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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