TUCKED AWAY BEHING a wall alongside the road that leads from Siem Reap to the ineffable ruins of Angkor is a hidden jewel – one that since I visited late last year now ranks high on the select list of my favourite places to stay in the world.
It is, of course, no match for the extraordinary collection of cultural treasures – from the magnificent towers of the temple complex of Angkor Wat to inscrutable piles of rubble lost deep within the tropical forest – that lie strewn across an area of almost 200 square kilometres just to the north of the Cambodian town. Indeed, were it not for Angkor, it's doubtful that this little 24-suite hotel would exist at all, for the vast Unesco World Heritage Site is what almost every guest comes to marvel at. Yet Amansara, as this secluded haven is now known, has its own story, granted one that's nothing like as fabulous as that of its colossal neighbour, but intriguing, colourful and even tragic nonetheless.
The property was acquired by hotel genius Adrian Zecha for his Aman Resorts portfolio in 2002, by which time the buildings had degenerated into crumbling shells following the depredations of Pol Pot and the subsequent military occupation by Vietnam. Forty years earlier, however, it had opened as a royal guesthouse, commissioned by Cambodia's then leader, the mercurial and urbane Prince Norodom Sihanouk, as a place where relatives and friends could relax in quiet seclusion. Named Villa Princière and designed in a modernist style that was intended to embody the aspirations of the newly independent kingdom, the property largely comprised single-storey concrete structures with exposed stone accents, and though undeniably stylish it was also unusually simple and unostentatious.
While apparently proving popular with all who stayed there, just two years after it opened the guesthouse was handed over to Cambodia's state-owned tourism company, which then ran it as a small hotel – while still continuing to entertain royal guests, and overseas VIP visitors who included politicians and film stars. By 1970, however, as the war in Vietnam began to spill over into Cambodia, the latter's tourism industry dried up and Villa Princière closed down. Neglected and eventually abandoned, it was said by a desolate Sihanouk to be “beyond repair” when he visited some time in the late 1970s and found the place overrun by soldiers of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
A rebirth of sorts came in 1982, when the property reopened as Villa Apsara, in which guise it once more operated as a hotel and guesthouse – though admittedly in somewhat reduced circumstances – until slipping back into closure and disuse in 1997. And there, stripped bare and forlorn, it languished until Zecha – who'd stayed in Villa Princière as a journalist in the 1960s – arrived back on the scene, immediately realised the potential of his old haunt, and decided to set about buying and restoring it.
Today, though significantly expanded through the addition of new rows of guest villas linked by cloistered walkways, Amansara exudes an air of blessed repose that surely must once have imbued Villa Princière. Beyond its protective enclosure, a constant flow of traffic rushes noisily between Siem Reap and the great monuments at its edge, yet here beneath the same old rain trees that once shaded royalty the outside world is all but banished, replaced by a blissful somnolence of bird calls and the gentle rustling of leaves and branches.
Notwithstanding the new construction – which also includes a long lap pool that lies between a high stone wall and stands of bamboo, and a small spa complex – the essence of the original design remains mercifully intact. The heart of the resort is the tall, circular dining room where royal guests watched movies in the 1960s, while the sleek and largely unadorned (except for a few recent bas-reliefs) white concrete walls, bare stone features and oddly shaped main swimming pool all look equally authentic.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine how the Aman architects could have been more sympathetic in their efforts, though one can't help assuming that the restoration has elevated the hotel to a level of opulence considerably loftier than the “former glory” of PR cliche, with lovely polished wood replacing the utilitarian metal door and window frames of old, a chic rooftop terrace now crowning the main buildings and capacious plunge pools being offered with 12 of the resort's suites. As expected, the suites themselves are openplan affairs with an immense bed at one end and a freestanding bathtub at the other – and all overlooking a private courtyard or pool. Elegant yet unadorned, these spaces could hardly be more sumptuous or inviting.
All of which might suggest that guests at Amansara, spoiled and fussed over by the delightful staff, could easily slip into the lotus-eating indolence of the idle rich, sipping cocktails on the roof and tucking into sumptuous spreads at breakfast, lunch and dinner times as their waistlines steadily expand. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
During my stay – and I don't think this is untypical – I willingly rouse myself from deep sleep at 4am to join an honour-the-ancestors ceremony, trudging in the darkness and pouring rain several times around a nearby temple while scattering offerings to the dead. Returning to the resort, there's time for a shower, a coffee and a croissant before I depart once again, this time in a remork – a curious Cambodian version of a tuk-tuk, resembling a sort of motorised bath chair – for the first of many explorations of Angkor.
If these aren't enough, there's a Cambodian cooking class – just me and a chef – at Amansara's traditional wooden stilt house, which overlooks an ancient man-made reservoir; excursions around town on an oldstyle upright bicycle; and a boat trip to a water village on the Tonle Sap, the great shallow lake and river system that lies just to the south of Siem Reap. And on the morning before departure I'm out of bed again in darkness to join the convoy of vehicles heading out of town to catch the sun rising above the towers of the world's greatest religious monument – an experience to savour in spite of the crowds jostling to capture the perfect image on hundreds of cameras and cellphones.
But as I load my bags into the car and begin the long road journey back to Bangkok, what I treasure most are the heartfelt farewells from the people who've taken such good care of me over the past few days. I suspect that it's these, as much as the wonders of Angkor, that will soon lure me back to this lovely, languid Cambodian hideaway.