their resilience positioned alongside the guiding principles of Buddhism—where there’s respect for everything.”
As McIlkenny states, “Cambodia is a country of youth, with more than 60% of the population under 30 years of age. They’re extremely tech-savvy. There’s a fluidity within the people without any discrimination. It’s not so much about having to ‘nail your colors to the mast.’ It’s more about ‘Are you happy?'”
Located in the arts and culture district of Siem Reap known as Kandal Village, Tribe serves as a local community center for the arts with its gallery, coffee shop, and cocktail bar where the two convivial owners host workshops and exhibitions. For another taste of Siem Reap’s creative social enterprises, the heavenly Haven on Chocolate Road serves Khmer cuisine in a bucolic setting that beautifully reflects the restaurant’s humanitarian support of underprivileged young adults.
As every good private eye knows, follow your nose for the story—and in Siem Reap, that fragrance will be lemongrass. Hail a tuk tuk or walk on Pokambor Avenue along the languid Siem Reap River back to the FCC Angkor in the Old French Quarter. As they used to say about a bar in Casablanca, sooner or later everyone shows up—so order another kaffir gimlet at Scribe and let the screenplay roll.
A member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and New York Travel Writers (NYTW), Mark A. Thompson is an editor, journalist, and photographer whose work appears in various periodicals, including Travel Weekly, Metrosource, HuffPost, OutThere, OutTraveler, and MRNY. The author of the novels Wolfchild (2000) and My Hawaiian Penthouse (2007), Mark has been awarded fellowships and residencies at various artists’ colonies, including The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.