Selective Six: Cambodian hotels with cool back stories
22nd June 2016 | by Kate
Wild plains and forested mountains, awe-inspiring ancient temples, bustling cities and the tinge of faded colonial opulence - just a glimpse of what makes travellers from all over the globe feel drawn to Cambodia.
Despite the conflict of its recent past, Cambodia is a remarkably resilient country, and the optimism and openness of the Cambodian people is heartwarming.
Falling in love with a country, a town, or even a particular view, is a familiar experience to many of us: those moments spent imagining what it would be like to stay and make that place your home. For most, that daydreaming becomes simply a treasured memory as we return to our daily lives, perhaps planning when we might go back, but for a few brave individuals it is the start of an extraordinary new chapter.
Here are six fascinating places to stay in Cambodia which have all come about because someone took that leap and dared to make their ‘traveller’s dream’ a reality.
Veranda Natural Resort, Kep
The breath-taking location, and an enthusiasm for being surrounded by nature, inspired the original Vietnamese owner of the Veranda to build a handful of quirky wooden bungalows as a haven for those travelling off the beaten track. What she created became a hidden gem on the backpacker’s trail: a refuge on a lush hillside overlooking Kep and out to the Gulf of Thailand.
Thanks to word-of-mouth recommendation, the Veranda developed into a thriving boutique eco-resort offering high-quality, welcoming accommodation. The rooms all have their unique charm, from rustic-style apartments crafted using locally-sourced materials, to luxurious villas complete with private pools and gardens. There is a stylish infinity pool and bar where you can chill-out in the evenings and plenty of space to relax on the extensive veranda (which gives the resort its name) and watch the sun set over the sea.
Knai Bang Chatt, Kep
Abandoned during the 1970s, this chic complex of villas was brought to life again thanks to the vision of two entrepreneurs who purchased the buildings in 2006. The Blue Villa had formerly belonged to the governor of Kep, the Grey Villa to a relative of the king, and the Red Villa to the town’s Head of Customs; grand residences that had become ruined over time. The determined owners teamed up with a renowned French architect living locally to restore them to their former glory.
Now beautifully renovated in their original modernist decor, with the benefit of fully up-to-date facilities, Knai Bang Chatt (which translates as ‘rainbow encircling the sun’ in Khmer) is an exclusive retreat offering style, seclusion and relaxation. The spa is a particular highlight; rejuvenation on tap (not that it’s hard to unwind in such a tranquil setting!). This unique hotel is one of Nick’s all-time favourites - it's a truly must-visit location.
Song Saa, Koh Rong
On the day they returned from their honeymoon, Rory and Melita Hunter knew that the experience had changed the course of their lives forever. They had fallen in love with the pristine archipelago surrounding Cambodia’s south-east coast and wanted to help preserve it. From their new-found passion, Song Saa was born: a private island resort offering super-deluxe accommodation while simultaneously protecting the environment.
This gorgeous hotel provides exquisite luxury in all areas, but also meticulously recycles the water, uses driftwood materials in the furniture and fittings, and ensures native vegetation is planted around the grounds. On top of all that, the owners have been instrumental in setting up a marine reserve and a variety of outreach conservation projects supporting local communities. These remarkable achievements might not be the first things you notice as you lie in the incredible infinity pool or relax in the spa, but you would be forgiven for being distracted! A genuine paradise.
Sala Lodges, Siem Reap
Suspended on stilts above the rice paddies, Cambodia’s traditional wooden houses are instantly appealing, seeming to offer an oasis of calm above the hurry and bustle of the world below. These intricately crafted structures are rapidly disappearing as rural life is changing, and this loss of heritage motivated the founders of the Sala Lodges to create their unusual project. Eleven of these original houses have been rescued and meticulously restored in this village-like complex near to the gates of Angkor Wat.
What they have established is a family-friendly, peaceful and welcoming resort with plenty of excellent facilities. But it is more than that. There is an effort here to preserve these structures as elements of a simpler way of life; each house is bursting with character and warmth which comes from their past-lives as well-loved family homes, and the resort as a whole seems timeless and calm with a touching sense of community.
Terres Rouge, Ratanakiri
Pierre-Yves, the charismatic owner of Terres Rouge and a travel writer for over 12 years, certainly knows what creates an excellent hotel experience. When he and his wife noticed a gap in the market for a boutique hotel in Ratanakiri, a place close to their hearts, they saw an opportunity and they grabbed it. The main lodge is a splendid colonial-style villa which once belonged to the governor of the province.
Set in extensive exotic gardens on the banks of the Banlung lake, the fully-refurbished Governor’s lodge is the centrepiece of this beautiful complex which now includes several new bungalows, a swimming pool, a spa and even a bowling green. Guests feel transported back in time; the elegant 1940s furnishings (which give the sense of being on a glamorous film set) blending seamlessly with modern comfort and luxury in picturesque natural surroundings.
The Raffles story
The story of the Raffles Hotel is one which epitomises the decadence and romance of a fabulous era of luxury travel. From the ‘roaring twenties’ through to the ‘swinging sixties’, the original hotel in Singapore was the place to stay, with a long list of celebrity guests (including Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Liz Taylor) coming to party away the humid tropical nights and sip a few Singapore Slings: the hotel’s signature cocktail.
These days there are several Raffles hotels dotted around Asia, each one beautifully refurbished and designed to have a distinct character, but all infused with a sense of the heady heyday of this luxury brand. There are two in Cambodia: The Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap and the Raffles le Royal in Phnom Penh. The le Royal is a fantastic choice, as luxury accommodation is limited in Phnom Penh and you can get a taste of the classic Raffles experience without breaking the bank.