In 1992, two French lay monks opened a school and rented a wooden house in Siem Reap’s Wat Polanka area. Twenty years on, that same house — having been both a family home and a gathering point for volunteers during the 1997 clashes — has been reborn as a stylish boutique residence filled with art, antiques and art deco furniture.
The property has expanded over the years and now comprises two houses: the Khmer House, a traditional stilted house originally built in the 1940s, and the Maison, containing four luxurious bedrooms.
It's safe to say the wooden walls of Maison Polanka have seen some history.
Its French-Cambodian owner, Nathalie Saphon Ridel, explains that her husband, Jean Pierre, first found the building (now the Maison) while creating a vocational training school for young Khmers in 1992. At that point, it was just a small, two-bedroom house set in a small riverside village.
The following year, on May 4, 1993, the Khmer Rouge attacked Siem Reap. Fortunately, although they crossed the village compound, they did not enter the house.
Saphon Ridel says: “At that time, we still had the wooden staircase. We had a place to hide, and it was very strong concrete, like an air-raid shelter. And everybody had Kalashnikovs and weapons at that time, every house.
"The Khmer Rouge fought with the local troops. They just passed by. My husband remembers it very well.”
Following this, many people, including Jean Pierre’s co-project director, left, but Jean Pierre stayed on and later bought the house. In 1994, he met Nathalie, and in 1997 the house was extended when the couple’s first son was born.
Eventually, they added a fourth bedroom and a verandah. In July that year, clashes took place between the Cambodian People’s Party and the royalist Funcinpec party.
Several Western volunteers from neighbouring NGOs flocked to the Maison, “because sometimes you are just alone in your house, so it’s better to be together,” Saphon Ridel says.
“There was a front line that was established in Pouk, so you had all the army coming up from Phnom Penh to fight there. We had some Cambodian friends who were going out on motorbikes to get information, because CNN was cut and telephones were cut off. They sent a few helicopters for evacuation.”
A lasting, if not faltering, peace then broke out, and life reverted to normal, with the outside world finally looking in. Maison Polanka even caught the interest of Taschen, a publisher of luxury design books, who did a feature on it in 2005.
The open-plan Khmer House was added in 2007. It was brought from Sotnikum village, 30km away and restored by a family of nine carpenters. The whole process took three months.
“I thought, 'I should buy an old house, put it in the garden and it will become the office. It was dismantled, and we had to have maybe three police permits to cross the districts,” Saphon Ridel laughs.
Eventually, after 10 years in the house, and with the children grown up, the family decided to move to Phnom Penh. The question was raised of what to do with the property, and Saphon Ridel eventually hit on the idea of what she calls, “a home with hotel services”.
The chic retreat opened in May and has already proved very popular, with customers arriving largely on a word-of-mouth basis. The Maison sleeps eight people, while the airy Khmer House is a large suite on two levels.
There is a swimming-pool and, next to it, a wooden-decked restaurant and bar serving French and Khmer cuisine. This poolside pavilion was designed by French architect Francoise Lavielle, the mastermind behind the contemporary Kep boutique hotel Knai Bang Chatt. Lavielle was also a consultant during the renovations of the Maison.
“It’s mostly made for friends who would come here to have a party, or families,” Saphon Ridel says. “We have young staff from Sala Bai and staff that have been working at La Residence d’Angkor, so I really want to provide high-quality service: discreet, but with that feeling of home.”
Being the owner of the Raffles Hotel shops Khmer Attitude and Galerie Cambodge, Saphon Ridel is well versed in the art of décor and kitted out the rooms herself.
They are filled with art and Khmer artifacts, both from the owners’ private collection of paintings and photographs as well as art deco and 1950s furniture. Cambodian artists such as Lim Muy Theam and Chhim Sothy are featured.
“The style of it is all our personal things. I think all my life is here,” Saphon Ridel muses. “I didn’t plan anything about designs, colours – it just came naturally once the rooms were made. I took what I had, and just tried it out.”