SIEM REAP - I admire the gorgeously plated minced chicken invigorated with tender local herbs and topped with parmesan cheese and a blue-hued butterfly pea flower.
But are those fire ants lurking in my fusion dish?
I imbibe all of one red ant so hurriedly that I cannot discern the reputed tartness of the creepy-crawly.
I fancy myself a diner who delights in the novel and I love the idea of discovering contemporary Siem Reap in a place like the intimate Instagram-sleek Mie Cafe (www.miecafe-siemreap.com).
It is savvy of the Swiss-trained Khmer chef to fuse the local ant-relishing custom with the global movement of wild or foraged food, but no more bugs for me.
I enjoy the rest of my dinner and also a piquant Tomyamtini without fear. The cocktail is crafted from a Cambodian rice wine, sombai, and flavoured with galangal and tamarind, perfect for chilling on the patio artfully decorated with swinging lamps fashioned from shiny graters.
Beyond the Angkor Wat temple complex that is lost in time, the city of Siem Reap is an Asean gem now known for its contemporary scene.
The new Siem Reap is revealed in its inventive cuisine, playful modern circus, contemporary art, eco-shops and stylish hotels, as I discover on a recent three-day jaunt.
EAT: FANCY FOOD
The Mie Cafe is part of a four-hour Mystery Dine-Around by tuk-tuk.
For a taste of the city's young dining scene, my fellow travellers and I cover five establishments that mix Khmer tradition with modern flair.
The night's indulgence begins with tapas and cocktails at The Martini Lounge of the art-filled Belmond La Residence d'Angkor (www.belmond.com), where I am staying.
My Asian Persuasion martini is a smooth concoction of gin, lime juice, green tea syrup, lime leaf and coriander topped with soda, which I sip in the indoor-outdoor space set above a pond.
There is a fun I-can't-tell-you conspiratorial tone to the secret safari - we do not know where we will dine. But we each get a card listing five experiences with names like "On The Riverside".
After our martini hour, our tuk-tuks trundle past the Siem Reap River, a languid waterway which enhances the small city's serenity even though it looms large in the world's imagination.
This is largely thanks to the regal Angkor Wat, which attracted nearly 2.5 million visitors last year, a 12 per cent jump from 2016.
Apart from our ant adventure, another highlight is the fine-dining Embassy Restaurant (www.embassy-restaurant.com), whose two young female chefs play with seasonal ingredients from the Cambodian provinces.
Among the morsels served to our group of six, in the softly lit restaurant, are slivers of sweet-savoury sausage.
There is also spicy frog meat in a wee omelette nest, which is palatable and pretty. We sip organic French red wine.
We are ready for dessert at the Chanrey Tree (chanreytree.com/home), which prides itself on countryside cooking served in a lush and contemporary courtyard setting.
Generous portions arrive at our table, including banana in a silky sago-coconut cream.
Leaving, I admire the modern art and notice a framed photo of English soccer superstar David Beckham, who ate here in 2015.
Our final stop is Miss Wong, a popular cocktail lounge in an alley. Despite its hyper-Chinese red brocade look, it is relaxing and I order a Bloody Mary spiced with premium Kampot peppercorn.
While the food tour is intended for Belmond guests, the hotel will entertain other travellers if space permits.
Our modern Khmer foodie foray is priced at US$95 (S$130) a diner.
A French food tour - Cambodia was once a French protectorate - costs US$120.
Or simply book your own table.
A Singaporean family does just that, a day after I mention Mie Cafe during our chance encounter in Siem Reap. Its beef version of my ant-sprinkled special-order chicken larb dish costs US$6.50.
A five-course gourmet menu is priced at US$24 a person.
PLAY: CIRCUS WITH A CAUSE
Like our dinner excursion, Phare, The Cambodian Circus (pharecircus.org) is both local and modern.
Inside a cosy Big Top, we have front-row seats to a performance that joyfully mashes storytelling, acrobatics, Apsara classic dance and original live music.
That evening, our show, Eclipse, is a folksy tale about a disfigured young man rejected by villagers. In a twist, the gods transform him into a beautiful woman with magic powers.
While the tale is dark and vengeful in places, it has many comic and redemptive moments. It is rather like the inspiring backstory of the young artists, I imagine, who have triumphed over their disadvantaged beginnings.
Professionally trained in a non-profit circus school and arts centre based in the Cambodian city of Battambang, the circus performers put on a riveting show.
For an electric hour, they prance with fiery skipping ropes and fly through the air. They enact a slapstick market scene and do the dab - an urban dance move which, fittingly, signals confidence and celebration.
Eclipse is one of several themed shows done in a rotation. Tickets, priced between US$18 and US$38, can be booked online.
SEE: PLEASURES OF ART
Belgian artist Christian Develter's oil paintings (www.christiandevelter.com) are also rich in fantastical elements, like the circus.
During a private art tour, we visit the 50-year-old's stylish studio and residence hidden among rice fields and lotus ponds.
Beguilingly, he has a series inspired by the facial tattoos of the Chin hill tribes in north-western Myanmar, which he began visiting in 2012 after the no-go zone opened up. He depicts modern Asian women with delicate geometric facial tattoos alluding to spider webs, peacock plumage and the sun.
In Singapore, he is represented by The Frame Society in Holland Village.
As we linger at his East-West-style wooden house on stilts, Develter describes the appeal of Siem Reap.
Like him, global nomads turn up here, but the city remains "low key, not pretentious", he says.
"The young Cambodians want to advance. I like the optimism."
Because this is a temple city, travellers arrive for the culture and, increasingly, the good and affordable restaurants, he notes.
The visit to his studio is part of our bespoke half-day art excursion led by Ms Robina Hanley, founder of Siem Reap Art Tours (www.siemreaparttours.com), who crafts art, fashion and shopping experiences according to what travellers want to see and do.
Originally from Ireland, she has lived in Siem Reap since 2006 and forged relationships with artists and gallerists. She is a partner in the contemporary One Eleven Gallery (www.oneelevengallery.com).
On show during my October trip are the artworks of Tasmania-born Julien Poulson, who merges graffiti, film motifs and images of 1970s Hong Kong. It is fun to encounter, in laid-back Siem Reap, his funky imagery depicting the culture clash of the rivalry between the Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers studios.
Later, a visit to Theam's House (theamshouse.com), home and atelier of Cambodian artist and designer Lim Muy Theam, is sombre yet hopeful.
A child refugee who fled without his family to France in 1980, soon after the Khmer Rouge regime fell and Vietnam invaded Cambodia, he studied interior design and fine art in Paris, before returning to Cambodia 15 years later. Though a survivor, he is haunted by the purges of the Khmer Rouge.
The shy artist is not at his luxuriant abode, but his acrylic red-hued portraits of ordinary people in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison of the 1970s are haunting and speak volumes. Whimsically, he also has an abundance of elephants in every colour.
SHOP: FASHIONED IN CAMBODIA
Like Theam, the Cambodians I meet are willing to share their stories.
At the Made In Cambodia Market (www.facebook.com/MadeinCambodiaMarket), an enclave of artisanal stalls and shops with an indie pop-up vibe, unassuming model Vichka Vantha, 25, sells her Dai Khmer (daikh.org) brand of coconut-based soap and skincare.
A poster child of eco-chic, she uses pretty packaging made from banana trunks and paper recycled from corporations.
She is also a change-maker, though on a small scale for now, giving jobs to village women who create her products. Her social conscience was forged through the examples of wise and compassionate women, including her aunt, who stepped in after her mother's death left her in the care of an alcoholic father.
It is also uplifting to visit Kandal Village, north of Pub Street and south of the Old French Quarter. This is an eclectic cluster of cafes, spas, boutiques and homeware stores on a couple of streets ideal for shopping and strolling.
Siem Reap is still celebrating the 15-day Pchum Ben religious festival when I visit, hence many shops are closed, including the well-reviewed The Little Red Fox Espresso, an Australian-owned and Cambodian-managed cafe.
No aromatic cuppa, but I spend time browsing, including in Connecticut-born Jodi Arden's shop676 boutique (www.facebook.com/shop676) with its racks of timeless cotton, linen and cashmere garments comfortable enough for temple visits or socialising in humid Siem Reap.
A beatnik who also lived in Kathmandu, she says the sleepy precinct became a local favourite just a few years ago, after specialist travel agents moved in.
I also enjoy my tour of the infusion room and my liqueur-tasting at Sombai (www.sombai.com/en/home). The label infuses Cambodian rice wine with fresh flavours, including provincial coffee; mango and green chilli; and a mix of lemongrass and lemon akin to a local Italian-inspired limoncello.
I spend my last evening at the new Box Ville (National Road 6), a hip night market where locals relax among shops housed in refurbished shipping containers. There is also an Angry Birds bouncy playground, pumping music and restaurants.
I pick an al fresco eatery for my dish of mixed seafood doused in basil-chilli sauce, which has elements of Thai cuisine without the searing spice.
PAST AND PRESENT
In Siem Reap, an experience like Box Ville or the Phare circus reveals Siem Reap afresh, adding a new dimension to the traveller's sojourn to Angkor Wat, which I visit before sunrise, or to the Angkor National Museum, which deepens my fascination with the storied city.
These classic sites are a step back in time, but I also spy thoroughly modern elements, for instance, in the hot-air balloons or micro-light planes hovering near the temple complex and in the museum's interactive features that illuminate eras past.
And so I discover the new Siem Reap, a scintillating contrast to its extraordinary past.
• Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua
• The writer's trip was hosted by boutique-hotel booking service Mr & Mrs Smith.
SilkAir flies direct from Singapore to Siem Reap. The duration of my flight was two hours 20 minutes.
WHERE TO STAY
I stay one night at the 59-key Belmond La Residence d'Angkor, which is 10 minutes by car from the Angkor Wat temple complex.
The teak-built resort, a modern Khmer respite surrounded by walled gardens and ponds, has a spa and is rich in contemporary art.
I spend another two nights at the rustic-chic Phum Baitang, which has 45 luxury villas on stilts on the green outskirts of Siem Reap. The resort's stylish Cigar & Cocktail Lounge, set in a century-old Cambodian farm, overlooks rice fields worked by water buffaloes.
Both resorts are part of the collection of boutique-hotel booking service and lifestyle brand Mr & Mrs Smith (www.mrandmrssmith.com), which has eight luxurious Siem Reap hotels plus a boutique boat, the Aqua Mekong.
Mr & Mrs Smith founders James and Tamara Lohan observe that new boutique hotels have sprung up in Cambodia, notably in Siem Reap. "The city's fresh crop of boutique hotels, bistros and lavish spas has paved the way towards lesser-visited regions too, drawing travellers along the coast to places such as private-island hideaway Song Saa and beyond," the London-based couple say in an e-mail interview.
"The laidback pace, burgeoning arts scene and sense of fun in Siem Reap are reason enough to visit, but, of course, star attraction Angkor Wat remains as enigmatic as ever."
• The small and tranquil city of Siem Reap can be pleasantly traversed by tuk-tuk. On a three-wheeler, the traveller will enjoy Siem Reap up close. Hiring a tuk-tuk for the day costs between US$15 (S$20) and US$25. My English-speaking tuk-tuk driver Ke Puthea (Petter), who attended hospitality school, charges US$20 a day for his clean, cushioned vehicle, which seats four.
• The local people are often friendly and may share stories about their lives in a changing Cambodia, if they speak English, once the ice is broken. If you want to take pictures, for instance in the market, ask politely and say "arkun" or thank you.
• Have bug spray at the ready if you are prone to mosquito bites. Also, stay hydrated in the heat and humidity. Cambodia tags itself the Kingdom of Wonder for good reason, so inconveniences are a small price to pay.
• Visit Angkor Wat at sunrise, though sleepyheads can opt for sunset. Our guide ushers us through the back entrance rather than the main gate for a quieter enjoyment of the complex, before the sun rises at 6.10am. For photography, the changing colours of sunrise are spectacular if the sky happens to be slightly cloudy.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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