A fashion designer’s labour of love in Phnom Penh
By Massimo Morello
Europe is getting old. Here, there is energy. In Paris: black. Here: colour,” says Romyda Keth. In her studio, Ambre – as red as many of her clothes – a bucket with a bottle of champagne sits on the table and she is reliving the Phnom Penh that was known as the ‘Paris of the East’ in the 1930s. Keth began working as a designer in Paris, where her family had moved in 1973, when her father was a diplomat. “For me, Cambodia was a place of dreams that had to remain so. Far away,” she says. In 1994, her husband Denis Laurent, a French biologist who was looking for excitement and found it in the Cambodian hospitals founded by Dr Beat Richner, convinced her to return.
Keth is pleased with that decision now. In Phnom Penh she has continued her trade, finding inspiration in her roots and business opportunities in the burgeoning Asian market. On a wave of success and galvanised by the energy of Phnom Penh, she and Denis designed and opened the Maison d’Ambre boutique hotel in December 2011.
Located on one of central Phnom Penh’s busiest streets, the elegant white concrete façade typical of the Sangkum era’s urban heritage has been restored to its former splendour. Inside, the layout has been completely remodelled. The lobby sums up the concept, with minimalist décor embellished with Indochinese details. Guests can choose between one- or two-bedroom suites, from 60- to 120-square-metres, with fully equipped kitchens and every modern convenience.
Each apartment has been designed and decorated with a unique interpretation of the themes of luxury and travel, in a style one might call ‘ethnic-cinematographic’. Keth, a passionate film lover, could not resist the temptation to recreate certain movie sets in the Casablanca, Manhattan and Midnight in Paradise suites.
A lasting point of attraction for this ‘Maison’ is the lounge and bar area combined with a restaurant serving European and Khmer cuisine. Located on the rooftop, with a 360° view, it is easy to embrace the whole of Phnom Penh.
“This is the dolce vita,” says Keth, as she looks out over the sea of lights. “Not the one from the Italian film; the one described by King Sihanouk in La Joie de Vivre.”
The predominant colour of the clothes (and masculine accessories) created by Romyda Keth is a bold red that symbolises her own vitality. Her studio, in a renovated colonial mansion, is a landmark for fashionistas in Phnom Penh and for those cultivating a taste for beauty (romydaketh.net).
La Joie de Vivre
The sixth film by King Sihanouk, released in 1969. Jean Barré wrote in a review published that year in Réalités Cambodgiennes: “It is a comedy and a (benevolent) critique on the times… an extraordinarily optimistic film that expresses the best of the Khmer character.”
Kantha Bopha’s hospitals have been built thanks to the work of the Beatocello foundation (beatocello.com) set up by Dr Beat Richner. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1947, Richner began working in Cambodia in 1973. He is also known for playing the cello (hence the name of the foundation), with which he funds his initiatives, sometimes putting on concerts and fundraisers at the hospitals.
Strolling around Phnom Penh
Romyda Keth’s Phnom Penh is the same as that beloved by Jean-Michel Filippi, the anthropologist and linguist residing in Cambodia. Filippi has written a guidebook (Déambulations Phnompenhoises, published in French and English by Kam Editions) in which he leads the reader on a discovery of the “only Asian city that can still be seen as it used to be”. Filippi also organises customised tours.
Website: lamaisondambre.com. Address: #123, Street 110, Sangkat Wat Phnom, Khan Daun Penh. Tel: +855 (0)23 222 780. Reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rates: from $100 per night for a one-bedroom suite, and from $185 per night for a two-bedroom suite with balcony.
“Rolling in the Reap” – The Amansara is temple town’s most luxurious accommodation for weary explorers