Porleng Van sits at a table facing the heart of her Cambodian Country Club and the open and still space of the equestrian centre.
Van says that although Cambodian Country Club offers generous room for activities such as swimming in an Olympic pool, fencing and tennis, a third of the compound alone is reserved for horses and horse riding.
“Here we are in an oasis without the blink-blink that is all over the city,” Van says, adding that “a good life needs space and open air”.
She learned appreciation for “space and open air” through horse riding as a young girl in France.
When Van starts talking about horse riding back in her childhood, her take on happiness beyond the delicate bond of horses and their owners unfolds.
In the gentle and picturesque field and forest landscape of Rambouillet, just outside Paris, teenage Porleng Van experienced happiness on the back of two horses she loved dearly.
Before being able to enjoy the experience of riding she had to learn mastering a horse – a most complex skill as she explains:
“Horses are very sensitive. They always need care, and it is hard to understand how they feel.”
And she laughs and adds “they are like babies”.
Understanding the subtleties in a horse’s body language is crucial for the animal’s survival, however, as Ms Van explains.
All that may hint at a horse’s deadly agony is a light hoof pawing. Joy is mainly expressed through a gentle nibbling on a horse or human for whom they feel affection.
Van explains that in order to be honoured by the gentle nibble of a horse people first need to form a bond of trust with horse; so deep that horse and rider almost become one entity.
“Riding is a feeling of freedom and at the same time not being alone. A horse becomes a real soul partner.”
More important than anything is a constant process of mutual emotional exchange and understanding.
“Horses feel when you are sad or confused and they become sad and confused as well. They may stumble and you fall off,” Van explains.
“At all times it makes the entire body and mind work. You need a lot of concentration and discipline.”
The rider needs to adapt and become one with the horse’s movements, read the horse’s mind and gently influence its movements and route the direction.
Force, however, leads to disruption of the constant physical and mental communication.
“Horses have a mind of their own.”
As much as Van learned to master horses’ minds and bodies, they shaped her way of looking at things in return.
“Through horses, I learned to be more observant. They teach about people’s emotions and details.
“You need skill and knowledge to maintain horses. Without the skills I learned through horse riding, I couldn’t have build my business,” Van concludes.
The attention to detail she learned from horses can be felt at Van’s Restaurant.
Originally housing the Indo China bank before it was the Van family home, this jewel of colonial architecture was eventually transformed into Phnom Penh’s premier French restaurant.
With its Michelin starred chef Nicolas, five-star selection of wines, meats, fish, foie gras, fresh market produce and the inimitable ambience of a 150 year old setting in which to dine, one is assured of a luxurious and memorable dining experience.
If one had just been riding out at the Cambodian Country Club and is still drawn to open space and view, the champagne and cigar lounge on the roof of Van’s Restaurant is the ideal place to watch the sunset before dinner.
The newly opened rooftop terrace has a view on the old colonial square with the post office that is unique in its spatial generosity inside inner Phnom Penh.
A fresh breeze blows across the square and the lemon tart yellow of colonial building fuses into the intense orange of the setting sun. Just with a drink, and maybe a cigar, experiencing the restaurant’s ambience above the roofs of the square in every detail is truly elevating.
Perhaps as much as riding on the back of a horse.