All the guidebooks tell you the best thing about Cambodia is the people. Oh, see the ruins, hear the history, sure, they say. But it’s the people who’ll stay with you. Experience the warmth a of genuine Khmer hospitality. Well, I am spectacularly British and was quite convinced I’d hate it. I’ll usually only accept warmth delivered in mugs of tea and filtered through several layers of sarcasm.
But they were right. Cambodia is an extraordinary place. Watch the thousand year old temples rise out of the dawn and then walk up the causeway between the gods and demons tugging a humongous snake god to inspect the bullets still buried in the carvings of dancing girls. But what will stay with you is the fact that the visa stamping team at the airport, unlike any others I’ve seen in the world, are laughing from the moment we get in until the time the last bag is picked up. Your tour guide will sneak up behind other groups and do animal impressions to make them jump. The ziplining team will troll the group into staring up at birds that don’t exist to distract a woman hysterical from a fear of heights.
Khmer humour is constant, often deadpan and surprisingly sharp. While the tour guides who are fluent in English will pun constantly, the drivers will mime having run out of cold water, hold the pained expression just long enough for you to register real panic before revealing another case.
My Cambodian trip starts at Shinta Mani, boasting beautiful rooms so enormous you can get lost in them and an extraordinary number of staff ready to offer directions, towels, cool water and advice at every turn through the long, identical looking pillared corridors.
You’ll quickly learn to orient yourself by the sound of the waterfalls, but never quite work out just where the man proffering a tray of cool towels appears from. The level of attention is almost unsettling; pop out of your room for a wake-up splash in the black lacquered pool and you’ll emerge to a folded towel, drink and your notebook and glasses neatly stacked (I half expected to find the notes inside copyedited) head back upstairs a mere five minutes later to find an unnervingly perfect room. Blink and you’ll swear the pillows have been tidied. The effect is of being haunted by an extraordinarily indulgent poltergeist.
But Shinta Mani isn’t just about an level of effortlessness that leaves you forgetting how to operate your own body. General Manager Christian De Boer and Sochea Uon explain over an enormous breakfast (complete with gluten free toast) the work that goes on behind the scenes.
There's healthcare and education offered to staff and their children, the thousand water wells dug, and two thousand children offered dental care, the schools built, the support of schemes to clean up plastic waste and reduce mosquitos and dengue outbreaks, the code of conduct for tourists developed to protect the dignity of worshippers at Angkor Wat, the free academy for youth, the microfinance arm...and so on. Sustainability and community aren’t an afterthought here and it shows. The hotel feels not like a bubble of wealth in a desperately poor region, but a hub of positivity that will leave you energised not just for a trek under the hot sun to temples, but to make a real difference in the world.
It's also worth attending Shinta Mani’s Made in Cambodia market on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday or Sunday, where you can buy from local charities and social enterprises. Bear in mind it can be hard to haggle over the price of a purse under pictures of smiling villagers while the stall holder explains that they are stitched from recycled fabric by women with HIV, and screen printed by their children at free art workshops. Maybe just pay the $5.