Zen is not a word I typically associate with Phnom Penh. Between the construction noise, the traffic, and the general buzz, Cambodia’s capital can feel anything but peaceful.
Located up-river and far away from the chaos of riverside, The Balé Phnom Penh is an architecturally designed luxury resort that serves as something of a sanctuary. During my stay, I found a sense of calm I didn’t think existed this close to the city.
When it opened in 2017, The Balé was the first luxury resort of its kind in Phnom Penh. If you prefer tranquility over being in the thick of it 24/7, it’s an ideal spot to base your stay. It’s also a great stay-cation option for expats. If The Balé had of been open when I was living in Phnom Penh, I’m sure I would have been a regular!
Having heard nothing but good things about the property from friends and other travellers, I finally had a chance to check out The Balé for myself on my recent visit to Cambodia.
My stay was hosted by The Balé Phnom Penh, but all opinions are 100% my own.
A grand entrance
I bet the first thing most people do when they walk into The Balé is take a long, deep exhalation. That’s what immediately struck me about the property – there’s room to breathe.
The entrance makes a magnificent first impression. A feeling of calm settles on you before you even reach the reception. There’s a sense of high drama: As you emerge from the street via a long, narrow corridor, a lone Buddha statue lit with a single spotlight appears in front of you. A pink stone path stretches across a shallow pond like a catwalk, leading you past the statue to the main part of the resort.
It’s a brilliant play on space – as the claustrophobic corridor opens out onto the expansive pond, it has the effect of making the rest of the resort feel even larger in proportion.
The entrance is flanked in pink Palimanan sandstone, a nod to Lifestyle Retreats’ Indonesian roots (the company has half a dozen properties in Bali, with The Balé Phnom Penh the first of its hotels outside Indonesia).
All throughout the grounds, curtains of Vernonia Elaeagnifolia (Lee Kuan Yew plants) and carpets of lemongrass and spider lilies soften the stone elements.
Architecturally, the whole resort favours straight lines and symmetry. There’s nothing superfluous; every element is perfectly resolved. In all honestly, The Balé is one of the most well thought-out spaces I’ve ever experienced.
It reminds me of the Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote: ‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away’.
If you’ve travelled to Cambodia (or Southeast Asia in general) before, you’ll know that visual tranquility is a precious thing. After the unpredictability of the city streets, it’s a huge relief to be immersed in such a perfectly planned environment.
It allows the mind to wander to other things…
Low-set buildings with large windows give The Balé a sense of openness and porousness. Guests’ movements around the resort are directed by stone paths and alleyways. The welcome lounge, pool area, gym and restaurant/bar are all linked together purposefully.
Concrete beams act like picture frames, capturing different vignettes of the gardens and grounds. The palette of white, slate grey and pink stone is soothing.
The resort fronts directly onto the Mekong, with an almost-infinity pool, separated from the river by a wall of reeds, as the centrepoint. This close to the city, the river doesn’t roar or rise like it does further north. It’s a subdued plane of gently rolling water.
Because of the easterly orientation, the pool catches the morning sun and is shaded in the afternoon.
Sitting by the pool in one of the deck chairs or covered pods is a completely tranquil experience. The only sounds you hear are chanting from the nearby pagoda on Koh Dach (Silk Island), visible across the river, or the occasional chug of a passing sampan.
As a counterbalance to the clean lines and modern furnishings, little design flourishes give The Balé a strong sense of Cambodian heritage. Buddhist symbols made from wire are reminiscent of the gates to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
Another reference to Khmer culture is found in the massive Bodhi tree planted in the centre of the resort lawn. It’s knotted roots are symbolic of Buddhist philosophy.
As the sun sets, thick swarms of dragonflies envelop the tree. I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the converging insects and the swarms of motorbikes you see in Phnom Penh. I know which one I’d rather be walking through at the end of a long day!
The Balé has 18 suites in total, each a massive 100 square metres. Second-story River Suites overlook the turgid water, while the Garden Suites are arranged in a U-formation around the central lawn and Bodhi tree. I stayed in one of the Garden Suites.
One thing I noticed when sitting by the pool is that there’s no direct line of sight from the resort’s common areas into any of the rooms. The Balé’s design is very open, but once you’re inside your suite, it feels completely private.
My L-shaped suite wrapped around a small private courtyard with extra-high walls and greenery for added privacy. The courtyard acts like a light well, flooding the room with natural sunlight even when the curtains across the front lawn-facing window are drawn.
Rooms have been built with functionality in mind. Mine contained a huge bed, an oversized desk, and generous couch. Mod-cons including a smart TV, bluetooth speakers, lightening fast WIFI and central aircon make for a very comfortable stay. Concealed power points are plentiful, and lighting under the wrap-around bed frame adds to the moody atmosphere.
My suite featured some incredible artwork, including a huge wall mural by local artist Reak. It depicts the elegantly curved hands and beaded wrists of a Cambodian Apsara dancer, rendered in peach tones.
The highlight of the suite, for me, was the bathroom. It’s so large, it feels like a second living space. A generous stone bath faces onto the private courtyard, and the shower is huge and luxurious. Concrete floors and terrazo wall tiles give the whole space a wonderful texture.
Essential bathroom products are presented in reusable ceramic containers.
In the private courtyard, a bench seat and a woven table were shaded by a blooming frangipani tree. There’s enough floor space for an impromptu yoga class – luckily, the room came with its own mat.
There were a few quirky design touches inside the room that I really appreciated, including a set of vintage blue window shutters used frame the TV, and a trio of colourful elephants trundling across the bathtub. A few black and white photographs of everyday life in Phnom Penh remind you of where you are.
The Balé’s on-site restaurant, Theato, is an attraction in itself. (It’s open to walk-ins as well as hotel guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner.) Another larger-than-life mural, this time depicting Hindu God Vishnu, gives the space its character. Titled Preserver, it’s the work of local duo FONKi and Ranon Phal, whose street art you can see elsewhere in Phnom Penh and at the fish market in Kampot.
À la carte breakfast comes included in the nightly rate. Guests are really spoiled for choice! I couldn’t resist ordering the cheeseboard on my first morning (cheese for breakfast – yes please!), but went for the local option: kuy teav soup with shrimp. And a side of French pastries, naturally.
Lunch and dinner can either be eaten in the restaurant, poolside, or in your room.
Theato highlights local ingredients in dishes such as buffalo fillet with taro and ‘rice paddy’ herb broth. Khmer classics including amok and lok lak are also available alongside a full menu of Western-style dishes.
The bar serves cocktails mixed with spirits from Samai Distillery, Cambodia’s first and only rum distillery, and Seekers Gin, distilled in Phnom Penh with native botanicals.
Sustainability & Social Responsibility
The Balé Phnom Penh has a few initiatives to lighten its environmental impact. When you check in, you receive a metal waterbottle that you can top up with chilled drinking water at refill stations positioned around the resort. Rooms are free of single-use plastic, and welcome drinks are served with metal straws.
When building its staff base, the resort has focused on providing jobs for locals from the immediate area. Cambodian staff, including the 24/7 butler that comes with every suite, are fondly referred to by management as ‘Family Members’.
The Balé is located on National Road 6A in Sangkat Bak Khaeng, roughly 15km, or about a 20-minute tuk tuk or taxi ride, from central Phnom Penh.
Reservations can be made directly through The Balé website. Be sure to check for special packages and low-season deals before you book.