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From colonial emblem to refugee camp: A brief history of Hotel Le Royal

The Hotel Le Royal under construction in 1929. Photo: Raffles Hotel Le Royal archives

In today’s rapidly gentrifying Phnom Penh, it’s not uncommon to see signs of conspicuous consumption transforming the streets of a capital city once synonymous with grit rather than glamour.

As golden casinos loom over royal palaces within the ostentatious Naga World complex, luxury hotels like the Sofitel and Rosewood lure well-heeled travellers, and consumer hubs such as Vattanac Mall draw in affluent residents from the Boeung Keng Kang (BKK) neighbourhood, the 21st-century cityscape bears little resemblance to the conurbation that emerged in tatters from the devastating civil war of the 1970s and the ensuing Vietnamese conflict.

Yet for the best part of a century, the country’s only five-star hotel stood in splendid isolation in the once-fashionable European Quarter, its immaculate façade, stoical interiors and frangipani-festooned tropical gardens belying the political turmoil that increasingly surrounded it. Originally conceived as a refined residence for the colonial elite, French architect Ernest Hébrard constructed the Hotel Le Royal during the 1920s – then with just 55 rooms – with the aim of making it the defining emblem of the city’s conflation of European and Southeast Asian aesthetic styles. 

Hébrard blended colonial tropes with local influences, pioneering a hybrid Franco-Khmer architecture that remains pervasive even today: the original hotel featured sloping tiled roofs, punctuated by triangular dormer windows with shutters, and airy, uncluttered corridors. Hotel Le Royal opened in 1929 with a lavish ball, attended by His Majesty Sisowath Monivong, who ruled over the protectorate from 1927 to 1941.

Soon Le Royal became renowned as an obligatory stop-off for European travellers en route to the relatively little-known temples of Angkor, as part of grand Indochina tours that are nostalgically commemorated in period illustrations adorning the hallways by the entrance. During this period, tourists travelled to Phnom Penh by ship from Singapore via Bangkok and an overland car journey, or travelled direct from Bangkok by rail or car. There was also a bus service from Saigon, or for wealthier tourists, the option of hiring a chauffeur-driven car. 

By the mid-1960s, Le Royal offered the untold luxury of air-conditioned rooms, complete with baths

The hotel’s reputation for excellence was boosted by its association with celebrity guests such as comedian Charlie Chaplin, politician Charles de Gaulle and the famed chronicler of colonialism’s final days, Somerset Maugham, all of whose names are now immortalised in the hotel’s “personality suites” today. These eminent figures were among the first to sample the eccentricities of the Elephant Bar, Le Royal’s drinking den whose wicker chairs, leather sofas, high French windows and arched colonnades captured the decadence of the late colonial era. 

If Le Royal had already become a byword for luxury and prestige in pre-war days – despite being temporarily turned into a barracks by occupying Japanese forces in the early 1940s – it was merely a prelude for the halcyon days of the 1950s. It was during this time, shortly after Cambodia declared independence, that King Norodom Sihanouk’s progressive Sangkum Reastr Nyum (“People’s Social Community”) political movement implemented a number of successful government initiatives that bolstered the economy. 

In this heady period, as the reputation of Phnom Penh and Le Royal skyrocketed, the country was swinging again. By 1963, Cambodia was the number-one economy and most desirable destination in Southeast Asia. The country’s vibrant cultural life – epitomised by the music of Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, and a burgeoning film industry propelled by cinephile Sihanouk himself – reflected the optimism of a dynamic era in which the country’s GDP was on a par with the city of London. 

As if to underscore its symbolic role in this confident new era – and to facilitate the influx of new guests arriving to Phnom Penh from abroad – the hotel had undergone a major facelift in the late 1950s, increasing guest space with additional rooms on the upper floors of the main building. Architect Henri Chatel designed 30 bungalows and six studio apartments. He also added an outdoor restaurant called Le Cyrène (“The Water Nymph”), a swimming pool and a terrace, as well as transforming the hotel’s entrance hall. Later, the restaurant was renamed Café Monivong, after the former monarch (in recent months it has been rebranded as Le Phnom 1929, a colourful brasserie that takes its name from the hotel’s inaugural year). 

By the mid-1960s, Le Royal offered the luxury of air-conditioned rooms, complete with baths. Dignitaries visiting the hotel included Jacqueline Kennedy in 1967, on a tour that doubled as a public-relations exercise aimed at enhancing the country’s image in the West. Such was the symbolic significance of the former First Lady’s Cambodian sojourn that even today, the menu in the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant and the Elephant Bar’s most celebrated cocktail, the Femme Fatale, are named in her honour. 

Jacqueline Kennedy at Hotel Le Royal as part of her tour of Cambodia in 1967.

By this time, the bar had become as iconic as the hotel itself, a voguish hangout where hand-painted elephants by the royally appointed artist adorned the walls. Unrivalled in prestige, it was a place where urban legends were born: when the artist was visited by a monkey during the painting of the walls, he cunningly concealed his depiction of his simian friend in one of the murals at the bar, where guests were challenged to find the cheeky creature.

The golden years weren’t to last. Le Royal’s fortunes – like those of Cambodia itself – oscillated wildly in the late 20th century, and the uncertainty following the republican General Lon Nol takeover of 1970 stood in stark contrast to the confidence of the flamboyant sixties. Tourists fled Phnom Penh as the military staged their coup; and Sihanouk vanished into exile before the Khmer Rouge rebellion precipitated a frantic exodus to the country.

As civil war raged around Hotel Le Phnom – as it was renamed – in the 1970s the Red Cross moved in and the hotel took on a new life as a base for NGO workers and international journalists covering the conflict. Among them were Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times, whose story – alongside that of his photographer and Cambodian interpreter Dith Pran – was recounted in 1984’s The Killing Fields. Scenes from the film were shot in The Railway Hotel in the Thai royal city of Hua Hin, which has similar architecture.

Power blackouts were frequent during the 1970s, adding to the drama within the building. As staff slept under mosquito nets in the lobby, the journalists moved to dark corners away from the windows, for fear of being bombarded by falling shells – lighting them with candles acquired from a nearby Buddhist temple’s supply store. 

The Boston Globe journalist David Greenway recalled the hotel in this time as having “a sense of camaraderie and a somewhat hysterical relief in the feeling of comparative safety when you came back from harrowing days of reporting in the field.” He described “vignettes frozen in the mind’s eye like scenes from a play. There was Sydney Schanberg standing on his balcony, playing badly on an old French bugle that the Khmer Rouge armies had left on the battlefield. There was the curt note in formal French asking that the photographer Al Rockoff – later to be played by John Malkovich in The Killing Fields – remove the hand grenade from his bedroom.”

When Le Phnom was on the verge of invasion, British reporter Jon Swain of The Sunday Times recalled the commotion at the hotel in his memoir River of Time. “The bombardments were so intense that journalists abandoned their rooms at the top, which were fully exposed to rocket and artillery fire,” he wrote. 

In the extreme tropical heat, bathing was forbidden in the swimming pool. “It was thought that if there were a long siege, the pool water – turgid and soupy after months of neglect – might have to be drunk,” said Greenway. “‘C’est la guerre [‘That’s war’],’ said the manager, with a wring of his hands, as if anyone didn’t know already.”

The eventual takeover of the building by the Khmer Rouge came without warning. When Pol Pot’s agrarian revolutionaries stormed Le Phnom, they gave the grande dame’s temporary residents 30 minutes to leave. In vain, the staff implored the journalists to stay. “’Don’t abandon us,’” Swain recalled them pleading. “Their words come back to haunt me now, for most of them are dead.” He and the other foreigners moved into the French Embassy, from which they were also eventually ousted.

The Khmer Rouge’s totalitarian purge resulted in the almost complete evacuation of Phnom Penh. As the capital fell, Swain described the façade of the hotel as “bedecked with giant white flags and red crosses, and surrounded with barbed-wire barricades”. Once an exclusive hangout for the rich and beautiful, Le Phnom – perceived as a symbol of Western decadence – was converted into a hospital and refugee camp, and declared a neutral zone by the Red Cross. 

The city fell to the insurgency on 17 April 1975, the country became known as Kampuchea and Le Phnom officially closed its doors. Now abandoned, the hotel functioned as a storage space for food and other supplies for the remainder of the decade as Pol Pot’s extreme policies of de-industrialisation decimated Cambodia, with the aim of returning it to “Year Zero”.  

In 1979, as the Khmer Rouge retreated, Le Royal re-opened under Vietnamese ownership as Hotel Samaki (“solidarity” in Khmer), where it took on yet another incarnation as the centre of international relief activity in famine- and war-ravaged Cambodia. It closed again in the late 1980s during the country’s lengthy recovery period.

When Sihanouk had been reinstalled as head of state in 1993 – following the Paris Peace Agreements that signified the end of the Vietnamese conflict, and the formation of a new government under the auspices of the United Nations – Le Royal re-opened in 1997 after a makeover that consolidated its profile once again as a luxury destination.

Le Royal has been an unmoving presence in Cambodia, bearing witness to its transformation from French possession, short-lived postcolonial optimism, decades of war and strife, and its eventual re-emergence as a modern nation-state

Sihanouk, ever the aesthete, had long admired the architecture of Singapore and was in thrall to the city-state’s most fêted hotel. As the Raffles Group architects undertook major renovation work, they aimed to preserve the colonial spirit of Le Royal while radically transforming its layout.

Though much of the original structure – including the guestrooms – and stylistic touches were restored, the capacity of the hotel increased dramatically: the original bungalows were demolished, replaced by three substantial courtyard wings. The Raffles team also revamped the floor plans for both the mail building and the studio apartments. The hotel now incorporated 175 rooms and suites, more than three times its original capacity.

The architects also restored the two symmetrical octagonal rotundas, located north and south of the lobby, to their former, understated splendour. The hotel’s black-and-white floor tiles were copied and re-laid in the same configurations as Hébrard’s 1929 incarnation. Raffles also restored both the glazed light-well over the central entrance foyer, as well as the grand oak staircase that snaked around the four-storey atrium.

In its fourth name change, the heritage building reopened as Raffles Le Royal in November 1997, with one eye on the past and another on the future: aiming to start replacing some of the hospitality skills lost during the Khmer Rouge period, the company opened an academy to train the next generation of hoteliers. 

Fast-forward 23 years, and the latest renovation has been postponed until the buy-out by new investment company Lodgis Hospitality Holdings. The renovation has largely been about finessing and standardising the Raffles branding, with its façade repainted white – a colour associated with British colonial properties, with yellow predominating in French Indochina – to conform to Raffles’ original outpost in Singapore.

As it approaches its second century, Le Royal – with its combination of traditional grandeur, rich history and contemporary upgrade – has been an unmoving presence in Cambodia’s modern history, bearing witness to the Kingdom’s transformation from French possession, short-lived postcolonial optimism, decades of war and strife, and its eventual re-emergence as the modern nation-state we know today.

So while Cambodia continues to transform around it, the grande dame will likely remain for generations to come. 

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