The evening of my arrival in Siem Reap, under a starry velvet sky, I sip the first gin tonic of a long series to come on the newly renovated Roof Terrace of Amansara while waiting for Astrid Killian, the charismatic director of the hotel I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time in Marrakech a few years ago. She is eager to introduce me to Roland Fletcher, professor of theoretical and world archeology at the University of Sydney, a researcher-in-residence who regularly hosts informal discussions in front of some of Aman's privileged guests. Just like the rest of Amansara, the roof terrace is tastefully landscaped with potted plants along its walls, scattered greenery around cushioned seating, and low tables, providing a great spot for an outdoor drink to the sound of local music. Unusually for me, I felt at home as soon as I arrived.
Formerly Cambodian royal residence of the legendary King-Father Sihanouk, Amansara - the word means heavenly peace - is a true modern masterpiece full of the cachet of the new Khmer architecture of the sixties. Neglected for many years, a meticulous and delicate renovation has brought the building back to its former glory, becoming the unmissable address of Siem Reap, retaining the original layout on one level, the curvilinear pool, and monochrome minimalism. Steeped in the warm atmosphere of a charming home, the gardens and lush canopy of mature trees create an introspective atmosphere that spans 24 suites, all overlooking yards with ponds, some with private pools.
While I think of a glass of gin Seekers, near the London Dry, Astrid and Professor Fletcher arrive. Before my first visit to Angkor Archaeological Park the next morning, I could not have asked for a better introduction to the Khmer civilization. Devouring and fascinating, Professor Fletcher's passion is simply contagious. He introduces me to the geography of Cambodia in the very heart of Indochina, bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, Vietnam to the east and the Gulf of Thailand to the south. "Cambodia is a country that, despite its relatively small size and large dominant neighbors, has managed to maintain its unique Khmer identity," he says. "Its cultural traditions are earlier than those of Thailand and, unlike Vietnam where Chinese influence is pronounced, the cultural roots of Cambodia are strongly inspired by the Indian subcontinent," he adds. The lively conversation continues as we head for the magnificent circular dining room, with its breathtaking ceiling seven meters high. The palatial heart of Amansara and the nerve center of the property, the restaurant serves Khmer cuisine deeply rooted in Cambodian flavors, as well as an equally appetizing Western menu.
Around a selection of Khmer specialties, the professor goes on to explain that the ruins of Angkor are "surrounded by forests and rice fields, north of the Tonle Sap, south of the Kulen Mountains and a few minutes from the center of Siem Reap" . Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the archaeological park has more than 1,000 temples, the only remaining vestige of the magnificent Khmer empire that flourished from the 9th to the 13th century. The Angkorian period began in 802 AD when Hindu monarch Khmer Jayavarman declared himself "universal monarch" and "god-king". It lasted until 1431, when the Ayutthayan invaders ransacked the Khmer capital, pushing the population to migrate south towards present-day Phnom Penh. It is said that Angkor was, at its peak, the largest preindustrial city in the world, endowed with sophisticated farming systems able to feed more than a million people.
Impatient, I return to my suite to sleep early for a short night before waking up tomorrow morning. Decorated in earthy tones with fresh gray terrazzo floors, dark woods and ivory walls, the suites are designed with a combination of rest and living spaces in a generous, multi-level setting. My suite, with a pool, measures 80m2 and offers great privacy in all serenity with, all around, a private courtyard sheltered by trees. I could live here - without worry.
At 4:30 am, a slight knock on the door announces the delivery of a breakfast before it is finally time to head to Angkor. In Amansara, each suite has its own vehicle (a tuk-tuk) and driver for expeditions to the world-renowned archaeological park. My guide, father of three girls in their thirties, gives me an informative foretaste of what we will see today. As we wander through the streets of Siem Reap in total darkness, we pass in front of other early risers. In a dark part of the main road, we turn sharply to the left to take a dirt road and, anticipating my question, he predicts: "You will enjoy yourself, sir".
Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. After an unpretentious security door, the tuk-tuk stops and we continue on foot in the dark with nothing but our flashlights in hand. As the first rays of the sun slowly begin to appear on the horizon, the breathtaking contours of a gigantic structure stand before us: the temple of Angkor Wat. Probably the best-known and best-preserved symbol of the ancient Khmer Empire, its finely carved quincunx of towers rises to the sky, giving the impression of a mountain-temple. Built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as a state temple and capital, it became the center of Khmer Hindu tradition for the rest of the century. We are completely alone when we walk in the temple at sunrise, an exclusive privilege reserved for holidaymakers staying at Aman. I would have a hard time imagining a more exceptional way to live this experience: here I am the unique visitor to one of the most impressive sites in the world, without any other tourist around me. The scene prints a memory that will remain forever etched in my memory.
To allow this degree of privilege, visits are planned (very) early morning and afternoon. So we go back to Amansara because Siem Reap is now fully awake, and the bustling streets are buzzing with cars, tuk-tuks and Chinese tourist coaches. Back in the oasis of tranquility of the gardens of Aman, I decided to visit the spa, accessible by a path skirting a mirror of water. The reception is flanked by a lounge and garden in a courtyard, home to a breathtaking ancient rain tree. Only four treatment rooms are available, allowing the spa to stay intimate and quiet.
After lunch and a short nap in my private courtyard, this is the time of the second temple visit, this time to Ta Prohm. The immense success of this temple goes back to the year 2000, when the Hollywood blockbuster "Tomb Raider" was turned there. Today, many still call it the Tomb Raider Temple. The film starring Angelina Jolie is largely responsible for the boom in tourism in Siem Reap and Cambodia in general. Ta Prohm was completed 800 years ago and, like many other buildings, was later abandoned in the jungle until its discovery, in modern times, of the enormous roots of kapok trees and fig trees that had time to Wrap around the stone like twisted snake knots. The site has a sanctuary, or vihara, in the center of rectangular walls surrounded by 39 towers. An inscription on a stone slab lists the 12,500 inhabitants who served in the temple, including 18 high priests and more than 600 dancers, as well as 80,000 people from the area.
The same evening, after a sumptuous Khmer dinner served in the private courtyard of my suite in the middle of an ocean of candles, I go to bed again early, because the next day has a busy schedule. We visit the temple of Preah Khan, another impressive monastic complex, followed by breakfast served in a traditional house in the Khmer village of Aman. Located in the center of the archaeological park, this wooden house is built on stilts and overlooks the 10th-century Royal Srah Srang Bathing Basin. We then proceed to the Preah Khan Reservoir, where I am led to a small boat that takes us over the calm waters of this artificial reservoir to another temple, which is a former hospital, but not before elegant picnic, tasted while we float on the water, surrounded by a landscape of the most beautiful and serene. When we arrive at the exit of the temple, the driver assigned to my tuk-tuk is waiting for me with the clean towels in use. As we return at high speed, my guide decides that it is not possible for me to leave Angkor without having seen the richly decorated temple Bayon with its many smiling faces carved in the stone of its many towers. Upon arrival, the visiting hours are over, but we weave through an entrance to the back and once again, I am amazed by these impressive ruins that I can admire in privacy.
I could have spent my last day in the charming cocoon of Amansara, but it would have been a real sin to miss the many sensory pleasures of Siem Reap. Following the map of the property and my tuk-tuk driver, I walk the streets of Siem Reap, stopping at the suggested places on the map and discovering others by myself. Siem Reap is a quiet town compared to other Cambodian cities, a charming place with restaurants, shops and small businesses scattered throughout its urban perimeter. As the sun goes down, I go back to the roof terrace for a last gin tonic before the meal in the big dining room. The next morning, while a vintage Mercedes that once belonged to King Sihanouk waiting, ready to take me to the airport, I remember the very first time I heard about this fascinating and magical corner of the world . I was 14, and I came across a copy of "National Geographic" magazine, an example that I have kept with me for over a quarter of a century. On its cover: the photo of an old temple ruin surrounded by a dense jungle seeming to fight the powerful roots of trees and other voracious plants. She represented Ta Prohm. I do not really know why it took me so long to finally make this crucial journey, but now that I did it, two things came to me: first, the temple experience is exactly as I had it imagined during the last 25 years; secondly, I finally found my "favorite hotel" - a question that you are asked every week as a travel journalist and to which, until now, I have never been able to give an appropriate answer. The refined shrine of Amansara has changed that and I guess it will remain my favorite for the next 25 years, or maybe even longer, who knows? This is how far my loyalty extends.