Every home has a story. For four days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, my home was House Number One, a traditional Khmer residence with a unique triple roof, horizontal cladding, spacious porch, and intricate wooden detailing. Architectural specifics aside, what I loved most about my home—and Sala Lodges in general—was its unparalleled ability to transport me out of the heat and the noise and the tuk-tuk chaos that is modern-day Cambodia into my own personal paradise. The Temples of Angkor, named the best tourist attraction on the planet by Lonely Planet in 2015, are only a few miles away. Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon along with the markets of Siem Reap and the rice paddy-speckled landscape of rural Cambodia are literally outside your front door. And yet, what’s the best thing about venturing out to explore a new world where your senses are inundated and your mind races to keep up with everything you’re seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching? Look over there—yet another beautiful, old temple! Is that man eating a snake? There are approximately 310,000 other people trying to take a picture of Angkor Wat alongside of me right now. Oh my God, I have never been so hot in my entire life. Answer: Returning home to the crystalline waters of a swimming pool, falling face first into the clean, white linens of a four-poster canopy bed, reading on your front porch as the afternoon showers arrive, and, after the showers have subsided, ambling over to the open-air restaurant for a cocktail and some fish amok. In short, returning home to Sala Lodges.
It took Sala Lodges’ French and Swiss owners more than two years to find the eleven authentic and disused Khmer houses that would begin their second lives as hotel guest residences. Refinished and modernized, these stilted houses now lie scattered about the Sala Lodges property, surrounded by orchids, rice paddies and trees a hundred shades of green. My own home, House Number One, was built in 1957 in the town of Ta Prohm, nearly 60 miles from Siem Reap. With only eleven guest residences, Sala Lodges never feels crowded. The grounds are spacious and well-attended. Often the only sound you’ll hear is the croaking of frogs interspersed among the rice paddies, plants and grasses outside. How such a place can exist right off the frenetic Siem Reap streets baffles the mind; it is a private Shangri-La carved out of the Cambodian wilderness.
Sala Lodges belongs in that highly coveted class of hotels that attends to your every need before you even realize what you need and when you might need it. Ever-smiling and always gracious employees brought me umbrellas to use on my daily excursions to the temples in the event of rain. When overcome by the urge to explore the markets and browse the boutiques of downtown Siem Reap which lies a few kilometers down the road, tuk-tuk drivers were available for use free of charge. The hotel’s sleek, open-air restaurant had perfected Khmer classics such as fish amok and lime-marinated beef noodle salad. On the morning I awoke at 4am to go see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, a breakfast basket was awaiting me as I strolled through reception to meet my guide.
The excursions offered by Sala Lodges highlight not only the world-renowned Temples of Angkor but also a wide range of activities meant to expose the visitor to local life. A day after wandering through Ta Prohm, I found myself riding a bicycle across levies separating water-saturated rice paddies in which buffalo grazed. Within minutes, I left the paddies behind and was cruising down dirt roads past schoolchildren shrieking in delight as they played on a playground, past orange-robed monks gathering in their monastery, past hordes of people sifting through rice and curry paste and chickens both alive and dead at the open-air food market. Day trips to explore temples further afield, kayak to waterside villages, and attend cooking classes are among the myriad of Sala Lodges’ offerings. Should you wish to explore the temples solo or schedule your own tours, such as I did when I visited local food markets and eateries with Siem Reap Food Tours, Sala Lodges’ staff is equally helpful, sending you off with a smile and greeting your return with a refreshing welcome beverage.
I had been traveling solo through Cambodia with my guard consistently half-up in Phnom Penh. That reticence dropped immediately upon arrival at Sala Lodges and during my time exploring Siem Reap. Charmingly authentic, this hotel isn’t so much a hotel as it is a Khmer home—and while you’re there, it’s your home.
(http://www.salalodges.com/; one bedroom houses, which sleep up to 4 people, start at $310)