Monday, April 1, 2013

Cambodia Part Two: In the Realm of the Senses in Siem Reap; More Temple Chasing—and My Perfect Retreat, La Residence d’Angkor

I received an overwhelming response to my post, last week, on ‘Temple Chasing in Cambodia’.

Last week I reported my experience–seeking tranquility and solitude, finding remote temples, meeting Madame Mai, and visiting schools in the countryside of Northern Cambodia. I wrote about making stops at schools when I’m traveling in Asia. I founded The Pencil Project ten years ago to put educational supplies in the hands of schoolchildren and teachers.

I heard from readers around the world—and close to home—how the story inspired you all to add Cambodia to your travel list, and to see the world with new eyes. Thank you all for your enthusiasm, kind words, cheerful notes and lovely (ahem!) comments on my photography.

Cambodia: I went there to see the grandeur and nobility of temple architecture, and to immerse myself in the heroic human achievement. While there I experienced a sense of beauty and power, and bold and joyful spirituality, devotion, and divinity expressed in stone. I felt the disappearance of a great civilization—and also experienced the touching evidence of the everlasting life of beauty, ideas, and creativity. 

La Residence d’Angkor, Seam Riep

Last week, I promised to tell you about the lovely small hotel I stayed at in northern Cambodia-- La Residence d’Angkor. It was the perfect understated retreat—and a quiet refuge after my adventures out in the jungle, crisscrossing the countryside, and climbing the steps and paths and tumbled rocks of each temple. I have some lovely images of the hotel for you. 

This week, I discuss more Cambodian joys to discover, as we return to the Angkor archaeological complex.

The archaeological region has twelve major temples and scores of dramatic gateways, mysterious ponds, moats, sandstone sculptures, and superbly maintained landscapes.

I’ll show you dreamy photos of the lovely small hotel I stayed at, La Residence d’Angkor. And I’ll show you why I’m so optimistic about the future of Cambodia. What lies in store for this fragile country?

It’s another long post—so take a break, hit ‘save’ if you’re on your iPhone, pour a lovely chilled flute of Champagne (or two), or make a pot of delicious loose-leaf Assam tea (Bellocq has an elegant one).

Take THE STYLE SALONISTE break with me. 

Situated ten minutes north of Angkor Wat, the Bayon temple, twelfth century, represents the last of the classic Angkor architectural style.

I headed to Bayon after lingering at Angkor between 12 noon and 2 pm when the tourists, on their rigid schedule, had headed for their two-hour lunch. (Always discuss your desire to ‘be alone’ with your guides. They totally understand, and will advise on ‘secret’ entrances, the quietness that falls around noon, the hidden pathways, and special vantage points where you’ll be undisturbed.)

Bayon—surrounded by a moat, includes bold Buddhist imagery carved in sandstone.

Here, stone is shaped by wind and rain, head and dust, a smudged by moss and lichen. 

Bayon looms moodily out of the jungle and from a distance, the fifty-four towers and mysterious stone sculptures look like carved hills. Oxidized stone give the ‘lost civilization’ towers and sculptures an eerie feeling of centuries past, unyielding to the present. 

Bayon—about a mile and a half north of Siem Reap thought superbly maintained landscapes bordering the jungle—offers the enigmatic smile of massive carved Lokesvara Buddha heads. 

“The existence of the Angkor temples was first reported to the West by sixteenth-century French missionaries. They are probably the most spectacular man-made remains in the world. All Khmer empire buildings were governed by extravagant symbolism, first of Hinduism and later Buddhism. The two principal monuments are colossal Angkor Wat, and the fantastic center piece, the Bayon. Such mysterious grandeur.

Cambodians assured archaeologists who found the temples in ruins in the jungle in the early 1800s that ‘the temples made themselves’.”

—Norman Lewis, “A Dragon Apparent, Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam” first published in 1951. My edition was published by Eland, London, in 2003. I found this book (and many others of note) at John Sandoe Books, London. 

My guide took me to a ‘secret’ entrance to Bayon, far from the marauding crowds. I wandered along the terraces and enclosures, and gazed at the smiling holy face of Lokesvara peering down over the complex. 

“We have before us, still largely intact, the material remains of a civilization that flashed its wings, of the utmost brilliance, for six centuries, and then perished so utterly that even its name has died from the lips of man. Here are great and intricate organizations of stone and brick, complete even though in ruin. What it lacks in knowledge, it gains in poetry, poetry of conception, as well as execution.” — Osbert Sitwell, ‘Escape with Me, an Oriental Sketchbook’ (1939)

I loved the bas-reliefs at Bayon. They depict scenes of everyday life—farmers out in the fields, twelfth-century religious festivals, dancing girls of course, and market scenes, famous battles, as well as jugglers and acrobats, and parades and processions with deer, a rhinoceros, rabbits and elephants. Enchanting.

The style of carving and composition of the Bayon bas reliefs is more ‘country’ than the ultra-refined Angkor stone-carving, and less regal. The Eastern Bayon galleries artfully show endless arrays of complex battles with noble elephants, horses and chariots, and soldiers with weapons aloft. Other galleries depict the King Yacovaraman ‘wrestling’ with elephants and lions.

I highly recommend Dorling Kindersely’s Eyewitness Travel series, and the volume on Cambodia and Laos is especially fine. Mine was published in 2011 and is very up-to-date. The book is highly detailed, with clear diagrams of Angkor Wat and Bayon for in-depth study, and useful lists, directions, tips and maps, plus sights at a glance. It’s a timeless, essential reference.

For information on Angkor Wat and dozens of temples, I was fortunate to discover the excellent book written by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques. ‘Ancient Angkor’, first published in Thailand 1999 by River Books. Several editions are available through Amazon, and I recommend that a travelers must check for it in the excellent bookshops in Seam Riep.

This book has detailed imagery, passionate discourse, museum-like information, and even lists of where to see highlights of Northern Cambodian architecture, mythology, carving, bas-reliefs, apsaras, and depictions of Buddhist myths. It will turn you into a temple addict, trust me. You’ll want to discover all of them, and make a passionate journey and a fulfilling one. It even ranks the temples by interest, with Angkor Wat and Preah Khan and Banteay Sri (which I presented last week) of course at the top of the list, and my discovery, the remote and enigmatic Boeng Malea following. 

“In the Bayon, the Cyclopean bulk of stone depends for its effect on its large scale and the repetitive occurrence, the rhythm, of the colossal gently smiling faces. Many appear only to assume their form only when you are looking at them, as the light dissolves back and forth, and just after the moment in which you have grasped their outline and contours, they revert to ragged stony crags. Rather than the handiwork of man, they seem like natural hillocks, torn thus, and carved by weather into a likeness that will ever haunt the minds of those who come here.” — Osbert Sitwell, ‘Escape with Me, an Oriental Sketchbook’ first published in 1939, and now in an Oxford University Press publication (1986). I found my copy at the delightfully eccentric and book-crammed John Sandoe Books, London.

At Preah Khan, north of Angkor Wat and the Bayon, I found the smaller, hidden temples and sanctuaries most congenial.

Few tourists go there, so it is easy to create pure images with no people intruding, as above.

A note: World Monuments Fund, a highly important international group based in New York (and largely funded by American philanthropists) has been working closely with the Cambodian APSARA foundation at Preah Khan for over twenty years. For that reason, Preah Khan is one of the most artful, subtle, and significant restorations in the Angkor Wat region.

At the WMF visitor center at Preah Khan, I saw early films and images from the twenties showing the complete devastation of this temple complex. The jungle, time, and looters had destroyed a once-thriving religious center. Today, Preah Khan is hauntingly beautiful. Highly recommended. Ask your guide to take you in an entrance that’s less frequented. You will be able to meander, take photos undisturbed, and discover and commune with centuries of beauty, artistic expression, and the highest ideals of creativity.

Note: Preah Khan was one of the temples where ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ was filmed. Angkor Wat and other temples inspired the fantasy sets. It’s almost worth watching the 1991 film (oh, and to see Angelina Jolie running, running)…to admire the hyper-real, super-sized version of these Cambodian temples dreamed up by creative filmmakers with a large budget. Sets are dramatic, and the fantasy/strategy game will delight ‘Game of Thrones’ fans as well.
“Nature and art are engaged everywhere in ferocious battle, or merge in wild and inextricable confusion. Trees sprout like antlers from the heads of gods; lions and gryphons, as thoughjt they were alive, peer through the fluttering screens of leaves. A stone Shiva, destroyer and creator, is, in his turn, being destroyed by his creations.” — Osbert Sitwell, “Escape with Me, An Oriental Sketchbook’ (1939). Sir Osbert Sitwell set out on a Grand Tour of the Orient in 1933, and he offers a series of bright and sometimes somber images of the ruins of Angkor, of Peking (now Beijing), and Saigon and Phnom Penh (more on that next week) and witty and erudite study. His travel reports, like mine, focuses on discovering beauty

A note about temple hopping: I visited Ta Prohm, one of the top temples, in the late afternoon. It was used as a ‘set’ for ‘Tombraider: Lara Croft’, and has spectacular ‘waterfall’ trees. It’s the one tour buses head for. Ta Prohm is lovely but crowded. I left very quickly. I could not shoot any images without people in them—and I found the noise and heedlessness and crush very difficult. Instead, that afternoon I headed to Preah Khan (scroll down to see last week’s post with images of Preah Khan). 

I was fortunate to visit the Seam Riep conservation center, a storage/study/ protected and very hidden complex which is not open to the public. This is where recovered looted statues and Khmer art are stored, and where many of the treasures that once graced Angkor and other temples are protected.

Sorry about the quality of the film. The interior was lit with fluorescent lighting, and photography was forbidden. This was a hurried stealth photo operation.

You may wish to ask your hotel concierge to check on a visit. It might be possible. 

La Residence d’Angkor, Seam Reap, Northern Cambodia

I chose La Residence d’Angkor because it is very well-located in a quiet corner of Siem Reap overlooking the sleepy Siem Reap River. It is a very easy and pleasant ten minutes from Angkor Wat and twenty minutes from the airport.

The ten-year-old hotel — discreetly hidden from the street by a high wall and a curtain of fragrant frangipani and palm tree-- has only sixty-two rooms and suites. Even though I was told the hotel was full, I seldom saw more than one or two other guests on the property. At the end of the day, it’s nice to take a swim and read a book around the large green-tiled pool with perhaps one other swimmer or sun-bather.

The covered entry is very lovely, over an airy bridge across a large lily pond stocked with vivid koi. The bridge and the pond symbolize stepping from one world—the world of the city and people—into the quiet and poetic world of the hotel. 

As I walked into the reception, with its high vaulted teak cathedral ceilings. I had an immediate sense of déjà-vu. I had not been there before. Where had I seen this soaring architecture before? Was it in a dream that I’d seen and experienced the pond, the architecture, the handsome woodwork, the shimmering dark wood floors, the distinctive colonial-style furniture?

It turned out that La Residence d’Angkor was built about ten years ago by the same French architect and the same company that created The Governor’s Residence in Yangon, Burma, which I wrote about last fall on THE STYLE SALONISTE. (Check the archive by scrolling down the right-hand column). They are somewhat different in aspect—but both hotels have a quiet grace, and both express a connection with the styles of the past. The design is graceful, lovely. 

Like The Governor’s Residence, La Residence d’Angkor has languid colonial architecture with cooling thirty-feet-high ceilings, overhanging eaves, artful woodwork, dark teak interiors, and a cool, palm-shaded demeanor. I felt instantly at home.

I was especially happy that my suite was located in the quietest area of the garden, for maximum peace and privacy. The color scheme was in quiet cream tones, with curtains and pillows of silks made locally by the Artisans d’Angkor company, and woven exclusively for the hotel in soft turquoise tones. My only regret was that I was gone from early morning until around 8pm each day, exploring temples.

In the evening, however, I requested dinner on my terrace, and I enjoyed the solitude, with just a few night-time raindrops falling on palm leaves offering a soft night-time accompaniment. In the mornings, I set the alarm for early hours, so that I could take breakfast on the terrace before heading out to meet my guide and driver for an intense day of temple raiding. 

Spa: The hotel has a lovely spa with six treatment rooms. I popped my head in to take a look at the relaxation area in the center, with a cold plunge pool overlooking the bamboo garden. I wish I had had more time to spend there. Next time. 

One favorite part of the hotel was the second-floor Martini Lounge, on the second floor just above the reception. It was there that I would meet a friend for an afternoon tea, or sit down with the concierge with an iced lime soda to check over travel arrangements for the following day. With the manager or the concierge I could discuss where to visit schools, and which were best times to visit specific country temples. 

The hotel / property is covered by Wi-Fi access. However, two computers are also available for the use of guests, in the library adjacent to the light-filled Martini Bar. 

La Residence d'Angkor proved to be the perfect hotel for my visit to Seam Riep. It’s congenial, quiet and chic and a tranquil setting and calm welcome at the end of a day out in the jungle.

The lovely staff at the hotel is endlessly helpful and charming. They arrange airport transfers, guides, drivers, and insider advice with polished ease.

On the day I was heading out to Boeng Malea to see the ruined temple, restaurant staff arranged for a delightful picnic to take along. The portable feast (vegetarian, thank you) was fresh, light and delicious, and included the most luscious tropical fruit salad, bottles of water, a light salad, and a handful of almonds for instant energy.

Where to stay in Seam Riep: With its shaded verandahs, palm-framed pool scene, and thoughtful staff, La Residence d’Angkor

Highly recommended. Note that it is a small hotel, so it would be wise to book well in advance. Let me know

The joy of traveling in Cambodia for me was seeing places and temples and lakes and jungle settings never seen in a book, never seen. It’s pure discovery. It was truly seeing for the first time.

It was seeing with ‘Buddha mind’—a mind without pre-conceptions and eyes without judgment. I was totally immersed in each moment, undistracted by fear or monkey mind. 

Final Thoughts on Cambodia:

I traveled to Cambodia to see the temples, the height of beauty and inspiring creativity from centuries ago.

In my explorations, I met local people, encountered country folk at work, and I felt very optimistic. Schoolchildren are being educated, young men and women from the countryside are heading to the cities to find work in IT and hotels and all the new jobs at banks and boutiques and schools.

While the country’s history over much of the twentieth century is tragic and complex, forces for good are hard at work. Kind people are at work. Wise people are advising on conservation, protection, and on-going repairs to all the temples and assets. Good will overcome evil.

It is a new day, and the future for Cambodia looks very promising.

I hope you will visit soon.

Oh, and please be sure to take a few boxes of pencils to put in the hands of schoolchildren and teachers. You will make them very happy—and even more motivated. Thank you.

Next week:
In my third and final report on my odyssey in Cambodia — we head south to fascinating Pnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I go on a wild adventure into remote Southern Cambodia to find a 10th-century temple.

I take you on search to find and to visit Prohm Da temple, and then to see a little never-seen temple and a waterscape I am sure you’ve never seen before.

Come with me…and see with Buddha Eyes and Beginner’s Mind. 

All photographs of Bayon and other temples by Diane Dorrans Saeks, exclusively published here on THE STYLE SALONISTE. No images may be used in any way without written permission of Diane Dorrans Saeks.

All photographs of La Residence d’Angkor courtesy of Orient-Express, and used with express and kind permission.

Note: You will recall that when I wrote last week of my experience ‘chasing temples’ in remote regions, my great ‘guide’ was Karin van Zyl, the manager of La Residence d’Angkor when I visited.

The new general manager of La Residence d’Angkor is Carla Petzold-Beck who can be reached for further information at

For more information:

La Residence d’Angkor
River Road, Siem Reap
Kingdom of Cambodia

T: +855 (0)63 963 390 
Skype: gmangkor 


columnist said...

Yes, you're right. I thought there was a similarity with the Governor's Residence in Rangoon...and with Aman Resorts too. We didn't stay here, but at a French-run hotel, which was perfectly fine, although I don't remember a huge amount about it, (or it's name). It's blisteringly hot here at the moment - 38-39C, so I imagine there too. Happily quite bearable humidity, but that will change as we moved rapidly towards Songkran in about 10 days, and we shall decamp to Hong Kong where it's cooler.

peggy braswell said...

I did not think I could get more excited about visiting Cambodia but I did/have. What wonderful photos + a fascinating text. thanks for taking me on this fabulous trip; I look forward to the next phrase.

mary constant said...

Having just returned from India I found myself thirsty for more and googled places that I had visited. I read your blog about your time in India and felt an immediate bond. Then I remembered that I have some of your books which are like dream books and then I realized that you live so close in San Francisco. I am so delighted to have found your blog and I will be a devoted reader! Mary in Calistoga

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Columnist in Asia--Lovely to hear from you, as always. I liked the small size of La Residence d'Angkor. It is always full, I heard. "High season" now is almost all year in Seam Riep (as in India...) and so tourists arrive all year. It seemed to me that most of the guests at La Residence d'Angkor were French or English. It's not a 'tour group' hotel, so everything is lovely and low-key. 39 deg...ouch!

Dear Peggy--It's lovely to hear from you, and I always appreciate your comments.

Mary--I'm delighted to hear from you. I heard you have recently been in Bhutan and in India--and I can't wait to hear about your great adventure.
I've been writing about India on THE STYLE SALONISTE since the beginning, almost 5 years ago, can it be? Perhaps 4 years? Time flies.
I hope you saw the post I wrote about meeting the Maharani of Jaipur...and sitting in her living room with squirrels leaping about in her silk curtains and peacocks in the garden. Looking forward to hearing from you on the blog...and seeing you soon and hearing everything about your trip- very best, DIANE

Coulda shoulda woulda said...

I was just there two weeks ago.

I also fell in love with Cambodia...

I enjoyed looking at your pics as everyone looks at the same thing at a different angle.

I look forward to reading your next post.