I guess everyone else must be at the temples,’ says Mr Smith wryly as we stroll into the deserted dining room for breakfast. It is Saturday morning, our first in the elegant confines of Heritage Suites after escaping from Bangkok the night before. Having arrived late, and after a casual dinner in the clubby, colonial restaurant, we’d spent the night cocooned from the world we’d left behind in ‘Orchid’, one of the hotel’s Bungalow Suites, with its gargantuan bed and pod-like bath tub. The absence of any distractions or interruptions quickly eased our souls and we awoke bright-eyed and eager to explore Angkor.
The fact is, we aren’t particularly late for breakfast. It is a very civilised 9am, but in hot and dusty Siem Reap people rise early to make the most of the cooler morning hours. Since Mr Smith and I have visited the multi-temple Angkor site before, we choose a gentler pace – one where indulgent lie-ins and leisurely meals take priority. After breakfasting on perfectly cooked eggs Benedict, and quite possibly the best coffee to be found in Cambodia, we embark upon a personal tour of the complex.
Nothing quite prepares you for the first glimpse of hero temple Angkor Wat – its sheer majesty cannot fail to inspire awe. Even the second time around, it is absolutely, undeniably, breathtaking. It being mid-morning by the time we arrive (it’s only about eight kilometres from the hotel, but we did manage to linger over breakfast), it is ridiculously hot, so we spend our time cowering in the lower galleries, admiring the intricate murals and admitting we probably should have got out of bed just that little bit earlier.
If Angkor Wat is the emperor of the Khmer kingdom, then neighbouring temple the Bayon is its spiritual adviser; its brooding stone faces watch on wisely from all angles. Stumbling through its corridors, we resist the urge to touch, take dozens of photos and then hot-foot it to the last stop on our tour: Ta Prohm. Sprawling, a little decrepit and embraced by the searching, skirting roots of banyan, fig and kapok trees, Ta Prohm might have sunk into obscurity if it weren’t for a certain film starring Angelina Jolie. Thanks to its cameo role it’s become the second most popular attraction on the circuit and previous experience has prepared us for an encounter with dozens of tourists chiming ‘Angelina’ as they snap their very own Tomb Raider moment. This time, an almighty storm breaks out, sending the tour coaches scurrying back to town – it means we have the unique opportunity to experience Ta Prohm on our own. Mr Smith, as insightful as ever, remarks that it is one of those rare ‘in the moment’ occasions that will remain with us for life.
After such a magical morning, I am feeling slightly weary. It is hot and I’m hungry and longing for a lazy afternoon sprawled in a cool corner. There’s something rather special about a hotel with such romantic appeal – Heritage Suites is so peaceful and secluded that it is very easy to relax and completely be ourselves. Its cream-walled layout creates an intimate compound and, as the name suggests, it has a traditionally styled decor that manages to avoid colonial clichés by mixing in vibrant splashes of colour and sleek leather furniture. Genuine, gentle service makes us feel like we are staying with friends, all the more so because we barely glimpse any other guests all weekend. The overall effect is of a private pocket of tranquillity, where simple elegance and a slower pace of life prevail. Needless to say, it doesn’t take much to persuade Mr Smith to join me for a light lunch of dim sum and fresh spring rolls. This is our first taste of Asian food – having opted for gourmet Western dishes last night – and it is the perfect reminder that when in Siem Reap you should eat as the Khmers do. The local food tastes far better than anything made from imported ingredients. Our appetites sated, we collapse by the divine saltwater pool.
As evening approaches, the poolside sun-deck takes on a sexy, clubby persona with seductive lighting, an open fire and a backing soundtrack to match. It would be very easy to settle here for the night, but revived by a glass of champagne, we give in to our curiosity and venture into Siem Reap.
The city has expanded almost beyond recognition since we last visited five years ago, but it’s still small enough to stroll around and has, thankfully, retained its easy, laid-back ambience. First stop: G&Ts at the art deco-inspired Foreign Correspondents Club bar, after which we head for dinner at Hôtel de la Paix’s fashionable in-town eatery AHA. After the mellow, colonial-esque vibe of FCC, AHA seems a little too try-hard, but the tapas-style, mod-Khmer food reinforces us for an adventure to Pub Street, Siem Reap’s equivalent of Bangkok’s Khao San Road.
Often dismissed by the city’s more high-minded guides, there’s still no better, livelier place for people-watching – especially for fellow Smiths who can dip in and out again – and it is fun to share traveller tales over a few Angkor beers.
All too soon, midnight strikes and this bar fly yearns for her bed. Feeling rather smug to escape Backpackerville, we hop a moto back to the serene luxury of Heritage Suites. As my head hits the downy pillow, Mr Smith suggests setting an early alarm so we can explore more of the temples in the morning and tap into our inner Angelinas. I don’t even indulge him with a reply.