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Breaking Travel News investigates: Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Cambodia

Breaking Travel News investigates: Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Cambodia

The history of Cambodia flows through Raffles Hotel Le Royal.

Originally opened in 1929 in the heart of capital Phnom Penh, the property played host to a revolving cast of global stars - including Charlie Chaplin and André Malraux - as it grew in prestige over the following decades to rival any hotel in the region.

The French colonial elite called the place home before Cambodia won independence in 1953, while it also briefly served as a barracks for occupying Japanese forces during WWII.

As the Khmer Rouge regime extracted its horrifying toll on the country in the 1970s, Hotel Le Royal was a base for foreign correspondents covering the events.

It was even a Red Cross station before eventually being forced to close in 1975.

Only following the signing of the Paris peace accords in the last decade of the century did Raffles Hotel Le Royal begin its ascent back to the summit of international hospitality.

As Oliver Dudler, general manager of Raffles Hotel Le Royal, tells me over coffee: “Following the work of the United Nations and the return from exile of king Sihanouk, his ambition was to return Cambodia to its former glory.

“For that, he needed foreign visitors, be that tourists or investors, and for those, he needed hotels.

“He was very impressed with how Raffles treated its properties, like the famous one in Singapore, having restored it so lovingly – and, as a result, he invited us to take over the two properties, here and in Siem Reap.

“We were thus the first luxury hotel to reopen after the war with Vietnam.”

Since the reopening, Raffles’ path has mirrored that of the country, seeking to rebuild after a cataclysmic epoch.

In an attempt to begin replacing some of the skills lost during the Khmer Rouge period, the company opened an academy to train the next generation of hoteliers.

As a result, staff are fiercely loyal to Raffles and the Hotel Le Royal.

That is not to say history has been forgotten, with references to the past strewn throughout a stay.

On arrival, a liveried driver greets guests as they emerge from the airport, while Raffles’ flag flutters proudly on the bonnet of an expensive looking Mercedes.

On the steps of the hotel, guests are greeted by what seems like a dozen colleagues as though they are returning friends.

Bags are whisked away, chairs are proffered and within moments I am sinking into my stay with a Femme Fatal cocktail in my hand.

The recipe is attributed to Jackie Onassis following her visit to the property in 1967, and her distinctive shades and lipstick-stained glass are, somewhat oddly, displayed in a nearby cabinet.

Service is flexible, professional and plentiful, and I am in my room before my feet have time to touch the original oakwood floor.

In another nod to the past, actual room keys are attached to huge brass keyrings which must be handed to reception when venturing out for the day.

There are four personality suites at Raffles Le Hotel Royal, each named for a famous guest.

I am to spend the night in the Somerset Maugham, dedicated to the British writer who found inspiration for his work in this part of south-east Asia and was, reputedly, the highest paid author of the 1930s.

News to me, as I had previously never heard of him!

Nonetheless, the room is everything one would hope for in a property of this quality.

Newly renovated bathrooms are cooled by luxurious marble, the four-poster bed towers over the polished wooden floors and the views from the windows take in some of the most desirable parts of the city.

Sadly, and somewhat comically, guests are advised not to open the shutters for fear monkeys may steal in and cause havoc in the room.

After a few moments to drink in the atmosphere, it is time to explore.

The oak staircase back down to reception dates back in the origins of the hotel, with staff using its creaking boards to alert them to the arrival of guests.

The atrium stretches through all four floors – and, before the installation of telephones, guests, or their servants, would simply shout down their orders to the kitchens below.

Outside two pools offer a great place to escape the oppressive heat of the city.

The larger of the two is again original and is watched over by a ‘rain tree’ which is at least as old as the hotel itself – the place has a relaxed feeling, a world away from the bustle outside.

On the fine-dining side, the ancient Royal Khmer cuisine on offer at Restaurant Le Royal has been handed down to Raffles by a decree from the royal palace.

The finest ingredients are carefully blended to create a distinct, exhilarating and elegant gastronomic experience – and my visit was among the highlights of the stay.

Service is in the classic French-style, with beef tartare prepared to your specifications at the table, crepes flambéed right there for dessert and a simply excellent selection of wines on offer.

The hotel is also currently undergoing redevelopment, with each of the five buildings being overhauled in turn.

Work has seen the exterior of the property painted white – this is both to synchronise it with the famous property in Singapore, while also making the hotel standout against the row of beige properties that line the leafy avenue on which it sits.

As Dudler adds: “We have worked to change the exterior of the hotel to white, and we have just had permission from the authorities to do that.

“In French colonial architecture, it is very much beige tones and yellows, whereas British colonial is white.

“Raffles Singapore is white, due to the British heritage; it looks like a wedding cake!

“But unfortunately, there are a lot of French colonial buildings around us here in Phnom Penh, so we felt strongly we should go with white, to differentiate ourselves, and develop that connection with Raffles Singapore.

“The change makes a massive difference; it looks a lot crisper than before.”

Last year both Raffles Hotel Le Royal and its sister property in Siem Reap were acquired by Lodgis Hospitality Holdings, providing the impetus for renovations at both.

Dudler continues: “The renovations have been overdue for a while; every hotel has to undergo a renovation after a certain number of years.

“Here, the smaller work has been done, but as the property had been scheduled for sale for a number of years, the owners held off on the full overhaul.

“Now, with new owners having come in, it was clear renovations needed to be done in order to maintain our competitive advantage.

“Typically, every ten years or so, you do a renovation of sorts, and we are very proud of the work we have done.”

As one would expect, Raffles Hotel Le Royal is situated within walking distance of the key sights of the Cambodian capital, including the Royal Palace, National Museum and Wat Phnom.

Of course, a glimpse of the legendary Mekong river that flows through the city is also essential.

However, you would be mad to walk anywhere – it is simply not done.

When the roads, congested with hundreds of zig-zagging mopeds, overflow, drivers simple mount the pavements, pedestrians be damned.

The stifling heat also makes it hard to walk for more than a few moments.

Much better to hail a passing tuk-tuk – either the enclosed version common in India or Thailand, or the ricketier Cambodian version, which is essentially a motorbike with a trailer precariously attached to it.

The latter, which is considered the authentic experience, can be a little terrifying; with limited traffic lights, crossroads are reduced to drivers gently nosing their way past each other before accelerating away – exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.

Guests are encouraged to head out early, with the Royal Palace filling up soon after it opens.

Wat Phnom, the official centre of the city, is perhaps the most interesting site.

Watch out for locals releasing birds in search of good luck, while a nearby tree is packed with hundreds of fruit bats – apparently the only place in the city they can be seen.

Back at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, there is just time to drop into the Elephant Bar before departure.

A favoured watering hole for locals and visitors to the city alike, there are a great number of cocktails on offer, in addition to the famous Femme Fatal.

Sinking back in the plush chairs, it is easy to imagine bygone generations doing the same, drinking in the hospitality of this unique property.

More Information

Raffles Hotel Le Royal is one of the landmark hotels of historic Indochina, having welcomed travellers since 1929.

It is set in lush tropical gardens and built around two inviting swimming pools – an oasis in the heart of the bustling city.

Find out more about visiting on the official website.

Chris O’Toole