Formerly the royal retreat of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, Amansara hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia now serves as an exclusive resort for the rich and famous. BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS
Once dubbed the “little hotel of luxury” by King Father Norodom Sihanouk after he commissioned the complex’s creation in the early-1960s, the exclusive Amansara resort has lost none of its former elegance despite surviving a turbulent past.
As part of a push to modernise Cambodia, Sihanouk recruited French architect Laurent Mondet, who had worked with revered Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, to design a state guesthouse in Siem Reap. Built at the height of Cambodia’s ‘Golden Age’, it opened its doors in 1962 as Villa Princiere and quickly became a residence for a string of high-profile foreign dignitaries and celebrities, including former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, actor Peter O’Toole and French President Charles de Gaulle.
Drawing on the minimalist movement that was sweeping across Europe at the time, Mondet created an intimate and relaxed space where the elite could feel at ease. Long white walls with a gentle curve surrounded the complex, and a gravel driveway led to a reception area that opened up onto the exquisite grounds. A series of single-storey white buildings containing luxurious guest suites, two swimming pools and a circular dining room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking an immaculate lawn sat inside.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, the royal retreat was abandoned. An attempt to revive the dilapidated former paradise was launched in 1982 and lasted until 1996 when it was once again left vacant. The grounds were untouched until 2002 when Aman Resorts founder, Adrian Zecha, who worked as a journalist in Cambodia between 1959 and 1970 and stayed at Villa Princiere during its heyday, stumbled across the derelict concrete shells that remained.
Zecha poured his heart into restoring the complex to its former glory. Taking inspiration from the original design, the Amansara retained a sense of 1960s charm and elegance while being given a contemporary kick, with sleek lines sitting alongside its gentle curves.
Sally Baughen, general manager of the 24-suite luxury resort, says, “It’s a beautiful example of the wonderful, contemporary modernist architecture that existed in Cambodia then. We have stuck to the roots of the original property, and I think that’s what makes it so beautiful.”
The dining room, which miraculously remained standing with its seven metre-high ceiling, has risen from the ashes to offer guests the perfect place to admire the front pool and sweeping lawns that lead to a second pool.
Once again attracting the elite through its doors, Amansara is also on the hit list of the famous with Hollywood’s Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt calling it home during visits to Siem Reap. And looking out over this small oasis, it’s easy to see why they keep coming back.
French architect Laurent Mondet came under King Father Sihanouk’s radar while working with Vann Molyvann in France during the late 1950s. Sihanouk was impressed by his ability to bring the modernist movement to life, and wanted the architect to work his magic on the grand complex he was creating.
Mondet envisioned a roadside refuge that would also leave guests feeling a world away from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city streets. Privacy was key, and Mondet created the peaceful haven, which was his greatest architectural feat, with care and precision.
Amansara Charles De Gaulle, Siem Reap, Cambodia Tel: +855 (0) 63 760 333
A garden compound with 24 suites, including 12 pool suites, spa pool, lap pool, spa and restaurant.