Do not leave Siem Reap, even after a lightning visit, without a blessing from a monk, the gal was told. Five minutes before the appointed hour at Anantara Angkor, the town’s newest luxury hotel, the monk had already settled in. He sat cross-legged on a low table overlooking a central lawn which is the setting for small dances, or dinners-for-two (ideal for honeymooners). He tied red wool round wrists, scattered blossom out of a copper bowl and chanted for about three minutes. He not-so-discreetly took the proferred envelope and skedaddled on his way, presumably to his next farewell.
Rituals abound at this hotel, which – like Anantara Phuket Layan – has only recently become part of Minor Group’s Anantara. Once again, swashbuckling Bill Heinecke came in and swooped, bought the majority share of this 39-room beauty, took over management (in November 2013) and renamed it. When I got to 101, one of two rooms that have private bijou garden terraces, I found the standard welcome foot-wash and foot-massage, and a charming lady from the Anantara Spa, waiting. Later, in the spa itself, I had another foot-wash, without the massage, before a stunning Khmer massage – no oil, but rigorous stretching and body alignment; apparently it was invented to revitalise monks after long periods of meditation.
Room 101, like all the others in the two-floor figure-of-eight-shaped building, looks into one of two courtyards. The smaller holds the aforementioned grass square. The other is twice the size, and has the hotel’s big rectangular pool, with a stylised elephant statue at the far end. Ground floor rooms, all reached from the outside, have private terraces right into decorative water surrounding the swimming pool. These terraces have loungers and tables. Upstairs rooms have small balconies. All bedrooms have the same hardwood floors I saw at Darryl Collins’ Khmer house, but here there are cream plastered walls, and flat ceilings with overhead fans.
There is a gym, and a rug shop, and a library corner, and lots to eat. Local exotic fruits came with exact details – next to my display was a scroll with useful words, like please (som) and thank you (or-koon). Another scroll held tonight’s menu, prepared by Geoffrey Crabbe, who has, in his first four weeks here in Siem Reap, already perfected the skill of introducing foreigners to Khmer food. Ask the uninitiated to eat an amok and they would probably run a mile. In his tasting menu he cleverly explains that banana flower is the large, dark purple and red blossom growing at the end of a bunch of bananas. His banana salad starter has the flower, too, and chicken, shallots, chilli, carrots, mint leaves, sweet basil and peanuts.
Similarly, he explains amok, the process of steam-cooking a coconut-bound curry in banana leaves. I eat a local fish, bar, cooked just that way, served with kaffir (lime) leaves, ginger and garlic, and accompanied by a four-inch cone of banana leaf, used as a mould for local rice. They eat a lot of rice, some of it made into finest sheets of near-transparent paper to wrap around vegetable spring rolls. There are rice noodles, too, at breakfast, where one of the two cooking stations is entirely devoted to local cuisine – next to this station is the fruit stand, with the most exquisitely-sculpted papayas and watermelons doing justice to the phrase ‘food that looks too good to eat’.
Who runs this luxury hotel, you might ask? His name is Socrates, Socrates Alvaro, a Filipino brought up in England, who diverted from studying retail to running hotels. He came to meet me at the airport, he took me back to it, just to make sure I really left, and then he headed over to see the town’s governor – his jacket, he was quick to say, was for that guy, not for me. So he headed off, in the hotel’s WiFi-enabled Mercedes, and I headed off, to wher