It’s not often that I go back to the same town or city as a tourist, but I’ve now been to Siem Reap in Cambodia four times, so that’s got to say something.
I’ve cycled and run through the temples of Angkor; I’ve taken mum there for a quieter cultural weekend; and I’ve taken both girls for “mum and daughter” weekends. Each time, I find more to like about it. And, no, it’s not just the $2 beers that continue to appeal!
My accommodation has ranged from $25 a night at Siem Reap Villas (which was great) to the old Raffles hotel. This time, my youngest and I stayed in two places: the older Heritage Suites Hotel (opened 2006), and the brand new Jaya House RiverPark.
I did the temples with her again. There have been quite a few changes in the last couple of years with reconstruction work, and it didn’t feel repetitive. You never know what a 19-year-old is going to like, but she enjoyed it!
I love the tuk tuks in Siem Reap – it’s always a bit of an adventure weaving between the traffic. This time we had even more fun, though, as we were met at the airport by a gorgeous 1963 Mercedes – as old as me. Heritage Suites has two in its stable, and we felt like royalty leaving the airport! (Note: you have to book directly with the hotel to get this transfer.) Then at the Jaya, we had our pick of two khaki jeeps that we just loved. Everyone checked us out in them, so this time we felt like friends of Angelina Jolie!
However, the icing on the cake, motorwise, was probably the ATV quad-bike trip arranged through Heritage Suites. I was a bit nervous about doing this four hour trip – I thought we’d be knackered; but it ended up being the best way to see the countryside (and, unfortunately, quite a lot of plastic waste), and we were so proud of ourselves that we were able to navigate major roads and get out of the built-up area into the countryside unscathed. It wasn’t that cheap, but really worth every cent.
Heritage has its own tour company and you can arrange these rides and other tours all at the hotel itself. They include packed lunches, drinks and everything, and one of the options is a “glamping” trip in the cooler months, up near the Phnom Kulen waterfall, with champagne, hidden temples and more – doesn’t that sound awesome?
The suites at the Heritage are perfect for couples: they’re open plan – even the bath (toilets are separate) – and they have a very cool décor concept. The chef is South African and produced some really good vegetarian food for us, including delicious smoothies. The hotel’s general manager, Jam Nsouli, also pointed us in the direction of a few more places in town. It’s good that there are more options popping up; I can be flexible on food, but my children are strict vegetarians and it can be a real pain finding something good on your travels.
Heritage Suites is very quiet and relaxed, with just 26 rooms. It has a good local expat community connection (Jam is an expat herself), and a jazz session every Thursday night, which makes for a great social gathering. I asked Jam what she loves most about living in Cambodia and she said the simplicity of life, and the traditional Cambodian diet, which is very healthy with lots of organic fruit and vegetables (though the fast food outlets are creeping in, unfortunately); also, the people – their general outlook is that bad things will happen in life, but you have to move past it. I thought that was a refreshing approach, and one that could be taken on board by many others who expect everything to be perfect and who “freak out” if anything goes wrong.
Both the Heritage and Jaya are committed to helping local communities through the non-profit Sala Baï centre, which takes disadvantaged young people from rural Cambodia and trains them in the service industry, including a vocational portion of the course carried out in the hotels in town. Sala Baï has been running for over a decade (we featured them in Expat Living about six years ago) and has achieved fantastic results in that time.
The two hotels are also involved in attempting to solve the region’s plastic problem; neither offers plastic bottles in the rooms, and Jaya along with a few other companies including the Phare Circus give you your own cool metal water bottle that can be filled up for free at participating companies. It’s a brilliant idea, and I hope that this message helps clear the countryside and protect the ecosystem. In many countries where the widespread use of plastic is relatively new, there’s a struggle to work out the best way to tackle the issue of recycling and littering; I’m sure we’ve all seen tourist destinations and gorgeous countryside clogged with plastic and other litter.
A lot more is being done to promote “Made in Cambodia” products, too, and the new King’s Road market in Siem Reap offers exclusively local items, as opposed to the regional imports that can be found everywhere else. Christian de Boer, the managing director of Jaya House, is a huge advocate of self-sufficiency for Cambodians; there’s been so much in their past that has hindered development, but he can see a change.
Jaya House is beautifully done; it’s modern yet comfortable, with elegant artwork and sculptures, funky hanging sofas, and a roof-top bar that overlooks the river. The food is excellent, and the hotel has two pools – one in the garden and one in the courtyard that our room looked on to. The staff were excellent and the beds so very comfy that I didn’t want to leave. I think they’ve found the perfect mix of style, while keeping the Cambodian traditional elements. There are only 36 rooms, each with either a balcony or direct garden and pool access.
Both hotels have spas that are a little more expensive than the ones in town, but after a very strange facial in one of the latter, I think I’ll stick to the hotel options next time!
Under the big top
A friend in Singapore recommended the Phare Circus, and after realising that it wasn’t a circus using animals, we booked front-row seats. It’s in a big-top tent on the outside of town, run and owned by young Cambodians who have purchased the tent and the land. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it was breathtaking: intellectually perceptive, physically challenging with a twist of European carnival (music and mime) and Cirque du Soleil. The show changes every couple of months, and each time there is a particular theme or a point being made. This one was highlighting the difference between local people and various stereotypical tourists. It was done with humour and without malice. One act ended with a fairly small woman carrying another one in an extraordinary position, and the only thing touching the ground was one hand – I have no idea how she did it!
So, even after my fourth visit to Cambodia’s major tourist town, I felt I had seen different things, and had another great experience.
Getting there: Jetstar and SilkAir fly regularly to Siem Reap (two hours and 10 minutes, direct)
- +855 639 62 555 heritagesuiteshotel.com
- +855 11 969 100 kingsroadangkor.com/made-in-cambodia-market