The sealed door, protected by a guard pulls back. There is nothing to indicate anything remarkable is behind the modest white walls. We follow the driveway and see a small ‘front of house’ army ready to greet us with cool towels and smiles. ‘Welcome, David, Karen?’
What is this mythical place? Do they read minds? Many would say they do, which is why Aman following is so loyal. Having stayed at Amannoi in Vietnam I am not yet in the cult of Aman. It’s true your bill could be the down deposit on an apartment in Sydney. Yet if you want luxury, you’re worth it and money is no object (it’s just something that weighs down your pockets). Aman delivers service, sophistication and thoughtful design in an understated way.
We weave past the main pool with symmetrically parked loungers; the way a waiter at a royal dinner would measure cutlery to plate distances with a ruler. This is no ordinary hideaway. Built for King Sihanouk in 1962. Known then as Villa Aspara, notables and dignitaries frequented this grand residence such as French President Charles de Gaulle, Jackie Kennedy and even actors like Peter O Toole. The original footprint has grown to 24 suites, having changed hands from royalty, to government, military rule and the Khmer Rouge. Amanresorts is now rescued and restored back to its former glory. We are, in fact walking the footprints of royalty and icons of history. You don’t always need a temple to do that.
Our home for two nights is pool suite 17. There are times I love my job and this is one – hip and history combined. Ebony, grey and ivory tones integrate three tiered levels from the Star Trek command centre writing desk, to bed and living area then drops again to a beautiful standalone bath with (already poured) festooned in rose petals. On the table are our gifts of ‘Krama’, checked strips of hand-loomed cotton, typically worn around the waist but used locally in every way possible from fruit carriers to dust masks. Ooh the pool! Just look at it! Mine all mine! We have a private courtyard designed with restraint – a simple white mattress, studded pillows and towels and yes, that pool.
No time for splashing, as we read up on our afternoon adventure from a woven booklet personalised for our stay. Our historical outing starts at 3pm. ‘Enigmatic Bayon & Angkor Thom’. Our guide meets us at reception – should I be worried he is called ‘Mean’? We hop aboard our personal tuk tuk, all guests here get one.
Passing through the South Gate of Angkor Tom we arrive at the Bayon. Built from pink limestone with clear carvings of bas relief work, it’s a kilometre of untouched story telling. For over 800 years it’s the link between the Khmer people and Angkorian roots. Every part of life is described, washing hair, nit picking, dancing, getting drunk, (getting very drunk), falling off boats then being eaten by crocodiles, marriage, battles, horses, birds and plants. It captures it all, from mundane life to the horrors of war. Like magic, our tuk tuk arrives as we head to Elephant Terrace after being pampered with much needed cold towels and water.
Dinner tonight is being held in the stunning dining room – a circular room with soaring seven meter ceilings, decorated with lotus flowers where lights shine down on stone walls making them glimmer like jewels. We sip a herbed Khmer broth with quails eggs then enjoy mains of bar fish coconut curry with nhoar leaves and roasted pork ribs. We have an early night as our alarm is set for a 4.30am. Ow.
It’s dark – most sane people are asleep but we are on the tuk tuk, cold air bruising our faces, with our new friend Mean. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is our mission (along with thousands of others). Covering the 400 square meter park needs more strategic insights than a game of GO. If it was a celebrity you can only imagine that it would be positively bored of being ogled and photographed.
We enter at the back gate, and start our crafty ‘reverse tour’. We head for the East Causeway and marvel at the external walls as we cross over the grassy flats into the main the first level built for King Suryavarman II in the 12th Century. It’s hard not to marvel at the workmanship in a panel such as the ‘Churning of the Sea of Milk’ in which the Hindu gods and demons collaborate to create an immortality giving nectar of life – then wonder why your bathroom tiles at home are wonky. It’s just before seven. It’s time.
Bathed in soft light, the yellow orb of the sun slowly rises behind the quincunx of temples, the shadows transform the stone to reveal carvings moulded by weather and time as detail becomes visible. It’s a majestic, ethereal experience we are sharing. Hundreds are gathered by the moat pools as two Angkor Wat’s emerge… one real, the other a reflection.
It’s ironically one of those moments in life you don’t need a photo for, its etched in the memory banks now.
Soon we are back on the road, heading for Ta Prohm. Set in the jungle, we stare up in awe, (whilst I am trying not to be attacked by an alarming number of large brightly coloured red and black beetles). It’s living evidence of the battle between man and nature. Tomb Raider was filmed here. The fig tree is the ruler of Angkor, roots spear through ancient stones like a giant octopus encircling its prey whilst beautiful carvings at the Hall of Dancers help you imagine a time where 615 aspara beauties would have brought the house down.
We travel to Angkor archeological park for breakfast. Dining on the timbered deck of an Aman owned traditional stilted house Overlooking the garden we enjoy the tranquility, until blaring music from the other side of the river shows that, even here modern day sub woofers do exist.
Before we say goodbye to our Amansara home, we enjoy the remainder of the day doing circuit training – from pool, to shower, to sun lounger and back again. We are surprised with an invitation- by the main pool a Buddhist monk wrapped in orange robe is waiting. Amansara has given us the gift of a blessing. We offer a package of food (thoughtfully given to us, to give to the monk) and sit cross legged before him. He chants as we accept the blessing of happiness and prosperity along with a few flower buds down my top as he ties red string bracelets around our wrists.
We leave feeling humbled, rested, enlightened and like movie stars as the historic 322 Mercedes that Jackie Kennedy most likely road in takes us on to our next part of our journey. If Aman is a cult. Yep. Am in.
For more on Cambodia, read Karen Lawson’s story here: