Heritage Suites, Siem Reap, Cambodia: hotel with a heart of gold

Siem Reap is hardly one of those Asian destinations trumpeted as “secret” by brochure writers. As the gateway to Angkor Wat, it’s the most popular stop on the Cambodian holiday circuit. Many visitors choose to fly in from regional Asian ports, bypassing the capital, Phnom Penh, and skipping seaside Sihanoukville. Siem Reap exists in, and of, itself as a galaxy of tourism activity and the incessant crowds at Angkor Wat are mostly loud and pushy; you are likely to get poked in the eye by a selfie stick. Siem Reap’s so-called Pub Street is not for the faint-hearted.

All of which makes it imperative to stay somewhere cosy and quiet, a place to be treated to authentic Khmer hospitality. Such an ideal sanctuary is the 26-room, French-owned Heritage Suites Hotel, a thoughtfully conceived garden-surrounded property that opened in 2006 and was substantially refurbished in 2015 with a blend of contemporary comfort and a clear sense of history.

This was no cursory makeover. The revamp was headed by Jacob Thrane from TEKO, Scandinavia’s largest design and business academy. Imagine Scandi purity of line and penchant for unadorned materials blended with French colonial heritage features, such as high ceilings, colonnades and decorative tiling, plus intricate Khmer workmanship in wooden carvings and Buddhist statues.

Beyond the impressive colonial facade and lush tropical plantings, the 17 open-plan semi-detached Bungalow Suites are the pick of the inventory, measuring 75sq m, with polished timber floors, private walled gardens, hanging egg-shaped chairs, alfresco showers and freestanding tubs. Little extras include a coffee-pod machine and an abundance of canapes, fruit and bottled water delivered as amenities. Flowers are everywhere, even in the guestroom names. Forget boring numbers; turn the key to Peony or Hibiscus.

The six Classic Rooms are the cheapest choice and more than adequate in size and style, while Executive Suites feature an outdoor Jacuzzi, and the Red Poppy Suite is the top chamber, which sleeps a family of up to five in splendour and opens on to a pebbled garden with a spa pool. All are light and airy, with generous windows plus furniture and decor pieces crafted by Cambodian artisans from the local community. The water hyacinth matting was woven by workers employed by Osmose, a NGO with an agenda to “tackle issues of environmental preservation and poverty alleviation through handicraft”. The hotel also hires young and underprivileged Cambodian students from the Sala Bai Hotel and Restaurant school plus staff from poor rural areas to be trained in the fundamentals of hospitality. About 80 per cent of its workers come from impoverished backgrounds and there’s no sense here of being anywhere else but Cambodia, which is a refreshing change from the trend for boutique properties to be all about hipster design instead of true context.

Works are hung by local artists and even the Bodia Nature toiletries are Cambodian-made, with ingredients such as ginger, honey and tangerine. There’s a saltwater swimming pool (straw hats provided on the sunlounges) with an adjacent bar serving snacks or a choice of lobby-level or mezzanine dining at the Heritage Restaurant where Raffles-trained executive chef Vibol Boun fuses local and French flavours. Go for the Khmer Discovery Menu of five perfectly proportioned courses, kicking off with spicy smoked chicken and mango salad and finishing with a banana roll dessert sweetened with palm sugar and dusted with cinnamon. Across the menus, ingredients such as kampot pepper, kaffir lime and lemongrass feature, with French wines offered, and a decidedly colonial-sounding gin-and-tonic gratinee. There’s live jazz in the Lobby Bar on Thursday evenings and happy-hour prices.

Heritage Suites Hotel is about 10 minutes from Angkor Wat, a big tick in its favour, and has an onsite Heritage Adventures tour desk that can even organise overnight camping at a temple compound. To avoid the hordes, set out early for Angkor Wat, preferably with a guide. The hotel’s stated commitment to green practices is apparent on such organised visits, as the provided breakfast or lunch boxes are biodegradable, from wrapping to cutlery, and those eggs in the picnic sandwiches are from “happy cage-free chickens”.

Oh, and did I mention the hotel has a fleet of vintage cars including a 1962 and 1968 black Mercedes-Benz, and one-way airport transfers are include in the rate. One of the cars was once owned by the former king, Norodom Sihanouk, so for once that overused phrase of a right royal welcome can be used without a wince.

CHECKLIST

Heritage Suites Hotel, Wat Wat Polanka, Slokram Village, Khum Slok Kram, Siem Reap, Cambodia; + 855 63 969 100;

heritagesuiteshotel.com.

Tariff From $US145 ($185) a double with one-way airport transfer and breakfast.

Getting there Air Asia has direct services from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap; Silk Air flies from Singapore.

Bedtime reading A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis.

Stepping out The hotel is in a quiet area and within walking distance of a few restaurants; a tuktuk is advised to get to the city centre.

Brickbats Inexplicably, in such a tropical climate, my Bungalow Suite has a steamroom and just as puzzling is the absence of a TV, although one arrives when requested.

Bouquets Generosity reigns, from the most welcoming of smiles by staff in stylish, silken uniforms to free extras such as a 15-minute head-and-shoulders massages for all guests. The on-site Heritage Spa opens 10am-10pm, so a foot massage after a day of temple-tripping is an irresistible treat.

Also try Muntri Mews, George Town, Penang; Galle Fort Hotel, Sri Lanka.

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