After my first visit to Cambodia in 2012, I’d often reel back to the temples of Angkor and the surrounding temples in my head, as if scrolling down its galleries and corridors on Google Street View. The temples and their myths became almost one in my mind. In Angkor Wat, I’d think of walking down the never-ending wall carved with the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’; I could almost touch the gigantic faces on the towers of Bayon temple. When it was recently time to return to Siem Reap, I wondered what a second chance would bring.
To the east of the Siem Reap River, beyond a Buddhist temple complex named Wat Polanka, a wooden gate with no sign slides to reveal a shock of green. I walk the stone pathway to a concert of bird call, with palm fronds and flowering shrubs nodding along. That’s when I see the house on stilts.
Metal spires top its sloping tiled roof, and the louvred windows are dark enough to keep a secret. It is made of wooden planks. It might be as old as the fruit trees it hides behind, but the sleek glass doors and the yellow lights within don’t look out of place. This is the Khmer House, a traditional Cambodian villa at the luxury hotel, Maison Polanka.
If the space feels less like a hotel and more like a home, it’s because that’s what it was between 1992 and 2012 (when it opened to guests). Owned by Nathalie and her husband Jean Pierre, MaisonPolanka offers six suites and two villas (including Khmer House) so well nestled in the 6,000-square-metre estate that I always feel like I’ve stumbled upon them by accident. The hotel hosts only up to 18 people at a given time. Solitude, the best luxury there is, seems to be just the gift MaisonPolanka gives its guests.
My room, the Yellow Suite, is shaped by sunlight. It has a homey feel too, with its buttercup walls and ceiling beams, and canary yellow mats. Details big and small reinforce the feeling that this is no chain hotel; everything feels picked up lovingly by hand, roaming old furniture markets or a woodcarver’s workshop. The desk and cupboard were made in the ’50s; bedside tables once stood in an old pagoda somewhere. On a wall hangs a watercolour by a Battambang-based artist. One wall is all glass doors to remind you that you’re always amid giraffe-size palms. The bathroom upstairs, where branches sway above the skylight, makes you crave a hot shower and a jazz tune. There’s a wooden bridge leading out of my room, which I follow until a small gasp escapes me: it ends in a large woody, open-air lounge kitted with armchairs, overlooking the pool and a garden. I think of the number of siestas and daydreams I can have here. If my five-year-old nephew was here, this is just the place we’d have claimed as our machan. We’d lie low under its sloping roof, armed with chips and juice, keeping an eye out for frisky squirrels, parakeets, ants, and the goings-on of the people below.
Soon, I am back at the Khmer House. Built in the 1940s in Sot Nikum village, about 50 kilometres east of Angkor Wat, the stilted home was to be torn down when Jean Pierre bought it to restore it at the estate so Nathalie’s parents could live in it. Inside, it is double the size of my suite and still lingers over a time Cambodia has long passed. The couch was originally a children’s bed hewn in a wood workshop in the 1930s, as are the armchairs and art deco table. Even the uber-modern lamps and chairs seem like an experiment between Cambodia old and new, not ill-thought touches. As a deeper tribute to the Khmer spirit, the villa holds the work of local artist Lim Muy Theam.
On my first trip to Siem Reap, I cleaved my days between the temples and walks around Pub Street. Nothing had changed. Every corner still felt like walking through a different door: you can have neon shots and boisterous backpacker parties at Temple Bar; or the sublimest meals made in kitchens run by an expert local, a French chef, or an Italian transplant.
This time, however, there’s a third leg to my days—nights by the pool at Maison Polanka with my hands full with ikat purses and wooden marionettes from the night market. That, or a quiet lunch around the water after a morning around the temples. I meet Jean Pierre and Nathalie over one such meal. Nathalie keeps a keen eye on the kitchen, while Jean Pierre is the sort who instantly knows what you might like and bullet-points suggestions. Nathalie was born in Phnom Penh to a Cambodian father and a French mother, and fled Cambodia a year before the brutal Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. She returned in 1990, met Jean Pierre in 1994, and what is my suite today was the room of their first-born in 1997.
To me, the innermost sanctum of Cambodian cuisine is amok: freshwater fish smeared with a kaffir lime-garlic-lemongrass-galangal-turmeric paste and steamed in banana leaf pockets. It tastes like the comfort of being indoors in the rain. Nathalie tells me the fish comes from Tonle Sap lake nearby. There is also grilled eggplant with pork, vegetable spring rolls, and a salad with smoked fish and the fruit of the local makak tree. I’ve scoured the city for some memorable dishes by then, yet Nathalie’s meals stand out for their freshness and taste.
As I begin returning to the temples, I see how second chances can bolster first impressions. Siem Reap might change to accommodate more travellers by the year, but Angkor Wat remains the same. Newer details emerge in the same ol’ 12th-century nooks—a carved apsara smiling toothily, unlike any of the other hundreds in the temple; or the frenzy and agony on the faces of the asuras and devas at the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’ bas relief. This time at Bayon temple, also 1,000 years old, I sit down to watch others watching the beatific, giant 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara towering skyward. I see a gaggle of photographers chasing light on the stony features, children clinging to their mothers and making finger hearts. It feels like I’m watching my own exhilaration from the outside, six years later. Back then, on my way to the temples of Banteay Srei, I hadn’t had the time to stop at PreahDak village. This time I do, and gulp down the most life-affirming bowl of nom banhchok: cool noodles, bean sprouts, banana flowers, water lily stem, mint and basil swimming in a coconut-based curry.
On my last day at Maison Polanka, I settle down for a game of cards and afternoon tea by the pool. Nibbling on cakes and sipping my iced tea, I hear the trees rustle as other guests pedal out Maison’s vintage bicycles for a ride. Perhaps they’re out for another evening at Pub Street. Or back to Angkor, to see it like one listens to a bedtime story told time and again, with no less wonder.
Maison Polanka is in Siem Reap, a 6 km/15 min drive south of Angkor Wat. It has six suites and two villas, a pool, and a restaurant that serves authentic Khmer and international cuisine (www.maisonpolanka.com; suite doubles from USD210/Rs14,370).
All flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Siem Reap require at least one layover, mostly in Bangkok. Indians can get a visa on arrival at Siem Reap airport (USD30/Rs2,055, carry two colour photographs). A 3-day Angkor Pass costs USD62/Rs4,245 and includes entry to all temples.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.