How a Cambodian Vacation Sparked a Love of Food in Designer Phillip Lim
For designer Phillip Lim, Cambodia always seemed shrouded in secrecy. “My parents never talked to me about it,” he says. “I remember asking to go and they’d say, “Oh, no, you don’t want to do that.’” They’d spent a decade there before he was born, fleeing to Thailand as the Khmer Rouge took power, and their memories were painful ones, of a country embroiled in civil war. Still, friends said he’d love it, so when he decided on a whim to take his first true vacation in years, Siem Reap was an easy choice. With no firm plans beyond a hotel reservation, Lim spent his stay meandering through temples, cooking with locals, and soaking in the slower pace. Here, he shares a few favorite moments from the trip.
I fell in love with the cuisine in Cambodia. It was so simple, but delicious and refined. I just started cooking a few months ago. I used to joke that I was a professional takeout orderer, but I got to a point where I wanted to change my life. I stayed at Amansara (suites from $1,290) and asked to shadow a cook who could teach me to make my own meals. I learned in this open-air kitchen. We used charcoal instead of electricity. We’d leave these three clay vessels heating all day and rotate whatever dishes we were cooking.
This is the beginning of a curry paste. You use ginger, turmeric, galangal, Kaffir lime, Thai chiles, and garlic, and pound it with a mortar and pestle. It’s the foundation for almost all Khmer food.
I hope to return and stay in one of these local houses—many of them have been in a single family for generations. This one, where I had the cooking lessons, overlooks Angkor Wat. It’s a traditional house, built on stilts. There’s no electricity, but it’s designed so air circulates constantly, and when monsoon season comes the water runs underneath so there’s no flooding. It’s really beautiful. Cambodia has luxury, but to me the reason to go is to get in touch with what you want to be about.
I didn’t tell my family I was going to Cambodia. My parents left so traumatized that they can’t speak about it, and they were so protective of me. But the day before I left, I got a package from my sister with photos of my parents at Angkor Wat. Talk about synchronicity. So I went there at the beginning of the trip. It was an amazing, spiritual experience. When I came home and told my parents where I’d been, they were happy I had made the decision on my own. They see both sides—what Cambodia gave them and what it took away—but I just saw the beauty and the potential, which was nice for them to hear.
Everything in Cambodia is centered on food. That’s how the community comes together. It was beautiful to see, and I just wanted to be a part of it. We went to the market each day. These vegetables are all grown by local farmers—no pesticides, just straight from the backyard.
Every morning, a guide picked me up on a tuk-tuk to go see the sunrise from dilapidated forest temples. This temple, Banteay Kdei, is one of the few in the area that are still used in religious ceremonies. It was a special experience to witness the monks at prayer. I said a blessing in gratitude that I am able to travel, to get out of my comfort zone, and to see a place that held such personal significance to my family.
I made this lunch in the open-air kitchen. It’s shrimp-and-pomelo salad; coconut-curry fish with Kaffir lime; lemongrass pork skewers; and pickled cucumber, carrots, and radish with chile-lime dressing. Anything we didn’t need got turned into something else. It’s made me see ingredients in a different way. It’s like what I do at work with materials. Apply it to cooking and the sky’s the limit.