Our tuk tuk turns into a dry, narrow, dusty lane – dusty from the kind of thick red dirt that seems so uniquely Cambodian. Children squeal as they run between houses, dodging the ducklings and chickens that are also waddling along the way. We wonder how much further into rural Siem Reap we are going to venture before we reach our destination – and then the driver pulls up outside Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel.
The property’s smart grey wall means it already stands out from the other more local, worn-looking houses on the lane – but stepping inside is a revelation. The red dust in the lane is replaced by the green of the lush, verdant and well-established garden, and there’s the inviting sound of water trickling in the gorgeous and decently sized pool.
Baby Elephant was taken over by Australian mother, daughter and son-in-law trio Carmel and Ilana Tulloch and Adam Scott in late 2015. Since then, the place has seen a name change – it was previously known as Rumahmu, the Indonesian word for ‘home’ – and an ongoing facelift designed to smarten it up and really bring out the boutique potential, including a gorgeous new logo designed by a local creative.
It’s a small hotel that’s certainly worthy of the ‘boutique’ tag – there are currently just 13 rooms, though the owners have recently acquired the building next door and are planning to expand into ‘premium budget’ accommodation aimed at larger groups – and there’s a warm, family-like vibe to Baby Elephant, which owes as much to the personalities of those running the place as it does to anything else.
The air-conditioned rooms are simple yet stylish in design, with a focus on contrasting black and white floor tiling, dark wood, and smooth grey concrete built-in fixtures – a recent refresh of the rooms has added brightly coloured fabrics, which bring extra warmth and personality. All come with king-size or large twin beds, flat-screen cable TVs, safes large enough to fit a 13-inch laptop, minibars, and tea and coffee facilities.
Elegant bathrooms all have walk-in rainfall showers with wonderfully hot water and excellent pressure (consistently and genuinely hot showers are one of the biggest plus points of hotels across Cambodia), plus free miniature toiletries. There are desk spaces in all rooms, while larger rooms add small seating areas, and huge top-end Premier Double rooms come with generous lounge spaces, plus dressing and vanity areas beside the bathrooms. Family rooms can sleep four or more.
The hotel’s bar and restaurant are open from early morning right through to the late evening, with al fresco seating close to the pool and under a newly developed shelter in the garden (with more shortly to be added indoors as part of a remodel of the reception lobby), and room service is available. And the selection of food and drink was fully revamped in mid-2016 to include a range of Khmer and Cambodian, Asian and western dishes – must-tries include the local beef lok lak, tamarind-marinated chicken on sugar cane skewers, and the totally non-local but utterly to-die-for Australian-style steak sandwich, bulging at the seams with onions and melted cheese.
Ongoing tweaks to the breakfast selection, too – refreshingly included with all bookings, and ranging from croissants, French toast, pancakes and eggs-any-way to fried noodles and congee (Asian rice porridge) – include a delicious oversized fresh local fruit salad beautifully scattered with torn mint leaves, and the hotel’s coffee selection is also on the cusp of getting something of a revamp.
The well-stocked pool bar also serves a decent selection of keenly priced cocktails; there’s no better way to appreciate and enjoy what Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel is all about than to sip a cocktail in or by the pool (particularly during the daily buy-one-get-one-free happy hour!), beautifully lit at night and with its relaxing whirlpool jets. The fun bright pink inflatable floating flamingo – originally something of a mascot for the hotel – may since have sadly passed on, but there’s still not much that beats the tranquillity factor of Baby Elephant’s perfectly proportioned pool.
The hotel has an open-air gym with a small range of fitness equipment on its second-floor terrace, from where there are views of the adjacent crocodile farm and further across the neighbourhood; there’s also a breezy terrace on the first floor where guests can eat, drink or just relax.
A chic spa hut is one of the latest additions to the garden area, coinciding with the introduction of a new menu of treatments – and Baby Elephant has also launched Sunday-morning yoga brunch sessions, hosting a rotation of travelling yoga teachers for an hour-long class attended by hotel guests, locals and expats, and followed by an optional vegan brunch bowl.
Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel’s location offers the best of both worlds. Tucked down that undeniably cute and charming dusty red lane, while perched by the pool the setting feels utterly rural and secluded – yet in reality you’re no more than a 10-minute walk from popular ‘downtown’ areas like Pub Street and Siem Reap’s night market, or just a couple of minutes by tuk tuk. Angkor Wat is around a 20-minute tuk tuk ride away, and it’s around 15 minutes from the hotel to the airport (all bookings get free airport pick-up on arrival).
For many, a visit to Siem Reap is all about the temples at Angkor Wat. Baby Elephant is an excellent base for discovering them, and the helpful staff can arrange tours of both popular and less well-known sites, as well as sending you out with a packed take-away breakfast.
But once you’re all templed out, Siem Reap has arguably even more appeal as place to ‘just be’. Away from the most touristy spots, the city is stuffed full of excellent places to eat, drink and shop, there’s a relaxed vibe, and it’s a great place to get around by bicycle (which are available for hire, in aid of a local charity). And there truly are few more relaxed, nourishing and rejuvenating places to ‘just be’ in Siem Reap than at Baby Elephant.
Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel, Siem Reap; Street 53, #418, Vihearchin Svay Dangkum, Siem Reap 17828; 07 776 9126; www.babyelephant.asia
DISCLOSURE: I initially received a complimentary three-night stay and lunch at Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel for the purposes of this review. I loved it so much that I extended my stay by one night at my own cost, later returned for a further three nights at my own cost during the course the same trip, and subsequently returned for another three nights at a later date, again at my own cost. All of the opinions in this article are of course my own.