Jan 21, 2021
REWIND TO PRE-COVID TIMES and you’d be hard-pushed to find a luxury traveler in laidback Kampot.
Guesthouses and budget accommodation dominated the compact former fishing town frequented mainly by backpackers and expats fleeing chaotic Phnom Penh for the weekend. At best, their options were a handful of boutique resorts punctuating the banks of Preaek Tuek Chhu River.
Fast-forward to today and change is on the horizon with the debut of the area’s first five-star property, Amber Kampot. Perched on a tranquil stretch of the waterway, the 25-villa resort draws inspiration from the country’s ancient rainforests while embracing modern Cambodia, blending an oasis of tropical green with subtle minimalism.
When ground broke on the 1.5-hectare resort in March 2019, COVID-19 was unheard of, tourism was booming in Cambodia, and Kampot was slated to be the next hot destination. So, even when the pandemic swept across the globe, travel ground to a halt and Cambodia suspended tourist visas indefinitely, owners Amber International decided to plough ahead anyway with their plans to create a riverside haven to the backdrop of striking Bokor Mountain – a move that has paid off.
Since opening late last year, Amber Kampot has proven a hit with grounded locals and expats seeking a luxurious break in a peaceful parcel of southern Cambodia. As the majority of the country’s hotels struggle for survival, Amber regularly reports full occupancy on weekends and during public holidays. About 80 percent of guests are locals, with an impressive 15 percent repeat bookings.
Located on the outskirts of the rural village of Ta Ang, opposite Kampot town on a peninsula that stretches to the Gulf of Thailand, the resort is influenced by the province’s pristine natural beauty. Kampot’s fertile soils mean it is verdant all year round, with lush hills and mountains peppering a patchwork of farmland and forests laced by a web of lazily winding waterways.
These are all elements embraced in Amber’s design, transporting you to rural tranquility from the moment you arrive despite being a stone’s throw from the town. Landscaped tropical gardens are currently being worked on to create a lush rainforest of green that envelops the 20 one- and five two-bedroom villas. The centerpiece is a lagoon that gently sweeps through the resort, replicating the river it sits alongside.
The result is an environment that soothes the soul from the moment you step foot in the resort. A meandering layout sees gardens dotted with spacious, eco-friendly private villas. Each features its own pool and sun deck, making it difficult to be lured away.
Light spills into the fresh indoor space thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and an intimate central courtyard filled with palms and shrubs that hide a large ceramic tub, perfect to wash away any remaining stress during an evening bath under the stars.
Onsite restaurant, ARVI’s outdoor and indoor seating areas set the tone for the minimalist design and elegant urban edge that runs throughout. Sharp lines contrast with gentle curves, while tufts of greenery and delicate splashes of color complement blocks of soft grey, black and rich brown.
The menu has been crafted by Toek Manghout. The executive chef, who happens to hail from Kampot, made a name for himself working at some of the capital’s most prestigious restaurants before running his own at the stylish Templation hotel in Siem Reap.
Famed for his ability to get creative with classic Khmer dishes and fuse flavors from the east and west, Manghout has put his stamp on the menu. Celebrating local specialties, seafood features heavily, with the bouillabaisse a must-try. The fragrant broth is packed with fresh prawns, crab and fish topped with tomatoes, garlic and a handful of local herbs. Another favorite of mine is the delightfully plated crab cake. The delicate mix of potato and crab meat packed inside crispy bread crumbs is perfectly complemented by crunchy nashi pear and the tang of black pepper sauce.
While the resort ticks all the boxes for a relaxing escape, it’s the staff that cap the experience. Covid ravishing the tourism industry has meant Amber has been able to recruit the cream of the country’s crop and here Cambodian hospitality is on display at its finest. And it’s this personal touch that makes the resort stand out, from the tales told by food and beverage manager Lundy Taing to the expertise of general manager Ayub Yulianto.
As the sun sinks into the horizon, we round out a relaxing day with a cocktail crafted by Lundy in hand at the infinity pool that seemingly races into the river. By coincidence, my phone goes off and a Facebook notification reminds me this is the anniversary of my first visit to Kampot a few months after moving to Cambodia back in 2012. Another stark reminder of how times are changing and sleepy Kampot is on the up.
amber-kampot.com; doubles from US$348; three-night package for two people in a one-bedroom villa including one dinner, two lunches, one sunset cocktail, daily cocktails, and a 60-minute couples’ massage for US$1,044.