Each year, I try to explore many parts of the world to see and experience the various types of their luxurious hotels. This year my interest falls into Southeast Asia region, from Singapore to the Indochina region such as Cambodia and Laos. For centuries, history has taken note that the region was home to some of the most opulent kingdoms in Asia. During my first visit to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Luang Prabang this year, I was impressed not only by their glorious historical past but also by the presence of the great luxury hotel establishments. Here is my selection list of seven unique luxury hotels in the region this year!
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Raffles Le Royal:
A Grand Historical Landmark
One simply cannot talk about Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh without sharing the rich history of this grand landmark. First opened its doors to the public on the evening of 20 November 1929, this hotel with its 55 rooms has had many affairs throughout different times, from the communism and war periods to the glamorous era of Hollywood celebrities all the way to the digital present time. The hotel has had different names from Le Royal (1929), Le Phnom (1970 - 1975), Hotel Samakki (1979 - 1993), Hotel Le Royal (1993 - 1996), to finally Raffles Le Royal (1997 - present).
The hotel was built by French architect, archaeologist and urban planner Ernest Hebrard, who is renowned for the reconstruction plan of the Greek city of Thessaloniki after it was destroyed by fire in 1917. Situated in the fashionable European quarter, Le Royal Hotel was built in a French colonial style using elements of traditional architecture.
The original hotel building featured sloping tiled roofs punctuated by triangular dormer windows, airy uncluttered corridors, shuttered windows and covered walkways that echoed traditional local architecture, so as to keep with the tropical climate.
The hotel originally had 54 bedrooms, 41 of which had private bathrooms, 13 with showers only. In addition, there were four communal bathrooms. When Raffles International Limited involved in the hotel’s revamp in 1996, they demolished the surrounding bungalows and replaced them with three new, more substantial wings; while the main building was left intact and completely refurbished. Under the supervision of architect Koh Say Wee, they also commissioned a traditional Khmer artist studio to create painted ceilings, decorative beaten copper crests and outdoor sculptures. Following this makeover, the hotel now boasts a total of 175 guest rooms and suites.
Design highlight here includes the black and white floor tiles at the main building, the elegant arched lobby known as The Conservatory, the famous Elephant Bar, and a magnificent garden crafted by landscape architects from Belt Collins International. Approaching 90 years of history, Raffles Le Royal remains as Phnom Penh’s most prestigious hotel with a long list of guests from Charlie Chaplin, Jacqueline Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Jon Swain, to Angelina Jolie and Barack Obama.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
A Royal Retreat
Amansara is a peaceful royal refuge that brings you away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. It is a haven where privacy is its main focus set in an intimate and relaxed space where the guest could feel at ease. Opened its doors to the public in 1962 for the as Villa Princiere (before changing the name into Villa Apsara later on), this property was originally built as a royal retreat of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
The history of this small luxury hotel, which has become the architectural gem in Siem Reap, stretches back to the late 1950’s when French architect Laurent Mondet came under King Father Sihanouk’s radar while working with Vann Molyvann in France. The King was impressed by his ability to bring the modernity into life and wanted the architect to work on the grand complex he was creating.
Following the minimalist movement, Mondet together with Molyvann designed this state guest house into a series of single-storey white buildings containing luxurious guest suites, two swimming pools and a circular dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows juxtaposing the serene landscape.
Its turbulence past took this royal retreat into its abandon state during the Khmer Rouge regime. It had a few unsuccessful resurrection attempts in the 1980’s and 1990’s; however, it was not until 2002 when Aman Resorts founder Adrian Zecha (who stayed here during the heyday of Villa Princiere) decided to restore this complex to its former glory. Working together with Australian architect Kerry Hill, they take the inspiration from the original design by retaining the 1960’s charm and elegance while giving a contemporary makeover with sleek lines and subtle curves.
The former royal enclave has transformed into a 24-suite retreat (12 suites and 12 pool suites), yet it boasts similar design and features an open plan setting with finishes in terrazzo and timber. The colour theme is muted and creates a soothing ambience over the combined sleeping and living area. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the courtyard featuring a small water garden or 6m x 5m pool in the pool suite. Design highlights in Amansara include the roof terrace with cushioned seating and low tables shaded by trees (offering great cocktails and amazing traditional performing arts), the sexy looking spa dominated in black featuring four treatment rooms, and the circular dining room with a soaring seven-metre high ceiling where King Sihanouk once enjoyed screening his collection of movies.
Since the day this place commenced its operations in 1962, it has gained international popularity with the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Peter O’Toole, Charles de Gaulle to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The way I see it, Amansara will continue becoming the city’s architectural and historical gem.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Shinta Mani Angkor - Bensley Collection:
A Monochromatic Luxury
The element of black and white as a theme is an eternal classic duo that has been used from ancient time until the present. However, this classic duo transformed fabulously when Bill Bensley added his design touch into it. The new 10 super-luxe expansive two-level villas in the cultural heart of the historic town of Siem Reap becomes the new testament of Bensley’s visionary concepts and extraordinary design on creating a monochromatic luxury.
Returning after a decade to the city where he designed his first hotel (Park Hyatt Siem Reap), Bensley is ready to bring his flamboyant design characteristics to a whole new level. The Khmer-inspired villas put monochromatic theme as piece-de-resistance from the tile designs, brass details and native palettes, to the high walled facades featuring three-dimensional carvings that portray Jayavarman’s robe (a renowned Khmer king who reigned from 1181 to 1218). Each villa offers 156sqm and is equipped with a 30ft swimming pool, Bensley’s iconic lush tropical garden, and a rooftop deck with a daybed to gaze the stars while enjoying delicious barbecue that is privately set by your bespoke butler. The highlight includes the floor-to-ceiling glassed bathroom with views over the garden and an exotic outdoor shower.
Being a hotel within a hotel, this new 10 luxury villas property is built in the compound of a larger hotel known as Shinta Mani Angkor that was also designed by Bensley back in 2012. Opened at the end of 2017, Shinta Mani Angkor - Bensley Collection is really a cool and sophisticated laid-back oasis that Bensley himself would like to live in.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
An Art Deco Grandeur
Do you know that Siem Reap is a home to the first hotel that is ever designed by the celebrated Bill Bensley? Started as an award-winning graduate who works as a landscape architect for an international firm in Singapore, Bensley has garnered many recognitions for his amazing landscape designs in over 100 hotels in Asia alone. However, it was not until 2001 when he had the opportunity to handle every aspect of a hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia; from the architecture and the interior design to the landscape. The name of the hotel is Park Hyatt Siem Reap and it is Bensley’s first!
The hotel, which was known as Hotel de la Paix, was originally built in 1957 in a plain-vanilla structure right in the downtown of Siem Reap. In 2001, the new owner hired Bensley to demolish the original building and build a new one. Bensley who was inspired by the grandeur of Angkor Wat and Cambodian long history decided to build an Art Deco hotel, in the classic whitewash theme. The hotel was reopened in 2006 under the same name before going into another 14-month top-to-bottom renovation when it was taken over under Park Hyatt brand in 2012. As the designer, Bensley was once again trusted to do this renovation.
The Khmer inspiration starts from the front of the hotel that resembles a temple. A beautiful apsara statuette (Cambodian dancing maiden) stands in the entrance as piece-de-resistance that juxtaposes with 66 feet impressive oculus, which is homage to the interior towers of Angkor Wat. One of the hotel main focal points is the outdoor terrace with the pond that is adorned with a 50-year-old banyan tree and carved sandstone bowls. Here, the torches at night are set at each corner. This is also the area where beautiful apsara dancers perform every night to entertain the hotel guests. Another great public area showcasing Bensley’s iconic design is the retro-chic and decadent Living Room lounge located on the ground floor opposite the lobby mixing Cambodian, featuring art deco and modern artworks.
The hotel offers 108 spacious contemporary guest rooms, as well as 13 suites, four of which showcase private plunge pools highlighted with polished Makha-wood floors, custom-made woven rugs from renowned Thai textile designer Ploenchan Pornsurat, and antiqued-pewter light fixtures designed by Australian designer John Underwood. Every room is designed differently in this hotel, adding quirkiness and boutique charm. To his first, Bensley is truly designing a one-of-a-kind hotel that has become his legacy.
Luang Prabang, Laos
An Elegant Colonial Sanctuary
When the French became the protectorate of Laos in 1893, they were not only creating a history but also a legacy in architecture and design. The combination of French-colonial and traditional Lao architectures becomes synonymous with the style of buildings during that period, featuring hipped roof and large overhanging eaves covered a sizeable porch often wrapped around the building called the gallery. Amantaka in Luang Prabang, Laos is one of the best architectural gems of French-colonial heritage.
Amantaka that means the peaceful teaching of the Buddha (in Theravada literature) is set at a former provincial hospital in an elegant French-Colonial building. Although no documents have been found regarding the original construction, it has been estimated that this building was completed during the first decade of the 20th century. It was running as a hospital until 2005 before it was turned into an Aman collection with its 15 buildings, nine of which are protected under UNESCO’s World Heritage regulation.
The restoration of this heritage building into the most luxurious 24-suite property in the country was meticulously done by renowned architect Pascal Trahan and Aman’s interior design team led by Adrian Zecha, the founder of the Aman resorts. Together, they made these existing areas a new role and life before commencing the operations in September 2009. The stunning colonial-style lobby beneath a low-slung red-tiled roof and surrounded by shady verandas, for example, was the former X-ray room. Beyond the gleaming white exterior and the stunning pool area flanked by fragrant magnolia trees lies the suites with louvered doors, airy living and sleeping areas. The four-poster bed is positioned in the centre of the suite beneath a traditional high-ceiling surrounded by black and white photos depicting the life Buddha, and rich cherry wood furniture by Mandalay - a furniture and interior group owned by Laos locals and husband and wife duo Elene and Gilles Boute.
I have been to many Aman properties in the world and Amantaka is simply one of a kind. It really has the core essence of Aman Resort from the philosophy, design, history, service to experience. This property reminds me why I am an Amanjunkie!
Sofitel Singapore City Centre:
A Chic Urban Fusion
As a new hotel that just opened its doors to the public at the end of 2017, Sofitel Singapore City Centre has recognised as one of the city’s luxury hotel elite due to its design uniqueness that marries Singapore’s rich cultural heritage with the sophistication of French flair. It is a hotel where culture and design are brought to life through an outstanding collection of custom-made furniture and artworks, including designer uniforms accentuated with floral prints, evoking the strong botanic theme that runs throughout the hotel. Nestled at the heart of historic Tanjong Pagar vicinity, this chic urban hotel is AccorHotels’ 800th property in Asia-Pacific.
Sofitel Singapore City Centre takes its design inspiration from the rich green spaces of Singapore and the sublime geometry of traditional French garden, the hotel’s interiors elegantly juxtapose vibrant rose gold accents with striking design features and botanical motifs. The shimmering nine-metre chandelier called ‘Singapour Je T’aime’, designed by Jana Ruzickova and manufactured by Czech designer Lasvit, comprises 700 hand-blown glass crystals and is beautifully set at the lobby area as the main centrepiece. Furthermore, Lasvit’s French-inspired lighting fixtures that are merged with metropolitan flair and floral shapes and patterns can also be found in the guest-rooms as a tribute to a phrase famously used in regard to the ‘city of light’.
The 223 well-appointed guest rooms and suites featuring floor-to-ceiling windows are spacious and adorned with the signature bedding concept by Sofitel MyBed and premium toiletries by Lanvin and Hermes. The highlight here comes from two hi-tech droids (aka robot) butlers aptly named Sophie and Xavier draped in matte bespoke blue uniforms with floral elements that will serve complimentary minibar service and F&B related services to the guest-rooms. In addition, the hotel also commissioned its own Artist-in-Residence, renowned Italian artist Arianna Caroli who created the inspiring Bouquet Magnifique as well as initiated the first partnership ever with Nespresso and Virgin Active.
Unique design pieces are everywhere in this hotel, from the designer beauty case, stationary box and book stand in the room to the frontline ambassadors designer uniforms which evoke botanical touch. Simply put, Sofitel Singapore City Centre is truly a celebration of everything design and the local arts.
Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel:
A Timeless Residence
The story of Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel can be traced back to 1983 when the hotel was first opened to the public. At that time, the hotel was part of The Peninsula group and designed with a lobby reminiscent of the parent hotel. With the passing of time, this property became The Regent of Bangkok and again The Four Seasons Bangkok. It was not until March 2015, when Anantara group took over and gave it a $20 million makeover to become the new Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel.
This hotel is situated in Ratchadamri vicinity, Bangkok’s most prestigious area especially for five-star luxury hotels (neighbours include Grand Hyatt Erawan and The St. Regis Bangkok). Designed by architect George Wimberly and Dan Wong Prasert, this hotel is conceived as a ‘residential’ hotel combining the inspiration from a Western classical grandeur that reached its pinnacle in the Edwardian age, as well as the profound spirituality of Thai Buddhist art, which blossoms in the Rattanakosin period. The hotel layout draws its theme from the individual units that comprise a traditional Thai house. The main core building is flanked by two atriums, each with corridors open to natural sunlight. Each of the two courts landscaped tropical gardens gives the feeling of a lush rainforest.
The high-ceiling lobby is adorned with subtle yet vibrant pastel mandala-type silk paintings about the cosmos covering every section of the ceiling. There are also 800 metres of hand-painted silk panels called ‘The Coronation of a King’, gracing the grand staircase right in the centre of the lobby. The hand-painted silk panels are made by Ajarn Paiboon Suwanakudt, Thailand’s greatest traditional muralist in the modern era. The mural puts in details the accession of the Chakri Dynasty to the throne of Thailand, as it is depicted in an allegorical style with lavishly costumed figures in a rich royal pageant, complimented by a tropical idyll of animals, flowers and trees, painted in the early Rattanakosin style.
Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel boasts a total of 307 rooms and suites across 10 categories. Jeffrey A. Wilkes of LTW Designworks who is recognised for his style in blending cosmopolitan influences with traditional elements is trusted to renovate the deluxe and premier guest rooms. He injected a fresh sense of luxury by infusing more contemporary aesthetic with undertones of Thai details, remaining true to the ethos of the Anantara brand. Indeed, the hotel has a long journey. Yet, the way we see it is that Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel will last for a long time as a statement of timeless luxury.