Homage to the New Cambodia

Johnny Morris, The Daily Telegraph, March 07, 2012

Our pepper-red Eurocopter swung south-east over the expanse of the ancient West Baray reservoir and suddenly I could see the sandstone towers of Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, glowing like a set of giant chess pieces in the Cambodian sunshine. Keeping a respectful distance from the huge, time-tattooed faces of Angkor Thom, we passed over smaller temple ruins engulfed in scrub jungle and surrounded by the chartreuse green of rice paddies. Following the Siem Reap river down to the watery heartland of Cambodia, Tonlé Sap Lake, I saw fishing boats carving glassy Vs as they passed floating villages in the surreal, semi-flooded landscape.

The helicopter did a wide loop around the mountain temple of Phnom Krom and, as we headed back north, I was surprised to see below us the familiar shape and texture of a well-manicured golf course. This one, it transpired, had been designed by Nick Faldo and is regarded as the best of the three courses that have sprung up in recent years around the temple town of Siem Reap.

My Australian pilot, Phil Butterworth , sensed my interest. “That’s what I like most – the variety,” he explained over headphones. “You can do your Indiana Jones bit all day, exploring the temples, then change into something smart and head out to a decent restaurant.”

From godheads to golf greens, Siem Reap has it all – and a lot more besides. Indeed, the gateway town to the Angkorian temples now attracts so many international visitors – year on year numbers were up 23 per cent in 2011, to 1.6 million – that it has emerged as a vibrant destination in its own right. It’s good news for brand Cambodia, but the surge in visitors also means the country may be in danger of destroying its most valuable tourist asset. The fabric of the Khmer monuments is steadily being eroded by the increased footfall, and the tranquil atmosphere of the holy sites is threatened by the kerfuffle of coachloads of tourists. While I was there, Chinese guides were barking out facts about the serenity of 13th-century Buddhist temples without any sense of irony or volume control.

Enter AboutAsia , the local luxury tour operator that helped organise my trip around Cambodia. Using crowd research data and discreet back-door entrances, my guide, Bond Chhay, made my introduction to the World Heritage Site a personal and peaceful experience. Appreciation of the mystic monuments was aided further by a good supply of cold towels, breezy tuk-tuk rides and G&Ts magically produced out of thin air.

Having ticked off the temples (more Buddhism in later life, I promise), I was directed by AboutAsia towards a new menu of treats away from Angkor Wat itself. My favourite was as a pioneer on a “soft adventure” trip, kayaking and birdwatching in Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. As we crossed the vast Tonlé Sap Lake, Nick Butler, my affable guide, told me that Prek Toal is unmatched throughout Southeast Asia for the variety and sheer number of endangered water birds it supports.

Thanks to him, I can testify that encounters with black-headed ibises , lesser adjuncts and the odd spot-billed pelican are much more dramatic from out on the water. I can also report that exchanges with the local residents of the lake’s floating village are more intimate, and certainly more amusing for them, when you are paddling a canoe.

In a busy week I learnt how to cook a soufflé-style “fish amok” with Kethana Dunnet, a local celebrity chef ; shopped for haute texture silk by the internationally acclaimed fashion designer Eric Raisina ; sampled a Basil Trance (muddled basil, vodka, cranberry and passion fruit) in the martini bar at La Résidence d’Angkor ; and found myself at the notorious cocktail bar, Miss Wong , enjoying the 1930s Shanghai styling and a late-night session of camp Cambodian karaoke. I discussed politics with a local artist, Muy Theam Lim , on a visit to his atelier to see his new distressed-lacquer technique; and at Amansara luxury retreat, I attended a mind-expanding lecture on the demise of the Angkorian empire – brought about by global cooling, apparently.

Later in the week I mounted a horse for a ride across rice fields and a trot through the grounds of a modern temple, organised by the aptly named Happy Ranch . I endured the wallop and fierce rub of a Khmer-style massage, a strange mix of pleasure and pain, and visited the local market where I bought a pretty china opium pipe for US$12 (about £8). Then, clutching my prize, I concluded the week by falling down a drain.

Although there are no real traffic lights in Siem Reap, the slow progress of cars, scooters, remorks (Cambodian tuk-tuks) and bicycles makes the roads manageable for pedestrians – if you are careful. I made a quick dash, stepped on a paving stone that turned out to be a broken sewer cover, and found myself crotch-deep in the drain. Scraped and bloody, I was reminded that, although the tourist business is booming in Cambodia, you only have to take a few wrong steps to discover that the infrastructure is woefully lagging behind.

Similarly, it was a shock to discover that, while temple admissions and associated tourism bring in millions of foreign dollars, Siem Reap province is one of the poorest in the country. Sharing a coconut with a sickly-looking boy, Tuy Pos, and his family in a pretty but poverty-stricken village less than three miles from Siem Reap’s airport, I asked him how old he was. When he explained through my interpreter that he didn’t know, I could see that the great monetary trickle-down promised by the free market is not working in Cambodia. The big problem, it seems, is national corruption on an industrial scale.

Late last year, Transparency International announced that Cambodia’s government, whose prime minister is Hun Sen , had managed to fall even further down the Corruption Perceptions Index to 164th . To put this in context, the country is now regarded as more corrupt than Mugabe’s Zimbabwe at 154th , but cleaner than North Korea and Somalia – the most corrupt – which are tied in 182nd place. Developing a form of rural tourism where visitors’ money goes straight into the pockets of local people would help – but, as yet, decent homestays and tourist attractions outside the town are a rarity.

To their credit, many of the major hotels and tourist agencies in Siem Reap support charitable projects that try to alleviate rural poverty. Guests are gently made aware of these, never badgered – and surprisingly, the variety and inventiveness of the projects adds to the creative character of Siem Reap. My favourites were the Sewing School, promoted by Hôtel de la Paix; the Ecole Paul Dubrule , which produces world-class workers for the hotel and catering industry; and AboutAsia’s scheme, which uses the profits from its luxury tourism business to aid rural education through AboutAsia Schools .

A few days after the open-drain episode, I found myself in Siem Reap’s attractive domestic airport about to board an inaugural flight south. Cambodia Angkor Air has just introduced short-hop flights from Siem Reap to the southern coastal town of Sihanoukville , in the hope of keeping its temple tourists on a Cambodian beach rather than losing them to neighbouring countries.

“You’ll be so happy at Sihanoukville,” said the teenage security guard at departures, inspecting my boarding card and pretending to scan my bag. “Have you been there?” I asked, hoping to share her happiness. “Oh no… but just look,” she beamed, pointing to a huge backlit poster depicting a plane flying over a palm-fringed white beach and picture-perfect sea. “A WHOLE NEW ERA FOR THE COASTLINE”, the banner proclaimed in bold capitals.

The departure lounge at Siem Reap is perfect at least – all green and light, with places to enjoy a calm coffee and shop for artisan gifts – but the Sihanoukville end has a long way to go before it lives up to its poster image. It’s a dysfunctional place that can’t decide whether it is a sprawling industrial port, a destination for backpackers on an extended bar crawl, or a military base with casino and girlie bars. There are beaches, but Sihanoukville’s tinpot town planning doesn’t make holidaying easy.

The good news is that the 60-plus tropical islands off the coast of southern Cambodia are untouched by this urban mishmash . Some are being lined up for 21st-century tourism, and leading the way is the recently opened private island of Song Saa in the Koh Rong archipelago, 15 miles off the coast of Sihanoukville. When I visited, the Australian couple behind the resort, Rory and Melita Hunter , were still putting the final touches to their ambitious project and it would be unfair to judge whether Song Saa will live up to the high hosting standards (and high prices) they have set for themselves.

I can report that the interior styling in the villas is up to scratch, an effortless mix of Robinson Crusoe chic and contemporary designer simplicity. The thatched driftwood architecture, borrowed from the Maldives or the Seychelles, works well amid the tropical greens of the islands. The villas are a little tightly packed – but given the pioneering logistics involved, the biggest achievement of Song Saa is that it exists at all. Unless you are a keen early adopter, I would give the place time to settle. It will, I hope, soon make a comfortable base from which to explore all those virgin Cambodian islands.

What the resort has done is put Cambodia on the radar of well-heeled travellers, and there is a real determination to make the project work. Over lunch, I asked the charming Rory about his choice of desert island disc, and quick as a flash he answered: “I Will Survive”.

What I can recommend is this: head east, away from the new Sihanoukville airport, and after a couple of hours you will find pockets of true tropical gold in the seaside town of Kep . There is the unique Knai Bang Chatt hotel with its lush waterfront grounds and, for balmy evenings, the Sailing Club with its laidback snooker scene and well-stocked bar. For foodies there is the god-given combination of freshly caught Kep crab and green Kampot pepper still on the vine at Kimly’s – a classic example of the “keep it local, keep it simple” destination restaurant that we all crave on our travels. New on the scene is Villa Romonea , the first modern luxury villa available for rent along the southern coast – which, luckily for me, also offers individual rooms at weekends.

“Can you imagine that, when the Khmer Rouge were in power, the beautiful villa you are relaxing in was saved only because it was used as a dried-fish store?” asked Stephane Arrii , the French manager of the property, filling me in on its history. Designed by Lu Ban Happ , a key figure in the Le Corbusier-inspired New Khmer Architecture movement, it is one of the few intact private mansions of Kep’s golden era in the 1960s. Fully renovated by its current owners, it is a shining example of how to mix Sixties interior design and contemporary furnishing within a striking modernist mansion. Its bold white zigzags and organically curved atrium help make it surprisingly optimistic architecture.

By the villa’s huge saltwater infinity pool, I sat in the shade of a mango tree and looked out to the Bay of Kampot . It was hard to imagine the property’s dramatic past. Far easier to conjure was an image of my pepper-red helicopter touching down in Villa Romonea’s extensive grounds, for a tropical weekend by the seaside after a few days’ temple-trotting. Now there’s an idea…

"Two frapatinis and a plate of Peking duck pancakes,” repeated the mini-skirted waitress at Cafe Metro, raising her voice above the sound of a modern Southeast Asian city revving up for the night. It was 7pm and I was finally in the capital, Phnom Penh , just a few hours’ drive from the tropical tranquillity of Kep. If Siem Reap is all about culture and rehearsed theatricality, Phnom Penh is the full-on live show with plenty of swagger and edgy improvisation.

I was sitting outside this popular cafe on Sisowath Quay , in the centre of the city’s buzzing entertainment district, watching the world go by. A million stories and a stream of colour from tuk-tuk and scooter lights rushed by, punctuated by black Lexus monsters trying to muscle into non-existent parking spaces. In the new riverfront park, a crowd watched street performers doing an uneasy mix of Apsara and break-dancing . Beyond that, the mighty Mekong River raced in the dark towards the South China Sea. With smooth choreography, rich young Cambodians scrolled their iPhones, their bodyguards tapped their earpieces, a couple of toned personal trainers came and went on a Harley-Davidson and pretty waitresses kept up a constant supply of cocktails, mocktails and noodle soup.

The cosmopolitan Metro Cafe has replaced the nostalgic Foreign Correspondents’ Club as the place to watch the Phnom Penh parade go by. With luck, the tuk-tuk drivers selling tours to the interrogation centre and the Killing Fields will eventually get the message and move on from war nostalgia to the city’s 21st-century attractions. As the BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane observed in a recent report on Phnom Penh: “The age of utopia and blood has long passed and all attention is on economic growth.”

Things are also changing in the capital’s hotel business, as visitors move away from the grand colonial hotels towards smaller, funkier places near the Royal Palace. “It’s a great day,” explains Alexis de Suremain , the super-charged owner of three boutique hotels and the new Plantation, a 70-room urban resort and spa in the centre of Phnom Penh. “We’re opening on time, we have just managed to fill the new infinity pool and I’ve now heard that North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has gone!”

It was a great day for me, too, as I was about to be the first overnight guest at the Plantation. Stepping under a pale yellow lantern and walking over the mushroom-grey patterned tiles of the former colonial house that now serves as the hotel’s lobby, I could sense a winner. The 1930s building merges harmoniously with the former 1960s Ministry of Labour on to which it backs.

The result is a pleasing time-machine synthesis of architecture opening out into a tropical courtyard filled with Alexis’s new pool, some Miami-style cabanas and an airy bar. The ramshackle urban explosion of downtown Phnom Penh seemed a very long way away.

“It’s an exciting hotel, isn’t it?” I said, handing over my bags to Sam Sokunthea, the 18-year-old trainee receptionist at the new urban resort. At first she suppressed her excitement with gulps and giggles; then she couldn’t help herself.

“Yes, and this is the first time I have worked in a hotel,” she blurted out. “Actually, it’s my first job ever!” Her face lit up with sunny laughter, a perfect expression of her country’s newfound optimism.

Cambodia essentials

AboutAsia (00 855 637 60190; aboutasiatravel.com ) can tailor a bespoke itinerary similar to the above from about £1,500 per person, excluding international flights but including domestic flights, accommodation, transfers, services of a driver and a helicopter trip. Vietnam Airlines ( vietnamairlines.com ) flies direct from London to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City four times a week. From there, short-hop flights are available to Cambodia and Laos. Return fares from London to Siem Reap via Vietnam start at £660 .