Cambodia Chronicles: Raffles Le Royal

Raffles Le Royal! The name itself seemed magical, and my expectations were as high as my taxi driver’s on the way from the airport: “Ooh! The best hotel in Cambodia!” Perched on the northern side of town, at the center of what was once the European quarter, the flood-lit spire of Wat Phnom gleamed in the night as we pulled into the driveway and a man in a pointy hat rushed down to pick up our luggage.

There is no check-in desk at Le Royal: instead, you are led to a plush sofa in the high-ceilinged yet surprisingly intimate Conversatory and served a welcome drink while completing the formalities. A staff member led us along cream-and-black tiled corridors to our Landmark Room in the main building, while telling us about the hotel’s long history. Build by the French as a hotel from day one, at four storeys it was possibly the tallest and certainly the grandest building in Phnom Penh when it opened in 1929, with a lavish opening party featuring an orchestra from Saigon and attended by King Monivong. At the time, a room for the night cost 3-4 Indochinese piasters (US$1.20), or twice that if you wanted meals too.

Our room was, like the hotel itself, a fusion of the latest technology with colonial style. A ceiling fan lazily spun high above the giant bed, itself a period piece of heavy dark wood, while a discreet panel by the door controlled the air-conditioning. The bathroom featured a carefully restored free-standing claw-footed bathtub, while next to it was a modern glass shower cubicle, with the charming touch of putting the cold water in the left tap and the hot on right, just like they used to back home in France. Photographs of old Phnom Penh lined the walls and even the quaint bulbous light switches dated back to 1929.

It was already late in the evening, so we headed straight down the grand wooden staircase and made our way to the hotel’s legendary Elephant Bar, with views of the hotel’s magnificent gardens and an array of in-house drinks – even Slings faithfully copied from the recipe of the mothership hotel in Singapore. But unlike Singapore’s rather touristy Long Bar, the Elephant Bar retains a quiet, elegant charm, with live piano in the evenings and waitresses flitting about in Khmer silk dresses.

The old, colonial Le Royal reached its apex in 1967, when Jacqueline Kennedy stayed here on her way to Angkor, leaving a suite and the Femme Fatale cocktail of champagne, cognac and raspberry liquor in her name. But the civil war that followed soon afterwards didn’t treat the hotel so kindly: the top floors were evacuated as the Khmer Rouge shelled the city with artillery, and after a short spell as a refugee camp, a part of the hotel was turned into a storehouse for rice and dried fish. The hotel reopened in 1980 a mere shadow of its self, catering mostly to UN staff working to rebuild the country. The current chapter in the hotel’s history thus began only in 1996, after the hotel was taken over by Raffles and given a loving restoration.

Morning dawned and, in the hustle and bustle of this modern-day boomtown, war and chaos seemed very far away indeed. Breakfast at Café Monivong is treat, with a buffet spanning European, Asian and Khmer favorites – don’t miss the homemade jams and the energy booster drinks made to the order – and you can choose to have it in the café or outside by the garden. Here, too, you can feel the Raffles touch in the details: instead of pouring stale tea from a central kettle, each order is freshly made and brought to the table in a porcelain teapot.

Properly stuffed, it was time for a daylight tour of the hotel grounds. On spotting the two large pools, my travel companion let out a scream of delight and told me: “Have fun sightseeing, honey; I’ll just stay right here!” Both options are easy: if the hotel’s pool and Amrita Spa aren’t enough to entertain you, the stupa of Wat Phnom, the riverside boulevard of Sisowath Quay and the spectacular Central Market (Psar Thmei) are all just a short stroll away. And while there are plenty of eating options both inside and outside the hotel, be sure to leave some space for the delectable bite-size pastries at the Le Phnom delicatessen.

As check-out time neared two days later, both of us kept glancing at our watches and thinking: “Oh no, only two hours left…” If staying over, don’t make our mistake and set too ambitious a sightseeing schedule: a rare gem like Raffles Le Royal is an attraction in itself and deserves to be savored slowly.

Raffles Hotel Le Royal 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh off Monivong Boulevard Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh Kingdom of Cambodia Tel: +855 23 981 888 Fax: +855 23 981 168 phnompenh@raffles.com phnompenh.raffles.com

Ed: Only two things sucked in the Raffles: despite thrice-weekly spraying, there were way too many mosquitoes (they’ll bring an electric repellant if you ask), and the air-conditioner refused to turn itself down low, so I ended up getting a cold. But overall it really is a fantastic hotel and very much recommended — the off-season prices of US$150 are almost reasonable too.

 

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