Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat, and has a good selection of bars and restaurants for a night out, catering to most tastes. If the downright surreal is your thing, head to the Dead Fish Tower on Sivatha Street. It’s like nowhere you’ve ever been before.
Down a long corridor set back from the main drag I emerged into a large, open room on two levels. At the far end was a set of wooden stairs leading to another level, and the first thing that caught my eye was a platform upon which two local Khmer girls gently gyrated, tracing elegant patterns in the air with their hands in the traditional Apsara style. They wore long, colourful skirts which rippled as they swayed and turned to the muted gongs of the music. Distracted momentarily by the dancers, I narrowly missed falling over a low wall as I made my way down the room, and did a double-take when I saw a large crocodile sliding into a pond just the other side. Going closer I saw that in fact there were several crocodiles lying around, perhaps 20 or 30 of them, and periodically one would climb across the others and slip silently into the water.
A sign at the foot of the stairs asked you to remove your shoes, and at the top of the staircase was another long platform on several split levels. Low tables were set out for our group, with seating on banks of cushions on the floor. If I turned around, a few feet away the platform ended abruptly, overlooking the croc pool below. Not the place to take a wrong turn after too many drinks. A waitress moved slowly down the length of the table taking our orders, handing them to another waiter who would take the slip to the kitchen; the end result was that everyone’s meal arrived at different times, but that’s pretty normal for the region, and at least no dessert arrived before the main course on this occasion. The menu had some classics – under the whiskey section you could order a Jack Denials, which is presumably what you drink if you won’t admit you’ve got a problem. It got even better in the food section. Number 258 was described as “Charred Ker Plunk with smelly vegetables”. Although I was intrigued by this, I ordered the Jungle Curry with fish, squid and prawns instead, which described itself as very spicy. I had a pot of Khmer tea to drink, which is similar to jasmine tea; delicate and with a hint of cinnamon.
While we waited for the food to arrive a couple of energetic Filipino girls starting belting out karaoke hits such as Abba and Boney M, which was met with universal approval, and some of our group decided to dance, giving a very enthusiastic performance. After a while the food began to arrive, and a large tureen of green liquid was placed before me. The occasional tentacle protruded over the edge, which I poked in trepidation to see if it twitched. As I navigated through the tureen I encountered all manner of sea creatures, including prawns of an appalling size, vast chunks of fish and something that may have been mushroom, but which I strongly suspect was not. Within this floated numerous chillies and entire clusters of bright green peppercorns. The description ‘very spicy’ was accurate enough, and before long the group was steaming and snorting, surfacing from their bowls to gasp for breath like walruses. The other popular choice of dish was the traditional Khmer speciality Fish Amok, which is a mild curry with coconut, and this was reported to be delicious. I did try some, but to be honest, after the Jungle Curry I was in no fit state to appreciate it.
After dinner we lay back on the cushions and I had coffee while some of the others started on the cocktail menu. The Filipino girls headed off and a lovely, melodic Khmer song began with a groovy, shuffling rhythm. The two girls in long skirts came back on, and were joined by two male dancers. In a line they swayed and shimmied, tracing the wonderful patterns in the air as they moved with an easy, fluid grace; I watched spellbound. At the end of the song they placed their palms together as if in prayer and bowed their heads – a gesture known as the sompeah – before giving shy smiles and gliding offstage.
Someone began playing a piano in a corner of the room downstairs, covering everything from Beatles hits to sentimental ballads that could have been Scottish or Irish. Just when people began to get a little maudlin the pianist would change pace and embark upon a jaunty theme. He was a young European in the standard uniform of Saigon T-Shirt, ¾ combats and sandals, and he was very drunk – it later emerged that he was Austrian. He began to play Greek folk music, and one by one his friends got up and began to dance in a square around the piano, one of them doing the high kicks and crouches of a Cossack. Faster and faster the music flew, his fingers a blur over the keys, until everyone in the place was clapping in time, including the waiters.
We spilled out of the restaurant into the tropical night, the stars reeling overhead. The sight of a group of Austrians doing Cossack dancing to Greek folk music next to a pit full of crocodiles in a bar in Cambodia is one of those images I won’t forget any time soon. They say dead fish tell no tales, but I bet that place has inspired a few.