The notion of exploring a long-lost city is a thrilling prospect. Deep in the Cambodian jungle, the historical ruins of Angkor are unique and astonishing. Set foot here and you’ll feel part of an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.
Once the thriving capital of the Khmer Empire, these relics of an ancient civilization were cloaked by dense forest, forgotten by the world until they were rediscovered in the late 19th century. Considering what Cambodia has endured since, you might wonder if this rediscovery unleashed a mighty curse on the country. Bombed by the US during the Vietnam War, then destabilized by a military coup and a communist insurgency, then ravaged by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime, then occupied by Vietnamese troops, then jolted by a coup d’état, Cambodia has been repeatedly brutalized throughout its recent history.
It’s unsurprising that few tourists ventured here during all that turmoil. While other ancient wonders such as the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, and the ruins of Machu Picchu attained must-see status, the Angkor temples remained a long way off the tourist trail for a century after their rediscovery.
By the time Lara Croft herself came to raid the temples of Angkor in 2000 (in the shape of Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie), things were starting to change, and the fact that key scenes from the film Tomb Raider were shot here helped to reinforce confidence in Cambodia as a tourist destination.
As visitor numbers increased, the nearby town of Siem Reap blossomed into a lively resort. In the past few years, it’s grown exponentially with stylish new hotels, gourmet dining, and fabulous shopping.
Siem Reap’s leading hotels echo the past. Open since 1932, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is full of romance and drama. Built in an elegant French colonial style, this iconic landmark boasts the largest swimming pool in Cambodia. Surrounded by frangipani trees, its grand design was inspired by the ancient Royal bathing pools of Angkor.
Explore further and you’ll unearth plenty of history: the doorman’s attire was inspired by uniforms of the Royal Palace guard, the original cage elevator has swept guests to their suites for over 80 years, and the iconic Elephant Bar remains the most prestigious spot in town for cocktails. It’s not surprising that Raffles is considered a home away from home for world leaders and prominent figures including US First Lady Michelle Obama, who visited in 2015.
Another exclusive choice is Amansara. Built in 1962 as a guest villa of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk, this 24-suite retreat retains a sleek midcentury vibe. Those staying at this private gated compound have access to a fleet of custom-fitted remorks (Cambodian tuk-tuks) for stylish escapes.
New boutique offerings such as Viroth’s Hotel and The Aviary favor a tropical and playful 1950’s ambience. Several hotels even offer vintage automobiles for airport transfers and sightseeing tours: for example, guests at Viroth’s may chose to travel in the hotel’s classic 1969 Mercedes-Benz, chauffeuring you back to a bygone era.
Not all of Siem Reap belongs to the past. Recent improvements to Siem Reap’s infrastructure has transformed many dusty tracks into proper tarmac roads, but the chaotic whirligig of tuk-tuks (remorques) and overladen scooters still defy attempts at traffic order, and the needs of pedestrians (like sidewalks and crossings) appear to have been omitted from the master plan. But this only serves to enhance the impression that Siem Reap is resolute to resist becoming overdeveloped and overbearing.
In spite of its historic, nostalgic, and relaxed appeal, the typical tourist spends just two or three nights here. Many choose to briefly visit Siem Reap and Angkor as part of a broader tour of neighbouring countries, especially Thailand and Vietnam. Which is a shame, because Cambodia is so fascinating and welcoming that it warrants a more dedicated exploration.
It’s also very gay-friendly, which is remarkable considering the word ‘gay’ doesn’t exist in Khmer. In recent years, Siem Reap has given rise to a flourishing gay scene, with hotels, bars, restaurants, day spas, boutiques, and tourist attractions being established by local and foreign LGBT entrepreneurs, so it’s now a place where people of different nationalities and sexualities can fulfil their dreams.
One of the most notable of these entrepreneurs is Soann Kann. Despite having no formal education, he went from humble beginnings as a waiter at Raffles in 1997, working his way up the hospitality ladder before setting up Sokkhak Spa in 2012. A tranquil haven amid the heat and noise of Siem Reap (in fact Sokkhak is the Sandskrit word for tranquillity), it remains one of the town’s top-rated day spas. A favorite with gay and straight visitors alike, around 20% of the therapists are male.
In 2013, he opened the restaurant Chanrey Tree. Located beside the Siem Reap River, the focus is on authentic Khmer cuisine with each plate exquisitely prepared and presented. Delicious local delicacies include fish amok, a traditional Khmer curry of steamed river fish, and prahok ktiss, fermented fish and pork delicately braised with coconut cream. With its lush tropical gardens, this contemporary Cambodian restaurant is consistently named one of Siem Reap’s best, attracting famous patrons including David Beckham who dined here in the Summer 2015.
The continuing success of both enterprises led to the opening of fusion-restaurant Sokkhak River, and the serene and stylish Sokkhak Boutique Resort. Open since 2014, this secluded hotel with 12 rooms is set within private tropical gardens on the edge of Siem Reap.
The inspiring epilogue is that many of those who work in the spa, restaurants, and resort come from the same village as Soann and his family. Conscious of where he came from, he endeavors to give something back to help others to succeed.
Over on the east side of the Siem Reap River, in the emerging Wat Bo Road neighborhood, Viroth Kol and his French partner Fabien Martial opened Viroth’s Restaurant ten years ago. The couple had previously operated a restaurant overlooking the famous Angkor Wat historical site, and their intention was to create a similar ambience in Siem Reap, with an open dining space surrounded by lush greenery that served Khmer cuisine.
Their next project involved renovating a dilapidated villa that had most recently housed French soldiers. Originally built in the 1960s in a native modernist style known as New Khmer Architecture, they worked with local firm Asma Architects to transform it into an intimate boutique bolthole. Open since 2007, Viroth’s Villa has seven guestrooms with cool concrete tile floors, midcentury furniture, and Cambodian objects d’art. There’s also a small saltwater pool that beckons after a hot day of temple exertions, plus a rooftop café bar, and a spa treatment room (with massages and other treatments fulfilled by Sokkhak Spa).
Two years ago saw the grand opening of their most ambitious venture yet: Viroth’s Hotel, a newly constructed 1950’s inspired property with lots of fresh and hip design details. The 35 guestrooms and suites each have a large private terrace shaded by a vertical garden, some with views of the alluring swimming pool. The open-air bar and restaurant includes an air-conditioned glazed ‘bubble’ so you can keep your cool if the evening gets too sultry.
Having run the first gay-friendly guesthouse in Siem Reap, Dutchman Dirk de Graaff now has two boutique properties here catering primarily for LGBT guests: the three-star Rambutan Hotel, and the more upscale Rambutan Resort. Both are built in a Khmer style, with simple yet stylish rooms using local, natural products complemented by modern Asian art, including comical canvas prints of paintings by Chinese artist Yue Minjun. For the ultimate personal oasis, some rooms have large outdoor terraces with terrazzo soaking tubs. Dirk has recently opened a Rambutan in the capital Phnom Penh, with polished concrete and contemporary design details.
There are also exclusive men-only options. Set in tropical gardens, 3 Monkeys Villa was Siem Reap’s first Maison d’Hôtes exclusively for gay men, add to this their Men’s Resort, whose 14 contemporary rooms have vivid rainbow-colored accents.