A decade of global travel, a passion for boutique hotels, and a desire to show guests that there is more to Cambodian history than the Angkor era and Khmer Rouge period inspired Cambodian businesswoman Mane Key to open the new Mane Boutique Hotel and Spa in the sleepy Wat Damnak area in Siem Reap.
“Since marrying my husband, I have been lucky to have the chance to travel many times to many countries around the world,” Key tells me as we sit in her fascinating hotel lobby, filled with antiques, reproductions, statuary, collectables and art.
“That’s when I fell in love with hotels.”
Born in 1982 to a resilient and enterprising family, the mother of four gained degrees in accounting and law before she started a micro-financing business, which she ran with her mother. However, it was her husband’s work in law and international relations that took them travelling frequently to countries as diverse as Thailand, Indonesia, China, Macau, Australia, France and the USA.
The more the couple travelled, the more that Key collected, carting antiques and curios back to Cambodia from around the world – and the more she realised she preferred small hotels with character to the big bland hotels with hundreds of rooms that are all the same.
“Smaller hotels have more personality, more attention to detail,” Key tells me as we admire some old musical instruments displayed on a sideboard.
“The service is also more personal. Our first guests from the USA came last month and the man was so surprised, he called his wife to tell her that he felt like he was living with rich Cambodian friends. He said he felt the warmth and felt at home.”
The 18-room boutique hotel is filled with antiques and retro furniture that Key already owned, as well as reproductions she had made and other pieces she sourced.
“I love antiques and I love old furniture,” she says. “But it was a hard job – we spent almost one year looking for furniture and decor for the hotel. Some of the furniture I also got from my grandmother. I said: ‘Grandma, grandma, give me the old ones, I will buy you new ones!’ We tried to collect beautiful old things from everywhere,” Key laughs.
Key also wanted to showcase local talent, seeking out Cambodian architects, craftspeople, designers and carpenters. The hotel feature silks woven by an award winning weaver; brass fittings by a family of artisans; wood furnishings and accent pieces handcrafted by a 72-year old furniture maker from Kampong Cham who specialises in French colonial and art deco pieces; handmade floor tiles crafted by a tile specialist with generations-old skills; sandstone sculptures and basketware from sculptors and weavers in Banteay Meanchey province; and customised handmade ceramics from a local pottery centre that are used in the restaurant.
Key points out her favourite pieces, protected in glass cases in the airy lobby – ornate decorative pedestals she salvaged from a century-old French colonial mansion in Battambang that the owner, a friend, demolished to make way for a modern building.
But what really makes the hotel special, says Key, are the themes of the rooms.
“It’s important for boutique hotels to have rooms that are different to each other,” she explains. “We wanted our rooms to tell stories, so each room is decorated according to a different time in history – after the independence period and then after the Khmer Rouge. We wanted our guests not just to come and learn about the temples but to learn about all Cambodian history from our hotel.”
I ask Key to choose a favourite.
“I love all the rooms. Whenever I come to the hotel I stay in a different room,” she says, reluctant to select one. “But if I had to choose, it would be 1992, the time when Cambodia finally had peace. It was the first time for Cambodia to have an election.
It was a new start, a new beginning for the country. All Cambodian people felt very happy. I can remember, and still feel, how everybody felt at that time. I saw many foreigners come to the country and my parents were very happy. Everybody was happy.”