Twiggy, Woody Allen and Woody Harrelson can all be found at Siem Reap’s newest boutique retreat, Meru – they’re the names of trees on the grounds of
Hotel 1961 owner Loven Ramos’s new venture, which he set up with Beijing-based business partner Kurt Xu.
Other trees are named Tyra Barks and Barky Bark Wahlberg who, according to the sign nailed to the tree trunk, modeled for Calvin Klein before “moving to Holly Woods” to act.
It’s this kind of wit and charm that is the hallmark of Loven Ramos ventures and there are unique little touches and hand-written signs everywhere on the grounds of Meru, from the large “tree of beginnings and departures” adorned with stone Buddha heads inviting guests to light an incense stick as they arrive, to the outdoor terracotta library with “tapas-sized” excerpts from “humanity’s best literary pieces” written in the form of quotations on broken tiles, stored inside clay pots.
Set in a lush garden of jack fruit and sugar palm trees, the property comprises a spacious villa which is a traditional Khmer house renovated by its previous owner, Canadian artist Jerry Swaffield, and Ramos.
The wooden villa is beautifully restored with large windows letting in plenty of light and cool breezes, filled with gorgeous antiques picked up at flea markets, along with vibrant pieces of art by Swaffield.
The two-storey, two-bedroom villa sleeps six – there are two double beds in the upstairs bedroom which is so enormous it is practically a studio apartment – and is designed for families or groups of friends.
Guests also have access to the open kitchen – more terracotta signs here: “because there’s a Gordon Ramsay in all of us!” – stocked with healthy juices, salads and yoghurt, an outdoor pool table, a vegetable plot and the huge, forest-like garden including a vanilla orchidarium and the ‘ApoTEAchary,’ a small wellness centre Ramos is working on. Basically, the idea is that guests have the run of the place.
Ramos says he and Xu fell in love with the property at first sight.
“We were really excited,” says Ramos. “It was many things before; it was a vanilla farm, it was owned by a Khmer family, but then Jerry came in and used it as his studio where he created his magic and I don’t wonder why – I mean, it’s such a great place.”
The concept is a kind of artistic retreat-come-vanilla farm – vanilla will be Meru’s signature scent, and the cool, leafy grounds are so peaceful it is easy to imagine one’s inner artist being awakened – or perhaps just curling up with a good book for a couple of days.
“You can’t call it a hotel or a resort, that’s why we just called it Meru,” Ramos says. “Meru was the inspiration behind Angkor Wat; it’s a mythical mountain in Hindu mythology, their idea of heaven so this is our idea of that. We wanted it to be an escape – it’s far enough to be that, near enough to still be part of civilisation.”
Meru is on the edge of Angkor Archeological Park, in Veal Village, a 15 minute tuk tuk drive from Siem Reap town and five minutes from the airport.
Ramos says so far bookings have been coming in from families and groups.
“What we’ve had are big families or two families, mostly tourists,” he says. “But we do have a lot of interest from Phnom Penh, from expats or Cambodians wanting an alternative getaway place.”
Although there is no restaurant, guests are welcome to use the kitchen or the live-in staff can rustle up light healthy meals by arrangement. Insider was treated to a tasty vegan lunch of sesame roasted tofu with roast vegetables and salad.
“It will be your own place when you come,” Ramos says. “So we just prepare stuff for you in the fridge; some of it would be from the garden, some from the markets and you can try your hand at it. But if you don’t want to do that, then we can cook for you. We can arrange everything.”
There is no Wi-Fi but for those missing the outside world, a Metphone stick can be provided. The villa is filled with books, magazines and art-house DVDs, or guests can simply kick back with a pot of literature at the quirky garden library, which Ramos says comes from his love of books.
“If you’re here for three days you don’t have time to finish a single book, but it’s nice to be able to re-read nuggets from your favourites,” he says. “So we thought, what can we use? We have a lot of these terracotta tiles so we decided to write some of the best excerpts, and I love those Cambodian pots so we thought we’d put them in there, let people open them up and just spark up their imagination.”
In the rows of labeled pots Beatrix Potter sits alongside Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald shares shelf-space with Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin – Ramos is a huge fan, as evidenced by his tongue-in-cheek signs around the garden pointing to Winterfell and King’s Landing.
Both Ramos and Xu feel Meru is an inspirational and spiritual location, and ideal for a meditation or writers’ retreat, something the pair is considering.
“It can be for everyone and anyone,” says Ramos. “It can be for nature lovers, artists, writers, or just for people trying to get away from it all, or families who want to experience a traditional way of living within a village – and it’s just in the shadow of Angkor Wat. Plus you’re just a short bike-ride away from the West Baray.”
Meanwhile, over at Hotel 1961 there are plans afoot to develop it into a ‘co-working space’ for art, design and tech people. Some of the hotel rooms are being transformed into offices for hire or simply a place for creatives to brainstorm and swap ideas, with coffee and fast Wi-Fi on tap. Renovations are due for completion by April 2014.