By MATT GROSS
Published: January 22, 2006
An article from New York Times
Basil Childers for The New York Times
JUST after Christmas in 1859, the French explorer Henri Mouhot left Bangkok to explore the uncharted regions of Indochina. It took him a year of hacking through brush and fending off leopards, leeches and wild elephants before he arrived at Angkor Wat, the jungle-smothered complex of temples deep inside the kingdom of Cambodia. Less than two years later, he died of malaria.
What took Mouhot a year can now be accomplished in little more than an hour, via Bangkok Airways' seven daily flights from the Thai capital to Siem Reap, home base for Angkor expeditions. Mouhot may have had to trudge three hours down a sandy path through dense forest to reach the ruins, but 21st-century visitors have the luxury of everything from tuk-tuks to Land Cruisers to an AS-350 Squirrel helicopter.
And while Mouhot lamented the temples' abandonment, today they are such popular tourist attractions that the measure of an expert Angkor guide is not his knowledge of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, nor his mastery of English, French and Japanese, but his ability to show visitors the most popular sites – the Bayon, Phnom Bakheng, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat itself – and have them wondering, at day's end, "Where was everybody else?"
But not all guides are expert at deftly avoiding the tourist crush, and there are frequently days when it seems everybody is in Cambodia. In 2004, international arrivals topped one million for the first time, a figure reached in 2005 by the end of September, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
In almost every part of the country, you can find a conceptually and architecturally ambitious hotel: In mountainous Ratanakiri, there's the Terres Rouges Lodge, a former provincial governor's lakeside residence that has, Time Asia said last July, "the best bar in the middle of nowhere." On the Sanker River in Battambang, Cambodia's second-largest city, there's La Villa, a 1930 house that in October opened as a six-room hotel filled with Art Deco antiques. And sometime this summer, you should be able to head south to Kep and stay at La Villa de Monsieur Thomas, a 1908 oceanfront mansion that's being transformed into a French restaurant ringed with bungalows.
And then there is Angkor Wat. Foreign visitors are flooding in – 690,987 paid entrance fees last year, up from 451,046 in 2004. And while there are no official figures as to how much each spends in Siem Reap, the town's dizzying array of luxury hotels – at least 10 by my count, ranging from the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor to quirky boutiques like Hôtel de la Paix – testifies to the emergence of a new generation of high-end travelers, who not only demand round-the-clock Khmer massage but are also willing to pay $400 a day to hire a BMW L7 or $1,375 an hour for a helicopter tour.
Cambodia is not alone in its luxury revolution. Since the mid-1990's, the former French colonies of Southeast Asia have made enormous leaps in catering to tourists who prefer plunge pools to bucket showers. From the forests of Laos to the beaches of Vietnam to the ruins of Cambodia, you can find well-conceived, well-outfitted, well-run hotels that will sleep you in style for hundreds of dollars a night.
Change has come at an amazing pace. Take Luang Prabang, in Laos. This tidy hill town feels like a Hollywood set, with painted lamps glowing in French restaurants and brick walkways brightened by a yellow glow emanating from knee-high terra-cotta pots. Even the bare fluorescent tubes draped over lonely late-night streets do their part to make visitors feel as if they've arrived at the end of the world.
But it's not mere atmospherics they've found: Luang Prabang has high-end hotels to house a legion of W-worshipers, with enough bistros and boutiques to keep their credit cards on the verge of meltdown. There are spa treatments to succumb to, and Veuve Clicquot to toast with. This town of just 60,000 people is, almost all of a sudden, a luxury getaway.
Less than a decade ago, there were no hotels with infinity pools, no restaurants serving fricassee of wild boar, no silk merchants who took Visa. (Also, no paved roads.) The foreigners who climbed the 328 steps of Mount Phousi were usually backpackers who sought guidance from Lonely Planet's "Southeast Asia on a Shoestring." Today, the traveler with a Lonely Planet in one hand is likely to have a Mandarina Duck carry-on in the other.
Meanwhile, in Vietnam, well-heeled travelers are making pilgrimages to the Evason Hideaway outside Nha Trang, a coastal town 280 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The Evason, part of Six Senses, a small Bangkok-based chain of resorts, is without question Vietnam's top resort. The villas are enormous, with private plunge pools and wine cellars (and free Wi-Fi), and rock-star-style privacy is paramount: the mountain-backed resort is accessible only by boat.
The Evason is not Vietnam's sole outpost of escapism. Along its 2,140 miles of coastline, there's La Résidence in Hue, the Life Resort in Hoi An and the Furama in Da Nang. You can tour Ha Long Bay in the Emeraude, a replica of a 1920's steamer, or in the Hai Huong, a reproduction of a classic junk. The Victoria chain has been setting up four-star hotels in unusual inland spots, such as Can Tho, Chau Doc and Sapa. And the Evason is already at work on a second resort, in the southern hill town of Da Lat.
But in a country like Vietnam, still poor despite a vibrant economy, the luxury business is a tricky balancing act: How over the top can you go without seeming to take advantage?
The Evason walks that line with the deftness of a tightrope walker. The 17 villas feel inserted into, not imposed upon, the landscape. Motor vehicles are nowhere to be seen: everyone walks or bikes. Is this eco-tourism? Maybe, but when you're at a wine-tasting in a rock cave, or scraping grilled curried lobster tail from its shell, or spotting parrotfish and sea urchins in the coral-lined bay, it feels like something else entirely.
DESPITE all the changes in Cambodia, the immigration desk at Siem Reap International Airport remains a bastion of indifference. When I passed through in October, 10 officials sat behind the visa counter, wordlessly gazing at a mob of tourists, who were hurriedly filling in application forms, fumbling for passport photos and $20 bills, and in the absence of any signs or personnel to direct them, wondering where to go next.
Outside, however, it was a different story: A guest assistant from Hôtel de la Paix carried my bag through the parking lot – past a new terminal designed to handle 1.5 million passengers a year when it opens this summer – to a Lexus S.U.V. As we drove into town, listening to Morcheeba on the car's iPod Mini, the driver and I discussed development on the airport road: I could remember when it had few hotels and restaurants; he could remember when it had none.
At la Paix, an artfully serene white palace designed by the landscape architect Bill Bensley, another assistant led me into the expansive arts lounge, where I sipped fresh orange juice and split my attention between the movie "Indochine," which was being projected on the wall, and the youthful staff members, who moved about with a surprising sureness of purpose.
Soon, an assistant took me to my room – dark woods, creamy fabrics, functioning Wi-Fi and another iPod – and cheerfully helped me plan my stay: a trip to Angkor Wat (with an "excellence guide," he wrote on his notepad) and, almost as important, a local SIM card for my cellphone ("first thing in the morning"). I wandered to the second-floor pool, which flowed like a river from the spa and down to the courtyard, at whose center grew a knotty ficus. Everywhere: calm. The hotel was aptly named.
This was a Cambodia so far removed from the one I'd encountered when I first visited, in March 1997, that I began to wonder if I was even in the same country. Back then, Cambodia was the Wild West, with Phnom Penh its Deadwood. My hotel was the Morakat, which had two room-service menus, one for food, the other for girls. My spa treatment was an unceremonious ear-cleaning at a Vietnamese-run barber shop. (I still have nightmares.) I dined on streetside fried noodles and went to a pitch-black nightclub, where a friend and I were shown to our table by a tuxedoed midget with an enormous flashlight.
Oh, and the day after I arrived, unidentified assailants threw grenades into a crowd of 200 people demonstrating outside the National Assembly, killing at least 16 and injuring more than 100.
To say that Cambodia has come a long way is to state the obvious. Gone are the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese occupation, the United Nations democracy-restoration period and the era of warring prime ministers (the current prime minister, Hun Sen, came out on top in 1997). Angkor Wat has been swept clean of land mines, and it is generally safe to travel city streets at night.
When I visited Siem Reap in December 1999, it was far from bustling, and visitors to the temples could climb atop the rubble of Ta Prohm unbothered by security guards. The Grand, which dates back to 1932, had been renovated and reopened by the Raffles Group only two years before, and Angkor Village was the resort for in-the-know tourists and expatriates who wanted something nicer than a guesthouse.
Now more than 100 hotels serve tourists of all budgets. The Grand has been joined by a Sofitel, Le Meridien and the Sokha Angkor. On the boutique side, Angkor Village must now contend with la Paix, La Résidence d'Angkor, the FCC Angkor, the Shinta Mani and an Aman resort, the Amansara. By the end of this month, the One Hotel plans to open its doors – or, rather, its door: There's just one room, a duplex with flat-screen TV, iBook, Wi-Fi and a whirlpool.
These changes are perhaps hardly surprising, given Angkor Wat's popularity and the increasing adventurousness of luxury travelers.
"People want to take their lifestyle and life standard with them," said Grant Thatcher, the publisher of Luxe City Guides, a series of directories to chic treats in Asia. "People don't want to just sit in a flea-bitten rat hole and get eaten by mosquitoes."
His guides – to silversmiths in Bali, Dutch colonial antiques in Sri Lanka, orchids in Bangkok – are fast becoming indispensable for their up-to-date intelligence (each is reissued every six months) and cheeky, Daily Candy-in-Hong Kong voice. (On the Metropole, in Hanoi: "This grand old Gertie has finally got off her colonial bum and begun an upgrade.")
Luxe does not yet offer a Cambodia guide, but the entrepreneurs of Siem Reap are doing their best to prepare for it. Want to see Angkor Wat by hot-air balloon? No problem. Is $1 too little to pay for a krama, the traditional Cambodian checked scarf? A crinkly silk boutique version can run more than $50. Want your entire stay videotaped, then edited into a feature-length film? Just ask the One's front desk.
It's in the realm of culture that Siem Reap really excels, and to a degree that would be surprising in any tourist locale, let alone one dominated by one of the greatest and most perplexing artistic achievements of all, Angkor Wat. On weekends there are cello concerts, and in December "Les Nuits d'Angkor," a blend of ballet and traditional Khmer dance, takes place in front of the temple itself. My October stay coincided with the Angkor Photography Festival, a week of exhibitions, workshops and exclusive soirées.
Just add a soothing glass of pastis, and it's easy to imagine you're in a hub of sophistication, shuttling between cocktail parties, fancy restaurants and gallery openings with a crowd of like-minded travelers. Except that everywhere in Siem Reap – and throughout Cambodia – are reminders of the country's wretched history, crushing poverty and political mismanagement. Take two steps outside your hotel, and you'll find people sleeping in the streets, some of them missing limbs. (Still, there are fewer today than in the past.)
Corruption is rampant. Villagers are routinely evicted at gunpoint from their land by the wealthy and well-connected, critics of Hun Sen's policies are liable to find themselves imprisoned, and the leader of the small political opposition, Sam Rainsy, who organized the tragic 1997 demonstration, lost his parliamentary immunity a year ago and fled the country to escape defamation charges; last month, a court convicted him in absentia. The belief among many foreigners living in Cambodia is that this constitutional monarchy is really a totalitarian kleptocracy, its officials enriching themselves at the expense of aid organizations (which heavily subsidize the government's budget), not to mention the long-suffering Cambodian people.
Which makes it all the more stunning and delightful and sad that those Cambodians are, for the most part, some of the sweetest people you'll ever meet. Show kindness to a driver, to a bellhop, to the newly middle-class guy drinking a Heineken next to you at the FCC bar, and you'll have an instant friend. After all the dehumanizing treatment they've put up with over the last 30 years, Cambodians, it seems to me, just want to be considered human beings, equals despite the financial disparity between them and the average foreign tourist.
It's enough to make you feel guilty as you soak in your freestanding terrazzo tub at la Paix, listening to Miles Davis on the iPod. But the high-end hotels are all too aware that their room rates – $200 to as much as $1,900 -can surpass what the average Cambodian earns in a year. La Paix and its sister, the Shinta Mani, a hotel and hospitality training institute, offer a menu of "community-based activities" that lets tourists finance anything from school supplies ($12) to a breeding pair of piglets ($60) to the building of a new house ($980). The One Hotel plans a similar "Good Karma" package.
F OR some people, it may be hard to imagine Cambodia as a luxury traveler's paradise. Are there really tourists willing to shell out hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a night to see Angkor Wat – knowing that their fancy hotels will not be like Jamaican all-inclusives, conveniently keeping the gritty outside world at bay?
I posed the question to Toby Anderson, manager of the Amansara, possibly the nicest – and, at $650 a night and up, definitely the most expensive – resort in town. A former royal residence, the Amansara, with its single-story modernist architecture, still feels like a swinging-60's pad. You can easily imagine Norodom Sihanouk, the former king, standing by the pool with a flute of Champagne in one manicured hand.
I followed Mr. Anderson, a tall, fair-featured Australian, to the library, as he rebuffed my suggestion that his guests might have different expectations of Cambodia.
"They're well read, they know the history and situation," he said. "They're looking for a Cambodian experience.
"I was a backpacker once," he added. "I still like to backpack. I don't know whether the mindset is that different. Does being able to stay in the Amansara change what you experience?"
Indeed, he was probably right. Once you ride the vintage Mercedes limo outside the gates of the Amansara compound, you are unmistakably, unavoidably in Cambodia: crumbling roads, frequent floods, implacable heat and tour guides who coolly unload personal tales of Khmer Rouge horror. It's not as if you can, by dint of a fat wallet, hide from this reality.
And why would you want to? The draw for millions of people is not just plush beds and nimble-fingered masseuses; it's these three countries' uniquely messy histories and the ways all are struggling to move forward.
In the end, what that fat wallet does get you is simply the opportunity to travel – which is, as Henri Mouhot understood, the greatest luxury of all. "Even if destined here to meet my death," he wrote in his journals, "I would not change my lot for all the joys and pleasures of the civilized world."