The Legendary Ivy Guesthouse, Siem Reap.
The Ivy Guesthouse & Restaurant, Siem Reap.
It was a typically scorching hot day by the pool outside our Siem Reap apartment. Sladja and I had just posted in the Siem Reap Expats Facebook Group to say that we were looking for local businesses to write about. Suddenly, much to our surprise, a flurry of emails came through from cafe, restaurant and bar owners across the city. Whoa, we had not expected that. One email came from a woman by the name of Kathryn Prince, who was writing on behalf of her Cambodian business partner. “If you are looking for great stories, you really have to write about The Ivy”, she told me.
Curious to find out more, Sladja and I set off one afternoon to see the place for ourselves. Arranged by Kathryn, who was stuck in The UK because of the pandemic, we came to meet her dear friend and Ivy co-owner, Som Sovannary. “A Siem Reap legend” as Kathryn put it.
Celebrated chef, committed philanthropist and devoted mother, 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 her doors for us. Despite the fact that the premises were closed due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Ivy Guesthouse & Restaurant, Siem Reap.
“So nice to meet you!” she blushed, as we entered The Ivy’s courtyard restaurant. In spite of the lack of customers it felt really homely with its open bar, wooden tables and sprinkling of local art. What a pity that people couldn’t come 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”.
The Ivy’s story 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 western tourists. “The Original Ivy”, as Vann calls it, was located down by the river. She joined the team from its first day of operation working behind the bar.
Before long, Vannary and Karl began dating and eventually married in October 2001. Together, they built up The Ivy as Siem Reap’s premier home from home for hungry, tired visitors.
“It was relatively stress free in those early days. Siem Reap was a small town and we didn’t have much competition”. – Vann.
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.
During this period, The Ivy became the 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.
“The Ivy all-day-breakfast was a favourite lunch time cure for the excesses of the night before” – Kathryn Prince.
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, Kathryn often came back to Siem Reap to catch up with her friends and witness first hand the city blossoming as a major tourist destination.
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”. – Vann.
Today, there are memories of Karl lovingly placed around The Ivy. On the back wall of the courtyard 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”.
The article paints Karl as a man with an adventurous spirit, a guy who famously unearthed Pol Pot’s toilet seat from the wreckage of the former leader’s country home. He had been demining at the time as a volunteer and only claimed the unusual item upon a friend’s insistence. And yes, the toilet seat is also here in The Ivy, right next to the framed article!
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 she owns and manages The Ivy in partnership with Kathryn. Together, they remain focused on keeping the business going and staying true to everything it stands for.
The Ivy Guesthouse & Restaurant, Siem Reap.
Although closed as a venue, Vann was determined to battle 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.
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 is a recent addition to The Ivy menu.
For cooking enthusiasts, she has also made a 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.
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. This is just another reason why Vann holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of Siem Reapers.
Update October 2022: The Ivy Guesthouse finally decided to close its doors in July of this year. Having discovered the sad news online, I had a brief chat with Vann, who revealed it had been a difficult and depressing decision to take. “Covid 19 is just too long” she conceded, but said that she was proud of what The Ivy achieved in its eventful 22 years.
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.
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Another cool sounding eatery. Making a list if we ever return to the far east.
Cheers Gary, it’s just a pity that The Ivy won’t be one of the places you could enjoy. It was such a lovely location with a meaningful history. And the grub was great too.
You know how you get a warm and welcoming feeling the moment you enter a door of a place … that’s how it felt when I saw that first inside photo of The Ivy! And once again, what an amazing story about Vann, Karl & Kathryn making a success of this for 22 years … how unfortunate that it had to close its doors – Covid really had a devastating effect on the hospitality services. I wish her well with whatever she will be doing next.
PS: The note at the toilet seat is hilarious 😄.
Hey Corna, I’m so glad these stories are getting out there. I’m pleased you felt the positivity of The Ivy and Vann. This story always brought conflicting feelings to me, as it feels simultaneously heartwarming and sad. Vann has since moved to Wales and seems really happy, which is a fitting epilogue to the tale. Thanks for your warm comment, Corna.
Oh, that’s good to hear! Thanks for the feedback.
Your writing is quite splendid, Leighton and I think it’s amazing to see such long-running guesthouses still trying hard to keep it going, but the lack of visitors during the COVID years must have made it very very tough. I can only imagine what it must have been like to wander into Cambodia during the 90s – especially as options for entering the country were limited – with a plan to settle in Siem Reap and make a living. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
Thank you Aiva, you are very kind. I also feel Cambodia in the 90s must have been a really special place. Full of hope and promise I reckon, a place that was starting to realise its potential. Thanks for reading the story of Ivy Guesthouse.
very well written what a lovely but also sad history for both vann and her beloved business. just think leighton, without you this story wouldnt have seen the light of day.
Thanks Stan, it did feel like this is a story that shouldn’t be lost to the outside world. I imagine Kathryn and Vann look back on those days with so much fondness. RIP to a very special guesthouse and restaurant.
What an incredible story and an amazing achievement to open and maintain this place successful for such a long time. You have certainly uncovered a depository of interesting personal histories in Siem Reap. I always feel that it’s the people really that make a place special. Well, sadly I won’t be able to visit this restaurant, but I am sure that in some form Vann’s legacy lives on in the town, thanks to the people she worked with. Beautifully written, Leighton.
Hey Nieves, thanks so much for following this series. There’s plenty more to come over the coming weeks, I appreciate your contributions!
So sad that covid killed this dream… one of many places not just in Siem Reap but all over the world. Thanks for this story Leighton!
Thanks Anna, it feels good to share this story, even though it’s no longer possible to visit The Ivy. What was your favourite restaurant there during your recent stay?
Wild was very impressive, loved it there. We also ate at a place that was owned by a Belgian married to a Cambodian lady…. It was in a little lane near pub street. Had a good meal there too.
What a sad ending to such an upbeat story. Great successes, a unique back story, and great food pictures. Kind of hard to believe that in 1999 it was the only place catering to local expats and western tourists. Does Covid still have Siem Reap closed down? I knew China was still struggling with outbreaks but hadn’t heard that about Cambodia.
From what I hear tourism in Siem Reap started to make a big comeback in the summer. Apparently it’s going from strength to strength, but this bounce back came too late for so many. Sadly, The Ivy was one of those.
What an incredible experience, Vann seems like an absolutely incredible person! She has been through so much, who would’ve ever thought her husband would have a heart attack so early and then be hit by a pandemic. The food looks incredible and I’m sad she had to close, I know that must’ve been incredibly heart breaking for her.
Thanks Lyssy, for taking the time to read this story. And for your empathy. I guess we never know what life will throw at us and boy did it hurl a lot in Vann’s path. I think she showed amazing strength to get through it all and remain such a positive person.
Great outreach and stories on your part Leighton. Everyone has a story. We have but to ask and listen. This place and the owners sound amazing. I do love Pol Pot’s toilet seat. If it could speak, it would say “Pol Pot was an A–hole, not a perfect A–hole, because a perfect A–hole has a use. Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work. Allan
Ha ha, right on Allan. What a thing to have in one’s possession, if indeed it really was Pol Pot’s toilet seat. Thanks for reading Allan for your good humour. As A-holes go, Pol Pot was a massive one.
How sad that Vann lost her husband so young and then lost her business to Covid! Her story left me a little teary-eyed until I remembered her beautiful smile in the photos – especially the one of her and Katherine together. The food looked amazing, and I wonder if there’s any chance of her getting to (or wanting to) reopen now that the Covid mess has settled down. What’s even more interesting is that her cookbook profits go to a charity rather than to support her and her sons. What a great lady Vann must be! Thank you for sharing her story with us Leighton.
Some lovely observations Kellye. I’m afraid there is no chance of The Ivy reopening, as Vann has since left Cambodia and now lives in Wales. It is a big loss for Siem Reap but I know this is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself. Thanks for reading!
A bittersweet tale, Leighton. Love, loss, struggle, hopefully a new start. And, a great heroine indeed. One that is generous, talented and strong.
Thanks for reading Amelie. I’m glad Vann’s story is getting exposure and that people are responding so well to
I wonder whether one day someone somewhere will look back on the world’s response to COVID and realise that more lives were lost long term through the effects of lockdowns than would have been killed by the virus had we stayed open and let people make their own decisions. There are, sadly, so many stories like this one across the globe.
Sadly this great Siem Reap institution has been lost to COVID, but it’s a relief to know that Vann is now rebuilding her life.
Wow so much history was captured there. I was thinking it would be such a cool place to stay. Such a shame they had to close…a fate of far too many places I’m sure after Covid 🙁
Hey Linda, thanks for reading and for leaving a comment. Yes, The Ivy is just one of hundreds of thousands of livelihoods decimated by COVID-19. So many stories out there I’m sure that we’ll never know about.
Leighton, these photographs are amazing, and your meticulous attention to detail is excellent! The way you share each journey is a gift. As always, thank you, my friend!
Hey Juliet, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about The Ivy. Thanks for your comment and keep on keepin’ on.
So sad to learn that an institution such as The Ivy had to close its doors for good as it looked be a welcoming restaurant with delicious food. I’ve never heard of sailors potatoes though, that’s definitely a new one on me but the duck breast and pork chop looked extremely tasty.
Hey Marion, I think Sailors Potatoes was a new one for me too. Thanks for reading about The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant, a much-missed Siem Reap institution.
Nice story, nicely told. It is a fine demonstration that there are people behind the business.
I think it’s something a lot of tend to forget or overlook. Just how much blood, sweat and tears goes into running a family business. And what great challenges and obstacles there are to overcome along the way. Sometimes, as in this case, one’s very best just isn’t enough. Thanks for reading.
What an opportunity to make it over to The Ivy before it closed! Although it’s unfortunate that it happened, you still got to experience its touching history, with its welcoming owners and incredible food: that grilled pork chop (with pasta?) looks divine! Perhaps the owners will find a way to reopen The Ivy, or another venue, as the pandemic situation continues to improve!
Cheers Rebecca, we are so glad we got the invite. In fact, if Kathryn hadn’t got in touch, I’m not sure we would’ve even known about The Ivy’s existence, let alone its amazing story. Sadly there will be no comeback for the owners. Kathryn is based in The UK and Vann has left Cambodia, relocating to Wales. But they’ll always have their memories. photos and treasured items from those years.
What an inspirational, but sad story of all that Vann has been through. I find it completely amazing when hearing about people like her who endure so much but keep a smile on their faces. The food looks worthy of Michelin stars! Thanks for sharing this heartwarming story.
You’re welcome Tricia, I’m glad you enjoyed the read. I often ponder how people are able to stay so positive after great personal hardship. Especially as I imagine I’d crumble if I had to deal with what she went through. An inspirational woman for sure, thanks for your comment, as always.
What an incredible example she is. I love that even with the heartaches and set backs that she has faced she is still so focused on being successful and serving those around her. Her smile really does light up the room- even from the picture you can feel it.
She definitely seems to be one of those half glass full people. No sure what kind of outlook I’d have on life if I were to suffer the loss of Sladja and then my business. It’s amazing how resilient and positive people can be, thanks for reading Meg.
What a lovely use of your time during the pandemic to visit and write about the local shops and restaurants, including the Ivy. It’s too bad that they closed this year after being around for 22 years.
Thanks guys, the demise of The Ivy is really sad for all involved. Not only for Vann, Kathryn and the memory of Karl, but for Siem Reap too which has lost an historic institution. Appreciate you taking the time to read.
The Ivy really seems like a place that embraced people and made everyone feel at home. That is sad that they closed, but it did seem like they really had an impact on their community for many years. That is also neat that the construction crew for the movie Tomb Raider went there as well!
Thanks for reading Allie, The Ivy had such a special place in Siem Reap history and will be sorely missed.
An interesting tale, as usual. The “bottom” line is the toilet seat, and the story “behind” lt, but now I am bum-bling along.
Oh lord Geoff, you managed to pack three puns into two short sentences. You’re on a (bog) roll!
A bittersweet story, but a tale worth telling. I was going to ask if you knew what Vann went on to do, but I see from a previous comment she moved to Wales. I hope she found happiness.
Hey Helen, thanks for reading about The Ivy Guesthouse and Restaurant. From what I hear Vann is very happy these days, which is great, she certainly deserves it!
This is a touching tribute to yet another lost place. Glad you got to meet Vann and learn her story. I hope she’s doing well in her new home. I’m sure there have been plenty of jokes about the toilet seat and the miserable man who used it, probably unprintable!
Hey Ruth, I’m so glad you got to read this one, we are both very fond of Vann. The seat… I wonder what Vann did with it. I’m guessing it’s gathering dust somewhere in a box. Though there would surely be a museum somewhere who would be very interested in acquiring it.