I’m sorry, we don’t have your booking,’ says the smiling receptionist, flicking through the reservation book. It’s late, we’ve caught the last plane into Siem Reap and, after a long day, all I want to do is slip into our room and turn off the light. My eyes dart from the receptionist to Mr Smith and back as I splutter plaintively.
Normally, when tired and emotional, I take such things rather badly, but this time I can’t. Viroth’s affable front-of-house manager makes the problem seem easy to fix. It’s that kind of hotel – the staff members are genial, helpful and genuinely friendly. It is then that Mr Smith confesses he may have forgotten to make the booking, but in the face of such grace there is little I can do but smile. Withi n a few minutes we are settled in a large, cool, slate-floored room. The initial hiccup of our arrival is immediately forgotten as we Smiths retire early, promptly tucking ourselves up and resting peacefully in our very comfortable bed: you see we have come to Cambodia on a mission.
The real point of coming to Siem Reap is to see the magnificent temples. There are so many architectural wonders that it’s a good idea to start your research and planning a couple of weeks before you arrive. Once in town, the best time to go is at dawn, before the torrid heat builds, or in the late afternoon as it abates. Explore one or two for a few hours at a time so you’re not overwhelmed by the grandeur or fatigued by the sun’s biting rays – that’s our plan anyway. Having arranged a car with the hotel, we stumble down the stairs well before daybreak to find our guide already waiting for us.
We walk through the portal of iconic Angkor Wat, the area’s best-known temple, and onto the causeway to see the sun rise. However clichéd it sounds, the sight inspires awe and wonder. Around the outer galleries, the crowd thins out and there is some shade. I find the bas-reliefs mesmerising – their deep, elegant carvings depict the Khmer universe, its gods, wars, myths and beliefs. We walk silently along the arcades, trying to comprehend a world so different from our own.
Once back in this world, we return to Viroth’s just in time for a late breakfast. All is quiet as we climb the stairs to the broad, shaded terrace. We are alone, a blessing after contending with the masses at the temple. Breakfast is simple, a small menu but with some surprisingly good croissants. Afterwards, walking downstairs, we see the hotel in daylight for the first time. Its cool grey floors, white walls and lush green trees create a relaxed yet urbane feel. Viroth’s is a place to feel at ease. A lap or two in the turquoise mosaic pool is a good way to feel even better in this bijou bolthole. The wise escape the mounting heat – and recover from early temple trips – by heading off for a nap. We Smiths retire too.
There are only seven rooms here, all generously sized, and most have a terrace, albeit très petite. The crisp, functional minimalism is softened by warm colours and splashes of red. I sleep well, but Mr Smith has other plans. I awake to find he’s retreated to Viroth’s rooftop spa, where he has a massage, a soak in the Jacuzzi and, I suspect, a little additional spa treatment.
Viroth’s is an easy stroll – 10 minutes or so – across the small river and into the centre of the old town, where we wander for a spot of shopping. Most of Siem Reap’s markets are at their best in the morning, although the main market continues into the late afternoon. We dive into its dark, shaded alleyways, finding the bundles of smoked fish, pots of freshly made palm sugar and piles of excellent pepper far more enticing than the glittering Angkor souvenirs, the fake antiques and the kitsch that litters the outer rim. We push our way past the frivolous fringe hawkers into the market proper, sit down at one of the stalls and have a local lunch of nom banchok namya, silken white noodles topped with a mild green curry made with ground fish and lemongrass.
Up for more Angkor culture, we take in another temple. The Bayon is extraordinary – countless towers ringed with the face of the Buddha smiling serenely at the passing world and surveying the clamouring tourists passing through the galleries. We manage to find some shade and a bit of tranquillity on one of the upper levels and sit there for a while. It’s magnificent – the colour of the faces change as time passes and the shadows stretch into the late afternoon.
About an hour out of town is Banteay Srei, an outlying temple of remarkable beauty, and possibly the most perfect jewel in the whole Angkor complex. Many of the pink sandstone carvings, more than a thousand years old, are still so precise, delicate and in flawless condition. The scale of this sanctuary is small, and its distance from town means it’s less crowded, making it much easier to appreciate the shrine in peace. We stay until the sun sets before driving back to Viroth’s.
Siem Reap has some seductive eateries too. Do, however, ensure you book at the hotel’s restaurant, a few minutes’ walk away. Its marvellous open courtyard is surrounded by wooden decks, sectioned off by wafting orange screens, underneath the span of some ancient trees. The Khmer menu offers something for everyone and we decide it has some of the best food in town. I like the local fish stewed in coconut cream, while Mr Smith is partial to the grilled pork wrapped in betel leaves. Afterwards, we walk into town, crossing over a small bridge to the night market, where beer, Westerners, spruikers and even flesh-nibbling fish thrive each evening.
Viroth’s may not be as plush as some of the bigger hotels in large cities, but its wonderful charm lies in the sincerely sweet staff who chat and advise (not because it’s their job but because they want to). They bring life to the hotel and ensure that those who stay return. Mr Smith and I have already made another booking – this time for sure.