The famous jungle ruins may be Cambodia’s crown jewel, but there’s more to take in now at this tourist town, as artists, chefs and eco-conscious hoteliers reshape its identity
By MARINE STRAUSS
Angkor Wat rightly claims a spot near the top of many travellers’ bucket lists, but for most of the area’s 2.5 million annual visitors, the standard visit is about three days — just enough time to wander through the archaeological park’s central ruins and get sufficient selfies. That strategy is a mistake. The city of Siem Reap, a genuine beauty, is home to about 140,000 Cambodians and riches worth lingering for.
“Things are looking up,” says architect and conservationist Bill Bensley, who in 2000 redesigned the city’s Hôtel de la Paix, now a Park Hyatt. As in much of the developing world, sustainability in Cambodia can be an afterthought to simply making a living. But now, Bensley says, as the nation has made strides in alleviating the problems of malnutrition and has moved toward cleaner water and better medical care, it can begin to confront First World problems of conservation.
Bensley has designed more than 100 properties around the globe for luxury brands Oberoi and Four Seasons, but his personal mission is to ease poverty through high-end, eco-conscious hospitality. Shinta Mani Siem Reap, one of three Bensley Collection properties in the city, is a fresh effort to accomplish that goal: Each of its 10 private bilevel villas (from US$815/RM3,366 per night in low season) has a plunge pool, glassed-in bathrooms with garden views and an outdoor sky bed, where you can sleep on a rooftop terrace surrounded by bougainvillaea flowers. Visitors enter the property off a leafy street of the Old French Quarter, passing under a white marble arch like that at the ancient Khmer temples.
But the soul of the property is its sweet-natured butlers, who act as accommodating hosts, charged with granting guests’ every wish. As part of the brand’s commitment to bettering its local communities, the Shinta Mani Foundation provides tuition-free training to young people from the area for 10 months before they begin working at its hotels in roles such as this. The organisation also offers small interest-free loans to local entrepreneurs, builds homes and wells, and funds medical and dental checkups in rural areas.
“My big thrill in all of this is not about owning some fluffy beds or creating a new hotel brand with my name on it — we just did that because we thought the hotel might gain a bit of traction,” Bensley says. “But it is about using hospitality to help folks that need it, in a sustainable fashion.”
The first hotel in the city to go entirely free of plastic was Jaya House River Park, a 36-room property past the Angkor National Museum and under a cluster of fragrant rumduol trees. In early 2017, MD Christian de Boer started a project called “Refill not Landfill” to reduce Cambodia’s mountains of plastic waste. Guests are welcome to sponsor trees that are planted along the river in front of the hotel and are encouraged to use only one refillable aluminium bottle during their trip. (If that stresses you out, you also get one spa treatment per day included in your rate; a junior pool suite starts at US$299 a night.)
Closer to Angkor Wat and slightly hidden from the main road is the Templation hotel from Maads, another player in Siem Reap’s design-forward green scene (US$310 for a one-bedroom private-pool villa). The buildings in the main location feature vegetal roofs, solar panels and rainwater collection. If you want to travel farther into the jungle, you can visit one of its Jungloo luxury camps, which open on July 1. The eight handmade, barrel-shaped structures look like a cross between a safari tent and a wooden camper van and are built on stilts for minimal impact. (You still have access to traditional hotel amenities, including air conditioning and pools.)
When travellers leave the hotel for the day, they can visit Yves Saint Laurent-trained fashion designer Eric Raisina, who opens the doors of his haute couture atelier to show off his team of local weavers working silk, raffia and organza. A small handwoven silk scarf goes for US$200. The Anicca Foundation’s Thaddeus Gallery is a focal point of Cambodia’s emerging art scene, organising nomadic exhibitions around the country and fostering shows by portraitist Pen Robit and other local artists.
Slightly away from the centre of town, Cuisine Wat Damnak is the first Khmer restaurant to have made it to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. An unlit street leads you to a traditional wooden villa on stilts, where dinner consists of two set menus of five or six French-inflected courses from chef Joannès Rivière. Offerings change every two weeks but could include a sour soup featuring lemongrass-marinated local fish, sweet bamboo shoots, crispy lotus roots, bitter elephant apples and lots of herbs.
Closer to the hustle and bustle of Pub Street, where backpackers gather at night, chef Mengly Mork recasts street food and traditional countryside cooking with a modern flourish at Pou Restaurant & Bar. Consider the grilled fresh honeycomb with bee larvae and num kruk, a custardy dumpling made with rice flour, coconut cream and scallion with a galangal-beetroot dipping sauce.
Down a narrow lane in the old quarter of Siem Reap, the atmospheric Miss Wong cocktail bar beckons the local expat community with its scarlet 1930s Shanghai-style interior with Chinese silk lanterns. Try the Miss Wong rum punch or the house’s spiced bloody mary infused with chile and Kampot green peppercorn, an appellation-protected spice considered the world’s finest. It will be among the many wonderful green things you try on your trip.
As creative director of the Anicca Foundation, Marina Pok promotes emerging Cambodian artists. Here are her recommendations for Siem Reap:
• Preservation in action:
Your hotel can help arrange a private visit to La Conservation d’Angkor, a compound with warehouses full of original pieces from Angkor temples. Some of the ruins are just stacks of stones, so restoring them happens here, away from looters. “Stop for a chat with Chan Chamroeun, an amazing archaeologist who works on the restoration of Baphuon temple.”
• Dinner with buffaloes:
Pok likes to dine on Cambodian classics such as fish amok and beef lok lak at the restaurant Devatas on her way back from Banteay Srei, a pink sandstone temple outside the main park. “Picture eating ancient Khmer recipes overlooking an Angkorian pond where buffaloes stroll at sunset.”
• Studio visit:
Seek out works by 30-year-old abstract painter Nov Cheanick, Pok says. He’s “from the Phare Ponleu Selpak visual art school, home of renowned Battambang circus” and was featured by the Rosewood Phnom Penh when it opened in 2018.
• New movements:
An initiative from three young women who trained as classical Khmer dancers, the New Cambodian Artists is an all-female troupe performing around town in temples and hotels. “They took the path to modern dance by integrating the past and present tragedy of Cambodian society,” Pok says.
• Keeping tradition:
Another option, very far from the touristy Apsara dance you can see in many restaurants, Pok says, is the Sacred Dancers of Angkor — “an absolute must!” — founded by Ravynn Karet-Coxen in 1994 in the wake of the deadly Khmer Rouge regime. The young dancers perform twice a week, eerily and elegantly, after years of learning 4,500 hand gestures. The foundation trains village children and helps support and empower locals to improve their daily life. The dances respect the tradition of ancient Khmer classical ballet, a Unesco-protected heritage and royal practice.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat, the main temple in the almost 154 sq mile (400 sq m) Angkor Archaeological Park, is a mess. Do it anyway. But after dodging selfie-stick-wielding tourists heaved out by buses and making sure to actually explore inside the structure (many don’t), spend a blessedly more sedate afternoon at the Roluos Group.
Dating from the nineth century, the collection of four temples sits 7.5 miles (12km) east of Siem Reap and represents the last of Hariharalaya, capital of the Khmer Empire before it was moved near Angkor Wat. For sunset, head south to Phnom Krom, a hilltop sandstone pagoda that offers glittering views out over Tonle Sap Lake. If you stay with Shinta Mani, you will travel on the house’s tuk-tuk with a professional guide, refreshments and orange blossom-scented towels to stay fresh. — Bloomberg