In Angkor, capital of the ancient Khmer kingdom, if you made it safely over the temple moat it meant that you were either a guest of the king or you had successfully conquered his realm. Both were significant events and cause for much ado. But it is as more like a couple of ragged scouts than a triumphant army that Mrs Smith and I hobble through the gateway to La Résidence d’Angkor hotel in Siem Reap. The overnight flight and the humidity have taken their toll but no matter our rumpled attire, a small retinue of staff, neat in their pressed shirts, descend on us as if we are royalty.
Energetically courteous, they bow and immediately relieve us of our bags. Then, amid more bobbing, they invite us to step across the pretty, gable-roofed bridge that crosses the hotel’s ornamental moat. In its clear waters red and orange carp flick playfully among the lily pads.
We are seated in the low-lit coolness of the foyer, under a ceiling of dark wood beams. A large stone bas-relief, glowing like treasure, is framed by the foyer’s main wall. Fragrant chilled drinks materialise – Mrs Smith stretches, sips and smiles. It is clear already: we may not be nobility but that’s exactly how we’ll be treated here.
Belmond La Résidence, built in 2002, faces the east bank of the Siem Reap River, a placid, tree-lined waterway bisecting this gateway to the ancient kingdom’s one thousand temples. When we are led to our Royal Deluxe Poolside room, Mrs Smith and I begin to appreciate the hotel’s cocooning properties as the buzz of tuk tuks and clatter of jackhammers recede behind its stone walls and palm thickets. We follow a path through the foliage, brushing volcanic brick columns and skirting a stately pool. Our eyes drink in white rendered walls, dark wood louvered screens and gabled terracotta roofs; our new home is a restful combination of neo-colonial French architecture, tropical-modern luxury and Khmer temple art.
Entering our room, Mrs Smith coos appreciatively at the crisp bedlinen and the talc-smooth, scalloped stone bath in the adjoining bathroom. Relaxation instantly kicks in. Later, stirring from her novel in the shade of our balcony, Mrs Smith ventures poolside to languish on a sunlounger, quaff a gin and tonic, and nibble on grilled salmon, one of many treats that hint at the kitchen’s potential. At the nearby Ember restaurant, I pair a chilled gazpacho soup and a spicy noodle dish. Here, west meets east with ease.
Although the more languid can feast until midday, temple-goers eager to beat the heat can breakfast at 5am on freshly baked croissants, friands and pains au chocolat, or Khmer rice-paper rolls. Mrs Smith firmly demurs, so in dawn’s half-light I stroll alone around the vast maze of colonnades, rooms and towers of the 12th-century Angkor Wat temple. It predates the Palace of Versailles by 500 years but loses nothing in sophistication, at least until the day’s first tour buses arrive.
Mrs Smith’s strategy is to raid the spa, which nestles discreetly behind a small pool, ringed by a stone snake. A local monk or yogi periodically pops by for those who are intent on mindfulness. But these daytime diversions are a sideshow. At La Résidence, nighttime is show time. Refreshing by day, come evening the pool is magical, with a guardian lion brooding at its side, framed by flickering torches and rustling fronds. Eerily sub-lit, its emerald-green tiles suggest something sacred. I slip into the cool waters thinking of Tomb Raider, having just heard that Ta Prohm temple’s jungle-infested ruins featured in the film.
Before dinner, Mrs Smith and I are enjoyably distracted by some mojitos, Singapore slings and martinis in the second-storey Martini Lounge. Then, seated beside the ornamental moat, I singlehandedly tackle a towering Khmer medley of lobster, king crab and tamarind-spiced beef at Circle. Fittingly, my feat is topped by a captivating performance from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, enlivened with shadow puppets and a small orchestra.
Performance and art are part of the fabric at La Résidence, with cultural pursuits up for grabs from meditation to cooking or dancing lessons, and guides for temple tours. But tempting though it is to explore further afield, we realise our home-from-home is where the heart is – and for the remainder of our stay we don’t wander across the sturdy planks of La Résidence’s moat bridge.