When the Khmer Rouge ‘soldiers’ seized Cambodia’s cities in 1975, sending anyone thought to be ‘intellectual’ to its oppressive torture camps, artists and musicians were among the first to disappear.

After little more than a decade of peace following 40 years of war, the country is awakening once more to its creative potential, recapturing some of its early 20th-century flair. No more so can this be said than of the dreamy and peaceful city of Battambang; Cambodia’s second largest city, yet relatively untouched by tourism.

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Few visitors include Battambang on their itinerary, missing out on a thriving contemporary cultural scene with arts cafes, art-funding projects and galleries springing up all over the riverside town; through which the Sankae river atmospherically snakes, and with rice fields, leafy villages and glittering pagodas haloing around its edges.

With its untouched ambiance and having survived Polpot’s regime relatively undamaged, in Cambodia’s sleepy “second city” you’ll find some of the country’s best-preserved architecture; retaining its Art Deco charm with jaded yellow and blue shaded French colonialism sat alongside modernist 1950s and 1960s style buildings.

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Battambang’s main street is built along the banks of the Sangke River, with the city’s night market taking centre stage and artsy little avenues acting as easy to navigate side roads; perfect to explore on a push bike, which if hired through Bambu hotel for $2 a day, means the money will go to its local school.

Cycle down streets 2 and 2.5 and you will find some of Cambodia’s coolest philanthropic art spaces, the newest being Lotus Cafe and Gallery, housed in the remnants of a colonial 3 story shop front.

Loving renovation from Darren Swallow has resulted in a stylish, exposed brick wall, retro floor tiled multi-purpose space that will host art exhibitions as well as films, music and live performances, and also features a bar.

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Gracing the walls of Lotus are some of the stunningly psychedelic artworks by Swallow’s wife, Khchao Touch; in feminine colours, fluid lines and fine tipped brush strokes, Touch’s works depict dreamy meditative looking-women surrounded by hallucinogenic swirls of lime greens and golds.

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Available to buy from Lotus cafe; stare into Touch’s paintings and their painstakingly applied dots of colour and you may find your own inner peace. – The gallery is split over three floors with plenty of other local artists work to admire.

Down the street is Sammaki, a community art space hosting local artists and helping to bridge the gap between art school and life as a professional artist.

Just one road away on Street 2 is Jaan Bai, a social enterprise run by the Cambodia’s Children’s Trust and arguably the best restaurant in Battambang. Melding good looks with real substance, here young chefs have been schooled in the art of creative cuisine and cocktail mixing; while local artists have the opportunity to share their stories and works.

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Characterised aesthetically at first glance by dusty, unsealed roads, weathered shop houses and the off architectural gem; delve deeper and discover is vibrant cafe scene, growing education focus and an artistic community unlike any other in Cambodia.

Vibrant yet untouched, there has never been a better time to visit Battambang.

Travel Indochina runs small group tours and tailor-made itineraries that feature Battambang. 

Cambodia is a very special country; and anyone who knows me well will know just how special the country is to me. – A country which, after centuries under Vietnamese and Thai siege and the devastation during Polpot’s Khmer Rouge Regime, rightfully still wears its heart on its sleeve; it’s heart-centre being the soulful Siem Reap.

As the country’s heartland, home to the famous Angkor Watt temples, Siem Reap has seen a huge increase in tourism in the last couple of years, bringing with it an equal increase in beautiful boutique hotels with frangipani-fringed swimming pools. However only one can lay claim to giving as much back to its local communities as it does for its guests – and that place is the stunning Sojourn Boutique Villas.

Soujourn Boutique Hotel poolside 1 Bianca Capstick www.borntobeawildflower.com

Nestled in the authentic Treak village, a short drive out of the dusty bustle of Siem Reap’s town centre; Sojourn Boutique Villas combines style with substance by offering guests an experience that stretches so much further than excellent exotic cocktails sipped at its swimming pool’s bar.

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Opening visitors’ eyes to its soulful surroundings, Sojourn Boutique Hotel stands out by offering guests walking tours around Treak Village ($5 per person), and ‘A Day in the Life” tours in Komphein Village, as part of its community enriching work through HUSK, an NGO lovingly set up by the hotel’s owners in 2009, following Typhoon Ketsana.

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The fee for the walking tour goes directly to HUSK, whose remit is to help people help themselves, give children access to education, improve basic hygiene, provide access to food and better nutritional knowledge, and help establish programs so that the villagers derive income through sustainable projects and tourism.

HUSK Cambodia Soujorn Boutique Hotel Treak Village 2

 

Treak Village is also brought to life with even more vibrancy thanks to Sojourn Boutique Villa’s hands-on Cambodian Cooking Class* in its bamboo pavilion. Unlike any other Khmer cooking courses, this one starts with a short visit to a local family’s home to learn about food customs and beliefs within the village.

HUSK Cambodia Soujorn Boutique Hotel Treak Village 4

Taking this new-found knowledge back to the hotel’s beautiful Bamboo Pavillion, sunkissed in the morning light; here under the guidance of Sojourn Boutique Hotel’s Head Chef, up to eight people will learn how to make three traditional Khmer dishes – followed by a sit down lunch together to enjoy your three courses of your own creations.

Soujourn Boutique Hotel Treak Village HUSK Cooking Class

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Continuing to give back to its community, the majority of the hotel’s team of incredibly warm and smiling staff are those who live locally, walking the short distance to the utopian setting of Sojourn Boutique Villas each day.

Taking upmost pride in their roles, the team here go above and beyond to make your stay as special as possible, whether it’s squeezing a different fresh fruit juice for you each morning, shaking cocktails in the atmospheric lantern-lit restaurant or poolside bar or turning down your bed every evening and leaving chocolates on your pillow.

Soujourn Boutique Hotel breakfast

Not a trick is missed at Soujourn Boutique Villas: Pick up to the hotel is arranged from wherever you require and on arrival fragrant Jasmine “welcome” bracelets and cooling face towels are lavished upon you.

Guests are spoiled further with the beautiful, winding palm and banana tree-lined walk to its villas, greeted by fluttering butterlies and perfectly-timed falling Jasmine flowers on route, adjacent to an ocean blue swimming pool surrounded by loungers, day beds, water features – and it’s in-pool cocktail bar.

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A family-friendly hotel; here children splash, sunworshipers worship, shade-dwellers seek shelter under the light cover of the Bedouin style double loungers, and those in full holiday mode sup sun-kissed cocktails, very reasonably priced at $4.50 or $3.50 during the 4pm-6pm Happy Hour.

Quicker than you can say “Happy Hour,” your bags, fresh lime juice and sweet, toasty coconut pancakes will have been spirited into your luxury villa, prolonging the welcome even further.

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With almost as many Jasmine flowers dotted around your heavenly holiday home as you’ll find in the grounds, beautiful attention to detail runs throughout.

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Coffee, English Breakfast, Earl Grey & Darjeeling Tea sit atop your well-stocked minibar; the rooms are adorned with statues of Buddha and local photography; the rain shower alone (let alone the stylish stone bathroom) was about the same size as my Hackney studio flat and locally sourced, ethically made beauty products sit alongside your giant stone sink waiting to be used.

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If the azure of the pool can’t lure you over for a sunset apéritif at the bar, each villa has its own balcony on which cocktails and light bites will be brought to you – and in a little more seclusion thanks to the dense tropical garden surroundings.

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Dinner here is atmospheric, the restaurant romantically lit by tea lights in Chinese lanterns, with the ripples of the swimming pool still in sight or sound. – And the food is exquisite.

Little is known about the diversities and subtleties of Khmer Cuisine and at Sojourn these delicately spiced flavours are played out in a sophisticated menu which offers the likes of a light, tangy Crab & Coconut Salad (easily the best salad I’ve ever eaten) and the delicious national dish Amok, the option of a daily special such as John Dory Fish steamed in ginger and local spices. France’s colonial heritage in Cambodia has shaped an impressive wine list of Bordeauxs, sparkling wine and champagne.

The restaurant is open from 7am-10am for breakfast, included in your room rate and offers the likes of perfectly cooked omelettes or decadent French toast dusted with cinnamon and honey; all accompanied by perfectly your choice of tea or a barista blended Flat White. The restaurant re-opens at 11:00am for the rest of the day.

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Soujourn Boutique Hotel flat white

Huge thanks to the wonderful, dedicated and philanthropic Fiona and Anthony for having us. A stay at Sojourn Boutique Villas really is the perfect oxymoron of altruistic luxury.

Soujourn Boutique Hotel

  • Room rates range from $165 / night in a Terrace Room through to $240 / night in a Temple Villa. Be sure to check their bookings page for any deals.
  • Treak Village Rd,Treak Village Siem Reap
  • (+855) 12 923 437 / info@sojournsiemreap.com
  • Donate to HUSK

*Cambodian Cooking Classes are $24 per person for the half day class and $35 for the full day class. There is a maximum of eight participants involved in any class. Classes are run daily at 9.30am and 12.30pm and take around 2.5 to 3 hours per class. Bookings are essential and can be made at reception. – Full review to follow.

Centered around a pristine pool under chic Chinese lanterns, you will find Villa Maly, a colonial mansion turned boutique hotel, hidden from the hustle of Luang Prabang by its dense green garden of sky high palm trees and vibrant banana plants.

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villa maly poolside 3 Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

villa maly poolside 5 Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

Like a grand mason from the French/Indochinese golden era lost in a lush southeast Asian jungle; Villa Maly blends Laotian hospitality with French flare to create a unique luxury hotel in the centre of Laos’ “golden city.”

villa maly mansion 1 Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

villa maly mansion 2 Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

Beginning your stay with a “welcome drink,’ of refreshing, chilled watermelon juice, served with traditional local snacks such as fried Mekong seaweed and banana chips; a visit at Villa Maly is as though guests are stepping directly into a 1940s picture-perfect travel poster for Air France or La Indochine; in an expertly matched colour palate of creams, greens and oranges.

villa maly welcome drinks and snacks Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

villa maly poolside 7 Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

Although reminiscent to staying in a jungle villa, the grounds are expertly kept by a dedicated team who, from sunrise to sundown, delicately trim and treat the floral filled gardens which surround  the swimming pool, discretely maintaining Villa Maly’s air of perfection.

You know that the team are there, but it’s almost as though they’re not as rogue leaves and empty cocktail glasses are spirited away with only the sound of the hotel’s trickling swimming pool to distract you.

villa maly garden 2 Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

These aforementioned cocktails, are those expertly blended by the talented team in Villa Maly’s Mouhot’s Bar, its namesake Henri Mouhot, the French naturalist who rediscovered the famous Angkor temples before travelling through Luang Prabang; and the bar, the classic kind of out-of-the way watering hole you’d image the explorer drinking in.

As well as Mouhot’s Bar, Villa Maly offers luxury dining at Le Vetiver a perfect alfresco experience, sited on a wooden deck, appointed with a warm rose wood furnishing and sheltered by a canopy.

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And on balmier evenings guests have the option of a poolside barbecue: Surrounded by the garden’s tropical frangipanis, ginger, orchids, lilies, gardenias and mango trees, and served next to what has been rates as one of the best pools in Luang Prabang, here Villa Maly’s team will fire up the grill and leave you to cook your selection of tantalizing cuts of well marinated tenderloin, ribs, pork, shrimp and fresh seafood.

villa maly poolside 1 Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

The hotel’s wine list complements both the grill and the various delectable local Laos traditional cuisine, which is served all day long.

Breakfast is buffet style – but not as you ma have come to expect from Southeast Asian breakfast buffets – as Villa Maly’s is the best I’ve experienced, with attention to detail and little touches like wooden honey twirlers, individual glass bottles of fresh juice to take to your table, and homemade jam served in miniature jars nestled in an impressive spread of museli, cereals, fresh fruit salads, croissants, pastries, omelettes, cooked breakfast options, stuffed tomatoes, cheese, cold cuts, fresh coffee and fresh tea. Everything for the hungry hearted to the health conscious.

villa maly breakfast 2 Bianca Capstick/BorntobeaWiildflower

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Blankets are strewn over the backs of the chairs too, making that challenging transition from cloud-like comfortable bed to breakfast that little bit easier – another thoughtful touch.

Bedrooms come in two categories and we stayed in a “Superior.”

Superior Rooms (US$ 214-320) at Villa Maly can lay claim to its own distinct appeal, featuring custom arrangements and distinguished artwork. The rooms do share similarities in hardwood floors, vibrant colors, slate-walled bathrooms, flat screen televisions and views of the gardens or pool. Some superior rooms boast a king sized bed; others offer a pair of beds. All promise a very individualized experience. Our Superior rooms have an average of 24 sqm living area.

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The Deluxe Rooms (US$ 254-360) were once the residence of Princess Khampieng, Ptince Khaman and their children.

The rooms are bright and well-lit thanks to their three broad French windows, although all afford privacy thanks to its lush garden surroundings, and benefit from sun-dappled green and red light dancing around the room, complementing the wonderfully subdued pastel colour palate in each room.

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With attentive staff, stunning rooms, thoughtful extras, great food, lush gardens, killer cocktails and one of the best swimming pools in Luang Prabang, Villa Maly offers a blissful and unique place to stay in Laos’ gorgeous golden city.

75 Oupalath Khamboua Road, PO Box 1148 Ban That Luang Village, Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R
+856 7125 3903/04, +856 7125 3936 (Sales Office)
+856 7125 4912, +856 7126 0319 (Sales Office)
reservation@villa-maly.com

Thank you for having us.

 

Nestled in a curve of the Mekong River is Vientiane: Laos’s laid back capital which blends French architecture alongside 16th Century Buddhist temples; where monks in their orange robes still (just about) outnumber tourists as they stroll down broad boulevards and shaded tree-lined streets, as dotted with golden shrines as they are art-deco style cafes and patisseries.

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Here colonial roofs and gilded temples including Wat Si Schet which features 1000 images of Buddha, form the skyline making it hard to decipher whether you have stepped back in time to 16th Century South East Asia or or 1940s Paris.

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Firmly on the tourist map, Vientiane is not quite the peaceful butterfly and fluttering-bird filled capital it once was, with increasing commercial infrastructure popping up among its atmospheric crumbling French mansions and inspiring monuments; however it still retains some of its authentic charm.

Sinking comfortably into Vientiane’s leafy and stylish embrace is the tranquil Boutique Hotel, Greenpark Villa, pitched just outside of the city centre, the grounds flanked by swaying palm trees, banana plants and flourishing fauna.

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Reminiscent to Japanese styling, water features throughout the hotel as structured Jasmin filled moats with wooden walkways lead from the light filled reception to the ‘Dok Dala’ lounge bar and restaurant, spa and guest apartments.

The garden is a flower filled oasis, centred around a frangipani-fringed lily pond and sun dappled swimming pool surrounded by sumptuously comfortable sun loungers – the perfect antidote to a morning spent strolling those broad boulevards and local morning markets.

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Cool and calming is the focus at Greenpark Villa; the soundtrack to your stay a harmony of its trickling water features and soft jazz playing from Dok Dala lounge bar. Dok Dala is open throughout the day, home to an impressive bar with a stylish spirit selection and a smiling team of bar tenders who know how to mix any cocktail with ease – a rarity in Southeast Asia.

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As the sunlight disappears from the poolside, guests can head to Dok Dala to overlook light fading over the lily pond with their choice of classic a Martini or a Lao style cocktail blended within local whisky or arak (coconut) liqueur.

So, “when in Rome”…. I opted for the Lao Cocktail, a vibrant and refreshing concoction of Laos Arak, Orange Curaçao, Tripple Sec, fresh lime and or orange juice; my cocktail accompanied by Tempura Vegetables (eggplant, green beans, asparagus, carrot and baby corn) served with tangy Raita.

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Dinner can be taken at Dok Dala, which is also a soothing spot for afternoon tea, or up in the hotel’s restaurant; and to relax guests even further, there is also the option of the hotel’s in-house spa…

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A blissful hotel with a warm and personable team, readily available and attentive manager, pool, spa, local craft shop, restaurant and bar; you might forget to leave the hotel to visit Vientiane’s numerous, and equally beautiful, sights!

Doubles start from US$128, +856 21 264097, greenparkvientiane.com

In between the mighty Mekong and calming Khan rivers lies laid back Luang Prabang; a Unesco-protected world heritage site and a genuinely chic little town thanks to its colonial French Indochinese heritage.

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These good looks come at the price of drawing in many a tourist, and while falling in love with Luang Prabang is easy, it may leave those looking for the ‘authentic Southeast Asia’ still searching that little bit harder..

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Lucky enough that search won’t take you too much further – a 4 hour drive north to be precise – to the stripped-back, thatched-housed village of Nong Khiaw. A town where roosters rule the road and locals smile at the sight of you, sitting on the spectacular river Ou.

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imageHere the simple way of life doesn’t just mean cotton weaving and vegetable picking as we watched young boys chase litters of chubby black baby boars off their porches and proudly present sling-shot snakes for their dinner that night.

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Having been lucky enough to call Nong Khiaw our home for two weeks, this sleepy town set in the foot of spectacular limestone mountains is not necessarily for those living life in the slow lane; with the area priding itself on untouched trekking, kayaking and mountain biking excursions.

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Smiling down on it all is the Ban Sop Houn ‘View Point’, a fairly challenging 2K ascent up a mountain path, naturally sun-dappled thanks to the jungle overhead. Entrance to the ‘View Point’, a wooden shala balancing a top Nong Khiaw’s peak 20,000 Kip (£1.80), and the views of the surrounding villages and valleys from the top are most definitely worth the effort.

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An hour’s boat trip north-west lies Nong Khiaw’s even more beautiful little sister, Muang Ngoi, a tiny village on which bombs fell from B-52s during The Secret War of 1962-75.

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Truly one of the most idyllic settings I have ever found myself visiting; here a country stroll through mountain paths, along side glistening streams and rice paddy wetlands, will lead to the cave of Tham Kang, in which the entire population of the village sought shelter for during The Vietnam and Secret Wars.

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Despite their authentic, jumbled and edge-of-the-world feel, the rural ways of Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi by no means involve ‘roughing it’, for travellers…

As well as the usual plethora of £8 a night guest houses, in Nong Khiaw you’ll also find the stylish, stilted, eco villas at the Riverlodge (where we volunteered for 2 weeks), with private balconies as perfect for drinking in the views as they are for drinking in a warming tumbler of Lao Lao, the crystal clear locally brewed rice whisky.

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And over the bridge you’ll find Mandala Ou, a boutique hotel offering not only fully immersive yoga retreats in its cliff-edged shala, but also the serenity of its infinity pool and tropical garden restaurant for soul food, excellent soya banana smoothies and the perfect spot for a post-stretch savasana.

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Both hotels are priced at £34 a night.

In Muang Ngoi Guest Houses offer private bungalows for around £3.50 a night, in most of which you’ll also find hammock-filled gardens for whiling away your days.

Foodies will fall in love with The Gecko Bar a restaurant and shop serving incredible Laotian specialities such as Larb and Papaya Salad, as well as selling locally made honey, Laos Mountain Coffee and ethically woven scarves. – It was here I had the best latte I’ve drunk in Laos, made with coconut milk and a dash of agave syrup.

For unrivalled river views and a dark Lao beer, head to Riverside Bar where you can watch villagers literally living off the river, with steps reaching down to the “dock” for your sunset ride back to Nong Khiaw.

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Now no longer accessible from Luang Prabang via a lazy river trip due to the first of seven proposed dams (a moneymaking plan by the Chinese to harness the river’s hydro electric power) to be built along the River Ou; Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi are threatened by imminent modernity.

Following the dams is also the planned construction of a high-speed railway line from China to Singapore, passing directly through Laos. These, along with ever-increasing tourism to South East Asia means those travelling to Laos should definitely make the trip to this norther, rural oases while it still retains its authenticity!