The Allure of Angkor Wat
Cambodia’s ancient temple of Angkor Wat has turned the Siem Reap area into a global destination.
Across the moat from Angkor Wat, the legendary 12th-century temple in northwest Cambodia, is a restaurant alternately known as Chez Matthieu or Chez Sophéa. Matthieu Ravaux, a curmudgeonly sixty-something Frenchman, is the proprietor, chef, maître-d’, sommelier and waiter. Once a professor of photojournalism in France, he was sent by the Musée Guimet—a Parisian museum of Asian art—in the 1980s to take pictures of the temple ruins. He fell in love with the country, its monuments, and a Cambodian woman named Sop’Héa, eventually setting up a restaurant in her name. As it happens, she moved on. But he remains—the bare-bones restaurant doubles as his home—and it is here that he turns ducks and spices into a confit that rivals any France has to offer.
Like so many things in Cambodia, the experience of dining Chez Matthieu—in the shadow of a lost civilization’s greatest monument—is disorienting, laced with enchantment, full of incongruities. Here, the splendors of the past complicate the realities of the present. The feats of engineering and the heights of artistry evident in Angkor Wat, the most famous of the roughly 290 ancient temples packed into a 150-square-mile area, defy the senses, and even more so in light of the state of modern-day Cambodia. As journalist Joel Brinkley points out in his recent book Cambodia’s Curse, Angkor Thom, the 13th-century metropolis adjacent to Angkor Wat, was the largest city of the preindustrial world, and its irrigation system was so advanced that rice farmers were able to produce four crops a year. In the 21st century, most Cambodian rice growers depend on rainfall. In a good year, they produce one crop; in a bad year, none at all. Three decades on, the trauma and chaos stemming from the Khmer Rouge’s radical societal upheaval and genocidal practices continue to haunt this country of nearly 15 million people, most of whom live in rural areas and suffer extreme poverty. It’s a place where the airports have free WiFi but the majority of the population survives without electricity, their black-and-white TVs powered by car batteries.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that most Americans’ knowledge of Cambodia is similarly disjointed, coming as it does from two completely mismatched films: The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé’s 1984 dramatization of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the 2001 video-game spinoff in which Angelina Jolie kickboxes her way through Ta Prohm, an Angkorian temple overrun by tree roots. If The Killing Fields symbolizes Cambodia’s tragic past, Tomb Raider, oddly enough, might point to its future. It certainly introduced a whole new audience to Angkor’s moody, mythic ruins, giving them an air of Hollywood glamour and popularizing them as a tourist destination. And while it’s hard to quantify how substantial the Angelina effect has been—she continues to lend the country her star power, shooting a Louis Vuitton ad there last spring—what is clear is that after years of strife, a decade of relative peace has spurred a remarkable increase in visitors to Cambodia, from less than half a million in 2000 to more than two million ten years later.
The majority of these tourists, Angkor-bound, are flooding into Siem Reap, the town outside Angkor’s gates. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s boomtown, the country’s fastest-growing urban center, and to try to divorce it from the Angkor experience would be disingenuous. It’s impossible to visit Angkor without visiting Siem Reap, and it’s just as important to know where to go in town as it is to study up on the temples. The capital of Siem Reap province, it’s still centered around the early-20th-century French quarter. Now, with its mix of local Cambodians, expat NGO workers, student backpackers, Chinese and Korean tour groups and well-heeled Amanjunkies, it has developed a certain Wild West–meets–spring break feel, especially in the central Pub Street area, near the Old Market. It’s easy to be disheartened by the sign on a Mexican restaurant announcing that it has sold the most frozen margaritas in town, or the myriad foot-massage parlors featuring tanks of fish—“No piranhas!”—that nibble at your toes. Chez Sophéa’s duck confit requires a bit more searching out.
Of course, the temples are the main focus of any visit, but to outwit the tropical heat (and growing crowds), the best time to explore is at the first light of dawn. By early afternoon, the scorching sun sends all but the most obsessive diehards scurrying back to the pool. At that point, exactly which pool one uses to cool off becomes important. The number of hotels in Siem Reap has increased dramatically in the past decade. The five-mile stretch of highway from the airport to the city center is lined with cookie-cutter properties, some half-finished, some deserted in the wake of the global economic crisis, and there are any number of places that cater specifically to tour groups. Among these are a few that are truly world-class.