Ruins in Cambodia

Most people come to Angkor to see the ancient temples, but the town of Siem Reap has become a lively destination in its own right. Photos by Stephen Brookes

In a new travel article up on GoNOMAD, writer Stephen Brookes talks about a trip he took with his wife to Cambodia. Brookes writes that he loves visiting ancient ruins all over the world, but the rest pale in comparison to southeast Asia. Here’s a selection from the article.

If you’ve been to Angkor, you’ve been to Siem Reap, where all the hotels and restaurants are located. But if you were there more than a few years ago, you won’t recognize the place. On my first trip, in 1999, it was just a dusty little backwater with a couple of teashops and some cheesy, Chinese-built hotels on the road to the airport. The most exciting thing about it was leaving.

But tourism has exploded in Angkor over the past decade, and Siem Reap has turned into the liveliest, hippest place in Cambodia. The town has woken up — more than a hundred new hotels have sprung up (many of them luxurious five-star palaces) and new restaurants, guest houses, clubs, spas, art galleries, internet cafes and bookstores seem to open up every week.

It’s still got its small town charm, but with an unmistakable buzz. And while the temples will always be the main draw, Siem Reap is starting to turn into a pretty interesting destination on its own.

And for us –- drained after too much sun, stone and ancient history — it was blessed relief. We lazed our way around the narrow, shady streets of the old French Quarter, talking with people and exploring.

There’s a lot of traditional Cambodian life going on, but it’s mixed up with ultra-modern boutiques, lively bars and smart little cafes that look like they were just airdropped in from Paris. The feel of the place is completely informal; Siem Reap is so casual, in fact, that most of the streets don’t even have names.

And we kept stumbling across the unexpected – fried spiders in outdoor food markets, contemporary art in the McDermott Gallery, a place called Herb’s that serves marijuana pizza, an extremely cool one-room luxury hotel called the One Hotel and – our favorite — a netted courtyard restaurant called the Butterfly Garden, where we idled away a morning eating blueberry pancakes ($4), while hundreds of butterflies fluttered around us.

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