Anantara Resort, Cambodia: A traditional Khmer massage

I have misgivings about spas. I don't like the subservient feet-washing business. It also doesn't help that my plates of meat are hideously ticklish in places and I spend the whole time worrying I'm going to accidentally kick the masseuse in the mush. This is not, as you might imagine, overly restful.

And my last outing to a spa, at the Anantara resort in Vietnam's seaside town of Mui Ne, ended with me looking sadly in a mirror, wondering who the bloke covered in dragon fruit pulp and wearing a paper nappy was.

I'm being massaged by Kali, that Hindu god with multiple arms.

Never again, will I let anyone smear fruit on me, no matter how exfoliating, I thought. Not in a spa, anyway.

Which brings us to the small, but perfectly formed new Anantara Resort and Spa in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where everyone else seems to be having spa treatments with much the same frequency as I drink beer.

Then someone mentions that the signature 90-minute traditional Khmer massage is oil (and fruit) free. Bingo. Count me in.

It's all sweetness and light to begin with. I fill in a form that, basically, asks if I'm liable to die on the massage table. And do I have any areas I want the masseuse to avoid? Well, I'm a year out from a double hernia operation, but I refrain from mentioning that because, after all, she's not going to go there. Is she?

(The masseuse, by the way, is a small woman whose face seems to be one big, constant smile. She must go home at the end of the day and just sit around frowning. She is called Srey Rath, which alone should get her a part in the new Star Wars film. It's also an anagram of 'Thy rears', which turns out to be oddly prophetic.)

After the obligatory foot clean and massage, which I spoil by trying to help Srey wash my feet, we move to the massage room itself.

It's festooned in what I think of as archetypal spa decor; the beautiful bastard beige offspring of a menage a trois between a posh furnishings department, a florist and a David Jones perfume counter selling only bergamot and sandalwood.


After changing into the loose clothing supplied, I call Srey back in, lie down on the massage table and notice there is a drool bucket under that little hole where one puts one's face. And it has a frangipani floating in it.

Unlike past massages featuring drool and snoring, though, there is no time for such luxuries here. Srey sets to work on my lower legs with a strength that belies her tiny frame and is soon working her way up into regions of my gluteus maximus that, hitherto, only my doctor has ventured.

It is when she has finished my back and turns me over that things get weird, however. After placing a cloth over my eyes to keep out the light, she proceeds to manipulate me in way that brings to mind memories of watching a documentary on bull wrestling.

Your traditional Khmer massage, it seems, is (and here I quote the resort website) a "ritual of rigorous stretching and body alignment  ... originally formulated for monks who underwent long periods of meditation and repose, but soon integrated in the Khmer society. As it uses the body's ability to moisturise itself, this massage uses no oil".

Leaving aside this ability of the body to moisturise itself, which possibly explains why I had a face like a cheese pizza as a teenager, I'm not sure "body alignment" includes doing a handstand on one's hernia scars. Still, they hold up well.

After which Srey pulls one arm back in a grip not seen since The Rock made the move to Hollywood, pushes the other arm over my head, sticks one knee into the small of my back, another behind my knee and another one against an ankle. And pulls.

As the crack echoes around inside my head, all I can think is "this woman has three knees". And at least four arms. No wonder I'm essentially blindfolded – I'm being massaged by Kali, that Hindu god with multiple arms.

The Cambodians say the ubiquitous Thai massage has its origins in this style of Khmer massage, which supposedly uses passive stretching and pressure on energy lines to ease muscular tension, increase flexibility and, according to one practitioner, "balance the body's energy system".

One thing on which everyone seems to agree is that it "blisses" you out. Well, it doesn't work that way for this little pretzel. I come away from what can only be described as a cross between a massage, yoga, Pilates, a trapeze act and a prostate exam feeling like I could take on the world.

I am so happy, buzzy and energised that I gulp down the post-massage herbal tea and wolf down the complimentary fruit without even thinking of smearing the dragon fruit on myself.




There are no direct flights from Australia to Siem Reap, but several airlines fly via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. These include AirAsia​, Vietnam Airlines, Virgin, Emirates and Singapore Airlines.


Anantara Angkor Resort is a five-star boutique hotel with 39 rooms and suites in a grand Khmer-style villa. Deluxe rooms start at $372 a night (plus tax and a service charge of 20.05 per cent). Price includes breakfast. Visit for more details.

Keith Austin travelled to Siem Reap courtesy of Anantara Resorts and Spas and AirAsia.

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