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Temples and true colours

Posted by on 04/12/2018

Alluring … the emerald blue of the hotel pool, which is a replica of the Khmer kings’ ancient bathing pools. Photo: Alamy Opulent … the foyer at the Raffles hotel in Siem Reap.

Katrina Lobley enjoys the finer things at a colonial classic before exploring Angkor Wat.

If the Raffles doorman is in purple, it must be Tuesday. And indeed, his sampot chang kben – a length of silk cleverly knotted, twisted and tucked to become knee-length pants – is matched to the traditional Cambodian colour for the day as he sweeps open the door to Siem Reap’s most glamorous five-star hotel.

He holds the door for some time: a bus has decanted our group of 48 at the hotel, which is all art deco meets French colonial grandeur. It’s only mid-morning and not even one of the city’s hot months – they’re April and May – but it’s humid enough that we lunge for proffered cold towels as if we’ve been trekking through the jungle for a month. We press them to our faces: they smell of Tiger Balm. The medicinal scent, paired with the hotel’s signature lemongrass-perfumed air, makes us feel as though we’ve arrived somewhere that cures all ills.

We learnt about the Cambodian colours worn on particular days of the week while chugging across Tonle Sap – south-east Asia’s largest freshwater lake – towards Siem Reap, just off its northern shore, wrapping up a seven-night river cruise from Vietnam. As part of the final-night knees-up, passengers modelled a full week of sampot chang kben: Monday is yellow-orange, Tuesday purple, Wednesday green, Thursday yellow-green, Friday blue, Saturday burgundy and Sunday red.

Right now, with our rooms not available for four hours, the colour that interests us most is the alluring emerald of Raffles’ pool, which, at 35 metres in length, is the kingdom’s largest and an impressive replica of the Khmer kings’ ancient bathing pools.

The poolside service is attentive: within minutes, we’re asked if we’d like drinks and brought complimentary skewers of watermelon, dragonfruit and pineapple. On another day, a pool attendant brings woven palm hats, perhaps appalled by the Western habit of tanning in a country where light skin is prized. Change rooms, complete with basketfuls of toiletries and a quite unnecessary steam room, are in the spa/gym complex overlooking the pool.

The journey to my room is interesting in itself: the cool chequerboard-tiled corridors are lined with black-and-white photographs of the attraction that draws 2.5 million tourists to the city each year: Angkor Wat and its surrounding temple complexes. Photogenic cradle telephones also peep from nooks and crannies.

The U-shaped 119-room hotel is split between the main building, which features a quaint cage elevator that dates from 1929 and is operated by a white-jacketed attendant, a wing accessed via an open-air gallery, and a couple of villas near the spa and gym that house those for whom money is no object.

My room, No. 3324, comes with a balcony from which I can check the action around the pool (mercifully, I miss the rumoured midnight skinny-dip of one of my elderly fellow travellers), a bathroom with separate shower and tub, an elegant armchair and a thick rug over timber floorboards. Along with fresh flowers, there’s a bowl stacked with fruity exotica: rambutan, longan and dragonfruit.

Come dinner time, I hook up with a few others. We skip the free cocktail tasting and canapes in the hotel’s Elephant Bar (the Raffles in Phnom Penh features a colonial-themed bar of the same name) to stroll down the street to the open-air Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

Under unsettling news photographs, we order nachos, pizza and jugs of Angkor beer before hitting the night markets for a little haggling. The evening finishes with a $US2 30-minute foot massage – cue eye-rolling and giggling from the masseuses over the size of our Western feet – and a $US1-a-person tuk-tuk ride home.

Life probably couldn’t get better, but it does. The next morning, we hit the Raffles breakfast spread, which not only includes champagne but sunflower, palm flower and wildflower honeys, fresh-baked pastries and breads, hot soups, steamed pork and taro buns, and exotic juice blends. The discreet service elevates the experience: silver tea or coffee pots are brought to each table and empty plates whisked away between buffet trips.

We’re back at the buffet for lunch, this time working over the sushi station and conquering six tiny flavoursome desserts. My favourite is lemon-scented poached pear slices on a ceramic spoon.

At dinner time, we try the Apsara Terrace in the hotel grounds. While traditional apsara dancing unfolds on stage, we place orders at a semicircle of Asian cooking stations: one does wok-fried noodles, another tandoori chicken and naan, while another specialises in tempura vegetables.

Between meals, we visit the temple complexes eight kilometres away. Angkor Wat is first, followed by the serene, giant faces at Angkor Thom, which is so crowded it’s hard to take a picture. If I weren’t in a group, I’d investigate what hours the temples are at their quietest and hire a driver for the day.

I skip a visit to Ta Prohm, the picturesque temple enveloped by banyan trees made famous by Tomb Raider, to stroll beside the Siem Reap River. Graceful arched bridges span the water towards the city centre, but I’m heading the other way. The bridges grow ever more rickety, with one precarious-looking structure only taking motorbikes. A mechanic sets up on a patch of dirt to tinker. Every now and then I’m asked, “Tuk-tuk, lady?”

That question is part of Cambodia’s soundtrack, but I’m too busy catching glimpses of everyday life to go anywhere fast. I watch boys and men crouch among river-bank flotsam to throw lines into the filthy water and think back to the spreads put on back at the hotel. This is as far from Raffles’ perfumed air as you can get – and I’ve only ventured a few blocks.

The writer travelled as a guest of Cruiseco.

Trip notes

Where Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, 1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Khum Svay Dang Kum, Siem Reap, Cambodia, + 855 63 963 888, raffles杭州夜网m.

How much Rooms start at $US285 ($274) a night in low season (April until September, with pay for two, stay for three deals available from May to September). In high season (October-March), rooms start at $US345 a night.

Top marks We love the extracts from H.W. Ponder’s book Cambodian Glory, left at turn-down, in which she describes Angkor Wat as “a group of colossal grey-gold lotus-buds; mysterious and strangely delicate, despite their immense size”.

Black marks No plump mattress-toppers on the beds — almost de rigueur in five-star hotels now.

Don’t miss A ride in the vintage cage elevator just for the hell of it, even if you’re not staying in the main building.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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