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Zen and the art of creating a retreat

No respectable Zen garden would be complete without a Buddha head.
No respectable Zen garden would be complete without a Buddha head. BRUNO L'HOSTE

Zen and the art of creating a retreat

Temple Town’s newest and possibly greenest venue, Angkor Zen Gardens Retreat Centre, opens next month. Run by long-term French expat Bruno L’Hoste, Angkor Zen Gardens will provide meditation, tai chi and yoga in 21,000 square metres of peaceful, park-like surroundings three kilometres out of town.

Animal lover L’Hoste owns two dogs, five cats and numerous chickens, all of which live together harmoniously at the retreat. Walking into the exotic gardens, animals scurry around like something out of a Disney movie, the chicks hopping happily over a large, prone Alsatian, while two kittens nuzzle up to the other sleeping dog. It seems to reflect the tranquility of the place. There are also geese wandering around the pretty lotus pond which L’Hoste created, along with other botanical features.

The scenic beauty of the lotus pond with a residential bungalow in the background.
The scenic beauty of the lotus pond with a residential bungalow in the background. MIRANDA GLASSER

“We love animals, we love the plants, we love trees and we try to live in harmony with all of us together,” says L’Hoste. “We have a Buddhist concept here. At the retreat we’ll have meditation in the morning and evening, yoga classes, tai chi, qigong classes and other activities. We have a healer, Sophie, who will come sometimes and do some healing.”

Tai chi and qigong will be taught by Jono Imhoff, who has studied the practices for eighteen years and will teach two lessons a day, while daily meditation sessions will be led by Buddhist monk Jake Chapman.

“I do ‘puja’, which is a traditional Tibetan prayer,” says Chapman, “I’ll use Tibetan bowls and bells and that helps with the meditating.”

Guests can either drop in for individual classes or stay in one of the seven wooden bungalows. A large communal dining room will serve vegetarian food with Cambodian and Indian influences, with much of the organic fruit and veggies coming from the garden.

“There will be two types of guests coming here,” says L’Hoste. “Tourists from outside who can stay in the bungalows – I’m selling a package which includes breakfast, dinner and all the activities. This will be one kind of guest – the other will be Siem Reap people. If they want to come for meditation in the evening this is free. They can come and wander around the garden and do a one-hour meditation. If they want to enjoy a cup of tea and a piece of cake, or yoga classes then they have to pay. But it will be a similar price to other classes in Siem Reap, between $5-$7.”

L’Hoste says he would like to create a communal vibe where guests can feel free to take over the kitchen if the mood strikes.

Owner Bruno L'Hoste with his wife Resa and (back, left to right) meditation teacher Jake Chapman and tai chi instructor Jono Imhoff.
Owner Bruno L'Hoste with his wife Resa and (back, left to right) meditation teacher Jake Chapman and tai chi instructor Jono Imhoff. MIRANDA GLASSER

If guests say they know a great thing to make for dinner, Bruno will tell them to help themselves, and teach everyone. “We’ll be happy to do it,” he adds. “We don’t want to have a hotel or guesthouse feeling, it’s a community. It’s nice because people make friends with each other.”

L’Hoste, who has owned and lived on the property with his wife and daughter since 2001, has been steadily cultivating the gardens. A former landscape gardener in California, he has created beautifully manicured lawns, ponds and planted various trees including mango, banana, lemon and orange.

“It was rice fields when we first came here,” he says. “We’ve been working on the landscape by planting trees, grass, flowers and digging ponds and having animals everywhere, for more than ten years. We have as many varieties of tree as we can find. Any time we find something new in a nursery, we plant it.”

He adds that friends have suggested in the past he open a botanical garden.

“I couldn’t imagine it,” he says, “But my old idea of a retreat centre came back – I wanted to do it in France 25 years ago. I thought it would be great in Siem Reap because the only other place is in Bakong which is kind of far away from Siem Reap.

But they’re full all the time and will send us people. The Bodhi Tree is a another very small place so they will be full as well, and we have this advantage of this huge garden here, only three kilometres out of town. It takes five minutes to get here.”
Angkor Zen Gardens opens mid-October, although L’Hoste is planning an open day soon for locals.

“We will try to have an open house day for Siem Reap people,” he says. “I’d like to have a ceremony, maybe we’ll have meditation, some tea. People can come and walk around and look at the place.”

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