The Grande Dame of Phnom Penh
Against the dark curtain of poverty, the atrocities inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, and the many years of war, Phnom Penh is attempting to stage a revival play. We had anticipated the inevitable feelings of guilt while staying at the luxurious Raffles Le Royal. We had expected an acute sense of the disparity between the alternate reality offered by the restored colonial hotel and the world of desperation beyond its doors. We had foreseen stabs of conscience and feelings of hypocrisy prompted by the discrepancies.
What we could not have predicted was the incongruity we encountered soon after entering the air conditioned comfort of the hotel lobby.
The check in process took place in the plush chairs of the lobby and was conducted formally and efficiently by a young man dressed in a black suit who was fluent in English. When he saw our Canadian passports, his polite business smile was replaced with a warm, broad grin that was reflected in his beaming eyes.
"You are Canadians. Doug Flutie played many years in the Canadian Football League before moving to the American League. First he played for the British Columbia Lions. Then he played for the Calgary Stampeders and led his team to the Grey Cup. Then he joined the Toronto Argonauts and won two more championships before moving to the National Football League and signing with the Buffalo Bills."
We reacted with wordless astonishment
"I am a big fan of American football," he offered as explanation for what had become obvious. "And Doug Flutie is my favourite player."
We were flabbergasted by the irony. Here in the opulent lobby of a five star hotel located in a city full of desperate poverty, we were chatting with a Khmer who was a passionate football fan and whose hero had played for our hometown team.
As he walked us to our room, he interspersed football talk with hotel information. "Those tamarind trees at each end of the pool are over a hundred years old. They were there before the original hotel was built and incorporated into the major renovations that began in 1996. I don't think the San Diego Chargers will protect Doug Flutie next season, but another team will pick him up. Maybe he will return to the Canadian league," he suggested raising his eyebrows and smiling.
Because of his hero, we began to call him Mr. Doug, using the "mister first name" protocol commonly used in Cambodia. He seemed delighted at his new nickname and beamed a smile every time we used it.
In 1924, as part of an ambitious civic plan that would transform this French colonial city, town planners first conceived the idea of a grand hotel to be built in the area near Wat Phnom. A swampy low land, the remains of a former lake, was chosen as the hotel's location, and the process of draining and back filling the site soon commenced.
According to historical documents, the architect, Ernest Hébrard, "consciously rejected traditional Khmer models in favour of the newer, French colonial style that he tempered by utilizing aspects of traditional architecture." Other than Wat Phnom, the four storey Hotel Le Royal became the tallest structure in the city and the most luxurious hotel in the region, with its 58 rooms-"41 with private bathrooms, 13 with showers only, and 4 with communal bathrooms." King Sisiwath Monivong was among those in attendance at a lavish party to celebrate its inaugural opening on November 20, 1929; an orchestra had been transported from Saigon specifically for the extravagant ceremony.
Joining the handful of established luxurious hotels of Southeast Asia--Raffles in Singapore, The Oriental in Bangkok, The Strand in Rangoon, The Continental in Saigon, and The Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang--Le Royal entered several decades of grandeur during that romantic golden era of travel when such grande dames were patronized by the affluent and the privileged, writers and celebrities, the renowned and the infamous during their Asian peregrinations.
Arriving by rail, ship, and chauffeur-driven cars from throughout French Indochina, guests were pampered at their Le Royal stopovers en route to their Angkor excursions. The hotel's belle époque continued for four decades.
Towards the end of the 1950s, additions were made in order to accommodate an ever increasing number of guests; more rooms were added on the upper floors, bungalows were constructed to the rear of the main building, and two storey studio suites were added on both sides of the foyer. Le Royal's halcyon epoch, however, had only a decade remaining.
Lon Nol's coup of March, 1970 saw the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk; the monarchy was replaced by the corrupt and repressive Khmer Republic. Mirroring the situation in the country as a whole, the hotel began to tumble into a period of decline. During the Lon Nol period, its name was changed to "Le Phnom," but as the instability of Lon Nol's despotic rule gave way to the brutality and madness of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the hotel's name was again changed to "Hotel Samakki" or "Solidarity Hotel." Beginning in 1975, Year Zero, the hotel, like the city, was virtually deserted, its golden age relegated to memory and history.
The once grand hotel saw use as a Red Cross neutral zone, an emergency hospital, a refugee centre, a barracks for military advisors, an international aid station, and finally as lodging for the United Nations Transitional Authority whose troops oversaw the elections of 1993 which returned Norodom Sihanouk to the throne. With the reestablishment of the monarchy came the return of the hotel's original name. Her renaissance to former glory was soon to follow.
After the years of neglect, all the hotel had to offer was its architectural integrity, and the resurrection was based on that foundation. Beginning in 1996, under the sponsorship of Raffles International Limited, the main building was renovated, restored, and refurbished. All surrounding bungalows and studio suites were replaced with three wings surrounding the courtyard containing the swimming pools and gardens, each interconnected wing reflecting the colonial architectural style of the original structure. After her slow and ignominious demise in 1970, the lady born out of a swampy lake bed in 1929 was reincarnated in an even grander, more opulent image of her former self; now with 210 rooms and suites, the new era of the renascent grande dame began with a reopening in November of 1997.
"Did you watch the Super Bowl?" Mr. Doug asked at another encounter. The game had been played less than two weeks previous and his excitement still lingered. When he learned we had not, he gave us a quarter by quarter game summary. It was like reading a detailed post game newspaper account.
"I'm very sorry, sir," said the telephone receptionist in a tone that did indeed sound full of regret. "The restaurant is fully booked for this evening. It is Valentine's Day." Her voice was full of apology and disappointment. It was late afternoon and we were attempting to make dinner reservations at the Restaurant Le Royal, the hotel's showpiece dining room. "There will be a special buffet at Café Monivong this evening. May I reserve you a table there?" When we agreed, she seemed relieved and genuinely happy. "Happy Valentine's Day!" she said with excitement tingeing her voice.
When we entered the Monivong Café, we were greeted with a sampeah--the traditional Khmer salutation, not unlike the Thai wai, made with palms together and raised to the face while bowing slightly. Named after the king whose regal presence graced the hotel's gala opening in 1929, the restaurant was quite busy, although the service was smooth, polished and attentive.
Waiters in saffron sarongs and white shirts were ever vigilant, delighted by any opportunity to be of assistance. While dinners revisited the lavish buffet, their chairs were held, plates were replaced, napkins refolded, and silverware exchanged. At their return, hands full, their chairs were positioned for them. With a seeming aversion to an empty dish, they were not appeased until the offending item was removed. "May I take?" they would ask; they would bow with each thank you, and reply with a smiling "Jour welcome madam. Jour welcome sir." All needs were anticipated and provided; there was no need to request.
Even the most finicky eater would find many choices among the sumptuous buffet selections. From an array of freshly baked breads and choices of soups, the spread included roasted lamb and ham, carved to your specifications, a vast variety of salads and vegetables, poached salmon and sea bass, prawns, stuffed calamari, oysters and mussels, a sushi table, cold cuts, a wide assortment of cheeses and over a dozen desserts. Weak willed gourmands were easily enticed into overindulgence.
In the original building, the grand staircase has been maintained and the dark polished wooden stairs, although revealing no indications of over 70 years of wear, squeaked as we ascended in search of the Maugham Suite, one of the hotel's four "Personality Suites" created to commemorate visits by the famous. We wondered if the stairs creaked under Maugham's tread when he climbed them. If indeed he ever did. Although the brass plaque in front of Room 218 bears his name, there is little evidence to support Maugham's link to the hotel. It is well documented that he was in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on a trip from Rangoon to Haiphong, a journey described in his 1930 travelogue The Gentleman in the Parlour; however, all accounts indicate that he had returned to England well before Le Royal's gala opening in 1929. Indeed, the only reference to the hotel at which he stayed while in Phnom Penh during that time is less than complimentary, and could not have been Le Royal: "The hotel is large, dirty, and pretentious, and there is a terrace outside it where the merchants and the innumerable functionaries may take an aperitif and for a moment forget that they are not in France."
Establishing an artificial link with the romantic past personified by Somerset Maugham seems unnecessary for a hotel with such a storied past. Thoughts resurfaced regarding the alternate version of reality provided by the hotel.
As we were leaving for a visit to Phnom Penh's major markets, we ran into Mr. Doug who offered advice. "The tuk tuk driver will take you to each market and wait for you. He will ask for ten dollars, but the price you should pay him is four dollars. Do not pay more. It is a fair price. Settle the price in advance, but do not pay until you return to the hotel." Without a pause, he changed the subject. "With only seconds left, Doug Flutie's pass for a touchdown won the game for Boston College in the 1984 final against the University of Miami. That was the first of his many game-winning last second plays. He won the Heisman trophy that year." There seemed to be no limit to his football knowledge.
After a morning at the bustling, sweltering, beggar-haunted Russian market, we returned to the alternate world of Le Royal and headed to the sanctuary of the pool, our minds plagued with the imagery of limbless land mine victims, expressionless children gesturing to their mouths, and pleading mothers carrying infants.
"That is the reality of Phnom Penh," was Mr. Doug's comment when we communicated our distress. His words were matter of fact, almost mechanical; his eyes revealed uneasiness, as if he wanted to say more but realized he should not. There was no mention of football.
Under the shade of a poolside umbrella, we sipped a cold beer and attempted unsuccessfully to dispel the disquieting thoughts; the pool attendant gave us face cloths cooled in a freezer chest.
We soon discovered that it was not necessary to leave the hotel to encounter disturbing facets of the city. Along the colonnaded esplanade that separates the two pools, we met an Australian who visits Phnom Penh for a month every year, not to holiday but rather to volunteer at one of the city's orphanages. In her arms was a baby of about eight months. "Her twin sister is healthy," the Aussie lady related. The baby she was holding was not. "The poor dear was born blind and deaf," she continued, mothering the bundled child with a gentle rocking. With wide open unseeing eyes, the baby was motionless, silent, pale and without facial expression, living in a world of silence, a world of darkness. "They won't let me keep her here. I have to take her back every night."
Frangipani blossoms were spinning as they floated down from the trees around the pool. Behind us, a gardener was on his haunches, cutting the grass with hand clippers.
Named after the three headed elephant on which the god Indra rode, the Airavata is the specialty cocktail of the hotel's popular Elephant Bar. Said to have been concocted to capture the mystique of the white elephant, the cocktail is served in an elaborate handmade elephant shaped grande tasse which is in harmony with the green and yellow elephant motif painted on the vaulted ceilings, the white elephant that sits on the bar, and the elephant head designs along the thick brass bar rail. To further exploit the cachet of Somerset Maugham, the bar's drink list hypes "The Million Dollar" cocktail, which is claimed to have "gained notoriety" in his short story "The Letter." In fact, the story simply mentions the drink in passing, without any fanfare, and without providing details regarding its ingredients. But it is the legend behind yet another featured cocktail, the "Femme Fatale," that stretches credulity and is too outlandish not to be apocryphal. The drink is named after Jacqueline Kennedy whose visit to the hotel in 1967 while en route to the ruins of Angkor is commemorated by one of the "Personality Suites." According to the story, the glass she used while having a drink at the hotel with Prince Sihanouk was found years later, still stained with lipstick, and this discovery prompted the creation of the special cocktail which combines Champagne, Crème de Fraise Sauvage and a dash of cognac.
Appearing to some extent like an afterthought, the Writer's Bar is tucked into a corner near the doors leading to the colonnaded esplanade between the two pools to the rear building. A plaque on the wall near the short bar with six stool states that it is "named in honour of the many writers and journalists who made the Hotel Le Royal their home."
To further sustain a nostalgia for the hotel's literary heritage, the nightly turn down service provides a six by eight inch card with the heading "Fables of the Exotic East from the Hotel Le Royal Collection." Each evening brings a different excerpt from writing published in the 30s and 40s. One night the passage was from Passports for Asia, a 1933 novel by Beatrice Borland and contained the following sentence that begs for an explanation: "Noon found us battling for rooms at Phnom Penh's badly overcrowded, second-best hotel; the best one was closed, as predicted."
On our way to breakfast, we were greeted briefly by Mr. Doug and supplied with the requisite dose of football information. "If Doug Flutie was playing for the Eagles, they would have won the Super Bowl." His smile was inscrutable and it was impossible to tell if he was joking or serious. As we left, he reached into his breast pocket and handed us what appeared to be a business card. In small handwriting, so painstakingly scripted it looked at first glance like italic type, were the following words:
Phenomena have no good or bad;
The distinction arises from perception.
Circumstances are neither favourable nor unfavourable;
The distinction is only present in the minds of people.
We wondered if this snippet of Buddhist thought was prompted by our brief conversation regarding the poverty witnessed at the market
In addition to suites dedicated to Maugham and Jackie Kennedy, the other two "Personality Suites" are in honour of Charles de Gaulle and Andre Malraux. A tribute to the French writer is curious. Although recognized as a distinguished and influential twentieth century writer, Malraux acquired a less than honourable association with Cambodia when he was a young man. In 1923, when he was 22 years old, Malraux was instrumental in a plot to loot ancient artefacts from the Banteay Srei temple in Angkor. He sawed and chiselled a number of heads from deities with the intent of smuggling them out of the country and selling them to collectors in America. Although he was apprehended, he somehow managed to escape imprisonment; his 1930 novel La Voie Royale, which is mentioned in the brass plaque outside the suite dedicated to him, is a fictionalized account of his attempted larceny. One wonders if the arrogance and gall of the protagonist in that novel reflects the personality of the writer; in the book, the character portraying Malraux impudently declares that the attempted theft was beneficial to the site since the attention brought by the foiled scheme prompted renewed archaeological interest in the temple.
We were greeted at Restaurant Le Royal with smiles and sampeahs. The restaurant was spacious, elegant and formal. Chandeliers were hanging from the high recessed ceilings which were creatively painted with a floral motif. There were only eleven tables spaced far apart to provide privacy. Five of the tables were occupied by other couples. Lighting was subdued and enhanced by candles.
While sipping an aperitif, we perused the ten page menu which featured international, predominantly French, and Khmer cuisine. In addition, there was a special five course "Degustation Menu" to which I finally succumbed while Doris, whose appetite is far less rapacious than that of her husband, ordered a la carte.
The tasting menu began with an appetizer of cucumber parfait wrapped in a beetroot coat and topped with caviar laced sour cream which prepared the palate for the following course of goose liver ravioli served with an artichoke essence. Sharing brought further dimensions to our taste pleasures. Doris' generously portioned starter of melt in the mouth pan fried goose liver was complemented perfectly with rhubarb compote.
A complimentary amuse bouche of duck carpaccio was served to Doris to coincide with my course of salmon confit which was matched with a slightly tart calamansi and lime butter sauce and presented on a bed of lightly spiced eggplant.
Served with chateau potatoes and sautéed French beans, Doris' entrée of duck à l'orange was moist and delicately flavoured. My oven roasted veal mignons were basted in a tamarind-port wine sauce and accompanied by braised cabbage with glazed sweet potatoes.
Although dessert really wasn't necessary and would indeed be superfluous, we surrendered to the temptations of gastronomy. The tasting menu concluded with a wild berry and chocolate charlotte while Doris yielded to the waiter's recommendation of deep fried port wine ice cream with red pear compote.
Our gustatory indulgence had left us sated and attempting to aid digestion with cognac. Throughout our meal the muted background music featured Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the unmistakable vocals of big band era singer Jimmy Rushing. For a moment, a sense of time and place seemed to slip away, and we were no longer in twenty-first century Cambodia. For an instant, the real world dissolved into a surrogate one of comfortable illusions.
Service during our meal was well honed and flawless. Ever vigilant waiters topped up our wine and sparkling water glasses without being effusive. Our needs were anticipated and attended to unobtrusively and smoothly. Attention was courteous and skilled. Apparently, however, it was not competent enough for the gentleman dining with a Cambodian girl who was several decades his junior, if the number of times he called waiters to their table was any indication. The waiters' forbearance was admirable and underlined their professionalism.
We left to a chorus wishing us a good evening along with a replay of the smiles and sampeahs that had greeted us two and a half hours previously.
Wrapped in a comfortable post-dinner lethargy, we sat on our balcony. The sultry night was frangipani scented and echoing with cricket calls. Silhouetted by the hotel's illumination, the branches of the majestic tamarind, its roots reaching back to more innocent times, formed a peaceful tableau. Surrendering our minds to the serenity of the moment, we accepted Le Royal's version of the reality that is Phnom Penh.
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92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh (off Monivong Boulevard), Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Bangkok Air ("Asia's Boutique Airline") has four daily 70 minute flights between Bangkok and Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap Airways International has three daily 45 minutes flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
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There are numerous Non Government Organizations providing humanitarian aid including the following:
Street Friends is a Phnom Penh based organization working with street kids.
Sunrise Children' s Village is involved in helping orphans in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap
Cambodia Trust is an organization which helps the disabled.
Beatocello.com is the web site for the Kantha Bopha Foundation founded by Dr. Beat Richner who has built three hospitals which provide free health care for children.
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Published on 1/7/09