Maison Polanka, a Secret Haven with History in Siem Reap
Maison Polanka was one of the first boutique hotels we stayed at when we moved to Cambodia’s Siem Reap three years ago. This secret haven remains a favourite, which is why we chose it as our home base for our retreats and tours.
Maison Polanka is hidden down a dirt, dead-end lane, behind high walls beside the Buddhist monastery of Wat Polanka, on the Siem Reap riverside. Without a sign of any sort, the petite boutique hotel remains something of a secret and its privacy gives it an air of exclusivity.
But what we most love about Maison Polanka is that before it was a small, luxury boutique hotel it was the family home of owners Jean Pierre Martial and Nathalie Saphon Ridel and it’s a house that oozes history.
On the eve of our May Culinary Travel Writing and Photography Retreat, I interviewed Nathalie about Maison Polanka, as much for our readers as for the participants who’ll be checking into the beautiful property in two weeks.
Maison Polanka, a Secret Haven with History in Siem Reap
Maison Polanka consists of two beautiful wooden houses in the traditional Khmer vernacular. There is the old main house, where there are four chic guest rooms, and another separate dwelling, the Khmer House, above.
Q. How and when did you discover the property?
A. It was back in 1992, when two French laic monks, Jean Pierre and his friend Charles arrived in Siem Reap. Cambodia was just reopening to the world after almost 30 years of turmoil (the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge regime and Cambodian genocide, and the ten year Vietnamese occupation) and Siem Reap was a remote town, still surrounded by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The men found a wooden house to rent, nestled in a village near the river, close to the Wat Polanka pagoda.
Jean Pierre and Charles had an ambitious project to provide vocational training to young Cambodians without formal education, which was focused on reconstruction and development prospects. Every morning at 4am they went to Wat Polanka to meditate and focus on their mission, in order to have the strength to face the difficult tasks of the day.
By 8am they were at the Chantiers-Écoles, a public vocational training school that they founded in partnership with the Ministry of Education. Soon they were joined by 12 volunteers, and by 1993, they had started a silk farm. That year, the Khmer Rouge took over Siem Reap for one day and crossed the village compound without coming into the house.
Charles and some of their companions returned to France, but Jean Pierre stayed, taking charge of the programmes and returning to non-religious life. Jean Pierre’s spiritual quest became more personal and so he bought the house. We met in 1994 and married and together we started creating a long-term plan for the Chantiers-Écoles. (Chantiers-Écoles evolved into Artisans d’Angkor.)
Q. The house would have been in a small village on what was the outskirts of Siem Reap then.
A. In 1992, when Jean Pierre rented the house, it was within a village that stretched from the river to the back part of our property. Between the river and Maison Polanka, there were three families in three houses who had been living there for many generations.
They are still there with interesting stories linked to the archaeologists of the EFEO (the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient). There was no fence in those days, only sandy paths between the houses.
Q. And then you started renovating?
A. The house was Spartan then and it still is to some degree. We removed the inner wooden walls to widen the space and replaced two outer walls with folding doors and windows to allow more natural light in, and added an outdoor veranda to extend the space.
When our first child, our son Luca, was born in 1997, we transformed a storage room into a tiny bedroom with a baby cot. The neighbours all came to visit the ‘baby room’, a concept that did not exist in the village, where children would sleep with their parents until they became adults.
During the July 1997 coup d’état, the house was a gathering point for the few Western volunteers. By the end of 1998, with the arrival of Naïs, our second child, we added a fifth brick building to host our room and guest bedrooms.
The house by then had its present structure, consisting of five roof structures and buildings – the veranda and lounge, an air-con dining room, the kitchen, the parents and guest rooms, and the children’s room – all connected by corridors and wooden staircases.
By 1998* the Cambodian Government collected all weapons held by civilians and so we replaced the front reinforced concrete staircase, which had been used as a shelter during bombings – with light wooden steps in the more traditional style. (*In 1998, there was a General Election won by the Cambodian People’s Party, which had governed since 1979.)
Q. How long did you live there as a family and what kind of memories do you have?
A. We lived there as a family for 15 years. Luca and Naïs grew up in the house so it holds all our family memories, especially Christmases spent at the house. The house was a great place for Sunday gatherings, parties, birthdays, and treasures chests in the compound. I have many photos.
We used to host friends and family on a long-term basis, because they just liked the place. I remember a cousin who came to visit for two weeks and stayed for three months. Jean Pierre’s son Fabien* made several stays before settling in Siem Reap in the year 2000. (*Fabien Martial owns another of our favourite Siem Reap boutique hotels, Viroth’s.)
Q. Fashion designer Eric Raisina also lived with you for some time, didn’t he?
A. Eric had just graduated from his fashion school in Paris. Jean Pierre started the silk farm in 1993. Eric arrived in 1997 for training at the silk farm and stayed at Maison Polanka for a few months.
Eric fell in love with the country and the project, so his original mission was extended to a proper contract. In 1998, Eric put on the first fashion show ever in Siem Reap at the Chantiers-École with the silk weavers of Puok. It was really something!
Q. But they’re not all good memories. There was that day the Khmer Rouge arrived.
A. Jean Pierre was at the house with nine companions who were volunteer teachers at the Chantiers-École. UNTAC (the United National Transitional Authority in Cambodia) was stationed in Siem Reap but with no ability to fight back. Jean Pierre and Charles were living at Maison Polanka and the volunteers were in the big house of Mr and Mrs Samkan in front. It was before Khmer New Year.
The Khmer Rouge came from the Phnom Penh road and they went straight to Psar Chas (Old Market) where they killed ten people and got their supplies. They then walked along the river to the EFEO, which they fired with guns and mortars, before walking into our village. The EFEO archaeologists were at work at Angkor and were not there, luckily.
Next, they went to Angkor Conservation, which they occupied. Then they went around to the jail (now the Sokha Hotel) and the courthouse where the UNTAC forces were stationed (their headquarters were where Kulen restaurant is now). The Khmer Rouge tried to attack them but it was impossible, so they went to the airport, which they occupied for 24 hours.
During those 24 hours, Siem Reap was cut off the rest of the country. The Royal Army fought back with incredible strength to oust them. Remember, the UNTAC troupes could not be part of the fight and were obliged to watch. They said they had never seen such motivation to fight.
The French ambassador was scared and asked the volunteers to leave. JP refused to leave and that is how he started such a strong friendship with Cambodians, such as Mr To Kim Sean and the old Khmer team of the Ministry of Education.
Q. Tell us about the arrival of the Khmer House.
A. The Khmer House was found when we were looking to enlarge the estate to host our grandfather, Lok Ta, when he retired. It was an old wooden house, about to be dismantled into wooden planks and replaced by a concrete structure.
It was found in Sotnikum, 30kms away. It took three months and a family of nine carpenters to move it to Siem Reap. The location of the Khmer House was chosen with the help of a local ‘kru’ (traditional magician).
A that time, some stories started to appear about the house… and after a visit by Reto Guntli for a Taschen luxury edition book in two volumes called Inside Asia, the Khmer House was presented on six pages, along with the Amansara Hotel, the pagoda at Wat Atphear (also written as Wat Athvea), and the Angkor temples.
Q. Then you moved to Phnom Penh and transformed your home, including the Khmer House, into the lovely little boutique hotel that is Maison Polanka. Why?
A. Lok Ta developed health problems and couldn’t come and stay in the Khmer House and my children became teenagers, so we decided to move to the capital, Phnom Penh, so the children could pursue their studies.
We wanted to create a future for the estate and for the staff who had been working with us since the beginning. It became clear that the house could offer a unique opportunity for visitors to experience authentic Cambodian life in quite a special place.
It took us six months to make it happen from the idea to the transformation. In June 2011, we started the work of redesigning the rooms and we took a lot of care to decorate each room with the best pieces of furniture and objects.
Q. The house is filled with many beautiful objects you have collected over the years. Why did you fill the property with such treasured possessions?
A. I travel light, so when we left to live in Beijing we didn’t take over anything other than clothes. All the furniture stayed behind. As a buyer, I love buying but I don’t like to own many things. This is from my childhood, and from the war years, when you know that you can lose everything in a blink of the eye.
I would buy things for reselling in my shops, not for owning. It took me 20 years to buy furniture for our home. That is why there are not that many pieces – the style was described as ‘Spartan’ by Taschen. There is not much, but what’s there is special.
Q. What are some of the pieces that you love most that guests should look out for?
A. I have a Chinese immigrant’s wooden painted suitcase in the bathroom of the Green Room, which is so beautiful and delicate. There are lovely lacquered animal boxes from Kompong Thom, in the corridor of the Maison. I love the three Art Deco armchairs in the Khmer House, and the children’s bed. We have some large Khmer beds, which we remodelled into dining tables in the restaurant.
The paintings and sketches in the rooms are by Cambodian artists. I love the rice husker beneath the Maison, which is from a village and is the same as what was used a thousand years ago. The are beautiful Buddha statues around the rooms. Our tableware is a selection of ceramics collected over the years, mixing modern and antique pieces, and some silver cutlery at the restaurant.
Q. Your chef has been with you for a long time. Her food is wonderful and I think it’s a big part of the Maison Polanka experience.
A. The food and staff are the two biggest assets of Maison Polanka. My current chef started as a cook’s assistant in 1996 and became our nanny in 1997 after my son Luca was born. In fact, she was with us at the Calmette Hospital for his birth. She is my children’s ‘mother number two’. They call her Ma’Pich.
She became our chef when I opened Maison Polanka because, firstly, I no longer needed a nanny and, secondly, I couldn’t rely on professional cooks, and it was too small a hotel for the Ecole Paul Dubrule and Sala Bai hospitality school students.
The food is delicious because I am a foodie. I developed and refined our family recipes until they tasted really great. I also love input from our guests and I love sharing recipes with them.
Q. Your sprawling tropical garden is special. Siem Reap is developing into a densely populated little city that some of the new hotels don’t have gardens.
A. We have a book that describes all the plants and trees in the garden. We have over 20 species of birds, including green parrots, and we also have squirrels, Lily the rabbit, and a great friend, Kalyne, our dog.
Q. A real appeal of Maison Polanka is its location, partly because Siem Reap is developing rapidly. Do you think your little village will change?
A. Sadly, some of our neighbours are moving further out of town as the price of land increases. I think people are buying larger pieces of land they will have fewer neighbours. More and more foreigners are renting houses, so the neighbourhoods become more and more quiet, and lose their vitality and personality.
We are hidden away and this is now an asset – living off a main road with traffic and dust is not what you want for peace and tranquillity. What we have recreated within the walls of Maison Polanka is how Siem Reap was before the year 2,000 and the tourism boom.
Q. Do you still consider Maison Polanka to be your home?
A. It is still our home. We close the estate when we need to. It is just that now it’s much more comfortable than when we lived in it!