‘If it’s good enough for Angelina, it’s good enough for me’: a mantra I repeated as our car dipped into the umpteenth pothole before swerving to miss a wayward cow. Knowing that Mrs Jolie booked herself — and family — into Siem Reap’s month-old Phum Baitang both the week before and the week after my stay (was she avoiding me?) was personal reassurance that there was a light at the end of this particularly bumpy tunnel. And indeed there was.
Literally located off a beaten path and just a twenty-minute drive from the UNESCO World Heritage Site Angkor Wat, Phum Baitang is the first Asian property from the Belgian group Zannier Hotels. Described by owner and founder Arnaud Zannier as his most personal project yet, the eight-hectare hotel is a five-minute tuk tuk ride away from the centre of the city, but the serenity enveloped behind its walls feels a world away. Yet Phum Baitang is anything but detached from its locale — or locals. The hotel’s village-like atmosphere and layout is evocative of how one would imagine the resort town looked long before the karaoke bars and questionable massage parlours set up shop. Staff donning conical bamboo hats push oversized wooden carts to transport items between the cluster of 45 villas, each separated by palm trees, rice paddies and lush, green gardens; an idyllic scene set to a daylong soundtrack of the gentle hum of crickets.
A five star hotel, Phum Biatang offers the ultimate type of luxury; the unobtrusive kind that’s less about technological gimmicks and flashy finishes, and more about staff knowing what you want before you even know you want it. Small touches, such as Khmer sweets like nom chak ka chan, carefully wrapped in banana leaf and placed bedside at the end of each day, don’t go unnoticed. Golf buggies instantaneously appear at night so that guests don’t have to navigate the raised walkways and rice paddies in the dark. And best of all, the entire resort is cloaked in mosquito repellent on a weekly basis, resulting in just three bites during the whole stay: an astounding result for someone who is usually breakfast, lunch, dinner and a midnight snack for the critters.
The stilted accommodations are inspired by traditional Cambodian wooden housing, and are divided into terrace villas and pool villas, with the latter featuring their own plunge pool and cabana. Propped and lined with wooden beams and pillars and topped with thatched roofing, each villa features living spaces peppered with hand-carved furniture and headboards alongside antiques picked from local markets, while rattan and local stone abound amongst an earthy palette of greens, browns and beiges. A freestanding ceramic tub did not tempt during Cambodia’s sticky October — the country’s most humid period —but the walk-in shower, just a few inches smaller of a Zone 1 flat in London, offered respite from the 37C heat, with cooling concrete walls and a rainfall showerhead. Similarly refreshing is the absence of generic Southeast Asian iconography, often scattered — without thought — throughout ‘eastern-inspired’ hotels. The Zen atmosphere felt here is truly genuine and a sum of Phum Baitang’s carefully considered parts.
Elsewhere on the grounds, guests without private pools are invited to the hotel’s 50m outdoor infinity pool adjacent to the hotel bar, neither of which (thankfully) quite reach capacity, given the small number of rooms. The cacophony of Siem Reap’s centre does somewhat undo a day’s worth of relaxation here; in-house Cambodian restaurant Bay Phsar offers a peaceful alternative for dinner, though it charges five times much for the same Khmer cuisine. Hang Bay serves up fusion cuisine, while nightcaps can be pursued at Cigar & Cocktail Lounge, which serves wine, vintage liqueurs and cigars in a 100-year-old Cambodian farmhouse. Those seeking relaxation minus the libations will find solace at Phum Baitang’s ‘spa temple’. Featuring a yoga pavilion, steam room, sauna and seven treatment rooms in which Cambodian techniques and natural products are imparted on weary limbs, and souls, the standalone space is a haven in which to reboot and recharge.
It’s not too difficult to see how, in it’s young age, Phum Baitang has already nudged its way into the Jolie clan’s Little Black Book. A visit to Cambodia can take on many guises; and in this corner of the country — with all its landmarks — the balance between authenticity and comfort is very often skewed one way or another. Phum Baitang has managed to combine the best of both worlds. And if it’s good enough for Angleina…
Phum Baitang, Phum Svaydangkum, Sangkat Svaydangkum, Siem Reap. Villas from $405. For more information, visit www.phumbaitang.com.