Siam Reap Thailand? The classic. Vietnam? Good alternative. Singapore? If it's urban and a little bit more. Southeast Asia is already old hat, especially for us Germans. But Cambodia? Angkor Wat, Khmer Rouge, there was something. Were not the French there? Exactly. And not only the. There are many reasons to travel to Cambodia, and rich history is just one of them.
Experienced backpackers and experienced beach fans have known this for some time. But travelers with certain demands do not really have the 16 million-inhabitant country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam like a pearl between oyster shells.
One reason for this may be the concern that good hotels and resorts might be lacking in a destination that has been under radar for a long time. That's why I made my way to Cambodia – without a backpack, and without screwing down my claims: From my favorite houses in Bangkok and Singapore, for example, I am very spoiled for the Southeast Asian luxury hotel industry.
I'm all the more curious how the Phum Baitang in Siam Reap, located directly above Lake Tonle in the northwest of the country, will be an alternative for Southeast Asia and culture fans. The resort is not least a good starting point for exploring Angkor Wat. Incidentally, the road leading from the center of Siam Reap to the famous ruin is called Charles de Gaulle. Southeast Asia and Paris in one? I hope my expectations will not go away with me.
Time out from civilization
At first glance, the difference between my domicile in Siam Reap and Paris or Bangkok could not be bigger. The Phum Baitang is not a resort in the true sense, but certainly not a hotel in the true sense. Rather, it is reminiscent of a particularly luxurious safari lodge in South Africa – only in the midst of lush, tropical vegetation and rice fields in the typical Southeast Asian, humid climate. Siam Reap, with its approximately 175,000 inhabitants and its flat, very provincial silhouette, is by no means what we imagine under a metropolis.
The start is impressive: the arrival feels like entering my own lush colonial estate. Already at the gate one is greeted with almost military grandeur by the gatekeepers. This is not arrived – the drive through the garden to the front desk takes another few minutes.
Then suddenly there is a kind of village between all the greenery. It looks like the daydream of a stressed billionaire who wanted to escape civilization. On stilts, the main building with the lobby rises above the floating paddy field in which the ensemble was built, surrounded by other public facilities such as restaurants and spa. Away from the communal areas are the 45 guest villas, screened by tropical vegetation, 25 of them with private terraces, 20 with their own private pool.
The Phum Baitang is a luxury village, which was modeled after the original villages of Cambodia, only unequally luxurious. It is more than a hotel and more than a resort. It's a five-star adventure – one of the last outposts of true exoticism.
Space – the true luxury
All guest villas are built in the typical cottage style, but even from the outside can be guessed: between all the wood and reeds it is luxurious.
My own little kingdom is not small, but a kingdom. The balancing act between rustic authenticity and noble living comfort is getting used to at first glance, but succeeded. Those who have never been on safari and are accustomed to camping for at least € 300 per night between designer furniture and guarded by strict-looking coniers may be confused at first glance. But whoever is open to a different kind of luxury will quickly realize that the price is more than adequate.
Every enthusiast knows that space is the greatest luxury of all in the hotel industry. And in my villa, as well as on the whole site, I have room to wave: 85 square meters measures the living area alone within my four walls. My own spacious veranda with cozy seating invites you to forget the world. In the private pool, I forget that my smartphone is buzzing inside. The furniture is of a solidity that is second to none. On the walls hang ritual instruments.
The villas are ideally aligned with the sun, and the sunshades filter in majestically striped light. The highlight is the bathroom with the large central tub, which looks like it was raised with a rough chisel directly from the sacred soil of the surrounding area and hovered under the huge window of the window.
In Phum Baitang, nature dictates the concept – there is no better architect. Here you do not want to “stay overnight”, here you want to forget the time. Industrialization, digitization, was there something?
The spa is also world class. It consists of seven individual small cabins along the central pool, where guests can indulge in exotic or solo treatments as a couple. Also, the gym is the finest.
However, what irritates me a little, is the lack of activities within the area. Why is not yoga offered in the morning? Why no runs through the spectacular landscape? Why not take a guided tour through the local flora and fauna with its water buffalos and their flowers? Why not a regional evening program? The added value for the guests would be enormous. After all, luxury travelers often spend more time at the hotel than backpackers.
Excellence is where service is top priority
The guest experience in Phum Baitang is what could be described as “seamless”. I arrive in the evening. At the reception I am greeted by two gentlemen – unfortunately in kitschy, quasi-military uniform with a tropical helmet – who felt and actually only waited for me. Without any bureaucratic ceremonies, they give me the key to my villa – and that's it! No nightly paper fight, no listless instruction in the house rules, just smile.
Outside the door, the driver waits with the golf cart that brought me here and drives me to my villa. Once there, I ask him to wait two minutes, because I just want to leave my luggage and back to the main building. “Please, sir, take your time,” he says calmly. “I'm here for you all night.” That employees all speak English and you never have to look for a helpful spirit when you need it is by no means always a given even in less remote places on earth.
This attitude characterizes my entire, much too short stay: Yes, the spoiled connoisseur of the Southeast Asian luxury hotel business will also get his money's worth in Cambodia. Provincial here is at most the city planning – what the feel-good effect rather reinforced.
Hotels that take the principle of guest orientation seriously are characterized by their attention to detail – as is the Phum Baitang. An example of this is the self-produced breakfast newspaper “Phum Baitang Post”, which informs about attractions beyond Siam Reap.
Another is the charming staging that I find the next evening when I return late from my explorations: The tea light on the terrace in front of my villa is already burning and immerses my domicile in a fairytale ambience. Next to it are an ice-cold bottle of champagne and a tray of petit fours, both dewy – the golf cart with the welcome snack must have been released on command when I passed the main gate.
A scene in the morning confirms my assumption that service of this quality always emanates from the leadership. After a meditative walk through the rice field, I reach the main building via a jetty in anticipation of breakfast.
There, the hotel manager awaits me personally – with a tea tray in his hand. “Good morning, Mr. Rath. I've taken the liberty of preparing your green tea for you: drawn for two and a half minutes, just as you like it. “No question, communication works: it's only the second cup of tea I'm drinking here. Excellent service exists where the leadership exemplifies it.
Butter sweets and culinary amok
Breakfast at Phum Baitang has two pillars: On the one hand there is a small standard buffet of fresh fruit, croissants and cold cuts for the little ones. Secondly, breakfast is served à la carte – a solution that is absolutely nice compared to a chaotic, difficult to understand and ultimately never complete buffet. Especially when the resources thus saved are used to build regional links into the offer, and this is the case in Phum Baitang.
My morning highlight, strange as it may sound, is the butter. I travel around the world for over 25 years. Everywhere I was served butter, and everywhere I was annoyed: Sometimes she lies on the buffet on ice and is too hard, sometimes you get a huge lump, as if you were in a farmhouse guest, sometimes she is outrageous in impractical forms that no one needs. Here I get for the first time an intelligently packaged, perfectly tempered butter served: wrapped in a piece of wax paper like a candy, she just glides on my bread without me fetching greasy fingers. Sensational!
Even at lunchtime and in the evenings, it can be excellently served with international standards and local references. The Phum Baitang has two very good restaurants: The Bay Phsar serves light bistro cuisine with Cambodian flavors and locally sourced ingredients – the rice comes from the fields just outside the hotel grounds. In the more formal Hang Bay there is international fusion cuisine with seafood and steaks of high quality.
If you are wondering what to eat in Cambodia: One of the national dishes is called “Amok”. For real. Do not worry, the name does not refer to the degree of severity: Compared to other Southeast Asian kitchens in Cambodia is spiced comparatively mild. Amok, for example, is a coconut milk curry in different variations with fish, meat or seafood that is steamed in banana leaf baskets. Also for their variety of soups (“Sup”), the Cambodian cuisine is known.
By the way, payment in the hotel and throughout Cambodia is preferred in dollars, although there is a local currency with the Riel. This has become naturalized, I am told in the currency exchange. Perhaps this is also a sign that in Cambodia, it has adjusted to a growing tourism sector as a source of income.
At any rate, one thing that impressively reminds me of my stay is that Cambodia in general and the Phum Baitang in particular also offer Southeast Asia connoisseurs an extremely appealing, additional facet of exoticism that is in vain elsewhere.
Conclusion: Paradise for exotic-fans with ambition
Just a few years ago, travel journalists headlined that Cambodia was “like Thailand 30 years ago.” In terms of infrastructure, there may still be a lot to do – and undoubtedly the breathtaking, still very original culture of the country will undoubtedly suffer in part.
As far as the hotel industry is concerned, however, spoiled travelers also have reason for anticipation: The Phum Baitang, just ten minutes away from Angkor Wat, is an excellent retreat. It is not (yet) world class, although the substance would give it away anyway. The facility is a dream, the facilities fantastic, the service outstanding. But the absolute top class lack the creative urge to always offer more than others – for example, by getting everything out of the regional conditions.
More communication, more interaction, more activities would suit the concept well. But that is a painful downer in an otherwise extremely tasty tropical cocktail – because it can work.
More: The Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten offers authentic luxury and style in every detail. The best city hotel the author ever lived in.
(t) Rath checks in (t) Carsten K. Rath (t) Hotel (t) Phum Baitang (t) Siam Reap (t) Angkor Wat (t) Tourism (t) vacation (s) Silhouette International Schmied AG (t) 5-star (t) Hotels & Motels