Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sojourn in Siem Reap

I've stayed in many hotels in many countries across the globe, with Chateau Lake Louise in Canada and the W along Lexington in NYC among my favorites, but this is the first time I feel compelled to write a review of a hotel, simply because it surpassed all the establishments I've encountered.

When my siblings and I were planning our 5-day Vietnam-Cambodia vacation, we scoured the
Internet for hotel recommendations. I came across glowing reviews for Sojourn Boutique Villas in Siem Reap, and I was immediately drawn to its attractive "Weekender 2-night Package". For US$190 per night (inclusive of airport transfers, daily breakfast, one lunch, one dinner, AND a guided tour of Angkor Wat) it seemed like an almost too-good-to-be-true deal. I booked 2 Terrace Rooms online, and just a day after I received a nice, friendly email from the Sojourn team asking for our flight details so that they may arrange our airport pickup service.

About a week before our scheduled arrival in Siem Reap, I emailed Sojourn again, requesting for assistance in making dinner reservations at some restaurants. Again they responded promptly, and cheerfully confirmed that they would help book tables for us. Even as early as then, I felt reassured we had chosen the right hotel.

When we walked out of the Siem Reap airport, our driver Sari was there to greet us with a Sojourn placard bearing my name, and a sunny smile. When we clambered into the hotel van, there was a cooler containing drinks for us. Between the warmth of Sari's welcome and the cool beverages, our first impression of Cambodian hospitality was definitely positive.

Sari drove slowly, so we got a good look at the Cambodian countryside on our way to Sojourn. The weather had been unkind to Southeast Asia lately, so many of the rice paddies were flooded, and as we'd later discover, so were many of the roads of Siem Reap town. We passed by some hotels along a wide boulevard, but I knew Sojourn was located some distance away from the rest of the herd. However, some minutes later when Sari turned onto a very narrow, bumpy dirt road, I got a bit nervous and wondered what kind of hotel would be located in the middle of nowhere.

My fears were allayed as soon as we entered Sojourn's gate. There was no mistaking we had arrived at a well-maintained establishment, even at first glance: torches lined the driveway, orchids floated in birdbaths in a tic-tac-toe grid meticulously created with leaves, and the facade of the building seemed impossibly white contrasted with the muddy pools of flood water we'd seen outside. Beaming staff chirruped their welcomes and efficiently whisked away our luggage. A Dutch (?) expat who was presumably the hotel manager met us at the reception counter and took us to the dining area to go over our 2-day itinerary. He also confirmed our dinner reservations, but helpfully suggested we eat at Sugar Palm instead of Angkor Palm (we would eventually go with his recommendation, and Sugar Palm was fantastic!). As we were talking, we were offered cold towels that smelled divinely of jasmine, and cute little jasmine garlands.

We were then showed our rooms, which were appointed in a style I like to call modern resort chic. Each room had a spacious balcony, one of which overlooked the pool and the surrounding villas. The twin beds were comfortable, the pillows plush.The bathrooms were spacious, with rain showers, and ours even had a skylight. There were the usual hotel amenities, but with boutique flair: bottled water housed in clever wicker covers, toiletries with local scents like jasmine, orchid, lime basil and orange blossom, a potpourri pouch hanging inside the closet where the bathrobes and slippers were. They even provided a stack of books that could be borrowed for leisure reading. Orchids were artfully placed in spots throughout the room and bathroom.

As we were getting settled in, we were served a welcome snack of rolled-up coconut crepes and some kind of iced tea. Both hit the spot, and at this point I was really, really happy we had gone with Sojourn. After unpacking a bit, we went down to the reception and met our local guide Naro. He and Sari took us into Siem Reap town, where we spent about an hour shopping for stuff at the Center Market. Afterward we were supposed to proceed to Angkor Wat to see the sun set over the temples (Sojourn had prepared a picnic basket for us, with wine and cheese and taro chips and salami) but the rain came pouring down, so we decided to go grab an early dinner at popular local restaurant Viroth's before returning to Sojourn.

We got back to the hotel to find the results of the turn-down service: our rooms had been tidied up, the window shades had been brought down, and there were thoughtful touches like chocolates on the bed and an aromatic oil burner on our dresser table. I thought to myself, Sojourn thinks of everything!

We decided to get in-room massages (Sojourn's "Origins" spa has yet to open). Our massage therapists were all great, soft-spoken but skilled, and obviously well-trained. We got the aromatherapy massages, which started with us sipping glasses of iced fruit juice as our feet were washed in tubs of hot water sprinkled with flower petals. Then we were allowed to choose among lavender, jasmine and frangipani oils (of course I went with my favorite, jasmine). The massage was pampering perfection from start to finish. I felt so good afterward, I actually wanted to hug my massage therapist.

We then went downstairs to use our dinner coupons, and had a veritable feast of Cambodian cuisine classics, like loc lac beef and chicken amok. It was the best meal not only of our trip, but the best meal we had in recent memory. We washed everything down with a surprisingly good bottle of red wine that had been in our sunset picnic basket.

The following morning, I opened
our door and looked down on the floor to discover a tiny basket with an orchid and an orange wedge inside. That started my day with a smile. There was also a Sojourn newsletter, with helpful facts about Siem Reap, the day's weather forecast, news headlines and other activities guests could be interested in.

We had a hearty Sojourn breakfast (we could order anything and everything from the menu!) before heading out with Naro and Sari on our Angkor Wat adventure. Naro was very knowledgeable, was able to answer all our questions about not only Angkor Wat but Cambodian history and culture as well. At lunchtime, we unpacked the cooler Sojourn had prepared for us to find the custom-made sandwiches we had ordered, along with drinks AND more of those cold jasmine-scented towels (I think we were more happy to see the towels than the food!). I told my siblings we were being spoiled by this VIP treatment. After chowing down on the yummy sandwiches, we resumed our tour of the temples, with Naro alternately explaining their significance, pointing out vantage spots for photo ops, and patiently taking our photos repeatedly. It was a long, rainy but exhilarating day for us, and after the amazing experience that was Angkor Wat, it was wonderful to have Sojourn to return to for hot showers and a bit of rest before heading back to town for dinner at Sugar Palm.

On our last morning, we rose to find the sun was out, so we took advantage of the good weather and took a dip in Sojourn's pool. I liked the comfy poolside furniture, as well as the in-pool bar, which I always find cool. Too bad it was too early for drinks! After our swim, we had another delicious Sojourn breakfast (their lattes were European cafe-quality!), and lingered at the table soaking up the sunshine and savoring the sumptuous spread before us.

By the time we had to check out and leave for the airport, I was genuinely sad to go. I had so thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Sojourn that I would have wanted to extend for another day or 2 (or 10!). The facilities and amenities were lovely, the service was stellar), and the food was to die for. Sojourn exceeded all my expectations, and made our Cambodia vacation truly extra special and memorable. I cannot recommend this hotel highly enough to those who wish to take their Siem Reap stay to another level. Angkor Wat may be the main attraction, but Sojourn's the gem that will give your trip added value, and make your journey infinitely more significant than the destination.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Next to brilliant

My former student Elfrida, a huge theater buff, had seen Atlantis' production of Next to Normal twice already and told me she still intended on watching it a third time. I was curious what it is exactly that she loves so much about the musical, and given that it's also a Pulitzer winner and a Tony Best Musical nominee, I decided to catch the "limited return engagement" this month. And I'm glad I did!

Next to Normal is not your typical song-and-dance musical, as it's about a family dealing with tragedy and mental illness. But in spite of the lack of choreography, it has all the other elements that make for a hit musical: a moving story, a beautiful score, and memorable lyrics. And though it's a drama, there are also well-placed nuggets of humor throughout that prevent it from getting too heavy.

There are only 6 characters in Next to Normal, but not for a moment did I miss the dynamic of a big ensemble cast. Stage vet Menchu Lauchengco plays Diana Goodman, a housewife battling bipolar disorder. Her vocals were predictably pitch-perfect, but it was her acting prowess that really wowed me. She was thoroughly convincing and compelling conveying Diana's various states of emotional upheaval: confusion, pain, elation, depression, rage, helplessness. Her fantastic range was best displayed in the songs "Didn't I See This Movie?" and "Maybe (Next to Normal)". Jett Pangan is Diana's devoted but weary husband Dan. His singing paled in comparison to Menchu's (particularly in their pre-intermission duet "A Light in the Dark"), but there was a lot of surprising depth and humanity in his portrayal of Dan's frayed patience and pained faithfulness.

Felix Rivera (by far my favorite Atlantis talent) and Bea Garcia fill the roles of Diana and Dan's kids, and both deftly delivered teenage angst and defiance in the face of their mother's condition, albeit in quite different ways. Felix had an almost menacing presence as the favored son, exuding resentment and a quiet rage while exercising a force over the rest of the family. His renditions of "I'm Alive" and "I'm Alive (Reprise)" were highlights for me. On the other hand, Bea (the lone standout in Atlantis' staging of Spring Awakening) seemed to channel s0me of Spring Awakening's rebellious energy into her part as the neglected daughter struggling to be little miss perfect. This sullen, uptight girl is offset nicely by Markki Stroem's Henry, an easygoing, good-natured stoner who becomes smitten with her. For a relative theater rookie, Markki's acting and singing were both pretty good; his duets with Bea (e.g. "Perfect for You") hit all the right sweet, tender notes. But I felt his voice could have used a bit more volume (and I also found it a bit distracting that it seemed I was looking at Chris and Charles' Tiu's long-lost brother, haha).

Rounding up the compact cast is Jake Macapagal as Dr. Madden, Diana's shrink. Jake was the least impressive of the 6, but he was engaging enough as the well-dressed, smooth-talking psychiatrist. Improved enunciation would help his future performances though.

All the characters (save for Dr. Madden, understandably) come off as achingly real in their imperfections, and their relationships all too relatable in their dysfunctions. I was moved to tears more than once-- "I Am the One (Reprise)" was the most heart-breaking scene for me, and showcased both Jett's and Felix's exceptional dramatic skills. It was at that moment I fully appreciated why Elfrida raves so much about Next to Normal. It's an entertaining musical, but more than that, it's a powerful play. And with the caliber of acting delivered by Atlantis' cast, it is a stirring, superb show.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In honor of an icon

I'm not an Apple user. I don't own an iPhone nor an iPad, and I've never even used an iPod. But I have tremendous respect and admiration for Steve Jobs, and I was shocked and genuinely saddened to learn of his passing today. So I'm dedicating a bit of blog space to honor the memory of a visionary who revolutionized the world and changed a generation.

Out of thousands of Steve Jobs soundbites and quotable quotes, this is my favorite:

[Y]ou can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something-- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

That bit of wisdom is made even more significant coming from a man who made such a difference in so many lives. And from someone best known as a proponent of modern technology, that kind of faith in the abstract, in the intangible, is almost poetic in its beauty.

Goodbye, Steve Jobs. iSalute you.