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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Cambodia Chronicles: Going Amok in Siem Reap

Most travellers come to Siem Reap for the temples, but the smart ones stay on for the food and the nightlife. In under a decade, what was once just a dusty village on the bumpy road to the Thai border has blossomed into Cambodia’s hippest tourist destination, and palm-frond shacks hawking instant noodles have transformed into stylish yet affordable restaurants featuring cuisine from all around the world – not to mention some really cheap booze.

For a quick break from sightseeing, Café Moi Moi, conveniently located just before the main entrance to Angkor, is an unpretentious alfresco restaurant with a delightful little garden, serving up Khmer dishes, some traditional, some with a Japanese twist. Their version of amok, the classic dish of fish stewed in coconut milk, is cheap and tasty ($3.50), while more adventurous diners can opt for minced pork mixed with the pungent Cambodian fish sauce prahok ($3) and served with sliced raw onion to ease the pain. Nibble some pickles and sweet peanuts, try their famous pumpkin pudding for dessert and wash it all down with a large beer.

At the upper end of the gastronomic scale, try Meric at Hotel de la Paix for what many consider the best Khmer food in the country. Run by renowned French chef Joannes Riviere, their $28 seasonal set course is justly legendary and often features authentic but unusual flavors like dried snake salad and stuffed frog. For more continental style, L’Angelo at Le Meridien is probably Siem Reap’s most daring restaurant, serving fusionesque Italian cuisine like foie gras on a bed of white asparagus and balsamic vinegar ice cream in a setting so achingly modern that the only decoration is a cloud of black dots on the white wall. There’s a price to pay though: a full meal with a glass or two of wine on the side can easily set you back around $100 for two.

For a cheaper meal, after the sun has set over the Tonle Sap, join the crowd and make a beeline for Pub Street, a busy strip of bars and restaurants set in old shophouses near the Old Market (Psah Chas). Here you’ll find restaurants catering to every taste, including Khmer Family for tasty local grub, In Touch for Thai, Kamasutra for Indian, Viva for Tex-Mex, and Soup Dragon for a merry mix of everything. All are nicely done up, very popular, hygienic and cheap – a meal for two will cost under $10. Alternatively, on the road leading to Pub St are Happy Herb Pizza and half a dozen imitators with increasingly silly names. These days, though, your choice of happy herbs is limited to basil or oregano, as the original hippie-style marijuana pizza now makes the local cops very unhappy indeed.

Pub Street still has plenty of legal ways to get a buzz, and thanks to heavy competition happy hours run from 10 AM to 10 PM and many watering holes will gladly sell you a pint of draft Angkor for as little as 50 cents. Angkor What?, the pub that started it all and is covered in years of scribbled notes from travellers to prove it, is still going strong after ten years. Popular neighbors include Le Tigre du Papier, good for free movies, a huge selection of used books upstairs and cheap shots of the aniseed liquor pastis, and the luridly decorated Red Piano, the favorite hangout of Angelina Jolie and the “Tomb Raider” filming crew, commemorated with a cocktail of the same name. There’s even an alfresco Irish pub, Molly Malone’s, at the other end of the street. Just around the corner, opposite the Old Market, are The Warehouse, whose appropriately industrial-looking brick-tiled ground floor hides the cool white Art House gallery and bar upstairs, and Laundry Bar, where the only suds you’ll find are floating in beer mugs.

Last and least, if all this poncing about in bars sounds like too much hard work and you’d just like to get properly sloshed Khmer-style, then head down to the nearest drink shop or dodgy nightclub and pick up some Golden Muscle Wine. Advertised on tuk-tuks everywhere, this pitch-black concoction made from deer antlers and assorted herbs packs a 35% punch and tastes vile when drunk straight, but can be made reasonably palatable (if not exactly tasty) by the addition of tonic water or cola. At $2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting $3 for the “X.O.” version, it’s also the cheapest tipple around. Cheers!

 

Cambodia Chronicles: Sihanoukville, the Rebirth of a Dream

In a land with thousands of years of history, Sihanoukville is a colorful but tragic upstart. A mere fifty years ago, a French-Cambodian construction carved a camp out of the jungle and started building the first deep-sea port of a newly independent Cambodia. Named Sihanoukville in 1964 after the ruling prince of the kingdom, the booming port and its golden beaches soon drew Cambodia’s jetsetting elite, spawning the first Angkor Beer brewery and the modernist seven-story Independence Hotel which, claim locals, even played host to Jacqueline Kennedy on her whirlwind tour of Cambodia in 1967.

Alas, the party came to an abrupt end in 1970 when Sihanouk was deposed in a coup and Cambodia descended into civil war. The town – renamed Kompong Som – soon fell on hard times: the victorious Khmer Rouge used the Independence Hotel for target practice and, when they made the mistake of hijacking an American container ship, the port was bombed by the U.S. Air Force. Even after Pol Pot’s regime was driven from power, the bumpy highway to the capital was long notorious for banditry and the beaches stayed empty.

Peace returned in 1997 and in the ensuing ten years Sihanoukville has been busy picking up the pieces. First visited only by a few intrepid backpackers, guidebooks still talk of walls pockmarked by bullets, but any signs of war are hard to spot in today’s Sihanoukville, whose new symbol seems to be the construction site. More and more Khmers and expats have settled down to run hotels, bars and restaurants, and the buzz of what the New York Times dubbed “Asia’s next trendsetting beach” is starting to spread far and wide. After 30 years of housing only ghosts, the Independence Hotel is wrapped in scaffolding and scheduled to be rise from the ashes soon.

Sihanoukville is again a major trade hub, but the actual container port is well to the west and you’ll only catch a passing glimpse on your way in. The spidery town spirals out from a simultaneously chaotic and laid-back central core of banks, gas stations and supermarkets to no less than five beaches: from north to south, there is Victory Beach and the backpacker domain of Weather Station Hill; Independence, home to the soon-to-be-reborn hotel; Sokha, exclusive domain of the five-star Sokha Beach Resort; Occheuteal, the largest and busiest of them all; and Otres, the quietest of the lot. All abound with open-air seafood restaurants, laid-back beachside bars selling two beers for a dollar, souvenir stalls and massage shops.

Distances between the beaches are a little too long to walk comfortably, but getting around is easy, as the roads are wide and bike taxis (motodop) are everywhere. The standard price is a dollar a trip, although expect to haggle at night or if the distance is long. They’ll gladly pile on two people and their luggage too. For larger groups, car taxis can be called up by phone and there are a few tuk-tuks lurking about too.

Sihanoukville’s airport has reopened but serves no scheduled flights (yet) and the rusty train line still lies unused, so for time being the only way in is by road. Fixed up and paved with American help, the highway from Phnom Penh is now one of the best in the country, and Sorya and GST have buses from Psar Thmei (Central Market) roughly hourly from early morning until the afternoon; book ahead, as they fill up fast. The trip costs $3.50 and takes around four hours, including a non-stop medley of Khmer karaoke hits and a snack break halfway through. Alternatively, you can charter a taxi, which can do the trip in less than three hours and will cost around $25. But whichever way you choose, the time to go there is now, before Sihanoukville becomes a household name.

Top Picks

La Paillote, tel. 012-632347, Victory Beach. French-Khmer cuisine in one of the finest restaurants in the country. Entrees $5-11.

Noh Kor Phnom, Occheuteal Beach. Friendly no-frills seafood restaurant with a menu of over two hundred options. Try the steamed sunfish with soybeans and ginger ($4.25).

Sokha Beach ResortSokha Beach. Cambodia’s top seaside resort on Cambodia’s best beach. Pricy but clean and hassle-free, a great option for sun worshippers and kids.

 

Cambodia Chronicles: A Stroll on Sisowath Quay

The capital of Cambodia it may be, but Phnom Penh is a bite-sized town, and it’s easy to combine sightseeing, shopping, eating and drinking into a single walk through the city. The key to connecting the dots is the town’s riverside promenade, Sisowath Quay, which runs along the west bank of the Tonle Sap River.

Our journey begins at the top attraction of the city, the Royal Palace, on Sothearos Blvd just one block to the west of Sisowath Quay. The King of Cambodia still lives here, but much of the palace, including the throne room and the famed Silver Pagoda, is open to the public. The manicured gardens are nearly as dazzling as the colorful glass tiles of the palace roof. Open 7-11 AM, 2-5 PM daily, entry $3 (plus $2 for a camera). No shorts or bare shoulders allowed, but you can rent T-shirts and sarongs for a token 1000 riel at the entrance.

Just across the street from the Palace you’ll find the National Museum, featuring some of the finest Angkorian art anywhere, including the remarkable statue of the Leper King. And if you’re heard the disturbing rumors, fear not: the infamous bat colony moved out after the 2002 renovation, so you no longer need to carry an umbrella when touring the exhibits inside! Open 8 AM-5 PM daily, entry $3.

By this point a cool drink probably sounds nice, so head down to the riverfront and make your way to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) at 363 Sisowath Quay. This Phnom Penh institution is in a renovated colonial building and its second-floor terrace offers sweeping views over the river, a great Khmer-Western menu and a list of signature cocktails ($4.50): try the Tonle Sap Breezer or the Burmese Rum Sour. The bar is open until midnight and a very popular nightspot on weekends.

Around the FCC are a number of interesting shops and boutiques. Colours of Cambodia at 373 Sisowath Quay specializes in handicrafts from around the country, while the aptly named Happy Painting Gallery just next door has colorful paintings of Cambodian life. Street 178, around the corner, is also known as “Artists’ Street” and Kravan House at #13 has a wide range of Cambodian silk products, including a wide range of ladies’ handbags at a fraction of the price you would pay in a hotel gift shop.

Up the street is Wat Ounalom, which dates back to 1422 and is one of the five original founding monasteries of Phnom Penh, but if you feel like you’ve seen enough temples for the day then just keep on walking. The left side of the road here is full of bars and restaurants packed with tourists, while the quayside park on the right fills up with food stalls and picnicking Khmers on weekends and in the evenings. You may even spot a few brave souls swimming in the river, but for an easier close-up look, the Chenla Floating Restaurant opposite the Paragon Hotel at 219B Sisowath Quay offers dinner cruises (set menu $8, departure nightly at 17:30).

A few hundred meters further on is the ferry terminal for boats to Siem Reap (Angkor) and Street 104, with backpacker-friendly pubs and guesthouses. Continue a bit further onwards and turn left onto St. 94, and you’ll see the spire of Wat Phnom up ahead. This hilltop pagoda marks the spot where the city was founded, and is always busy with pilgrims and fortune-tellers. You may also spot Sam Bo, the city’s only elephant, who has been giving tourists rides for over 40 years. Entry $1.

On the other side of Wat Phnom are the twin boulevards of St. 92 and 96, with the fortresslike bulk of the American embassy standing guard. At the western end of St. 92, just a short stroll away, is the city’s colonial landmark hotel, Raffles Le Royal. If you’ve made it this far, reward yourself with a drink at the famous Elephant Bar, and don’t leave without sampling the delectable tiny pastries at the Le Phnom deli (only $0.50 a piece, half price after 6 PM). Pick a moto or tuk-tuk from the crowd waiting outside (don’t forget to agree on the price in advance) and head back – your slice of the city is now complete.

Originally published in Jetstar Asia’s inflight magazine.

 

Cambodia Chronicles: Index and Lament

Due to a series of events rather too complex and delicate to explain here, some of my contributions to Wikitravel led to Jetstar Asia, my new favorite Singaporean low-cost carrier, offering me a sweet freelancer gig to traipse around Cambodia for a week, flights and hotels paid, then scribble some articles about it and get paid for that too — if deemed good enough to publish in their inflight magazine. Open Source nazi that I am, I naturally insisted (and got) the right to maintain the copyright to the works, so here they are for your reading pleasure:

And I wrote up the fabulous Raffles Le Royal hotel in Phnom Penh too.

Now while it seems churlish and ungrateful to complain after getting a free splurge-class vacation and being paid for it too, I’ll quietly whinge a little anyway.  In my private writings, I’m a free agent and can merrily engage in acerbic potshots and skewering terrible attractions, hotels, etc. In an in-flight magazine, the main purpose of the story is to sell more trips, so rose-tinted glasses are needed for any destination stories. Committing a few sins of omission for this wasn’t too hard, but writing hotel “reviews” that are not allowed to say a single bad thing about an advertiser is a little difficult even if you’re staying in the Raffles (which really is a spectacular hotel), and a lot difficult if you’re staying in a thoroughly generic three-star with so few redeeming features that, to meet my 450-word quota, I had to resort to praising the complimentary tea bags and the bowl of lumpy porridge at breakfast. At least here I can add an extra paragraph at the end listing everything that was omitted from the sanitized version. Oh, the woe of selling out to The Man…

…but, soulless capitalist that I am, I’m already busily poring over Jetstar’s route map and plotting my next trip on their dime. Sigh.