You get an inkling that something out of the ordinary awaits you when a vintage 1962 Mercedes the size of a small apartment – white-uniformed driver and attendant in tow – arrives to whisk you off to Amansara. Either that or you’re really being carted off to a sanatorium. In our case, despite potential arguments for the latter, it was thankfully the former.
Amansara is the modern reincarnation of the original residence built for the Cambodian king in Siem Reap in 1962 to accommodate honoured guests such as visiting heads of state or royalty. Going by old photographs, this included the Queen of Camelot herself, Jackie O. Despite several name changes since then (and occupation, if not near-obliteration, by the Khmer Rouge), it’s as if time has stood still at Amansara since the 1960s. Guests who now stay here are treated to a level of discrete, stylish luxury usually reserved for a lucky few, and the original architecture has been faithfully restored and extended to encompass more suites, a lap pool and world-class spa.
‘Discrete’ is the key word for the Amansara experience. To begin with, you’d be hard-pressed to find the location unless fluent in Latin (in which the hotel name is artfully inscribed). But it’s the staff’s inexplicable talent for not just executing but anticipating guest needs that seems remarkable. Example? After returning from a walk into ‘downtown’ Siem Reap, I comment to Mr Smith as we head towards our suite that I might soak in the bath before dinner. We enter the room to find that the bath is already drawn – to a perfect temperature – with a cluster of lotus flowers floating on top of the jasmine-scented water. Needless to say, I’m blissfully floating soon after.
We could happily laze away the day in our sumptuous suite, complete with private courtyard and pond where Mr Smith enjoys his book and evening whiskey accompanied by placid frogs, but the main pool area of Amansara is equally enticing. Curling up on enormous day-beds to read, snooze or sunbathe is pleasure enough, let alone when a friendly attendant brings you your preferred cocktail paired with some delicate tempura prawns and black pepper sauce to stave off any pre-prandial hunger pangs. When the light eventually fades, the space becomes a twinkling outdoor dining room courtesy of tea-lights encased in translucent banana leaves.
Amansara’s daily-changing menus cater to both Western and Khmer tastes. Both are outstanding, but the signature tasting plates of Khmer cuisine, typically including a soup, curry, noodles, salads and vegetables, are a highlight of our stay. Breakfast and lunch or dinner are included in the hotel’s rates and half-board charge, along with a selection of French house wines, and high-end cognacs, Armagnacs and cigars to finish off the night, ideally on the rooftop terrace. Guests are also free to delve into the walk-in cellar at their own expense to select something even more exceptional.
In fact, Amansara’s only downside is the strong likelihood of weight-gain due to the delicious and plentiful food, including freshly baked cakes and cookies available all day in the main dining room (formally the king’s private screening room) and each suite. This can be countered either by taking advantage of the complimentary guided tours of Angkor Wat or an activity from the top 10 ‘to do’ list compiled by staff to offer a truly out-of-the-ordinary experience.
This is an exhilarating and unforgettable adventure, traversing rock, sand, streams and thick jungle – often all at once – on the back of off-road bikes to marvel at breathtaking statues and stone carvings, including the impressive River of a Thousand Lingas, pre-dating the Angkor temples. What’s more, we don’t spot a single other tourist, which is virtually unheard of in Siem Reap. After bidding farewell to our skilled drivers, we picnic on a five-course Khmer lunch beside a waterfall before being chauffeured back to Amansara in a four-wheel drive for another evening of relaxed luxury.
The virtuous Mr Smith rises at 5am on the morning of our departure to photograph Angkor Wat at dawn before returning for a long breakfast and perusing books in the library. I opt for a more indulgent start to the day in the form of a two-hour spa treatment in which I am soaked, scrubbed, moisturised, wrapped and massaged. Such extravagance should be compulsory before any long-haul flight home. After bidding a reluctant farewell to the wonderful staff, we climb into our vintage chariot again for the airport. As we cruise the old boulevards of the former Cambodian capital, I can’t help but muse on Amansara’s name. The ‘sara’ in the title is a derivative of apsara, referring to a beautiful woman whose charms were used to distract or entice, usually to good effect in ancient wars and battles. We are both entranced enough to know this won’t be our last visit to this seductive city and hotel. Apsaralutely.