Tranquility in the shadow of Angkor Wat

A chic hideaway for rent in Cambodia’s cultural heart

“You have not heard of it?” Those six words lured me in like candy does a child. Thrilled that my old friend Carol Cassidy, founder of Lao Textiles, would arrive during my own Cambodian sojourn, I felt at least as excited to check out her mystery accommodations. Here in the small town of Siem Reap, in the shadows of the Angkor Wat temples, word travels faster than the motorised pedi-cabs, called tuk-tuks, and secrets are scarce. When I typed back “What is Maison Polanka?” she merely replied, “Come for breakfast.”

Come I did, across the Siem Reap River from established hotels such as Amansara and Raffles, and through Wat Polanka, a Buddhist temple complex more frenetic than meditative. Two more left turns along unpaved terrain brought my tuk-tuk to a sleek but unmarked gate. It slid open to reveal a profusion of tropical leaves and flowers cossetting two Khmer wooden houses on stilts. My feet crunched along the pebbled walkway towards Carol, while I cast glances in all directions. An electric green parakeet at 10 o’clock, two bird-sized butterflies at 3 o’clock and the shimmering pool directly behind Carol’s right shoulder. My heart warmed to see her – but it raced to discover Siem Reap’s first villa rental, and such a stunning one at that.

French-Cambodian owner, Nathalie Saphon Ridel, led me up the outdoor staircase and across polished wood floors in the three- bedroom Maison, built in 1981 and now filled with colonial art-deco furniture and Khmer artifacts. I lingered wistfully in the master suite’s massive terrazzo shower, and then again on the outdoor deck, imagining it the perfect antidote to my erratic yoga practice. I loved the playfully lacquered elephant sculptures from the workshop of Cambodian artist Lim Muy Theam, and numerous other colourful décor details, especially the sunshine yellow theme in the twin-bedded children’s room, where fantastical artwork, by Kcchao Touch from the nearby town of Battambang, hung on the high walls. This had been their family home, Nathalie explained, until her children outgrew Siem Reap’s local schools and the family moved to the more cosmopolitan (if decidedly less charming) Phnom Penh.

Adjustments have been minimal yet thoughtful: key slots to minimise energy wastage, a mineral water bar rather than the standard mini-bar. Hungry guests may call upon the experienced, unobtrusive staff that prepared our bountiful breakfast of fruit salad, bread and homemade jams. Family recipes, both French and Khmer, fill the menu here, taught to the chef by Saphon Ridel, whose main gig is as the owner of two of Siem Reap’s chicest boutiques, Khmer Attitude and Galerie Cambodge.

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After dining in the airy poolside pavilion (first picture), we peaked into the one room, open plan Khmer House (second picture). Built in the 1940s, it was discovered in Sotnikum, 30km away, about to be taken apart for its valuable wood planks; Saphon Ridel’s French husband had the structure dismantled and faithfully restored here to accommodate her beloved father. In the open-air living room at ground level, two vintage leather-seated bicycles beckon borrowing to explore the nearby temples on two wheels.

And so I booked myself in for a few blissful nights. Other than wade around the pool – a welcome respite from the pre-monsoonal swelter – and work my chewing muscles on the deeply addictive rice paper rolls, I barely moved. I never did pedal one of those bikes, nor bend into even one downward dog on that deck. I’ll save those for next time.

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