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

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.



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.