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On The Town

On The Town

Watching the sun rise at Angkor makes us forget about food. But cycling back

into Siem Reap, we passed the Grand Hotel and swept in for breakfast. Dating

back to the1920s, this faded colonial building has seen grander days. But its

cool interior, elegant proportions, wrought iron lift and romantic atmosphere

are still irresistible.

Raffles International is poised to restore it.

During the interim, it is being run by Thong Koum Thol, 55, from the Ministry of

Tourism. But tourists have defected to other hotels offering more modern

amenities, which is a pity because the Grand is still a charming place to stay.

So peace reigned in the spacious old dining room and four waiters in black

jackets rushed to serve us the best breakfast in Siem Reap, ($4).  We drank real

expresso coffee with a foamy top and ate hot croissants, baked in the vast

kitchens below. They were accompanied by the lightest toast and warm rolls,

served with the hotel's own home-made pineapple jam, full of chunks of fruit and

the best we have ever tasted. A perfect omelet appeared next, rolled neatly,

with a firm exterior, yet with a soft, frothy interior, just the way they make

them in France. A plate of fresh fruit and orange juice completed the meal.

Breakfast starts at 6:30am.

The morning sun filtered into the dining room

and we talked to Madame Ek Somali, 50, who has worked in the bar of the Grand

Hotel since 1964. She recalled serving celebrities such Haille Selaisse,

Jacqueline Kennedy, and General De Gaulle when he came in 1966. The great

general shook her hand after the meal. "I only came up to his waist," she

remembered. She was among the first of four staff to return after the Khmer

Rouge period, during which time Pol Pot's army had occupied the hotel. During

the 1980s, she served the Soviet delegations that came to Angkor.

We

spent the morning visiting two more temples, and with only another 98 to go,

stopped for lunch at the Samaki. Next to the river in Siem Reap, this

unpretentious wooden restaurant serves French and Cambodian food for unbeatable

prices. Pot Heng, 70, was a waiter in Phnom Penh and opened the Samaki three

years ago. He said he couldn't retire because he has lots of children and

grandchildren to look after. They all work in the restaurant. Souen Bunrith, 22,

said: "I love helping my grandfather." They open at 6am to serve noodle soup.

Pot Heng puts real white cotton cloths and napkins on the table, and serves a

big selection of salads, fish and meat dishes, ranging from 2,500 to 3,500 riel.

We had a refreshing salad with fragrant French dressing, containing boiled eggs,

tomatoes and potatoes, followed by grilled fish. Our companion raved about Loc

Lac Anglais, a huge grilled steak, with a fried egg on top, crispy French fries

and garnishing, for 5,000 riel. He started with fish soup with pineapple at

4,000 riel. Pot Heng is moving to bigger premises on the road to Angkor in about

a month. So those who love the rural, riverside view, should hurry

over.

A ritzier place to dine is the Banteay Srei Hotel. It is run by

Cambodian Sam Sophy and owned by Mach Houen. This rather gaudy hotel, which

opened in February 1994, is determined to please all tastes, and has filled the

garden with a profusion of statues in the same way that some English people fill

theirs with plaster gnomes. Vishnus, apsaras, and singhas vye for space with

topiary in the shape of deer and cocks, and to make sure everyone is happy,

there is a circle of kitsch mannikin statues, each wearing a krama, doing what

they were destined to do into a miniature fountain. The whole lot is floodlit at

night.

The menu is similar, with every Chinese, Cambodian and European

dish in existence, and the food is tasty. We enjoyed succulent chicken with

ginger and spring onion, (small $3, large $6) delicious sweet and sour pork,

($3) and lots of crisp vegetables like baby corn and carrots, tossed in a light

sauce ($3). House white wine $11, Muscadet $17, Pouilly Fume, $30.

A

wide-ranging menu is available at the Bayon, off the main road. This is the most

popular place in town. Tables are set in the delightful garden, filled with

flowers, where the owner has thoughtfully provided lots of fans. The delicious

Japanese style fish ($8 for two) comes sizzling on a hot dish, covered in soy

sauce. Service is friendly. After drinking lots of chilled white wine, we looked

up at the stars and wondered if we would be able to galvanise ourselves before

dawn next day to watch another sunrise at Angkor.

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