An Evening to Remember: Villa Chandara

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia’s borders are currently closed for tourists and nonessential travel. This post is about my trip to Cambodia in September 2019 and is meant as a guide for future travel once it is safe and responsible to travel abroad. 

This is a blog post I have been looking forward to writing for so long. I am extremely grateful and very fortunate to have been able to experience all kinds of adventures and make such fond memories from destinations all around the world, and this one evening in Siem Reap, Cambodia will always remain one of my absolute favorites. I can remember every detail even two years later. It was such a memorable experience that I have been telling pretty much everyone about it ever since that day.

Our hotel, Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor (see my post about our stay here), offers a unique dining experience with DineBeyond. DineBeyond hosts dining experiences throughout Cambodia, and of course they have a beautiful spot just outside of Siem Reap – Villa Chandara. DineBeyond isn’t your typical dining experience, as they take you off the beaten path (my favorite!) to places that are inaccessible to crowds and not well known by the public to enjoy a wonderful evening under the stars. I’ll do my best to describe the experience in as much detail as I can, but it really is something that needs to be seen and enjoyed for one’s self.

Started by Siem Reap restauranteur Saryoth Chan, DineBeyond is not only something for an adventurous guest but it also gives back. Besides covering the cost of food, the staff and chefs’ wages, and transportation, a percentage of the money paid by each guest for their meal is given back to the community. I even got to see it for myself, and was extremely moved. I’ll explain more later in the post.

Belmond connected me to the team at DineBeyond to book our dinner experience at Villa Chandara, and from the very beginning they were such a delight to speak to. Every time I had an email from them, I found myself getting excited. Since the menus are planned in advance, they asked if I have any allergies or dietary restrictions. Sadly I have several, but that wasn’t an issue for them at all. They were to plan a special Khmer menu for me that would cater to my restrictions. We landed too late on our first day to enjoy dining at Villa Chandara on night one, so we saved it for night two.

The journey began mid-afternoon when DineBeyond’s team came to pick up me and my beau from Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor. At first I was a little unsure about the pick-up time, since it was 3 pm. It felt a bit early for a dinner experience, but once we actually departed for our destination, the early pick-up time immediately began to make sense. We were driven about a half an hour away, past Siem Reap International Airport and outside of the city of Siem Reap, to a spot on the west bank of the West Baray (a large hand-built reservoir that dates back to the 11th century).

A small boat awaited us under the cloudless sky, next to young families splashing in the water on such a hot afternoon. We said goodbye to our driver, who said he would be back around 10 pm to bring us back to our hotel after dinner. DineBeyond staff then helped us into the covered boat, which we had all to ourselves. The staff started the boat’s small motor and off we went. It was a very gentle ride, with the warm breeze leaving us feeling refreshed as we glided over the water.

Just under 10 minutes later, we docked right on land on the northern bank of the West Baray. We had no cell service at this point, not that we were even wanting to be on our phones anyway. There was no one in sight until we saw a gentleman just inside an enclave of trees and tall grass. He stood next to a tall table, and as soon as he saw us he began to pour us two glasses of chilled champagne. “Welcome to Villa Chandara,” he said as he handed us our champagne flutes.

As I accepted my glass of champagne, I noticed something move behind him in the distance. I leaned over to take a look, and I saw two young children hiding within the tall grass, trying to get a peek. I gave them a little wave, and they chuckled and ran off giggling. My beau and I took a few minutes to enjoy our champagne by the water’s edge, looking out on a few boats that were out on the water and watching planes take off and land at Siem Reap International Airport in the distance.

When we were ready, we were then escorted up a steep slope through the trees and tall grass until we found ourselves on a dirt road. As soon as I turned to my left, I saw the same children from earlier who had now brought their friends. They waved at us with the biggest smiles on their faces, and we all waved back. Our host then escorted us further down the road and told us we were now in Kok Tnout village, a mostly unknown destination to tourists.

As we walked along the road, we past several houses. Children from each house ran down to the end of their driveway to greet us along the road before joining us in our walk. It was almost like an unexpected, happy parade. The children skipped around us while giggling and speaking Khmer as the host showed us more of the local village. Some locals that had gathered together chatting waved at us as we turned down another dirt road past what looked like a brand new building.

This is when our host stopped and explained to us what this newer building was. “This is our school. This is where the kids go to learn.” He explained that a portion of the money paid by each guest for their evening at Villa Chandara goes into the village, and this school was built with funds from the dining experience. Not only did the funds build the school, but they were able to employ an English teacher to teach the young children English. I was so moved that I became a bit emotional. I had known that a portion of the proceeds were given back to the community, but seeing it up close was a beautiful thing. While the school was now closed for the day, I could see lots of educational tools and books inside, as well as a playground for the children.

Our host then had us continue down the road just a few meters more until we came upon the stunning Villa Chandara itself. The Khmer architecture stands out as the villa nestles among picturesque rice paddies. It was now just after 4 pm, so the sun was getting lower. An orangey yellow glow was cast upon the rice paddies beyond the villa, and a few thunderheads in the distance added a little bit of drama to the environment. And then suddenly, we heard Cambodian music playing from under a pagoda as local musicians played local instruments.

The first spot we were escorted to was the bar, where we were immediately greeted by the bartender who asked us what we would like to drink. I started with a glass of water before moving on to some red wine, since the bar was free flow all evening.

The sun was continuing to lower further and further, so our host asked us if we would like to enjoy some foot massages while watching the sun set. We were brought to a secluded spot within the rice paddies where two ladies greeted us and gave us such lovely massages for half an hour. Besides eating dinner, the Villa Chandara experience also includes activities, including the massages.

As we finished our foot massages, we noticed another couple of guests had arrived and made their way to the bar. It was a group of three men from the United States who had just been traveling all over the world. We chatted with them at the bar for a bit before we joined a local woman who showed us how to weave reeds into the shape of a fish. I still have my woven fish on my desk here at home in Hong Kong.

We were about to head over to ask the musicians how to play their instruments, but suddenly a brief rain shower made an unexpected appearance and so all the guests took cover in the covered bar area. We all chatted and got to know one another, laughing at the misfortune of the weather but also shrugging it off since it was still summertime. It wasn’t long before the sun made her appearance again, and she collaborated with the sky to show off such an incredible rainbow over the rice paddies.

Another couple joined us shortly afterwards, which completed the guest list for the night. The tables had been set up outside under the stars prior to the rain, but since it was threatening to rain again, and our hosts didn’t want us to get soaked while enjoying our dinner, all the tables and chairs were moved into the villa on the terrace for dinner. I wasn’t upset about that, since we were still outside but at least we were now covered just in case Mother Nature had another surprise in store for us.

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Our Five Course Khmer Dinner

Let me start this section by saying this – I can’t remember the last time I was blown away by a set menu. We did not get to see the menu beforehand; we only informed DineBeyond of my allergies and dietary restrictions, so we were in for a surprise. Since this was my second day in Cambodia, it was only my second day dining on Khmer cuisine in my whole life. Our five course dinner was cooked by local chefs in an indoor-outdoor kitchen off to the side of the villa.

Click the arrow under each image to learn more about each course’s dish.

Amuse Bouche + First Course

The amuse bouche was a pumpkin soup in a shot glass, followed by the first course which was a crispy spring roll, filled with bean sprouts, carrots, black mushrooms, and ginger roots wrapped in rice paper.

Click the arrow under the image for the next course.

Second Course

Two small salads occupied my plate for the second course.

First was a young mango salad, featuring zesty green mango combined with smoked Mekong fish and dried shrimps, sprinkled with Khmer herbs.

Next was a Cambodian fish salad, featuring Tonlé Sap fish fillet with lemon, lemongrass, and fresh herbs.

Click the arrow under the image for the next course.

Third Course

Next was the chef’s specialty soup called Siem Reap Soup. It was an authentic regional soup, consisting of beef simmered with vegetables in coconut milk and spices with fresh tamarind paste. This was my favorite dish of the night.

Click the arrow under the image for the next course.

Fourth Course

For a palate cleanser, we were served a vodka with lime sorbet.

Click the arrow under the image for the next course.

Fifth Course

For the fifth course, several small items were placed on my plate to sample. One item was vegetable amok, which is a vegetarian take on the Cambodian classic, featuring steamed vegetables in a rich sauce of coconut milk with egg, local green vegetables, gnoh leaves, and Khmer spices.

Completing the dish were vegetables, rice, and barbecued chicken.

For dessert, the chef put on a performance for banana flambé. However, since we had recently discovered I am allergic to bananas, I could not eat the dish. But I did enjoy the performance!

Throughout the meal, we were separated from the other guests with quite a distance, so the experience felt completely private and special. We had a glimpse of the kitchen from our table, and since I attended culinary school in New York City, I was fascinated watching the chefs create art with the menu.

Once dinner reached its end, we suddenly had some surprise guests. Local village dogs had arrived to say hello, and while the staff kept apologizing profusely for their intrusion, my beau and I weren’t upset about it at all. Animal lovers at heart, we stepped aside from our table to say hello to the sweet pups. One little lady seemed to like my beau a lot, and our host informed us she recently delivered puppies. The dogs did not belong to anyone specifically. In fact, our host told us these dogs were basically adopted by everyone in the community, and so the dogs are family to everyone. When dinner was completed, I spotted the chefs having saved some extra meat for them, so they got to enjoy a lovely dinner too.

When everything was officially finished, we were escorted to a lovely sitting area of couches outside under the stars. The clouds had that previously threatened rain had departed the region, and so nothing stood between us and the stars. We were asked to sit down and relax while the lights were turned out, making everything pitch black and the only thing visible was the stars. In the distance, Cambodian musicians began to play vocal instruments and a solid beat of a drum. I immediately felt zen and at peace as I lounged on the couch looking up to the infinite amount of twinkling stars in the summer night sky. The air was still warm, but I wasn’t sweaty. I couldn’t see anything except for the stars. I couldn’t hear anything except for the instruments. Everyone was silent for 10 minutes while the musicians played.

When the lights came on, we were told our car was ready to bring us back to our hotel. This time we would drive a shorter route around the West Baray, as the boat ride at night was not an option. It was really hard to say goodbye to Villa Chandara, but as we stepped inside our car, we told our host we would be back soon and that this was a night we would never forget.

To this day, our evening at Villa Chandara remains one of our favorites. Not only did we get to meet some incredible people, but we got to go off the beaten path for 7 hours to a truly authentic destination in Cambodia. There was wifi at the villa, but we didn’t bother. We got to disconnect and truly immerse ourselves in the moment. We got to connect even more with Cambodia through the sweet local villagers, the stunning landscape, and the decadent Khmer cuisine. DineBeyond collaborates with several hotels in Siem Reap, but it is also easily arranged on your own. This is one experience you should not miss when you are in the area, and I am already looking forward to my next visit to Villa Chandara once the pandemic is over.

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