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Ancient temples and lemongrass-infused cuisine, awe-inspiring design and floating villages, private islands, and rainforests where the primary inhabitants are elephants and tigers. Cambodia is a country bursting with phenomena the likes of which can’t be seen—in this combination, at least—anywhere else. When it comes to American tourists, Thailand has solidified itself as the Southeast Asian destination of choice. But its neighboring kingdom, awash with wonders and untouched nature—finally rebounding from its complex and war-torn past—may soon become the next big travel destination.
To some, this tiny pearl of a country on the Gulf of Thailand may be "uncharted territory." But many well-traveled celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have been going for years, and the country's luxury hospitality infrastructure is robust if off-the-beaten-track (more adventurous travelers have been flocking to Siem Reap for decades). Yes, luxury travel in Cambodia is booming; Abercrombie & Kent, the high-end travel operator, offers bespoke Tailor Made itineraries that begin at arrival, their staff meeting at the airport to handle immigration and baggage collection while guests are whisked to their five-star hotel in the care of their knowledgeable guides.
It’s through experts like A&K that a deeper dive is possible for first-time visitors. Think photography tours with world-renowned talent to far-flung temples, bucolic breakfasts by a reservoir, or private visits to artisan workshops. (One such art and design destination that illuminates Cambodia’s past and many skills is the gallery-cum-shop Theam’s House.)
A helicopter flyover and boat trip on Southeast Asia’s largest lake is another. On Tonle Sap, which swells and shrinks dramatically depending on the season, and sees its vibrant floating villages move accordingly, there’s a distinct blend of beauty and also reality: the dire need for clean water in Cambodia is one of the biggest problems plaguing the region’s poorest country. (We recommend visiting one of the wells built by A&K Philanthropy’s Cambodia Clean Water Project.)
The growing collection of premium accommodations also have their share of illuminating experiences. For example, Amansara, the tucked-away architectural gem that was formerly a royal guesthouse for Prince Norodom Sihanouk (Jacqueline Kennedy visited in the late ‘60s). Its vintage Mercedes-Benz limo takes guests to sunrise stops at the moated temple Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument and an intricately carved spectacle that can't be missed. Meanwhile, their plush tuk-tuks can drop them at an authentic performance of Apsara dance by the gilded Sacred Dancers of Angkor, a spiritual non-profit troupe. There’s also the option of soaking up the atmosphere in the spherical dining room, at the pools, or in the spa, where local therapists work out kinks with an unbelievably intuitive touch.
New to the Siem Reap luxury scene is Shinta Mani Angkor - Bensley Collection, an intimate and opulent hideaway featuring design by the acclaimed architect Bill Bensley. His ten impossibly private, chic villas infuse the spiritual splendor of Siem Reap’s culture and history with the junglelike beauty of the land, via massive bas-relief facades featuring draped robes and hands in meditation, black-and-white tiled lap pools, garden-like rooftop patios and lush outdoor bathrooms.
The gleaming, glistening and vibrant environments are hard to leave—especially considering they’re complete with endlessly helpful Bensley Butlers. But venture across the street for a multi-course meal of royal Khmer cuisine at Kroya (the fragrant and savory clarified duck soup is addictive), and to nearby standouts like the garden-side Mie Cafe and Cuisine Wat Damnak, both serving elevated Cambodian dishes. But Jolie’s beloved Phum Baitang, a tuk-tuk ride out of town, is the ideal for bucolic sunset cocktails.
When it opens in 2019 less than four miles from Angkor Wat, Rosewood Siem Reap is expected to bring five dining destinations and 150 accommodations, including 15 standalone villas with private pools built with abundant indigenous materials and local Khmer architecture. For a different sort of experience, there’s the city of Phnom Penh; guides advise spending a day for the great restaurants and Silver Pagoda, nicknamed as such for its thousands of 1-kilo-each silver floor tiles and hefty solid gold Buddha.
Rosewood Phnom Penh opened in early 2018 in one of the Cambodian capital’s tallest towers, with 175 residentially styled guest rooms and suites that give guests easy access to the city’s iconic landmarks, vistas of Tonle Sap and the Mekong River, and access to high-level culinary concepts.
Beach lovers shouldn't miss a journey south, where Song Saa Private Island, with its coral reefs and white sand beaches framing stilted over-water villas, has for several years drawn discerning travelers.
Coming in November is Six Senses Krabey, an environmentally friendly island resort of 40 pool villas, a quick drive and boat transfer from Sihanoukville Airport, which can facilitate international private jet and helicopter arrivals. This paradise is ideal for snorkeling, diving, and kayaking, plus hands-on Indochine cooking classes, stargazing, and in Six Senses spirit, a robust menu of spa treatments, ancient Cambodian healing experiences and multi-day “journeys” integrating detox, yoga, meditation in a dedicated cafe, and workshops.
Perhaps the most anticipated and unique opening of late is the Shinta Mani Wild - Bensley Collection. Expected before the end of 2018, it’s an ultra-luxe private nature sanctuary in the remote Southern Cardamom National Park (two hours’ drive from Phnom Penh) comprising just 15 expansive, rattan-floored customized tents perched over waterfalls and swiftly moving water. Arrival is via zip line, and Bensley designed luxury expedition boats for navigating Southeast Asia’s last wild estuarine ecosystem.
The sustainably minded resort was designed to make the lowest impact possible while allowing guests an immersion into the native wildlands—there is also research happening for conservation and protection from poaching, mining, and logging—where wild elephants, tigers, and bears roam and ingredients for meals are grown and foraged. Staff come from underprivileged local communities and are trained to work in luxury hospitality, which ensures at least one thing: alongside the natural beauty of the environment will be dozens of broad, infectious smiles.