New York Times on Cambodia

Posted by Chika On 3:07 PM

Cambodia Portraits

Are you an aspiring travel writer, looking for inspiration and good instructions on the art and craft of the genre? Then run, run, run from anything ever published by the New York Times. Don't believe me? In one of the most arrogant, misguided, self-centered, and off balance travel articles of the year, the NYT wants you to see Cambodia as an ultra-rich tourist, just so you can avoid the realities and wonders of this marvelous country. The attitude is sheer stupidity, overlaid with smug satisfaction that you will be protected by your wealth and never subjected to the long and torturous history of the country, not to mention its perilous present.

Somebody should send this writer to Tuol Seng, to get the Raffles out of his system. Excuse me, I'm gonna puke.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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