Pub Street and "The Alley"
After dropping off our bags and freshening up a bit at the hotel, we hit the nightlife of Siem Reap, particularly the legendary combo of “Pub Street” and "The Alley." This close-knit conglomeration of restaurants, shops and bars may be only 2.5 square blocks, but it offers something for everyone. Karaoke, live music, meat markets, gay bars, and tacky tourist hang-outs litter the sides of the streets in this “Old Market” section of town which, in a blink of an eye, can easily resemble New Orleans' French Quarter. While the architecture might be different (albeit not much), the balmy heat, sense of revelry, and richness of experience are just the same.
The Alley, a two-block pedestrian stretch of road that runs parallel to the smaller Pub Street is also known as "Street #8.” The basic names given to these roads reveal the naïveté in the city's desperate need to catch up with the tourist explosion that has occurred in the last 15 years. Awnings of the buildings on opposite sides of The Alley touch each other and protect pedestrians from the sun, or the afternoon rains! But of course, it’s night time when the lanes really take off! Think about all of the tourists you see walking through Angkor Wat during the day? Well, where are they going afterward to unwind? Yep, you guessed it - Pub Street and The Alley!
While getting acquainted with the lanes, we noticed an incredible selection of watering holes to cozy up to, and unfortunately, way too many restaurants to check out during our short four day stay in Siem Reap! One establishment that managed to lure us in with its colorful decor, al fresco seating, and cheap beer prices (50 cents a bottle!) was the Red Piano Bar.
Packed to the max, this touristy outpost is located on the main corner of Bar Street just off from Sivatha Street. (You can’t miss the place since it is attached to a larger restaurant and guest house as well.) As cute little geckos hugged the sides of the faux “aspara” bas reliefs, we noticed a clever page added to our drink menu. It featured a photo of Angelina Jolie and a promotion for a special libation called the “Tomb Raider Cocktail.” (Ms. Jolie-Pitt filmed one of her Tomb Raider flicks at Angkor earlier in this millennium.) Too funny! While we cannot vouch for the food, Red Piano does offer a great vantage point for Pub Street people-watching! The restaurant bar is open daily from 7:00 AM to 11:30 PM (or later depending on the crowd).
Set of Drifters tip: While walking the lanes, you will experience buskers trying to persuade you (with giant prawns and sizzling kabobs) to patronize one restaurant over another. Ultimately, everyone in town is quite polite and they will not bother you if you mention that you have already eaten somewhere else earlier in the evening. That being said, tourists walking just outside the well-signed confines of Pub Street and The Alley should expect solicitations by pimps trying to sell “boom boom sex” nearby! (These folks are not carrying giant prawns however!)
Red Piano - Pub Street, Siem Reap, 011 (855) 63 963240
Miss Wong Cocktail Bar
Doug needed a place to rest the bum foot he injured while walking through Ta Prohm, so after dinner at Le Malraux (see “eats”), we headed over to Miss Wong Cocktail Bar. An homage to “vintage Shanghai,” Miss Wong’s bathes patrons in red, drawing them in with reproductions of infamously kitschy paintings by the Russian artist Vladimir Grigoryevich Tretchikoff, and then further seducing them with intricately wood-carved leather booths and lanterns and umbrellas that hang from the vaulted ceiling. The drink menu ain’t too shabby either. The "Indochine Martini" is Miss Wong’s signature drink, though we remember a chocolate/ coffee-inspired concoction that really got our tongues wagging!
This is a great place to meet like-minded travelers, or if you are feeling a bit more adventuresome, to mingle with the local population. In fact, chatting with the staff at Miss Wong’s provided us with one of the most poignant, in-depth conversations we had in all of Southeast Asia. With the popularity of travel to Angkor Wat skyrocketing each year, the infrastructure of the little town has struggled to keep up with the increasing numbers of invading farangs, and while inquiring about the many changes that have occurred in town over the last 15 years, we learned so much about the Khmer culture and the real “pulse” of Siem Reap. It was refreshing to hear the locals’ raw, unrehearsed take on the past, present and future of the town in which they live. Unlike a lot of the Thai population’s politically correct chatter, the people of Cambodia offered a candid view on their place in the world. If you are open to listening and learning, they are open to sharing.
Miss Wong Cocktail Bar is open nightly from 6:00 PM to 1:00 AM. Set of Drifters tip: Since it is a cash only establishment, make sure to bring your riels, and an open mind.
Miss Wong Cocktail Bar - the lane behind Pub Street, Siem Reap, 011 (855) 92 428332,
http://www.misswong.net/ and http://www.facebook.com/pages/Miss-Wong/142774160860
Once spotted on The Alley during our initial walkthrough of the area, we knew we would eventually return to the Linga Bar sometime after dinner to see what made this place tick.
In Hindu, “linga” refers to the phallic male fertility symbol often seen accompanying the female "yoni" throughout many of Angkor's stone temples. As we would later learn, the Linga was, of course, a gay bar. (We suppose the rainbow flag out front should have given us a little hint.)
Opening over nine years ago, the Linga is now part of the One Hotel Collection across the street, as managed by Director Martin Dishman. He referred to us a funny story that occurred during construction of the Linga Bar's signage. Apparently, a translation error renamed the bar "The Cock" in Khmer, lessening Dishman's original intent of paying a tongue-in-cheek homage to local heritage. And though we imagine the vibe in Siem Reap was never quite as raucous as that of the infamous East Village watering hole with the same name, as we would soon realize, comparisons surprisingly do exist between the two.
Let’s start with the ambiance. Like many of the other nearby bars and restaurants, the Linga Bar promises a well-polished attention to modern design that you'd normally expect to find in cities like London or New York - not necessarily the dusty back alleys of Siem Reap. Hip decor? Check. Lush cocktails? Yep. (Delicious lychee martinis ended up our evening's drink of choice.) And then there’s the music... Linga's broadcasting of sub-par euro trance and pop ultimately proved that gay bars really are the same the world round!
Ahhh, we know what you're thinking... New York City's Cock is more rough 'n tumble beer special than martini. And Cock-approved DJs wouldn't be caught dead spinning euro trance. Still, the Linga and Cock have more in common than you might sense first on the surface.
At The Cock, brush up in a certain manner against someone in the bathroom, and you may just end up spending more than a few minutes before washing your hands! At the Linga, a casual encounter with a local at the bar could result in you... uh, biting off more than you can chew. It is here where young Khmer hustlers await the evening's tourist prey. And charged with ample stamina, they'll likely hang out as long as need be to secure that next suitor! (Dishman later let us know that the Linga Bar does not promote this type of solicitation, and will eject anyone who is seen as tarnishing the atmosphere management is trying to create.)
Upon returning to the Linga on on our final night in Cambodia, we began a conversation with a gaggle of local young men who clearly had multiple occupations: day jobs and night ones. In particular, one young kid spent his days as a front desk clerk at a nearby hotel. Speaking to us frankly, and in near-perfect English, he described how hard it was to make a living in Siem Reap, saying that it took him an entire month working at the front desk to earn what we had spent on our hotel room at the Hotel de la Paix in just one night (at the time roughly $60 USD). Yikes!
Seeing that we both had worked in the hotel industry for a period in our own lives, we assumed the chat would remain purely friendly, as so many of our poignant conversations with locals had been up until that point. We soon realized, however, that this young man actually did expect us to take him back to our "swanky hotel." We declined as politely as possible, explaining that we had no ulterior motives and were happy just to chat with him and get to know more about life in Siem Reap. (Since we had seen this kid a few nights prior and had bought him a drink, what else was he to think when we returned to the bar on our last night in town? Sorry kiddo!) The moral of the story here: Leave your judgment at the door, but also be careful not to give the wrong impression to locals who may see you as the means to a better life.
The Linga Bar begins its day at 11:00 AM and stays open until the wee hours of the morning, or at least until the last hustler finds his barang!
Linga Bar - Pub Alley near the Old Market, Siem Reap, 011 (855) 12-755-311,
One Hotel Collection - http://theonehotelcollection.com/index.php