Social enterprises, stylish boutique stays and sun-soaked lap pools: the cosmopolitan rise of Cambodia and Laos

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  • While the Tomb Raider connotations of Angkor Wat still prevail, a fresh wave of cutting edge start-ups and swanky independents is reshaping the must-see cities of Siem Reap and Luang Prabang

    Standing knee deep in shards of soft Laos light, I can feel tiny chunks of my toes being nibbled away. It’s not an unpleasant feeling. The dead skin is being stripped and repurposed by beautiful shoals of native garra rufa fish and, as my tired feet wilfully succumb to nature’s picturesque pedicure, I turn my focus to the emerald waters at Kuang Si Falls – a cinematic-worthy series of pools and waterfalls nestled deep in the lush-green boughs of Luang Prabang.

    This is a Laos that celebrates gin-clear coves and independent cafes and local social enterprises and boujee boutique hotels. It is not the Laos that friends recall from their backpacking days through a haze of cheap rice whisky. And I’m glad to have discovered it later in life. I missed out on the ‘gap yah’ that defined so many twenty-somethings’ travels, choosing instead to tend to the delicate matter of earning a living. So, now, 15 years later, I’m embarking on a more authentic, more cultured, and infinitely more stylish traverse of Cambodia and Laos in a soul-enriching sojourn in the sun.

    ‘As I weave my way through a tangle of strangled stonework and towering vines, the true beauty of Siem Reap is revealed’

    First stop: the bustling Cambodian social hub that is Siem Reap. I’m staying at the luxuriously reappointed FCC Angkor by Avani hotel – a hip, heritage-style base steeped in both swanky interiors and historical kudos. Following last year’s extensive £5.5million renovation, this former mansion of the French colonial governor and renowned Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC) once popular with bohemian media sets, is now the perfect boutique pad for intrepid travellers. If you favour indulgent lap pools, mark golden hour with sundowners on the terrace, and covet a home in the heart of the city – this is your tribe.

    Cambodia and Laos

    Poolside at Siem Reap’s FCC Angkor by Avani

    Once I’ve gotten over the thrill of having a typewriter in my colonial-chic room (very FCC) and discover the curved redwood bar’s heady Asian-fused cocktails, I head out to explore the city – a buzz of cool cafes, independent lifestyle stores and local life. Just a ten-minute stroll from the hotel, Kandal Village offers up fresh juices at Vibe bar, eclectic tassel earrings at Wild Poppy, and delicious basket-weave bags at Paradise (where I also snap up a palm-print cushion and teal wall carving), before perusing Sanya Art for handmade silk scarves and Cambodian spices, then hitting nearby Sister Srey Cafe to survey my wares.

    Run by two sisters from Melbourne, this social enterprise hangout in the French Quarter opened its doors in 2012 to serve great coffee, delicious veggie platters, and create an empowering support network for locals – particularly women, who were struggling to juggle education with financing their families. Now, eight years on, the cafe donates a large chunk of its profits to APOPO, too – an innovative, humanitarian landmine clearing organisation that is driving positive social change in Cambodia. Iced coffees and sweet potato fries don’t come better than that.

    Another boutique brand I’m excited to discover is Ammo Jewellery. Working from a small, unassuming studio in the bustling centre of Siem Reap, local artisans here craft beautiful, bespoke pieces of jewellery from recycled brass bullet casings – and they’re proud to be alleviating issues of poverty in the process. Headed up by Brit and pro designer, Madeline Green, Ammo’s ethos is simple: offer young, disadvantaged Cambodians an apprenticeship with fair wages to help decrease poverty and empower students. It here, while partaking in a jewellery-making workshop, that one former apprentice, Nary, helps me to (quite literally) hammer out a Laura Lee-esque pendant. My attempt at sun beam engravings might miss the mark, but Nary’s enthusiasm for her trade is infectious.

    Cambodia and Laos

    Ancient ruins and A-list status: Angkor Wat’s labyrinth of vine-strangled temples magically combine both worlds

    But, keen to fuse the old with the new on this cultural collective, I make my last stop the UNESCO World Heritage site, Angkor Wat. Spanning 400sq km of ancient ruins dating back to the 12th century, this cavern of gigantic, crudely exposed tree roots and moss-sheathed masonry was once crowned the capital of the triumphalist Khmer empire.

    Now a labyrinth of crumbling temples and camera-wielding crowds, it’s more commonly championed for its starring role in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – the film that kickstarted Angelina Jolie’s much-documented love affair with Cambodia – than its Hindu heritage. Yet, as I weave my way through the tangle of strangled stonework and towering vines, I stumble upon an orange-cloaked monk quietly blessing two pilgrims. Dousing them with water at dusk under the elegant spires of this ancient stone city, the background sea of selfie-shooters wash away, and the true beauty of Siem Reap is revealed. My iPhone immediately slips back into my pocket as I take a slow meander back through the colossal remains of Angkor in peace.

    ‘Food markets are part of the well-trodden travel narrative in Luang Prabang. But buffalo dairy farms? Not so much’

    Touching down in Cambodia’s nearby cousin, Laos, I resolve to see more of the same: I want hip new start-ups, cultural heritage sites and trend-setting sisterhoods. My hotel, Avani+ Luang Prabang — an intimate, design-led hideaway in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town — suggests nearby Laos Buffalo Dairy… I’m not convinced. But after pulling up on the farm (and a firm promise of cheese), I can see why this is an inspiring stop.

    Founded by ex-pats Susie, Steven, Rachel and Matt back in 2016, this is Laos’ first ever buffalo farm and it rents 15 hectares of land from local farmers to home around 100 hungry buffalo (who love a good back scrub). I help Susie hose down one of the dairy’s beautiful beasts before tucking into some of the most delicious mozzarella, feta and blue cheeses I’ve ever tasted – buffalo or otherwise.

    ‘We saw an opportunity here to create something important,’ Susie tells me over lunch. ‘We’d been to Sri Lanka and knew how popular buffalo milk was there so, when we realised that no one was milking buffalo in Laos, we decided to introduce it. Now, we’re at the heart of the community and we’re tackling poverty in the process.’

    This hugely successful social enterprise has helped rural communities to realise that, through milking, buffalo can provide direct access to a more nutritious diet. ‘One in four live below the poverty line here, so we help to educate; we put our profits back into vaccinating and caring for the buffalo; and we also run free English lessons for the kids – boys and girls,’ she stresses. ‘When we first started them up, only boys would come because the girls were expected to go home and help with the domestic chores, so we put a stop to that: the girls come too or the classes don’t run.’ It’s this straight-talking, can-do attitude that’s put Laos Buffalo Dairy firmly on the tourist trail and, as I say goodbye to the pigs and the rabbits (‘Oh, we take everything in!’), I’m genuinely surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed it. Waterfalls and food markets are part of the well-trodden travel narrative in Luang Prabang. But buffalo dairy farms? Not so much.

    Cambodia and Laos

    One for the lounge lovers: Avani+ Luang Prabang gives good design details

    Back at the hotel, I spend a couple of hours poolside soaking up the blazing midday sun before popping into the spa for an indulgent signature massage. Soothing aromatherapy oils and a firm-handed de-knot soon ease my jet lag and I’m eager for the evening’s activity: a calming cruise along the Mekong river. Winding through the mountains of northern Laos, the Mekong is a Mecca for sunset sails and, as I board the Mekong Kingdoms’ traditional ‘Monsoon’ shuttle boat, settle myself on one of its plush daybeds, and sip a chilled glass of crisp white wine, I can wholeheartedly see why.

    The glass-like water is disturbed only by the birds as they dip and dance in their own reflections. I spy majestic Mount Phousi rise in the distance as the valley becomes cloaked in a deep, golden glow. Tomorrow, I’ll take part in the ‘morning alms giving’ on the steps of the hotel – a Buddhist tradition dating back to the 14th century that sees monks line the streets in saffron-coloured robes, collecting sticky rice in their alms bowls as they pass. But, for now, I’m happy to remain right here in a world caught between the old and the new; the day and the night.

    My sunny sojourn through Cambodia and Laos has been exactly what I hoped for: soul-enriching. And what’s more? You can do it in style.

    Where to stay: Rooms at FCC Angkor by Avani, Cambodia, start from £115 per night; a stay at Avani+ Luang Prabang, Laos, costs from £160 per night, including breakfast. For further details, or to book, visit avanihotels.com

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