Rice grows in vivid green rows while sugar palm trees set between traditional wooden houses stand in the midday heat. This classic rural Cambodian scene is found frequently on the fringes of Siem Reap, but at Sala Lodges the authentic image is one that has been artificially constructed to produce a unique boutique retreat.
Two Swiss couples have worked with an architect, contractor, designer and landscape designer to create a refined village hotel using conventional wooden homes. “It’s a small hotel but a big project,” acknowledges Adrien Ruffy, the co-owner and general manager.
Having seen families move wooden houses in Battambang, he knew it was possible to realise the concept. A team set about scouring the countryside for properties to dismantle and caringly rebuild. “We wanted to have different types,” Ruffy explains, though quality wood, structures and pillars were essential criteria.
From Preah Vihear to Kampong Cham, charming houses from around 35 to 80 years old were collected. Piecing together the houses into a bolt-hole for discerning travellers was a similarly labourious process. A group of carpenters would take around 10 days to dismantle a house and three weeks to rebuild it, before setting off again in search of another.
Over a year and a half they brought together a collection of 11 homes. “We thought that was the biggest part but it was just the beginning,” Ruffy says. Transforming rustic houses without windows, a water supply or electricity into something that met the exacting standards of a luxury hotel had its challenges. The team was unable to work on all simultaneously, since the houses were added one by one as they were found.
Structurally they remain in their original form, aside from one where a kitchen has been converted into a bathroom. Splashes of grey and blue paint on wooden planks outside are reminders of their former lives. Varying repairs were needed – extensive replacement of wood or new roofs – but alterations are sensitively in keeping with their character.
House number 12, a double bedroom with en-suite bathroom, welcomes guests with a large veranda. A cow bell hangs by the double doors in a nod to its country past. “It doesn’t look like a hotel,” Ruffy remarks from this homey lookout: the view is of glimpses of neighbouring wooden structures, peeking through lush greenery.
Fellow co-owner, Simone Lugeon, journeyed to the Indian state of Rajasathan with the interior designer to bring back big travelling trunks, furniture and decorative pieces. “Angkor Wat was once a Hindu temple, so it’s not too far away from the culture here. We didn’t want to go for a Thai or Balinese style,” Ruffy comments. Natural materials include water hyacinth mats from local NGO Osmose, while small seeds by Cambodian jewellery designer Rany decorate the ties of a mosquito net in Houses 2 and 3,
The attention to detail continues in the gardens. “There was nothing here before,” Ruffy repeats – my disbelief apparent that this natural-looking tropical haven of wooden walkways, meandering paths and rice crops was once barren. Even traditional wooden poles are used for the electricity lines to blend in – structured precisely to leave the sunset view from the infinity swimming pool uninterrupted.
The pool is one of three contemporary areas, along with the outdoor lounge and an entrance building housing reception and the restaurant. The modernity of its concrete and dark grey walls is offset by a thatched roof. This charming blend of rustic and modern makes Sala Lodges a creative and achingly appealing accommodation option.