Living the Dream at Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel.
Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel, Siem Reap.
I’ve always thought of accommodation as a somewhat peculiar and contentious aspect of travel. Some of us view the decision of where to stay as simply a place to lay our heads down after a long day’s exploring. After all, travel is chiefly about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and unusual situations we find ourselves in, right? For others though, travel represents a rare opportunity to pamper oneself. Thus it can often be a case of: Hell yeah, I want those fluffy pillows, a jacuzzi in the bathroom, that balcony overlooking the lake.
Lord only knows I’ve experienced a broad range of accommodation types over the past twenty three years. I’ve slummed it in the shittiest of shitty hostels. I’ve rented crumbly old characterful apartments, enjoyed some wonderfully quirky themed hotels and experienced proper luxury here and there along the way. Choosing my favourite hotel, however, would be a tricky one. That said, today’s article features what would have to be a strong contender.
During our first three months in Siem Reap, Sladja and I had had a tough time with our various homes from home. Partly down to the rough and ready nature of Cambodia. But also because we found ourselves in town during the outbreak of the global pandemic. Many of you already know those stories from my recent articles on The Foster Apartments and Suon Angkor Boutique Hotel.
At the end of March that year we rolled the dice once more with a stay at another so-called boutique hotel. This one was called Apsara Greenland, an exquisitely crafted garden compound home to a cluster of tasteful rooms and larger suites.
Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel.
It was just another sweltering afternoon when Sladja and I strolled through Apsara’s entrance gates and thought: Well, this is lovely. In fact, you could have heard a pin drop as we took the main path; admiring the immaculate lawns, mango trees and herb bushes. By the time the manager showed us one of Apsara’s stylish double rooms, I understood that in normal circumstances a month here would have set us back a pretty penny.
But these were not normal circumstances, of course. Siem Reap’s tourist and expat population had scarpered, en masse, back to their home countries. As a result, the manager, a softly-spoken man called Mr. So, was keen to offer us a great deal for a monthlong stay. We paid him in cash and moved in on a Monday morning, full of hope that our Siem Reap adventure had reached a positive turning point.
Apsara Greenland opened in 2008 as Villa Kiara under the ownership of a French businessman called Mr. Laurent. In 2018 a local entrepreneur, Ms Tan Lijing, took over the place. It was she who redesigned the hotel into what it is today and changed the name to Apsara.
Lijing and her team did a great job with the rooms. While not exactly spacious, we found our new digs both tasteful and comfortable. The bed, for example, was surprisingly springy. The air con thumbs-uppingly icy. The WIFI, in those early days at least, good enough for me to deliver my online classes. Best of all, we had our own cosy patch of the garden, with a table and chairs overlooking the communal pool.
Living the Dream in Siem Reap.
Having that pool on our doorstep felt like such a privilege. Typically we’d wake up, have coffee and a pastry, then take a dip. If world events surrounding COVID were stressing us out (as they often were), we would jump in the pool and swim the anxiety away. Moreover, we became quite fond of evening swims after classes. Sometimes during a heavy downpour, which was a lot of fun.
It was at the pool that we first met Apsara Greenland’s only other resident, a Greek man from Cephalonia by the name of Makis. Like us, he’d gotten himself stuck in Cambodia and was now just going to ride it out until the world reopened. Makis was really friendly and we soon became accustomed to his “hello my friends!” each morning when we emerged from the room.
As much as we loved The Greek, he admittedly drove us a bit mad with his phone calls. Most evenings he’d sit on the balcony with a cigar and a beer, calling god only knows who on speakerphone. But instead of talking like a normal person, he would absolutely BELLOW so that his voice reverberated around every single corner of the compound. Then, the next day, he might stop by our room with a cake he’d bought us from a local bakery. What can you do?
At the far end of the garden, opposite our room, sat a raised gazebo with a lovely vantage point of the compound. This is where I would come to blog before the day’s classes kicked in. Sometimes we’d take long lazy breakfasts there too, with coffee, juice and cereal bought from a supermarket.
Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel.
On other days we let the cook at Apsara take care of breakfast. Looking back, I can’t believe the kitchen stayed open for the three of us. But we were sure glad it did, as in that first month we regularly ordered their pancakes and fruit platters.
For lunches and dinners, the menu was somewhat limited. They had a few standard western meals (burgers and pizzas), though naturally it was with their Khmer dishes that they excelled. With no cooking facilities in our room, we’d stroll over to the empty restaurant and order dinner. Until, that is, we discovered the outstanding Krousar Cafe and their reliable delivery service.
Our favourite Apsara creations were definitely their creamy red and green curries, which came in beef, chicken and veggie modes. They arrived served with salad, steamed rice and a glass of water, though sometimes we’d help ourselves to a beer from the cabinet by the counter.
We’ll always be thankful to Apsara for the safe little cocoon it gave us away from the stresses of the pandemic. Within its protective walls, I built up my teaching schedule and we began our detailed guide on the cafes and restaurants of Siem Reap.
Our Pandemic Hideout.
Here and there, our attention would wander because of daily encounters with the local wildlife. Little frogs hopped around all over the place. Under our chairs, near the pool and in the grass. One evening we returned home from a local restaurant to find a sizeable fella attached to the knob of our door! Uh…
There were also snails and lizards aplenty. And delightful yellow canaries bringing sweet birdsong into the Apsara garden. Oh, and a wild kitten we named Dumbsy who I had to rescue, numerous times, from the fence he kept getting stuck on.
From time to time, I’d embark on morning jogs down the dusty, surrounding side streets. More often than not with my headphones on, listening to the excellent Guardian Football Weekly Podcast.
During these jogs I’d get fascinating glimpses into authentic everyday life. For the most part locals were hiding out at home away from the dangers of the virus. But on some days I got to say hello to a grandmother selling bread on a street corner. Or wave to children playing outside their houses.
Exploring the Neighbourhood.
As the weeks rolled by, we gradually got to know the staff at Apsara. They far outnumbered the actual guests, even though a few people booked in for brief stays. Mr. So, the manager, was incredibly kind and helpful to us. He went to great lengths to ensure the shaky WIFI kept working. This included the eventual installation of a separate router outside our door!
Furthermore, he took us to see immigration one afternoon, where an officer assured Sladja that her expired tourist visa would not be a problem. We also really liked Mr. So’s cheerful deputy, Kim, a fresh-faced young man with a bachelor’s degree in tourism and hospitality.
A couple of times a week Mr. So’s wife and son would visit. His boy, Philip, was always so mesmerised by Sladja and I. To the point where he would come right up to the gazebo where I was working and just stare at me for minutes on end. “Hello!” I’d invariably say, but he would just hold his gaze soundlessly. A flicker of a smile threatening to break out across his lips.
Elsewhere, I was fond of Phon, who worked behind the bar and served any dishes we ordered. Sophal meanwhile was the chef, a guy we nicknamed El Jefe because he was learning Spanish. Veasna, the handyman, could usually be found carrying out repairs or raking leaves. And then there was Bunnat, a somewhat solemn man who I often caught asleep at reception, where nothing much ever happened.
Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel.
According to Mr. So, nearly all staff members come from poor villages in the countryside near Siem Reap. One of the owner’s key recruitment policies is providing training opportunities for the disadvantaged. What’s more, a percentage of Apsara’s service charges gets shared among staff members. And a part of the overall profits goes to supporting local charities through donations.
We were so happy with life at Apsara, Sladja and I decided to stay for a second month. This time we were able to negotiate an upgrade to one of the family suites. It was still just one room, but double the size. Much to our delight, the bathroom also had a sizeable tub! Perfect for a hot soak with beers after an evening movie.
But the sweetest thing about our new living quarters had to be the private patio and pool outside our back door. Whenever we fancied a swim, we now had a choice. The large communal pool near the front door? Or our own private pool out the back door? Truly, it felt like we were living the dream.
The Family Suite.
And yet, who would have known that this luxury could come with such terrifying moments? Sladja and I were in our room one afternoon resting when, quite suddenly, we heard a loud SPLASH! in the garden pool. Out we went to investigate and… OH MY GOD! …. there was a long, green snake launching itself out of the water and up one of the palm trees.
We were stunned, not sure if it had fallen from the tree or scaled the fence into our garden. Either way, we both thanked our lucky stars that we hadn’t been in the pool at the moment it landed.
Another day, deeply engrossed in a movie, we spotted a large cockroach scurrying along the side of the bed. Aaaaaaagh! I did my best to scoop it onto the floor where I planned to deal with it. But unfortunately it got away, escaping down what we presumed was the same little hole it had emerged from.
Having reported it to the staff, Mr. Kim, Veasna and the cleaner came to the room where they proceeded to dismantle the bed. They subsequently found and killed a number of resident cockroaches!
I’ll certainly never forget the mental red ant infestation either. I was back up on the gazebo one afternoon photo editing for a blog when Sladja said, “Uh… Leighton”. My eyes following her pointed finger, I turned to see an absolute swarm of red ants on one of the main pillars.
Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel.
Luckily Sophal was on hand to eliminate them. Arriving with a tube of bug spray, we took turns in doing what needed to be done so that Sophal could take a break from the godawful smell that enveloped the gazebo.
During that second month we made friends with a new long term guest, Larry T Ward from Tucson, Arizona. With his husky voice, twinkly eyes, silver hair and a billion and one entertaining tales, we liked Larry immediately. And it was impossible not to marvel at what a wonderful life he’d lived.
A certified jack of all trades, Larry has worked as a family therapist, a seminar promoter and Hollywood agent. He is also a published author, having written a biography on his close friend Noel Neill, the first actress to play the Superman character Lois Lane. Like me he has also lived in and travelled all around China, so we were never short of things to chat about.
We ended up staying at Apsara for 4 happy months. By the end of July we felt comfortable enough with Cambodia’s limited COVID situation to embark on a new adventure. During those last weeks Sladja and I celebrated our first joint birthdays together. Regular readers may recall the gorgeous birthday cake we ordered from Krousar Cafe. What I didn’t mention in that article was that we decided to share it with the staff as a thank you for taking such good care of us.
Cake for All!
It remains a lovely memory for us both, the team taking a break from work to enjoy their respective wedges of cake. The below photo also serves as a lovely reminder of the cleaner, a kind woman who touched us deeply when she cried on the day we left during a goodbye hug with Sladja. That’s her sitting down against the door, how I wish we had found out her name.
If we had surprised the staff that day, Mr. So and Mr. Kim also succeeded in catching us off guard by giving us birthday presents. We opened our packages to discover that we were now the proud owners of some traditional Cambodian krama. This checkered garment, often red and white, can be used as a scarf or bandana. Martial arts fighters even use it on their fists when engaging in traditional Bokator fights.
It was a bittersweet morning the day we said goodbye to Apsara. We were leaving behind a home and city that we were really going to miss. Loading our bags into the waiting taxi, we took one last look at the lush jungle garden. The Greek was waving from the balcony. The cleaner had disappeared to freshen up her tear-stained face. Mr. So shook my hand vigorously as we all wished each other well with the challenges ahead.
Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel.
And then we were in our chariot, skidding away from Palm Street. Dust flying up behind us and obscuring the hotel’s entrance gates. We were off to the next leg of our Cambodian exploits, and couldn’t help but wonder what shenanigans awaited us in the city of Kampot.
Update January 2023: It’s impossible to overstate how delighted we are that Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel is still going strong nearly two and a half years after our stay. While many of the staff members we knew (including Mr. So) have departed, we see that their online reviews remain glowing. We wish them all the best. To get in touch, why not drop them a line, either on their main website or Facebook page.
Take a look at my exhaustive overview of What to See and Do in Siem Reap.
You can also read my guide to Siem Reap’s excellent cafe, restaurant and bar scene: Where to Eat and Drink Siem in Reap.
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