Travel: Temples of Bloom
When Jacqueline Kennedy visited Cambodia in 1967, international efforts to save the temples of Angkor promised to foster the country’s tourism industry. But only a few years after the former first lady’s trip, during which she stayed in King Norodom Sihanouk’s newly built, mid-century modern guest villa in Siem Reap, Cambodia spiraled into three decades of upheaval marked by the Khmer Rouge–led genocide of the 1970s.
Today, with Cambodia’s monarchy returned to power, the temples of Angkor are again being restored, tourism is booming, and the king’s guest villa, which Amanresorts acquired and refurbished in 2002, is a chic hotel. The Khmer Rouge had burned the original plans for the villa, so Amanresorts tracked down some of King Sihanouk’s former guests and reconstructed the property using their travel photos. Photographs of the completed resort, dubbed Amansara, may not invoke the same traveler’s lust as images of Amandari or other properties in the exclusive chain, but the Siem Reap site is equally compelling in person.
While other Amans celebrate escapism and seclusion, Amansara is a place to engage and interact, a purpose reflected in the resort’s homelike design. Each of the 12 suites, as well as the open bar and dining room, faces a central courtyard and pool, where guests mingle as if at a house party in Palm Springs. Resort activities range from guided shopping tours and lectures by visiting scholars to massage treatments by a blind monk and readings with a Khmer psychic.
Pool parties and massages, however, are not the motivating factors for most who make the journey to Siem Reap. The adjacent jungle is home to Southeast Asia’s most significant cultural treasures: the stone temples of Angkor, where Khmer kings ruled for nearly 600 years beginning in the ninth century. Amansara provides each guest with a guide, a driver, and a remork (a tricked-out Thai tuk tuk) for Siem Reap excursions and personalized tours of the vast temple sites. The tours focus on Angkor Wat, the best known of the temple complexes, but also venture to the root-covered Ta Prohm, to the exquisitely carved Banteay Srei (the temple of women), and to Bayon, where massive stone head carvings tower over observers. For solitude amid the ruins, visitors can charter a helicopter to travel to more-distant temples or wake early to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.
For now, solitude remains an attainable state in Angkor, but this situation may soon change. A few years ago, Siem Reap was home to only a handful of hotels; today, there are more than 50, and 40 more are under construction. Cambodia may finally be fulfilling the promise the world recognized in the 1960s, so the time to see Siem Reap is now.