“In the fourth edition of our Black Book article series, we invite you to rediscover two old favourites in a new light. Rekindle family bonds amidst the palm-dotted paddy fields of Cambodia or the misty volcanic islands of Japan through our latest collection of spectacular accommodations and divine experiences that are an otherworldly blend of the traditional and tropical; the mystical and magical.”
– By Paulyn T
Royalty or not, Amansara will leave you feeling positively regal. Drawing inspiration from the original residence built for the revered Cambodian King Sihanouk, Amansara is a gorgeous modern reincarnation reminiscent of Khmer craftsmanship.
Embellished with a curvilinear pool, contemporary furnishings and abundant flora, the property evokes an introspective atmosphere for meditation and rumination. This ethos is carried through each of the suites. Finished in pale terrazzo and timber, the rooms are airy and open-plan, complete with sun loungers, island bathtubs and a private garden courtyard for finding your bliss.
For an added sprinkle of relaxation, the spa offers holistic therapies and treatments that incorporate traditional Cambodian techniques and oils infused with local herbs. Try the Apsara, a therapeutic full-body session of scrubs and clay wraps or soothe tired muscles after a day of exploring with a deep-tissue massage from an expert blind therapist. Complement this with a yoga session at sunrise and you’ve come full-circle.
There are also two pools: a hidden lap pool and a central one that features retro vibes. If you want to venture out, you can hop on one of the hotel’s boats and cruise along the Tonlé Sap Lake, or meet with local cultural movers.
Photo credit: Rhiannon Taylor
Jaya House River Park
Languishing on the banks of the Siem Reap river, Jaya House River Park is a boutique gem for travellers who have style — and a social conscience. From the outside, the resort resembles a garden compound rather than a hotel. Lush tropical ferns and blooming fronds surround a silver-tiled swimming pool, while clusters of delicate lotus flowers float along in bronzed fountains.
Meanwhile, the interior is dressed in a modern Art Deco style, and you’ll find no shortage of art pieces throughout the property. Dozens of these paintings were commissioned from the city’s very own Small Art School, which gives free art classes to underprivileged children.
Each and every corner of the hotel has been given a great deal of thought and consideration, and the bedrooms are no exception. Decked out in neutral palettes and plush fabrics, lovely details like vintage telephones, organic toiletries and wood accents round off the modernist aesthetic. Boasting “the best beds in town,” all rooms come with a balcony or terrace that overlook the garden. The Junior Pool Suites feature alfresco plunge pools too.
As a socially conscious hotel, complimentary coffee pods are packaged in paper, laundry baskets are weaved from recycled plastic, and bamboo straws have replaced conventional ones. You’ll be hard-pressed to find plastic bottled water anywhere in sight. Instead, refillable glass jugs have taken their place.
Through their immense efforts, Jaya House River Park has achieved an impressive feat few can attest to — this eco-friendly escape is a whopping 95 per cent plastic-free. Apart from Small Art School, the hotel supports other NGOs and has led several eco-conscious initiatives.
Photo credit: Amoma
The Bale Phnom Penh
Arriving at The Bale Phnom Penh is a moment to remember. Designed to be Zen-inducing at every turn, the hotel is reached only by one route: through a walled passage of pink palimanan sandstone with a floating path suspended over a pool of water taking centre stage. You’ll instantly feel a world away.
The 18 sumptuous, spacious rooms are decked in minimalist dark-wood furnishings that meld with native artefacts and fabrics to evoke a sense of elegance and place. Poetic photographs adorn the walls, reflecting eloquent Cambodian scenes. Choose from a private courtyard suite or a riverfront suite — the latter has a private terrace and plunge pool overlooking the glistening Mekong.
After a day of sightseeing, cool down in the riverside pool, freshen up and head to the hotel’s signature restaurant Theato for a taste of authentic Cambodian classics with a modern twist, like Kep crab and Kampot Pepper Stir-fry. You can also try your hand at Khmer cooking, which begins with a visit to a market to select fresh ingredients before returning to the hotel to whip it into delicious fare.
Photo credit: I Wandered
Headspace With the Monks
Rise before dawn and journey to Wat Roluos (or Roluos Pagoda) to meet with temple monks for an otherworldly experience. With prepared donations in hand as gifts of offering, leave your worries at the door of this sacred space and come face-to-face with these monks to learn more about their daily routine and how they care for the grounds. When it is time, make your way to a comfortable area to meditate with the monks for a real life Headspace app experience. If you’re lucky, you might even receive a blessing before you depart.
Photo credit: Pixzing
Social Enterprise in Siem Reap
Get an inside look at the network of social enterprises and non-profits in this resort town in northwest Cambodia. Cycle along the bustling landscape and visit trained landmine-detecting rats known as “HeroRATs” who sniff out undetonated bombs in rural areas; ReHash Trash, a social enterprise that turns plastic into artisanal products; and lastly, Sombai, a local liquor company that upholds social and eco-conscious practices at its core of its business.
Photo credit: Antal-Gabelics
Yakushima Sankara Hotel & Spa
The small, remote island of Yakushima, which lies off the southern coast of Kyushu, is a paradisiacal landscape of ancient cedar trees, hilly terrain and miles of verdant coastline. This unspoiled natural beauty sets the backdrop for Yakushima Sankara Hotel & Spa, an architectural masterpiece that allows the outside in at every opportunity.
Inspired by ryokan tradition, Sankara uses natural materials throughout the property to complement the panoramic views and surroundings. Asian-styled features such as floor daybeds and tatami are gently incorporated in the suites, creating a relaxed and understated ambience for soaking in the sights. For a closer encounter with nature, opt for one of the Samudra villas embedded amidst the dense rainforests.
Activities-wise, guests can recline on a sun bed by the pool, pop by the spa for a Thai-style herbal heat treatment, hike through the island’s UNESCO-listed forests, or take a day trek to gaze at a 7,000-year-old cedar tree. From May to August, you can also observe sea turtles coming onshore to lay their eggs.
For dining, partake in the full sensory experience at Sankara’s restaurants, Ayana and Okas, which create their own modern renditions of French cuisine. Both menus change according to the season. Seafood is abundant in winter, while spring heralds a profusion of tankan (oranges), a famous produce of Yakushima for making jams and desserts. In line with the resort’s vision, the chefs regularly forage and use wild plants, tropical fruit and seeds found in and around the island.
Photo credit: Expedia
Tenku no Mori
With a name like Tenku no Mori that translates to “heaven in the sky”, this hotel sets up some exalted expectations before you even get there. Driven by his vision, owner Tateo Tajima spent nearly 25 years landscaping the woods and hills to perfection, and meticulously excavating the hot springs to give birth to this rare and restorative sanctuary.
Cradled deep within the emerald four seasons forest and overlooking the volcanic mountains of Kagoshima, a handful of discreet villas welcome those seeking respite. Tranquility reigns here — each villa is a personal haven complete with a private outdoor onsen, and situated well away from one another so that you can revel in the expanse of nature in total solitude. Feel your anxieties wash away as you gaze out to spectacular views of Mount Kirishima from your intimate open-air shower/bath.
Rooted in its region, the in-house restaurant’s original dishes represent the bounty of the land, free from agrochemicals. Over 30 different types of vegetables are organically grown in Tenku’s terraced gardens, while free-range Satsuma-jidori chickens are raised on its farm. Thoughtfully produced and lovingly prepared, a meal here showcases the authentic flavours and riches of its surroundings, and is a fitting culinary finale to the superlative Tenku experience.
Photo credit: Tenku no Mori
Tadao Ando has done it again. Architecture aficionados swooned over the world-renowned architect’s endeavour on Japan’s smallest island, Shikoku — an intimate seven-room retreat nestled amidst the pastoral outskirts of Matsuyama.
A former art museum, Setouchi Aonagi underwent an extensive renovation process where the design was stripped back and the building restored to its former glory. The result is a luxurious, minimalistic wonderland — an aesthetic that Ando has perfected.
A soothing smorgasbord of concrete walls, light birch wood and plush leather loveseats fill the structure, while understated paintings add a touch of colour. Adhering to traditional Japanese architecture and design, floor-to-ceiling glass windows complement the subdued space and are a delicate reminder of Japan’s lush natural landscape at every turn.
Terraces are dotted around the retreat, offering varying perspectives of the romantic Matsuyama countryside views or the sparkling waters of the Seto Inland Sea. An outdoor infinity pool that appears to extend into the vista beyond is tucked discreetly behind lofty concrete walls, while an indoor pool for the spa mimics the same design. The latter can even be booked privately so you can swim naked. Alternatively, there are the hot spring baths where one can soak for hours in heavenly tranquillity.
Dinner fits into the same relaxed style. A signature kaiseki menu is served over two hours, allowing you to fully enjoy each course. The dishes are elegantly crafted from locally sourced seasonal ingredients, with an emphasis on the region’s abundant seafood fare.
Photo credit: Uncrate
Unravelling the Art of Katana
Set in the heart of Gifu Prefecture, the lively town of Seki brims with a rich tapestry of antiquated customs. Among them, the ancient craft of Japanese sword making lives on. Synonymous with the samurai legends, this 700-year–old tradition is one of the world’s most esteemed classes of swords, praised and exalted for its artistry and handiwork. Meet the blacksmiths, hilt-makers and more, and unravel centuries of history of the katana.
Embark on a Journey of Reincarnation
For nearly 1,400 years, Haguro Shugendo devotees have been making the traditional pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan, or the Three Mountains of Dewa.
Shugendo is a form of mountain worship unique to Japan that mixes elements of nature worship and esoteric Buddhism. Starting from the smallest and northernmost Mount Haguro, practitioners traverse through mystical clearings to Mount Gassan, and onwards to arrive at the fabled Mount Yudono – the final and most important stop on the trail. Each of these sacred mountains respectively represent the present, past and future; and is a test of one’s endurance as a way to transcend the physical world and attain spiritual fulfillment.