“It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it... since it is like no other building in the world, [with] towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.” So wrote a Portuguese friar who, in the 1580s, was an early European visitor to the temple complex of Angkor Wat. Centuries later, these magnificent ruins still inspire a feeling of awe.
Cambodia has endured some dark chapters in modern times – colonisation by the French, bombing by the Americans during the Vietnam War, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and then the war with Vietnam, which finally brought that darkest of chapters to an end. But throughout everything, the ruins at Angkor Wat have remained a symbol of the country’s illustrious past and of the Khmer people’s identity. The temple’s silhouette appears on the country’s flag and is instantly recognisable the world over.
So it’s easy to understand why Angkor Wat and the nearby town of Siem Reap have long been a destination for backpackers. What has been gathering steam in recent years – in Siem Reap and elsewhere in the country – is the emergence of Cambodia as a luxury destination, able to compete with the best of Asia, characterised by the buzz around a spate of hotel and resort openings.
My introduction to what has been dubbed “contemporary Khmer cool” is a stay at one of a handful of villas at the boutique-style Shinta Mani Angkor, the first in a new collection of super-stylish hotels opened by celebrated Bangkok-based American Hotel designer, Bill Bensley. Each villa is made up of three distinct areas: an entrance terrace behind high walls with dining area and private nine-metre pool, a bedroom with French doors and a small garden through which a path leads to a state-of-the-art bathroom/dressing room complete with indoor/outdoor shower bath. The end result you can really relax after a day’s sightseeing.
Continuing our journey, we head south for the coast, passing through paddy fields stretching as far as the eye can see. We stop off at small towns – each of which seems to be having a market day – where we dodge the mopeds that are the favoured transport of rural Cambodia. Arriving at the coast is bliss after the frenetic energy of the towns. Turning off the main road, we are soon driving along tiny lanes that could well be in rural France until I spot the sparkling sea, with glimpses of Vietnam in the distance.
We dodge the mopeds that are the favoured transport of rural Cambodia
Cambodia was a French colony from the 1880s to 1946, and even now French is the preferred second language of many older people, while the young tend to choose English. During the colonial period, fashionable resorts such as Kampot, on the Kampong Bay River in the south of the country, flourished. Once French Indochina’s answer to resorts like Deauville for homesick French settlers, today Kampot is a charming art deco town where expats sip gin and tonics outside stylish but faded little bars and watch the fishing boats heading out to the sea or returning with their silvery catch.
Just along the coast, the village of Kep was known as Kep-sur-Mer during the colonial era. But it reached its heyday during the 1960s, when many of Cambodia’s ruling elite built beautiful villas here in the modernist style which would be called the New Khmer Architecture. Practically destroyed during the Khmer Rouge’s rule, the resort’s return to form is one of the most heartening aspects of Cambodia’s emergence as a luxe travel destination. Three restored villas form the core of the new Knai Bang Chatt Resort, which, with its infinity pool, the abundance of hammocks slung from trees along the private beach and the Sailing Club right next door, is the ideal place to revive after hectic sightseeing – an idyllic spot for a lazy day spent savouring the calm and the sea breezes.
There’s one more treat in store before I fly home from Phnom Penh: the new Rosewood hotel, which, as both the country’s latest luxury opening and the capital’s tallest building, has become an instant landmark, its many restaurants a hit with well-heeled locals – which makes for a great evening spent enjoying delicious French and Cambodian cuisine and people-watching at the buzzy Brasserie Louis. Head up to the deck on level 37 and the Sora Bar for views of the Mekong, Tonlé Sap and Bassac rivers, the Royal Palace and the Central Market. Housed in a vast art deco building, the latter is also well worth a visit – not only as the place where you can buy virtually anything, but also as a popular meeting place for locals.
The Rosewood is soon to be joined by other keenly awaited openings, such as Alila Villas Koh Russey in the Koh Rong archipelago, just minutes from Ream on the mainland – think stunning scenery, powder- sand beaches and tropical rainforest. And the long-awaited Six Senses Krabey Island, which is due to open its doors later this year to reveal 40 stunning pool-villas, not to mention some top-class restaurants and bars, and even an ice-cream parlour. As if visiting Cambodia wasn’t cool enough already.