Kings of the Jungle
Cambodia, long a neglected destination on the Southeast Asia swing, comes into its own with a unique brand of high style.
Frank Zappa once said that a Real Country needs an airline and a beer. Cambodia has both (Angkor Air, Angkor Beer). I’d add that a Real Destination Country needs to have a monument (or mountain) and a movie. Cambodia has these as well—Angkor Wat and The Killing Fields. Many potential visitors may not have been able to name Cambodia’s airline or beer, though they might have guessed; Angkor is also on Cambodia’s national flag and its currency. But almost everyone has Cambodia’s monument and movie firmly rooted in their consciousness. The problem arises, as is often the case with Cambodia, when these two things are all that people consider worth noting about a country. And that’s how Cambodia is often treated—just a few more days tagged onto a beach vacation in Thailand, to check off another obligatory world wonder.
But here I am, day one of my bespoke Cambodia trip, and the evening sun is mercifully low in the sky, although the air is still muggy. I’m on a mountain bike on a trail that just happens to be atop a three-storey-high, city-street-wide fortified wall around Angkor Thom. Just beyond the moat and the lush greenery below, within arrow-shot of where we roll, is the more famous Angkor Wat. Cicadas trill, parrots caw, and the roots and tendrils of the jungle reach out for us as we bump along the 1,000-year-old structure. Our progress is marked at each cardinal point by gateways dominated by five-metre-tall stone heads with beatific Buddha smiles. And it’s day one.
”Keep to the right up ahead,“ says my bearded guide, Scott Coates. The trail abruptly ends with an Indiana Jones-esque gap in the wall and a drop into an abyss. But thanks to his heads-up, I swerve safely onto a right fork that cascades into a series of root drops and water ruts. That’s local knowledge for you. I can’t think of a better way to ”do“ Angkor than this. Earlier in the evening we had scouted out a lesser-known temple, one that a friend, a guidebook writer for National Geographic, had tipped him off about and for a time we were the only people out there in the gloaming, silent among the banyan tree roots and crumbling ruins.
Just how rare an experience this was I would discover the next day, when we returned to Angkor and joined the throngs out in the midday heat. Chinese tour groups with loudspeakers squawked past while tourists of every nationality swarmed through our photos. Just a few years ago, visitors to the world’s largest religious monument topped one million for the first time. Last year that number more than tripled.
An hour later, we arrive back at my lodgings in Siem Reap, and I experience—luxuriously first-hand—just how much things have changed. I’m in a boutique hotel called Shinta Mani that, but for its reliance on a sleek homage to local culture, wouldn’t seem out of place in Tribeca. It’s a design-fetishist’s dream as imagined by U.S. architect Bill Bensley—dark wood, bright silks, Khmer-influenced artwork all enveloped in a tropical airiness. I’m greeted by a valet bearing a cool, jasmine-scented towel to wipe the trail dust from my face.
This was not the ceiling-fan-if-you’re-lucky tour that my friends made back when they schlepped backpacks through here in the mid-’90s. I’m here to experience luxury travel, a relatively recent development in Cambodia’s tourism industry. Indeed, tourism in general was put on hold until the dark years of the Khmer Rouge reign ended just two decades ago. Back when I was sweating my own way through Southeast Asia, I was given to believe that Cambodia was a destination for the bold, rife with mines, some nine million of which were laid during the multitudinous conflicts.
I confess that prior to arriving I had no idea that it even had a coastline or that it had a mountainous wilderness, home to tigers, elephants, gibbons and sun bears. And though my former backpacking self would bristle, having a guide has opened up an entirely new world for me.
At the forefront of this change are expats who recognize Cambodia’s raw potential and are developing it in a way that jibes with their own sensibilities, values similar to the foreign clients to whom they cater. These entrepreneurs include two Australians, Rory and Melita Hunter, who developed Song Saa Private Island, Cambodia’s first five-star resort. I was ready for serious ostentation when we pulled away from the dock at Sihanoukville in a 50-foot powerboat clad in gleaming, pearl-white gel coat and decked out in embroidered cream leather in the interior. The 40-minute boat ride was indeed transport into another realm. Song Saa even has its own time zone (beat that, Four Seasons), to better take advantage of daylight. On-island, a platoon of staff constantly manicures paths and beaches to desert-island virginity. Each of the 27 villas, whether on stilts above the water, perched high up in the jungle or on its own piece of beach, is a private enclave looking out over its own infinity pool and the Gulf of Thailand. They’re decorated with an organic local vibe—beautiful local wood adorns everything, indigenous art is abundant—but there are also chilled bottles of prosecco, mojito ingredients ready to be muddled, and an iPod loaded with the Pixies at the ready.
As tough as it is to pull away, there’s magic beyond the artfully decorated villas. The Hunters, a 30-something couple and first-time hoteliers, had hired a community and environment coordinator, a young Brit named Barnaby, even before breaking ground. Every tree on the island was numbered and accounted for during the building process and delicate coral was relocated. Staff were drawn from the neighbouring fishing village and trained. Community projects include a solid waste management program, a new school, and gardening as an alternative livelihood. Barnaby, who has a master’s degree in biology, takes me for a paddle tour through a simple mangrove forest, from which I gain far more insight than by simply tooling around alone.
Rounding out the design trifecta is 4 Rivers Floating Lodge in the Cardamom Mountains, where the future founders of Song Saa happened to be the first guests. Like the Hunters, owners Anna, a Filipino, and her husband, a Romanian, were taken with the place and so figured out a way to build something while contributing back to the area. In this case it was a region ravaged by poaching and illegal logging. Here, tourism would give locals an economic choice apart from direct harvesting of the natural resources. The lodge, a good 20-minute ride upriver by long-tail boat, is really a series of floating platforms supporting well-appointed canvas tents. ”We don’t want mass tourism. We prefer the discerning guest who knows what to expect,“ says Anna over a cool drink on the dining deck. ”We don’t have air conditioning. We couldn’t make that kind of hotel sustainable.“ If you want to cool down faster than the tent fans will allow, you need only step off your platform and swim in the river.
I go out into the jungle again, this time on foot, led by a former poacher. We tuck our pant legs into our socks to keep out the leeches. He shows me which vines, when sliced, will yield drinkable water. We pick and eat sweet, fleshy purple berries. He cleaves a slice of bark off an innocuous-looking tree with his machete and offers it to me to smell. It’s cardamom. As I listen to the hoots of the forest and pause for a rest in the slick heat, I’m not dreaming of air conditioning or a cold dip (though later we will swim under a waterfall) but reflecting on how the real luxury is in having local guides help me navigate through these quiet pockets of the world. WL