Peace of the heavenly nymphs *
At the gates of Angkor, Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk's onetime guest villa regains its glory as Amansara
Raka Dewan -- Interior Design, 10/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Amansara. Rolling off your tongue like the purr of a well fed cat, the name combines the words aman (Sanskrit for peace) and apsara (celestial nymphs in Hindu mythology). The spiritual reference is particularly apt, because Amansara—the new Amanresorts property in Cambodia—lies less than eight miles from Angkor, the Khmer Empire's capital of religion, culture, and government from the ninth to the 15th centuries AD.
It was in 1962 that Cambodia's current King Norodom Sihanouk hired French architect Laurent Mondet to design a walled guest villa in the riverfront city of Siem Reap. Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia stayed at the Villa Princière, as it was then called, and actor Peter O'Toole was a guest there during the filming of Lord Jim.
The villa first became a hotel in 1965. A decade later, the otherworldly peace of this storied retreat was disrupted by revolution, as the Khmer Rouge turned the building into a state guest house. After the Vietnamese military rolled in, the villa became a hotel again, operating under Thai management, but success was brief. Little more than a shell remained when Amanresorts chairman Adrian Zecha entered the picture—and fell in love with the dilapidated compound's history and atmosphere.
Internationally known for packaging outstanding geography, culture, and history with chic interiors and impeccable service, Zecha acquired the villa, renamed it Amansara, and hired a longtime friend, architect Kerry Hill, to spearhead the transformation. "The idea was to restore the property as if it were a guest house owned by King Sihanouk today. We've re-created how he may have furnished it but in a more contemporary manner," says Amanresorts marketing director Trina Dingler Ebert.
Reconstruction was rendered that much more difficult by the fact that the Khmer Rouge had destroyed most historical records. To authenticate details, the Kerry Hill Architects team consulted an old tourist guide with photographs from the 1960's. "The existing building made quite a strong French 1960's statement," Hill says. "We reinforced the architecture and added a higher level of comfort and sophistication."
Almost a year's worth of work now complete, the 12-suite Amansara welcomes visitors at an open-air reception desk. Guest accommodations, linked by a covered walkway, form a U that embraces a lawn and a swimming pool. All suites feature subdued materials and colors: dark-stained teak paneling, terrazzo floors, white bed linen, and touches of ocher courtesy of blankets and pillows. Living, sleeping, and bathing areas are combined, with two steps descending to the tub to achieve a sense of boundary. The separate WC and shower open onto a private courtyard screened by a white-painted wall.
No structural changes were made to the circular dining room where King Sihanouk once entertained guests by showing films he'd produced, directed, and composed scores for. The original shallow dome and sandstone columns remain, the latter now outfitted with bamboo custom sconces. In the center of the room, Hill furnished a lounge area with his own seating and tables in an indigenous Vietnamese wood.
In the library, with its dark-stained paneling and enticing curved banquette, historians and scholars give informal talks on Angkor and Cambodia. "Because the resort is very small, it's as though someone is visiting you at home," Ebert says.
For relaxation after a long day of 12th-century temples—reached via the hotel's moped-powered rickshaws—Hill pro- poses the main courtyard's swimming pool, restored with black glazed ceramic tile handmade in Thailand. "The hotel's design is a serene counterpoint to the monuments, not chock-full of Cambodiana," Hill says. "You go out exploring and come back to simplicity and calm."
Angkor Thom's gateway, a Khmer monument circa 1200, stands eight miles from Cambodia's new Amansara, a Siem Reap resort by Kerry Hill Architects.
All guest suites' courtyards feature carved sandstone friezes reproduced from a 12th-century detail at Angkor Wat.
The circular dining room, 43 feet in diameter, is floored in terrazzo and ringed by original sandstone columns 19 feet high. Installed at the top of the columns, bamboo sconces emphasize the presence of the shallow ceiling dome. Kerry Hill designed the seating and tables in an indigenous Vietnamese wood.
Hill placed rattan-backed custom chairs along the cement-paved covered walkway that links the guest suites.
Some trees on the site stand 130 feet tall.
The villa's U shape terminates at the domed dining room. Hill restored the swimming pool with glazed ceramic tiles handmade in Thailand.
Concrete columns support a poolside pergola sheltering a custom table and chairs.
A daybed reposes in a niche by the pool.
Hill supplied the library with teak bookcases, sea-grass seating cubes, and a banquette upholstered in cotton.
A teak writing desk pulls up to a shuttered aperture in a guest suite.
All suites are open-plan. Hill designed the cast-terrazzo sink basin.