WAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
A white oasis is a soothing anchor in the heart of Khmer colour
There’s no easy way of saying this, but a stay at Anantara Angkor Resort can turn a good person into a bad one quite quickly. Is it the resort’s proximity to UNESCO World Heritage temples filled with spinetingling tales of Khmer legends? Could it have something to do with the mountains of colourful herbs and spices measured out, a hop, skip and a jump away, in buzzing marketplaces?
Sadly, the answer is surprising and mundane: it’s the quality service that makes you feel as if you’re the kind of celebrity who blots sweat with $100 bills and uses assistants for stools.
Dining chairs are pulled and pushed with lightning speed, drinks fetched before a finger is fully extended and doors pushed open as staff run quickly ahead of you, Roadrunner-style, in a blind panic that your hand may brush against an inanimate object. At the merest suggestion of rain, staff equipped with oversized umbrellas spring up out of nowhere, the luxury resort version of a SWAT team ready to take a raindrop or two for you in the line of duty as you flounce around the pool like J.Lo.
The downside? When you finally get to your own front door, you genuinely feel hard-done by at the idea of having to open it yourself.
“We work very hard to maintain the level of service here,” admits the resort’s affable assistant manager, Valentine Kameza. “I’ll let the team know it’s a job well done.” And that’s another way of putting it.
Located in the heart of Siem Reap, a northwestern city long considered the sleepier yet prettier sister to Phnom Penh, the biggest selling point of this recently renovated resort must surely be that it provides the ultimate access point to discover the ancient majesty of the Khmer Empire.
Not only is it a 10-minute drive away from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat and various other ancient temples dotted liberally nearby – helpful for those 4am starts to watch the sun rise – but it’s a similar distance to the town centre where a riot of colour and chaos can play havoc with your senses if you don’t have a soothing touchstone anchoring you.
Pulling up to the 39-suite boutique resort, which is one of the smaller properties of the Anantara portfolio, it’s a relief to see a white oasis of (airconditioned) calm promising to do just that. Outside the gates, it’s a jumble of marketplaces selling everything from silk scarfs to pigs’ heads, weaving tuk tuks and stores promising “genuine Nikes”with change from $20, but inside, the mood is decidedly “day spa”. An open-plan lobby (and an ice-cold drink) greets guests with a minimalist design of muted olive tones enhanced by rich, dark wood, while the nearby saltwater pool is the ultimate showpiece for suites overlooking it – complete with swaying palm trees, white umbrellas and a butler who watches you like a hawk 24/7 should you even think you might like another beverage, snack or towel.
There are a few eating experiences to be had on the property but you can do no wrong with having each of your meals at the effortlessly chic Chi Restaurant and Bar. Under a wealth of
brass chandeliers depicting “chats” – or umbrellas, which in Khmer Buddhism are believed to offer divine protection to royalty – guests can enjoy a range of Khmer cuisine laden with fragrant herbs picked from the resort’s own garden. Here we discover that while lemongrass and chilliinfused farm chicken is king, Khmer yellow curry is a game-changer, and red ant salad is surprisingly spicy, and oh-so-delicious.
Across the way, L Lounge serves up Asian comfort food in a casual setting, while those who’d rather “Dine by Design” can choose from private dining experiences such as enjoying a candlelit dinner on the rooftop garden or a feast at a nearby wooden village.
The on-site Anantara Spa offers traditional Khmer massages. Such was the relaxation afterwards that I almost wondered if someone was following me with a ghetto blaster playing dolphin sounds. On second thoughts, they probably were.
I’m happily ensconced in a Terrace Suite, an airy space filled with handcrafted teak furniture, rich local textiles and hand-carved sandstone which all work together to create an authentic feeling of regional charm.
Floor-to-ceiling sliding doors lead out onto a private outdoor seating area overlooking the pool, and the room’s daybed, writing desk, complimentary Wi-Fi and coffee machine see heavy use.
But I struggle with poor lighting in the bathroom which often sees me head to dinner looking like Pennywise the clown.
Were I Jennifer Lopez, I could have stayed in the Henri Mouhot suite, a two-bedroom, 235sq m set-up reminiscent of a Khmer summer home – all private pool, jacuzzi and seated dining for six. Or I might have stayed in the Anantara Explorer Suite – slightly smaller at 178sq m but no less impressive.
AND …. ACTION
There are some who are bad at haggling, and then there are those who are so bad at haggling that they’ll pay $40 for an umbrella in Bali (*coughs*). If you are of the latter, you’ll be pleased to know Anantara Angkor Resort offers guests more than 45 build-your-own adventure itineraries – each one with an experienced butler ready to take you by the hand (and prevent you from paying $40 for an umbrella).
An early-morning tour of a nearby traditional market kicks things off for our Spice Spoons Anantara Cooking School where we battle the sting of fermented scents and the horror of bloody sights to pick up ingredients for our class.
Although catfish actively try to leap into my handbag and a child of eight implores the gentleman in our team to “be a man” and purchase some of his fried tarantulas, we stick to herbs, spices and fresh vegetables – items which make our curries come alive as we later cook a range of traditional Khmer dishes with chef Kien Wagner.
A quad-bike tour (complete with a champagne and canape break) around the countryside is easily the highlight of the in-house Discovery Guide which runs the gamut from the cultural to the thrillseeking, to … golf. On a 21km circuit of rice paddies, pagodas and traditional villages, it’s both a delight and sheer heartbreak to take in the red, dusty landscape dotted with bone-thin cows and dogs, and wide-grinned children who come running out of their shacks for a wave.
Trips downtown to Pub Street, the night-life hub of the city, don’t offer much opportunity for reflection, but what does is an early-morning wakeup call to watch the sun rise at what is commonly billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World – Angkor Wat.
Built in the 12th century, the world’s largest religious monument is a firm bucket list destination with travellers the world over and our guide, Tong Hann (my vote for ninth wonder of the world), knows it. Keeping us clear from the crowds flocking into the temple grounds from every direction, he finds us a quiet, relatively unknown spot just outside the moat where the water is so still it doesn’t distort the reflection of the temple as the sun rises.
“Now tell me if it gets better than this?” he asks as we watch the sky grow pink and then lighten, the sun beaming down on a glorious vision.
No, it really doesn’t, I think. Whether you’re an A-grade celebrity or all the way down the list towards the XYZ, it’s worthy of its place on everyone’s bucket list.
THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF ANANTARA HOTELS & RESORTS, AND THE TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND
ON A 21KM CIRCUIT OF RICE PADDIES, PAGODAS AND VILLAGES, IT’S BOTH A DELIGHT AND SHEER HEARTBREAK
Anantara Angkor Resort is a 10-minute drive away from World Heritage site Angkor Wat; the resort pool is the ultimate showpiece; bike tours take in nearby countryside while furnishings in the Terrace Suite reflect regional charm; outside resort surroundings are designed to delight the senses.