Cambodia is still recovering from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge, so French-owned Zannier Hotels was taking a chance on the country in 2015 when it opened Phum Baitang, its first resort in Asia, set on the outskirts of Siem Reap, close to the immense temple complex of Angkor Wat.
After the 15-minute transfer on red-dirt roads from the airport, we were ushered into the open-air reception area. Taking its cue from traditional Khmer farmhouses, the lobby’s thatched roof, wide-plank wood floors and slatted timber wall screens exude a simple “less is more” elegance that is echoed throughout the property. As we checked in, we were offered a cold towel and a refreshing natural lemongrass juice that, over the course of our stay, I would reorder again and again.
Upon entering the sliding glass doors, we immediately relaxed. The understated design relied on organic elements: Stone, wood, linen and jute in soothing natural beiges were offset by a pop of persimmon on the slipcovered sofa. Vaulted ceilings and wood beams made the already large bedroom-living area seem even more spacious (Pool Villas are 1,400 square feet). All the modern amenities were available: air-conditioning, a 42-inch flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi, docking stations, an integrated sound system. A graceful touch was the just-picked lotus flower set in a bowl of water.
Entering the bath, we were struck by its generous proportions. On either side were wood and stone vanities and double pendant lights. Across from the entrance was the centerpiece of the room: a lime-finished freestanding wooden tub. Custom-made Zannier Hotels toiletries were provided next to the tub and in the large walk-in rain shower. My only misgiving was the lighting, which, while calming, proved too dark to apply makeup.
Most days at Phum Baitang began with a generous breakfast buffet at Bay Phsar, an informal open-air restaurant situated next to the 164-foot infinity pool. Besides the freshly baked breads and juices at the bar, specialties like nom benh chok (egg noodles with green curry gravy) and scrambled tofu with local mushrooms and basil were available from the kitchen. Rice used in the dishes is homegrown in the surrounding paddy fields, which are worked by the two water buffalo that live on the property. (More often than not, though, they could be seen relaxing with their young calf under their own thatched shelter. Not a bad life.)
Back at our villa, the pool was hard to resist. Leafy tropical foliage framed the plunge pool, which was flanked by a lounge pavilion with double daybeds and a wooden deck with a table and chairs. When we weren’t in the pool, taking a food tour or following our guide through Angkor Wat, we spent our days exploring the resort by bike and enjoying the view from the balcony of the 100-year-old farmhouse, which doubles as the Cigar & Cocktail Lounge. We came back often for its comfortable rattan seating, delicious gin and tonics (served with eco-friendly lemongrass straws) and the incredible view of the sunset. On one of those visits, the considerate server engaged us in conversation, reflecting on his affection for his workplace, as well as Angelina Jolie’s lengthy stay at the resort while filming a movie about life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Like all of the staff at Phum Baitang, he exuded nothing but warmth and kindness.
One diversion that shouldn’t be missed is the serene Spa Temple, which is billed as an “architectural vestige of Angkor.” Its design lives up to the description. The wellness area consists of a steam room, a sauna, seven treatment rooms, an indoor fitness room and a yoga pavilion. We enjoyed a massage and a private yoga lesson.
The well-curated boutique is also an enjoyable place to spend time. Stocked with handcrafted Cambodian goods, it was nice to be able to take home something from this special place while also supporting local artisans. My husband purchased what has become his favorite linen shirt. It needed to be tailored, so the shopkeepers took it to a seamstress and returned it the next day.
All too soon was it time to say goodbye. Walking along the pathways from the restaurant to our villa one last time, I tried to take it all in, fervently hoping that someday I would have the good fortune to return.
The minimalist eco-chic design; flawless, friendly service; the sense of being in a traditional Cambodian village.
The low lighting in the bath.
The hotel will provide an excellent boxed breakfast for you on the morning you leave to see Angkor Wat before sunrise.