Siem Reap is so much more than Angkor Wat, as Melanie Lee discovers as a guest at La Residence d’Angkor. Text: Melanie Lee Images Courtesy of Orient-Express Hotels Ltd
I have to be honest, my initial impression of La Residence d’Angkor (La Residence) in Siem Reap was similar to many other top-end boutique hotels I’ve been to in Southeast Asia. Dark wooden finishing, statues of Buddha, pond with pink lotus flowers, smiling staff bearing trays of welcome drinks and cold towels.
Besides making that obligatory trip to UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Wat, I envisioned myself lazing at the hotel poolside sipping from a huge coconut, and napping through several spa treatments. However, the German-American manager of La Residence d’Angkor, Cara Petzold-Beck, had other plans for me.
“I always encourage my guests to become Cambodian explorers. Many of them come here just to tick off their bucket list that they’ve been to Angkor Wat, but Siem Reap has so many other things to offer,” she said.
As such, this trip turned out to be full of wondrous surprises. Every experience offered by La Residence went that extra mile in showcasing a more authentic side of Siem Reap in a deeply personal way.
It all started out with my first dinner at Circle, the hotel’s main restaurant that serves modern Khmer cuisine. Thrice a week, diners are entertained by traditional Apsara dancers gracefully swaying in shimmery silk tunics and golden headdresses. Carla told me over dinner, “In order to get to know a place better, it’s essential to talk to locals.” In fact, just before the dinner, I’d spent some time chatting with orphans from Together for Cambodia, who come to La Residence twice a week to practice conversing in English with guests. They shared their aspirations (“hotel manager”, “social worker”, “race car driver in Canada because Justin Bieber is from Canada”) and even discussed the recent Cambodian and Australian politics elections.Click to view slideshow.
The next day, I do get my requested spa treatment at the hotel’s Kong Kea Spa – a soothing Khmer herbal healer, where I’m rubbed down with eucalyptus oil. But to enhance the zen vibes, I’m also whisked off to a nearby local temple with an enchanting backdrop of an ancient pagoda. Here, fellow guests and I received a water blessing from a group of 20 monks. It’s a surreal experience to be closing your eyes, listening to their soothing chants while being sprinkled with water and flower petals.
Later, I went for a Khmer cooking class with the hotel’s Executive Sous Chef Samorn Mey. And even this activity packs in an extra punch local flavour with a visit to Psa Leu market before the lesson. Psa Leu is the biggest fresh market in Siem Reap, and walking through it was a kaleidoscopic bustle of sights, smells and baskets bursting with vegetables and fruits, and even de-skinned frogs laid out on wooden boards. During the cooking lesson, Chef Samorn critiqued my chopping proficiency (“too slow, need more practice”), and showed me how to prepare fish amok (Cambodian fish curry), spicy chicken soup and green mango salad.
Amidst these delightful pockets of Siem Reap immersion, La Residence proved to be a restful respite. Even though it’s centrally located in the main part of Siem Reap Town and just ten minutes away from Angkor Wat, there was this secret garden vibe to it with lush, shady landscaping and traditional Khmer architecture. I especially enjoyed going for dips in its pool, which is surrounded by palm trees, frangipani trees and bougainvillea bushes for that extra touch of privacy. My spacious Résidence Suite felt like a villa with my own terrace, a free-standing bathtub, and a huge dressing room area. It was hard not to feel like a pampered princess.
Of course, I did end up visiting Angkor Wat in the end. But my visit was meticulously arranged by the La Residence staff in such a way that my knowledgeable guide knew a “special” way to get to the iconic heritage site to escape the hordes of tourists. After some mysterious conversations and several gantries being lifted, I found myself on top of a temple overlooking the Angkor Wat site at 6.30am in the morning, watching the sunrise. From a distance, I could see the occasional beams of flashlights coming from a massive throng of people at the main entrance. “You is special,” the guide told me as I stood speechless at the majestic combination of nature and architecture. And yes, I did feel special. In a world where hospitality is getting increasingly superficial and impersonal, I realised what a rarity it was to feel personally touched by such sincere service. It was only a stay in La Residence that made me realise how beautiful and quirky Siem Reap is, and how I should always seek to find a home in any part of the world as a traveller.
La Résidence d’Angkor
River Road, Siem Reap,
Kingdom of Cambodia.