PHUM BAITANG, SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
BEST FOR: RELAXING IN THE SUNSHINE AND SPA AND VISITING ANGKOR WAT
NOT FOR: STAYING PUT BY THE POOL – TOO FAR TO GO FOR THAT
Landing at Siem Reap’s little airport, which doesn’t use jetways much, means you get to experience one of the loveliest moments in travel. Weary and flight-addled, you get to stand at the door of the plane for a second, and before walking across the tarmac to Arrivals feel that first, sudden, welcome blast of hot sunshine on your skin. Delicious. It tells you yes, you have definitely arrived in the tropics, instantly creating that “At last! I’m on holiday!” mood. The drive from the airport to Phum Baitang, Cambodia’s newest five-star hotel, is just long enough to take in the surrounding landscape – palm trees, flat fields, red earth, mooching mongrels – before your driver is bouncing along past the long brick wall enclosing the new resort, nosing through the main gates, rounding the curve of the red-earth drive, and stopping by staff lined up to meet you, proffering scented cold towels, shy smiles, cold drinks. Within about two minutes of arrival you’re being shown into your villa, a high-ceilinged, thatched, verandah’d edifice on stilts inspired, like the rest of the resort, by the style of a traditional Cambodian village. A staffer explains, briefly (they’ve been sensibly trained), how everything works. And then you’re left blissfully alone to unpack, have a shower, and maybe fall into bed to catch up on the sleep you might have missed on the long journey out. Heaven.
By evening, sitting on the verandah of the dimly-lit, colonial-feel Cigar Bar, as a waiter carefully delivers your drinks order, putting down a little silver tray, iced glass, and little glass jugs, you should be feeling quite at home. It’s a spacious, open, airy resort, with plenty of space to breathe. There are just 45 stilted thatched villas, some with pools, some without. Linked by winding stone paths, they’re set around the verdant green paddy fields complete with browsing water buffalo that form the centre and greater part of the resort. A wooden walkway runs from the reception, air-conditioned Hang Bay restaurant and seductively stocked little shop at one end of the eight-acre resort to the large infinity pool, open-air restaurant, bar and spa at the other end, raised where it crosses the paddy fields. Exploring doesn’t take long, even when half the place is off bounds because Angelina Jolie plus her brood of children are in residence. The world’s most glamorous large family spent several weeks at Phum Baitang at the start of the year while Angelina filmed the harrowing And Then They Took My Father, based on the book by the daughter of one of the victims of Cambodia’s murderous late dictator, Pol Pot.
And by the next morning and start of your first full day at the resort, you should be getting over the jetlag and able to enjoy your first breakfast in the tropics – another of the great experiences in travel, when all feels limpidly fresh, before the heat of the day sets in. You take a table in the open-sided Bay Phsar restaurant overlooking the pool, order fresh orange, kiwi, grapefruit or papaya juice, tea or coffee, and can then sample one delectable treat after another from the market-style buffet: mango crème brulee, the crunchiest granola with coconut and dried kiwi, papaya jam with miniature croissants, tropical fruit salads.
The great draw of Siem Reep – besides the year-round sunshine, the town’s surprisingly stylish shopping (Louise Loubatieres is the boutique not to miss, run by its half-French, half-Vietnamese ex-Londoner owner) and delectable meals at ridiculously low prices at local restaurants such as Charcoal – is of course Angkor Wat. It’s a stupendous sight. The vast – 500 acre – and intricately carved 12th century temple complex, overgrown and almost lost to the jungle when it was rediscovered in the 19th century, lies just a few miles outside the town. As it’s at its most wildly romantic at sunrise (when you just have to ignore the hundreds of Chinese tourists who will also be snapping away next to you as dawn breaks) that means a 4.30am wake-up call. Because of the jetlag – Cambodia is seven hours ahead of Britain – if you take our advice you’ll save this great treat for near the end of your stay rather than the beginning, when getting up so early will feel a chore rather than a thrill.
And – another tip – you will also hug yourself in satisfaction if you prebook an afternoon session in Phum Baitang’s Spa Temple for the day of your dawn-trip to Angkor. You’ll be weary and thus in the most receptive, properly sleepily mood to enjoy the delicate facials and sweeping massages the tiny Cambodian therapists deliver with such soothing rhythm. The spa has been designed to resemble one of the temple complexes from the ancient Khmer Empire – in the 12th century the biggest empire in south-east Asia. The airy high-ceilinged main pavilion gives onto a courtyard with the seven treatment rooms and yoga pavilion opening off this green, shady space. Giving yourself over to the mind-bending wooziness that a deeply luxurious body polish, massage and application of oil from the moringa tree – “the most nutritious tree on the planet” – engenders makes a fitting end to seeing one of the great sights of the world. You’ll need an early night afterwards. Not before a final supper under the stars, though – and maybe a green papaya salad with sweet chilli, crushed peanuts and basil, or a made-for-you stir fry and to finish sticky rice with mango, coconut cream and toasted sesame or mango panne cotta and koh kong pepper meringue.
PRICE: cazenove+loyd (020 7384 2332; cazloyd.com) has an exclusive offer in Cambodia for travel before the end of June: seven nights at Phum Baitang in a Terrace Villa with breakfast and a complimentary spa treatment for two adults or a private dinner in the villa, plus private airport transfers and economy flights with Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) from Heathrow via Singapore from £1,800 per person based on two sharing, giving a saving of up to £600 per couple.
CONTACT: Tel: 00 855 63 961 111; web: www.phumbaitang.com
NEAREST AIRPORT: Siem Reap
TRANSFER TIME: 20 minutes
First-Hand Visit Write-Up By: Adriaane Pielou