Did you know that tourists started trickling to the Angkor temples and ruins around Siem Reap as early as 1907? By the mid-1920s there was a proposal to construct five hotels throughout French Indochina to host what was turning into a flood of visitors. They even continued to come during the Great Depression, with 1934 alone recording 2,817 tourists, mostly from America but also Europe.
Aside from the temples, hunting was a big attraction; right up until the 1950s, Cambodian “game” included wild buffalo, bears, elephants, tigers and panthers. Thank goodness it’s all about admiring the animals today – I doubt if there’d be many of the big game animals left to hunt, even if someone wanted to.
For me, the appeal of Siem Reap is not just the nearby temples, but also the fact that everything is in one area, mostly within walking or tuk tuk distance. The markets are cheap and the haggling isn’t aggressive. The beer and food is (mostly) cheap. And the place has got a little buzz all of its own. So when my eldest daughter and I decided to have a weekend away together, I thought Siem Reap would be the perfect place: a bit of culture, a bit of history (which she studied at school), and some shopping and eating!
On previous trips, I had stayed in four-star and no-star ($15 a night) accommodation respectively; both were great. This time I opted for something different: Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. The hotel had recently sent some lovely images through to Expat Living, and one of our editors, Katie, stayed there on a previous trip, so I thought as a treat it would be nice to stay somewhere special. The original hotel opened in Siem Reap in the early 1930s, and my daughter and I were both excited about staying in a place so full of history.
On arrival, the hotel – which is a creamy yellow colour – didn’t seem as “manicured” as the Raffles in Singapore. Yet it’s still grand. Based on the “palace” hotels of Europe of that period, with its raised portico, shutters and balconies, it’s also linked by gardens to the current royal residence of Siem Reap. The hotel is superbly maintained inside and has a real “old world” feel. We were absolutely wowed when we were upgraded to one of the two suites; Hilary Clinton had stayed in it recently while in Cambodia on a diplomatic visit. How’s that for “historic”?
The suite was so big that my daughter and I decided to sleep in the same room as the bedrooms were so far apart – there was a huge living-cum-dining room in between the rooms. The beds were very firm, though, so I’m not sure how “Hils” would have got on. There’s also a large, deep veranda, so it does feel like you’re staying in a separate villa. The hotel’s huge swimming pool is only a couple of hundred metres away, set behind frangipanis and other plants.
Raffles is only eight kilometres from Angkor Wat, and it’s easy to get there by tuk tuk or car – or bicycle, if you’re really keen. We passed quite a few tourists on bikes in the dark at 5am – we weren’t sure if they were brave or stupid. Regardless of whether you want to cycle or walk, I wouldn’t recommend going on a long visit to the temples in July; the heat was pretty stifling, even when we were on the way back from our first tour at 7.15am. We were very grateful for the nice cold towels the driver provided us with at regular intervals (e.g., as we came through the airport, as we entered the hotel, and every time we got back in to the car after sight-seeing – brilliant!).
After watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat, we spent about a further hour there, mainly looking at the stories carved into the stone walls. While it was interesting enough for my teenager, the need for breakfast did get in the way of further exploration. And although the tour guides are always good, ours was a little too chatty for 5am. We needed time to wake up!
It was so good to be able to come back to the luxury of Raffles and a really wonderful breakfast (Champagne included in this) before we set off on our next adventure. This time it was to the Bayon and Ta Prohm (“the Tomb Raider temple”); I can’t decide which is my favourite – the stone faces at Bayon are so beautiful, but the way nature has worked its way through the ruins at Ta Prohm and the colour of that temple’s stones really fascinate me.
Later we had quite a long session at the museum; it’s worth getting the individual headphone sets so you can go at your own pace. There are also ceramic, silk and silver shops that are worth popping into; I spent a fortune on a couple of pieces and I’m not sure if I paid too much or not! The markets are definitely value for money – lots of silver jewellery, cool baggy “elephant” pants that are the uniform of Cambodian tourists, and nice crockery and artefacts. Always shop at night – it’s much cooler.
There are plenty of massage places and we had a fabulous foot massage, fish spa and then pedicure, all for about $10. The quality of the food varies; on Pub Street we had a great meal the first night and an awful one the next. My advice is wait until you see where others are eating – if it’s empty, avoid it. The food at the hotel was excellent and I wish we had had dinner there on the second night; lunch on the first day was excellent and very reasonably priced.
A tuk tuk from Raffles to the middle of town is around three to five dollars; you can ask them to wait for you or SMS them when you’re ready, but there are always plenty around. I always pay them more – in my way, that’s my “charity”. And I always try to buy a book or two from the children selling them on the streets. First They Killed My Father is written by a lady who is now a lawyer living in the US. She was seven, I think, when the Khmer Rouge marched her and her family out of Phnom Penh, and the book is all about those years in the Killing Fields. This time, I bought the follow-up, The Lucky Child, which surrounds her reunion years later with the few members of her family that had survived. It’s fascinating and kind of scary that things like this are still going on in the world. You’d think we would have learnt by now!
This part of the world witnessed all kinds of things over the last century: with the Japanese military presence in the late 1930s and early 1940s, tourism went on hold; but there was a recovery, and the years between 1955 to 1965 witnessed huge growth and modernisation – Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Margaret were amongst the visitors then. The 1970s and 1980s saw prospects dive again, but since the mid-1990s the region – and the hotel – have been on the up. Raffles International Ltd took over the property in 1996, and Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor opened at the end of 1997 with 131 rooms, about twice the original number.
The hotel has seen lots of interesting guests in its history – will it end up seeing you, too? This is a great place for a break – a short break, that is: two or three nights will do. And if you enjoy it, you can always go back again – like me.
For Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor reservations, call +855 63 963 888 or visit their website.
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