Living in luxury while exploring Angkor Wat.
Paul Burnham Finney
some 40 pearl-gray towering temples to Buddha and Hindu
gods – the ruins of the once-powerful Khmer empire
– poking out of a 160-square-mile jungle, and you
can understand why Cambodia's Angkor Wat (wat means
temple) has nudged the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall out
of first place as the world's hottest destination
for adventure travelers. You can see most of the ancient
(980 to 1220 AD) metropolis of palaces, canals and banays
(irrigation reservoirs) – discovered by French botanist
Henri Mouhot in 1860 – by staying for two or three
nights in Siem Reap, the village closest to Angkor (and
about an hour's flight northeast of Bangkok) that
became a boomtown overnight after the end of Cambodia's
Gigantic face sculptures thought to represent the
Buddhist deity Lokeshvara adorn the 37 surviving towers
of The Bayon, the state temple of Jayavarman VII.
The Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor's 60,000
square miles of landscaped gardens boast over 20,000
different species of tropical plants.
The roof garden of the Amansara hotel is an ideal
spot for lunch or early evening drinks, with cushion
seating and low tables shaded by trees.
Grand Hotel d'Angkor
Rates, approximately $225 (breakfast),
$460 (personality suites; breakfast/dinner),
$1,900 (two-bedroom villas; breakfast/dinner)
Rates, approximately $650 (suite; breakfast,
lunch or dinner; wine, spirits, beer and
temple tours), $850 (pool suites)
The place where the carriage trade stays is the 131-room
Grand Hotel d'Angkor, a French colonial
resort opened in 1932 and restored to what might be called
imperial decadence in 1997. Now swathed in tropical flowers,
it plays from its strengths – Art Deco rooms and suites
accented with Cambodian objets d'art, a venerable
teak-and-brass elevator cage, charming room butlers, an
immense pool, four formal gardens scintillating in the sunlight
and two tennis courts (with a golf course scheduled for
2006). With a guide chauffeuring you around, it's
best to explore Angkor in the early morning and mid-afternoon,
retreating to Raffles when the sun becomes a broiler during
the lunch hour. Over tea and finger sandwiches or pre-dinner
cocktails in The Elephant Bar you can compare notes with
your fellow guests in a “Which temple bowled you over
the most?” conversation. A typical dinner in the handsome
Restaurant Le Grand might start with Cha Bong Korng (sautéed
lobster with spices, basil and pineapple), move on to Amok
(steamed, minced fish with Khmer spices) and end with a
banana flambé (Grand Marnier and coconut ice cream).
And what's better than a trip to the hotel's
Amrita Spa for a relaxing treatment like the Angkor Escape
that includes a facial ($120).
Glamour abounds across the street as well at the exclusive
a former guesthouse of King Sihanouk that the ultra-luxe
Aman chain of 17 resorts took over in 2002. (Its name is
derived from Sanskrit's aman, meaning peace,
and apsara, or heavenly nymph.) Hidden behind high
white walls, Amansara has a tall, black entrance gate –
the effect is pure chiaroscurro – that slowly swings
open, revealing a free-form pool surrounded by chaise longues
that looks like a still-life painting of exotica. The resort's
12 original guest suites feature understated colors
and all the accessories, cosmetic and digital, you would
ever need – including a Cambodian blue silk sarong
and a bath at dusk with floating lotus flowers, prepared
by the housekeeper. And in a bow to the popularity of personal
pampering, Amansara has just opened 12 additional larger
suites, each with its own private pool, set in a courtyard.
If the cool compound has the look of a Palm Springs resort,
it's what the then-Prince Sihanouk wanted when he
built it in 1962.
Today, in high season (December through April, when temperatures
range between 600 F and 850 F), Amansara can be très
casual chic – call it Pucci hip with pool parties
to while away evenings. If you're feeling flush, Amansara
recommends a helicopter tour of Angkor's sprawling
universe for $3,000. The surprise on departure is to ride
to the airport in the resort's big black 1962 Mercedes
that once reputedly carried Jackie Kennedy.
Burnham Finney, a New York-based writer, has reported on news
and trends in travel round the world for The New York
Times, Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine, Condé
Nast Traveler and Frequent Flyer – with
Southeast Asia one of his specialties.
Image one: Courtesy of Amanresorts, image 2:Courtesy of Raffles
Hotels & Resorts, image 3: Courtesy of Amanresorts.