One of my favorite things to do when travelling is to get lost.
Not “my only option is to ask sky-high crackheads for directions because I’m in a dark alley alone” lost, but intentional “hopping on a train and getting off at an unfamiliar stop just for fun” lost. Purposeful loss of direction for the sake of exploration and discovery.
Maybe it’s the dash of hipster in me, but I’ve never liked going to mainstream spots, whether I’m abroad or in the States. There is a world of difference between being a traveler and being a tourist, and I am most definitely the former. I don’t feel the need to see the “top attractions” unless they interest me — and what interests me more than anything is wandering aimlessly and discovering things on my own.
Here are some hidden gems I found during my month-long stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Off The Beaten Path in Siem Reap, Cambodia
1. D’s Books
As an avid reader who grew up in bookstores and maintained an obsession as an adult, it’s hard to find a shop that will stand out among the hundreds in my memory. I feel the same about cafes and bookstores: out of love and adoration, I’m a little picky. Atmosphere, selection, and price are all important factors when it comes to choosing where I spend my time and empty my wallet.
In a small city like Siem Reap (population 175k), I didn’t expect the book scene to be anything but desolate and depressing. Imagine my surprise when instead, I stumbled across one of the best shops I’ve ever found on the road.
D’s Books is a fantastic new-and-used bookstore that, whether intentionally or by happenstance, specializes in backpacker’s interest books. Any travel guide, memoir, biography, cultural or historical study that you can think of, lives here.
Much of their fantastic selection can be credited to their trade-in program. Their inventory is filled with books brought in by travelers from all over the world, as well as new books or used books obtained through other methods.
The layout of the small shop, with tables and wall racks in addition to bookshelves, made browsing a dream. I loved roaming the aisles and finding pages with bent-corners, old inscriptions, and in some cases — library check-out forms.
D’s Books is located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a five-minute walk from Pub Street located directly across from the city hospital. There is a second location in the much larger capitol city, Phnom Pehn (population 2.2mil) that I was unable to visit. More information about both locations can be found on their website.
2. Picasso Bar & Tapas
I’ve always had a great eye for locating happy hours. Within weeks of my 21st birthday, I had a mental calendar filled with at least five or six stylish restaurants, bars, and lounges and had memorized their specials. So, after roaming the streets of Siem Reap for a full day and feeling the urge for a cocktail, I looked around for the telltale chalkboard sign advertising daily deals, and after seeing a few options, I chose Picasso.
Picasso Bar & Tapas is a posh cosmopolitan lounge located just off of Pub Street in the Old Market sector of Siem Reap, on the enigmatic Alley West.
With air-conditioning and a prime location next to an art gallery, it is an excellent place to unwind. The horseshoe-shaped bar and cozy atmosphere make it an excellent location for a drink alone, a date, or for engaging conversation with the lovely Australian owner and bartender.
Daily drink specials include buy 1, get 1 free cocktails, and discounts on carafes of sangria.
3. Nomads Shisha Lounge
Let me preface this with an admission: I came here nearly every day for a month. This place is fabulous.
Hidden on a street populated mostly by hostels and their wandering guests, nestled next to a small guesthouse, Nomads is the definition of ‘off the beaten path’. After reading about this place on the web, a couple of friends and I went on the hunt. We spoke to at least 8 Tuk-Tuk drivers before one knew what we were talking about — but fortunately, we found it.
Whether you like shisha (flavored tobacco smoked out of a water pipe but not inhaled) or not, this place is a must for travelers coming through Siem Reap.
Owner Etienne Papillon and his enthusiastic staff go a step beyond serving drinks with their fascinating magic tricks and engaging conversation. My first night there I came with two friends, and they stayed open two hours late for us. The staff entertained us with card games, jokes, and Apsara (traditional Cambodian dance) demonstrations, and never once mentioned that they were supposed to be closed. I was hooked.
Each signature cocktail (priced at $3) is made carefully with only the most fresh ingredients. One Mangotini-requiring afternoon, Etienne sent his staff to the market for fresh mangoes rather than including the previous day’s leftovers. The level of service was nothing short of impressive.
Located on Les Artisans d’Angkor Street, Nomads is the perfect getaway from the loud and crazy tourist-central Pub Street. As I mentioned, I spent nearly every afternoon here during my stay, and the level of service and quality of drinks and shisha were constant.
4. Sister Srey Cafe
Although I love discovering places on my own, I always investigate personal referrals. As a coffee addict, when the owner of Picasso recommended I check out Sister Srey Cafe, I headed over right away.
Walking into this place felt like I was back in San Francisco. If you’re looking for a Cambodian cultural experience, this isn’t the coffee shop for you. However, if you’re looking to meet fellow travelers and enjoy a European-style latte (and don’t mind paying European prices), here’s your winner.
A two-story shop, the bottom floor houses normal seating, while the upstairs features clothes for sale, comfy chairs, and a book swap/library that I totally raided during my visit.
I had a hard time shelling out $4 for a cup of coffee in comparison with $1 Khmer iced coffee (the local Cambodian sort), but ultimately, you’re paying for the atmosphere more than the product. I enjoyed sitting and feeling for a moment like I was back at home.