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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant, Siem Reap.

Visit The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant Siem Reap.

The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant.

April 2020. As with so many cities across the world over the past month, it’s been sad to see what’s happened to the local business owners of Siem Reap. Shuttered up storefronts line the dusty roads around Pub Street. Family owned hotels and boutique complexes hide away behind giant locked gates. More often than not, there’s a hastily, handwritten sign: Closed Until Further Notice.

Similarly, the cafe and restaurant scene has been decimated, with some of SR’s most loved institutions forced to shut up shop. One such legendary landmark is The Ivy, the city’s longest-running western-owned budget guesthouse.

Inside The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant Siem Reap.

Inside the Ivy, April 2020.

The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant, Siem Reap.

To find out more about The Ivy’s touching story, Sladja and I came to see the place for ourselves. And of course to meet legendary co-owner, Som Sovannary. Selfless philanthropist, celebrated chef and devoted wife, among many other things, I had been looking forward to meeting her for some time. Known simply as Vann to her friends, she kindly agreed to open the place up. Despite the fact that the premises are now closed due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Ivy Guesthouse Siem Reap.

Welcome to The Ivy!

“So nice to meet you!” she blushed, as we entered The Ivy’s courtyard restaurant. In spite of the emptiness, it felt really homely with its open bar, wooden tables and flourishes of local art. Which made me feel sad all over again that there weren’t any other people here to enjoy it. “This is still our home” says Vann, masking her worries from us with a wide smile that lights up the room. “We try to keep it clean and ready to reopen”. 

Som Sovannary Ivy Guesthouse Siem Reap.

Vann, Ivy Restaurant and Guesthouse.

The story of The Ivy dates back to 1999 when it opened under the ownership of an Englishman, Karl Balch. At that time, The Ivy was the city’s only bar and restaurant that catered to the needs of local expats and visiting tourists. “The Original Ivy” as Vann calls it, was located down by the river and she joined on day one working behind the bar.

Karl Balch The Ivy Guesthouse Siem Reap.

Karl Balch (right) chilling at The Ivy. Photo courtesy of Som Sovannary.

“It was relatively stress free in those early days. Siem Reap was a small town and we didn’t have much competition”. 

The Original Ivy Guesthouse Siem Reap.

Vann (second from left) behind the bar at the original Ivy. Photo courtesy of Som Sovannary.

Before long, Vannary and Karl grew close and eventually married in October 2001. Together, they built up The Ivy as Siem Reap’s premier home from home for hungry, tired visitors. At the foundation of their business stood a mutual passion to provide delicious, home-cooked Khmer and western food in a friendly, welcoming environment. Multi-talented, by this time Vann was now head chef and her dishes quickly became the talk of the town.

The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant, Siem Reap.

Construction Crew Tomb Raider Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant Siem Reap.

Tomb Raider meets The Ivy. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Prince.

“The Ivy all day breakfast was a favourite lunch time cure for the excesses of the night before” – Kathryn Prince

During this period, The Ivy became a choice dinner spot for the construction crew of Tomb Raider. This certainly helped Vann and Karl with their growing reputation! Moreover, it signalled the beginning of a beautiful new friendship. Because it was here that Vann met Kathryn Prince, a film industry sculptor working on the Tomb Raider team.

Angelina Jolie signed T-shirt Tomb Raider.

Kathryn’s Tomb Raider shirt, signed by Angelina Jolie.

Like so many people who come to Cambodia, Kathryn fell in love with Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. Furthermore, she adored The Ivy and formed a close bond with its inspirational owners. As a result, she often came back to Siem Reap to catch up with her friends and witness first hand the city’s blossoming standing as a tourist destination.

Kathryn Prince Som Sovannary The Ivy Guesthouse Siem Reap

Vann and Kathryn. Photo courtesy of Som Sovannary.

By 2011 The Ivy had become a famed Siem Reap institution. How cruel then, that in October of that year Karl died suddenly of a heart attack aged just 47. His passing caused shockwaves across Siem Reap and of course left Vann utterly heartbroken.

“He was my hero. He taught me so much, without him I would never be where I am now”. 

Vannary and Karl Ivy Guesthouse Siem Reap.

Vann, Karl and their two sons Vichea (left) and Annan (right). Photo courtesy of Som Sovannary.

“The heart of The Ivy was always Karl and Vann has stayed true to him, stepping up in tragic circumstances” – Kathryn Prince.

Today, there are traces of Karl lovingly placed around The Ivy. On the back wall of the courtyard, for example, Sladja and I found a framed 2008 article about Karl by The Phonom Penh Post. The story describes Balch as “a knockabout drifter” who built up a business, fell in love and became a “repository of Siem Reap tales”.

Karl Balch The Ivy Guesthouse Siem Reap

The Ivy Restaurant and Guesthouse, Siem Reap.

A man with an adventurous spirit, it also mentions how he unearthed Pol Pot’s toilet seat from the wreckage of the former leader’s country home. He had been demining at the time and only claimed it upon a friend’s insistence. And yes, the toilet seat is also here in The Ivy, right next to the framed article!

Pol Pot's toilet seat Siem Reap Cambodia

“The seat of power for many years!”

The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant, Siem Reap.

There’s no doubting that Vann has been through more than her fair share of hardships. The latest challenge, COVID-19, has threatened to derail her business altogether. And yet she remains as dedicated as ever. Today, Vann owns and manages The Ivy in partnership with Kathryn. Together, they remain committed to keeping the business going and staying true to everything it stands for.

Som Sovannary and Kathryn Prince The Ivy Siem Reap.

Vann and Kathryn, the perfect team. Photo courtesy of Som Sovannary.

Although closed as a venue, Vann is battling on with a delivery service of her classic dishes. We came to try two of them, and to get a glimpse of how she weaves her magic in the kitchen.

It almost goes without saying that Vann’s food is absolutely fantastic! We settled down at a corner table in The Ivy’s courtyard restaurant that afternoon. A short while later, Vann switched from chef to waitress, serving me a plate of Grilled Pork Chop with mashed potato and creamy mushroom sauce.

Grilled Pork Chop Ivy Guesthouse Siem Reap.

The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant, Siem Reap.

Sladja went for the Grilled Duck Breast, with garlic, mushrooms and sailor’s potatoes served in a sweet onion balsamic sauce. This, Vann told us, is a dish she’s particularly proud of and a recent addition to the Ivy menu.

Grilled Duck Breast Ivy Restaurant Siem Reap.

The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant, Siem Reap.

Both of these dishes, and more, are available now for delivery across Siem Reap. For cooking enthusiasts, I’d also highly recommend her beautifully illustrated cookbook, Vann’s Shared Secrets. It was published through Cream Design in 2015 in collaboration with the artist Lisa-Marie Gibbs. Anyone interested in picking up a copy should contact Vann directly.

The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant, Siem Reap.

Vann's Shared Secrets A Cambodian Cookbook

A brilliant and beautiful cookbook by Som Sovannary.

Profits from book sales go to The Lake Clinic, an amazing NGO dedicated to bringing basic healthcare, disease surveillance and proper medical referrals to the communities of Tonle Sap, a severely isolated and underserved region of Cambodia. Just another reason why Som Sovannary holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of Siem Reapers and why The Ivy deserves every success now and in the future.

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To get in touch with The Ivy, head to their website, or visit their Facebook page.

For more on Siem Reap’s excellent cafe, restaurant and bar scene, check out my detailed guide on Where to Eat and Drink Siem Reap.

You can also read my exhaustive overview of What to See and Do in Siem Reap.

Looking for a roof over your head? Check out my articles on Where to Stay in Siem Reap.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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7 Comments

  • Marla

    What a lovely feature. Your lunches look amazing!

    April 26, 2020 - 1:58 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Marla! Special woman, lovey place, touching story, great food!

      April 26, 2020 - 2:00 pm Reply
  • nationalparkswitht

    Lovely story. I hope the restaurant will survive this crisis.

    April 26, 2020 - 6:31 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks T, I really hope so too. She deserves it.

      April 26, 2020 - 7:28 pm Reply
  • Passport Overused

    Great post 😁

    April 26, 2020 - 9:22 pm Reply
  • Eromonsele Emmanuel

    Wow, this was everything you said it would be. Love and Tombraider, Haha. I actually thought it was like the Tom Cruise restaurant. I’m happy with Vann and how well she’s recovered from her loss years ago. I hope this is over soon so the Ivy Guesthouse & Restaurant can bask in full glory again.

    May 11, 2020 - 6:08 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Emmanuel! Nearly every place in this series has an interesting bank story. But even within this scope, the Ivy is a special one.

      May 11, 2020 - 6:15 pm Reply

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