When the going gets hot in Siem Reap, the hot get going to a pool to cool. Taking the plunge in Temple Town can be a luxurious aqua extravaganza thanks to the profusion of upscale hotels, and the rule of thumb that any hotel of three-star status or above must spawn a swimming pool.
While some of the more exclusive abodes limit pool use to guests only, many larger hotels give day rates for locals to dip a toe in the miracle cooling waters or loll indolently in surging spas.
I figured the best way to check out the best pools was to emulate the character Burt Lancaster played in the 1968 movie The Swimmer. In this bizarre film, a middle-aged man embarks on a trek of swimming in his neighbourhood friends’ pools – which form a consecutive chain leading back to his house – as a way of retracing his past and coming to terms with his purpose in life.
Lancaster’s character kept experiencing pool-induced grief: confronting a bitter ex-lover who felt used, or confronting shopkeepers to whom he owed money for grocery and restaurant tabs.
But my only confrontational experience occurred at my starting point at the centrally located Prince D’Angkor Hotel.
Here, two Japanese lifesavers wearing brief budgie smugglers* jumped into the water and play-acted lady boys drowning, effeminately waving limp wrists for rescue.
This is not normal pool behaviour at Prince D’Angkor, a popular hang for local NGOs because it offers one of the best day rates for pool use, at just $8.
It bills itself as Siem Reap’s largest saltwater pool and has essentially a classic lap-pool rectangular shape. It’s a very soothing pool surrounded by fantastic faux-tropical gardens, but the water quickly heats to a soup-like temperature.
Like almost all Khmer-owned hotels, the pool boasts a statue of the bird-man god, Garuda, who had to visit the Celestial Mountain to bring back immortal water to give to serpents so that they would release his mother.
Next stop is a quick zip up National Road 6 to Angkor Palace Resort and Spa, which also features a striking Garuda statue and lots of vegetation, albeit more manicured. It also features a waterfall, big fish swimming in the surrounding canals, and a poolside bar.
The pool is amoeba shaped: The adult pool, which is separated by little arching bridges from the kiddie pool, is for serious swimmers only as it’s deep from one end to the other and has several warning signs that no lifeguards are on duty. It’s also heavily chlorinated, so goggles are the go.
Then it’s a quick zip back down National Road 6 to the Sokha Angkor Resort and its stately, almost-square saltwater pool with waterfalls as its backdrop. This pool is the pride and joy of Sokha’s patrician general manger Emmett McHenry who promotes it vigorously. The fee here is $10 a day.
Around the corner from Sokha is the Angkor Century Hotel, which has quite a large pool. While this $10-a-day pool doesn’t feature astounding aesthetic highlights, it’s ultimately functional, with water that stays cool in the hottest of weather.
This hotel has a Khmer owner and, as with the Prince D’Angkor, homely touches have been incorporated in the pool’s surrounding luxurious garden, with an interesting collection of concrete kitsch including deer and a miniature Angkor Wat.
It is also popular with expats, particularly because the adjoining gym is well equipped and, like most of the major hotels, day use of the pool also has gym entitlements.
Next stop is the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort where the pool looks like it’s been transplanted straight from the pages of a glossy tourist magazine. At $20 a day, it’s a special-occasions-only dip but it’s worth at least one visit, simply to experience how the other half live, at least holiday. The spot has a poolside bar that allows imbibers to remain immersed in water, but the drinks too are budget-busters, coming at 5-star prices.
The final destination in my pool peregrination was a visit to Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. This pool has a Taj Mahal immensity, offset by an architecturally interesting bar pavilion, and the stateliness of the hotel building as a backdrop. This pool is one again designed for serious swimming in an atmosphere of post-Colonial grandeur. It’s a good deal, too, because the pool is free for anyone who buys food or beverages.
Unfortunately, unlike the Burt Lancaster character I was emulating, my pool odyssey did not result in any earth-shattering coming-to-terms-with-my-purpose-in-life. But I did confirm what I already knew – that on a steamy hot Siem Reap day, a worthy pursuit is to find a cool pool.
*Urban Dictionary: “Australian slang term for men’s tight-fitting Speedo-style swimwear. The ‘lump in the front’ apparently resembles a budgie** when it is stuffed down the front of someone’s shorts.”
** Author’s note: Budgie is short for budgerigar, a small boring Australian outback parrot that is a favoured pet for lonely old British ladies.