Not too long ago, it was hard to imagine Cambodia as a realistic tourist destination, let alone one fit for a luxurious escape. The Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign of terror in the ’70s and the subsequent US “involvement” left the country in shambles.
The rebuilding process has been slow, and during the past 40 years, Cambodia has transformed itself from a travel destination only fit for the dedicated backpacker, to a hot spot known for lush beauty, vast history and fascinating colonial influences.
The region to experience this paradoxical phenomenon the most is Siem Reap, the gateway to the legendary Angkor region, and those hoping to embrace this idyllic traditional lifestyle would do best to plan ahead.
One of the finest restorations of a classical mansion is Cambodia’s only Relais & Chateaux property, the Heritage Suites Hotel. Their experience starts from when you first step out of the airport. A classic 1960s Mercedes-Benz, once owned by the present King of Cambodia, waits to drive you back into town.
A luxurious villa that houses just 31 chic rooms and suites, The Heritage’s architectural design was based on the blueprints of a former colonial mansion, and the gorgeous interior mix of classical French architecture and Cambodian craftsmanship has resulted in a simple, classical hotel – one that has thankfully pared down its leisure necessities to a well-stocked bar complete with old-fashioned cocktails and constantly changing fine art; a two-storey restaurant with a traditional winding staircase; a sleek swimming pool and gazebo lit by bonfire at night; and a serene spa with just three cosy rooms.
Start your adventures in the suitably named Old French Quarter, an area where the streets are lined with classically quaint mansions and evocative restaurants and bars. The FCC Angkor is easily a must-visit – once the French governor’s mansion, it’s now a sleek piece of modern architecture that skilfully blends colonial techniques with glowing art-deco touches. An all-in-one experience that houses a hotel, an open-air restaurant and bar as well various shops, it’s often called Siem Reap’s runway, being the go-to location for the city’s largest functions and events.
Next, ascend the steps and settle into the rattan chairs at Cafe Indochine, where bickering Frenchman and Cambodians still to this day dine together. Located in one of the few traditional wooden Khmer houses in the area, it offers the best of both worlds, with a well-ventilated colonial parlour overlooking the busy city street, and a traditional Cambodian garden surrounded by mango trees, coconut palms and tropical flowers in the back.
Diners are given a true Indochina experience, with a menu featuring an eclectic mix of Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese and French cuisines: their home-style selections include such traditional fare as amok fish, lok lak beef and fresh spring rolls, while the true old-world European is offered a choice from its heavy range of pates, steaks and desserts – although one should keep in mind that the restaurant’s specialities are fusion for a reason.
Sundown drinks and late-evening nightcaps are all but necessary in a colonial lifestyle. Miss Wong’s might not exactly adopt its Cambodian home, but this sleek, small cocktail bar is a fascinating time-warp to 1920s Shanghai. Decked out like a chic opium den, the bar is heavy on the dark reds, with all your ubiquitous Chinese trinkets: dimmed lanterns, demure calligraphy paintings and dragon ashtrays. The cocktails are more modern than most, but the intimate vibe and respite from the city’s ubiquitous French influence make it well-worth the detour.
Siem Reap might not hark back to its French colonial days – and thankfully so, in many respects – but with the city’s past influence stretching further than just the history books, you can expect a considerable number of intrepid travellers venturing forth for more than just the temples.
Originally published in Style Magazine, October 2011