Loom with a view
Siem Reap, the gateway city to Cambodia's prized millennium-old temples of Angkor, attracted the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Kennedy and was one of Asia's most popular destinations in the 1960s. Now, having recovered from the dark days of the Khmer Rouge, it is back on form, drawing a laid-back, creative crowd from across the globe.
Among the new fashionable set is Malagasy textile and fashion designer Eric Raisina. 'Siem Reap is home for me now,' he says. 'It is a charming city with a great lifestyle. I am inspired living here.'
Raisina, who has created textiles for Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent, was first attracted to the city because of its reputation as the centre of silk. 'I knew from my Parisian studies that Cambodia had silk, and of course I was keen to discover the Angkor temples,' he says. 'I bought a ticket and spent more than a week in 1996 between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but I immediately fell in love with the energy of Siem Reap.
'I bought many pieces of silk and learnt more about silk production in Cambodia. I then made several trips between 1998 and 2000, when I visited silk farms and was able to weave my own fabric. During these trips I created a silk 'fur' that I used for an Yves Saint Laurent luxury range.'
Raisina grew up in Toamasina on the east coast of Madagascar and started to use his mum's sewing machine to make his own clothes when he was 14. 'I made so many pieces by the age of 20 that I gained a deep understanding of patterning and sewing,' he says.
In 1993, aged 23, he created his own collection using Malagasy cotton and embroidery. He was awarded the title Young Fashion Designer of Madagascar at the Fashion Festival and Textile Competition and a scholarship from the French Embassy in Antananarivo to study textile design in Paris. 'I'm keen to do one-of-a-kind dresses, but also accessible ranges for men and women that reflect my vision of 'haute texture', and the use of flamboyant colours. Natural fibres such as silk, cotton, linen and raffia from Madagascar are my favourites.'
In 2004, Raisina put down permanent roots in Siem Reap when he opened his villa boutique workshop, just seven minutes from the temples, where he lives, works and displays samples of his clothes. 'My villa is a styled Khmer wooden house mixed with a concrete building, designed by Lim Muy Theam, my first friend in Cambodia, an artist and home designer,' he says. 'Orange and turquoise dominate because I had a dream to be in an Indian Ocean atmosphere by mixing Asian and African touches and balancing them with French details. I especially love my big balcony surrounded by coconut trees, mango trees and flowers.'
To keep fit, Raisina likes to take daily runs through the temple complex. 'The temples are a very special place; the surroundings are so green and lush,' says Raisina. 'I love to visit at full moon, when the colours are rich and the whole place looks magical.'
Angkor Archaeological Park is one of the most important sites in Southeast Asia, housing magnificent remains from the Khmer Empire dating to the ninth century. The complex at Angkor Wat, which was built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, is a Unesco World Heritage site.
If you're there for the weekend, Raisina says because of its proximity to the temples, Siem Reap is quiet during the day as tourists head out of town, making it the best time to explore the markets. 'The old market in Siem Reap is my favourite,' he says. 'There is also a small market, well, actually more a road for little shops, for baskets and home d?cor handmade products, on the way to Banteay Srei temple. I often go on Sundays. I like to see if they have local handmade products. love all kinds of krama, which are the national two-coloured checked scarves in silk or cotton; and I also like everything that the villagers make out of sugar palm wood, such as big spoons, cups or bowls, the baskets made with natural leaves.'
When the sun goes down, Raisina suggests heading to one of the many restaurants in central Siem Reap. 'I love the Aha restaurant in the centre of town and I have a favourite table in the corner that they keep for me,' he says. 'It's a wine bar that does small plates of Khmer fusion cuisine, like tapas, and it's next to a beautiful gallery of the photographer John McDermott, and the old market.'
Raisina, who recently opened Cambodia's first ever fashion week in Phnom Penh, is also a fan of the stylish Hotel de la Paix's restaurant, Meric, where he takes friends at weekends. The hotel is hosting an exhibition of his designs from next February until mid-April.
For partying into the early hours, Raisina chooses Miss Wong, a cocktail bar that takes its inspiration from '20s Shanghai. 'This is a great place to have a champagne party and stay until the sun comes up,' he says. He also favours the gay-friendly Linga Bar opposite Aha: 'You must go on a Saturday night for the live drag queen show. It's hilarious!'
When friends visit, Raisina is always keen to show off the sights of Siem Reap. 'First, I suggest they travel by tuk tuk, the local auto rickshaws, as this is great fun and lets you see life from the local perspective,' Raisina says. 'Then I make sure they visit the Wat Damnak pagoda and get a blessing. I love the way that different elements of colour, texture, shape and spirit come together in this pagoda, which gives it a very special aura. I also suggest a trip to the Tonle Sap lake, which is teeming with wildlife and has a large number of communities living on it, and then perhaps some pampering at Samar Spa.
'There is so much to do in this city; it is a very vibrant place to be. I hope there will always be a place for me here.'
Wat's your scene?
How to get there
Where to stay
Road to Angkor
Hotel de la Paix
The Samar Villas and Spa Resort
115, Group 7, Phum Tropeang Ses Khum Kochok Srok
Where to eat
Alley behind Pub Street
+855 (63) 965 501
In the Hotel de la Paix
+855 (63) 966 000
Abacus Garden Restaurant
Road No 6 to the Airport, turn right at the Acleda Bank
What to see
East of Siem Reap River, opposite the old market. Houses the Centre for Khmer Studies and a library.
Osmose on Tonle Sap lake
On Street 27, between the river and Wat Bo Street. Watch local craftspeople weaving with the water hyacinth. Osmose also provides ecotourism tours of the lake.
Eric Raisina's Villa Boutique Workshop
Visits by prior arrangement only.