In our Suite History series, we explore the greatest colonial and heritage hotels around the region, riddled with romance, glamour and history, and underpinned as some of Southeast Asia’s most storied treasures. Consider it a chronicle of a time long gone in the spirit of the present, as we unravel the tales, uncover the secrets, and explore what makes these hotels stand out from the rest. This July, we’re checking into the Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh.
You will arrive to a red carpet drawn out especially for you.
Or at least, so it feels, as you walk up the ruby velvet steps from your airport pick-up limousine to enter a true palatial icon in the heart of the Cambodian capital. You’ll follow on the trails of royalty, international leaders, and distinguished guests, and along the former footsteps of Charlie Chaplin, the heel of Jacqueline Kennedy, and for a short period, the stomping ground for the UN headquarters.
If the latter furrows a curious brow raise, it is wholly intentional. The Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh is a storybook complete with glitzy gala dinners past and present, but also imbued with a turbulent history. Celebrating its 90th anniversary this November, we recently visited the classic hotel for a lesson in Khmer history, but also in what it means to sustain the traditional standards of a grand hotel with old-world charm in modern and millennial times.
[All images courtesy of the Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh]
The 40-minute Chopin-assisted journey from Phnom Penh International Airport to the hotel ends with a tranquil ride down leafy Monivong boulevard, before the gates open to reveal what could only be a colonial Wes Anderson fantasy, should the American filmmaker have had more of an affinity for pastel yellow than pastel pink. Sense of arrival is strong at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, and since its conception, has always been so.
The now historic landmark first opened its doors in 1929, and its inauguration was attended by His Majesty Sisowath Monivong (reigned 1927-1941). The visionary architect Ernest Hébrard was behind the construction of the then 55-room hotel, with an aim to turn the Cambodian-French colonial outpost into a world city and dynamic metropolis. Hébrard succeeded, soon making Le Royal the centre point of the fashionable European Quarter, wherein Phnom Penh grew to be the crossroads between Southeast Asia and French Indochina, and the gateway to excursions to Angkor.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, Le Royal was thriving, but in the tumultuous few years that followed, the beautiful hotel’s fresh heyday would come to an abrupt halt.
The 1970s and 80s saw the rise of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, resulting virtually in a complete evacuation of Phnom Penh. During the last days of the city, a record by Agence France-Presse journalist Jon Swain described the façade of the hotel to be “bedecked with giant white flags and red crosses, and surrounded with barbed-wire barricades.” The hotel, once an exclusive hangout for the rich and beautiful, was converted into a hospital and refugee camp, and declared a neutral zone by the Red Cross. Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, and Le Royal as it was known and beloved officially closed its grand doors.
But all was not lost. After the fall of the Communist Party, Le Royal reopened as ‘Hotel Samakki’ (which loosely translates to ‘Hotel Solidarity’), before His Majesty King Father Norodom Sihanouk was reinstalled in 1993, and the hotel became the now renowned Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Undertaking major renovation work, the original bungalows were demolished, the capacity of the hotel was dramatically increased, and the floor plans were altered. Nevertheless, very much of the original structure and stylistic touches were restored, with a lot of the charm from its beginnings swirling back into being to roam the halls.
Strolling along the corridors within Le Royal now is to stroll along a magical narrative of sorts. The property is centred around a private courtyard, with two swimming pools fringed by tropical gardens, sweetly-scented Frangipane bloom, and two of the hotel’s eldest residents: a pair of 100-year-old trees.
There are four floors in the main (original) building, with the conservatory and lobby being the central focal point. We were told that in the olden days, prior to in-room telephones, guests would call (read: shout) their orders from the railings of their respective floors if they needed room service.
The black and white tiles that blanket the interiors of the heritage building are an authentic reconfiguration of the original floor, and the reinstalled grand wooden staircase that runs along it, creaks with character and memory. Lest we forget, the elevator is a more recent invention than the hotel is old.
There are eight room types, and on our visit, we stayed in one of the Landmark Suites in the main building. The design ethos is one that blends both Khmer and French colonial styles with Art Deco touches. The interiors are granted a level of pomp with high ceilings and French garden doors that frame the peek of the morning sun most gracefully, and though relatively simple in comparison to a lot of newer hotels, manage to exude a strong aura of class. The suite is composed of a living and bedroom area, as well as two bathrooms. We missed things like a Bluetooth speaker in the room, or a more varied entertainment system for the TV, yet on second thought, a Bluetooth speaker next to an original claw-footed bathtub from the 1960s would look wildly uncomfortable and out of place.
If there is one name that seems to linger on the pages at each of the dining venues here, it is hers: Jacqueline Kennedy.
Past a few black and white photographs of the former First Lady’s visit to the hotel, as well as her original cocktail glass from an evening long passed, Restaurant Le Royal is the hotel’s main dining room. Between smooth white table cloths, a pianist, and a hand-painted ceiling by royal painter Assasax, the restaurant serves up an ancient Royal Khmer tasting menu (with recipes from the palace), a Gueridon tasting menu (exceptional), and a Jacqueline Kennedy menu. The latter is a reproduction of the very meal that was served at the banquet during Kennedy’s visit in 1968. This period of time needs to be kept in mind for more contemporary palates, but is surely a fun and unique menu to try, especially when paired with Kennedy’s signature cocktail, the ‘Femme Fatale’. On Sundays, the restaurant hosts an elaborate and extravagant weekend brunch, and though lightly pre-biased by Bangkok’s very own incredible brunch offering, we were entirely floored by the experience. Le Royal does Sunday brunch in what feels like the epitome of what it should be. Champagne to start, beautiful vintage wine pairings, and dedicated chefs at your table to prepare unlimited pan-seared foie gras, scallops, rack of lamb, and lobster. The impression is that no wish (nor belly) is too small.
Over at Café Monivong, guests can tuck into all-day casual dining, and also enjoy a breakfast buffet every morning. This is a little underwhelming in comparison to the grand brunch, but small touches like The Phnom Penh Post placed on your table bring in some authentic additions. 24-hour room service is also available, and where room service often doesn’t get special mention in reviews, we need to make a point to really highlight its top quality at Le Royal. Classic favourites aside, there’s even an in-room cinema snack selection on the menu, for crying out loud. (Get the Buffalo Wings).
Possibly our favourite space on the premises, and a favourite amongst the local society too, the Elephant Bar is almost as iconic as the hotel itself, and stands proudly for a ‘bastion of cocktail culture in Phnom Penh since it opened.’ The bar boasts one of Asia’s largest gin selections, with over 110 bottles of the spirit to choose from. We tried the infamous Cambodian Seekers gin, following the advice of the staff to garnish the G&T with a few of the jasmin buds provided. Do try it: it’ll take the drinking experience to new fragrant heights.
At physical heights, the Elephant Bar is a an voguish hangout, with hand-painted majestic elephants on each of the walls to commemorate the revered animal. A sweet story goes that while the royal painter was composing each of these works, a little monkey used to come out to play and keep him company. The artist later paid homage to the monkey by including him in one of the paintings at the bar. The game is that guests are urged to find the cheeky creature in the murals, where something tells us it is likely to get easier to find as the evening progresses.
For those who prefer to do their sipping in-room, Seekers also provides smartly bottled Negroni cocktails at the hotel shop. A consensus reached by our very own drinks editor on the trip outlines that these are really, really delicious, and a great souvenir to take back. Later this year, the Raffles Hotel Le Royal and Seekers will also be launching an exclusive gin together.
Where dining has plenty to swoon for, the facilities at Le Royal are relatively limited, but cover just enough to meet that sweet spot of never needing to leave the hotel should you only stay for a weekend. There are two swimming pools, a gym, and a spa. Additional highlights include a cinema night under the stars, or the classical performances at the Apsara Terrace during the dry season.
By the pool, it becomes evident that most of the guests at Le Royal continue to be largely Europeans and Americans, many of which, we are told, are returning guests and fond friends of the hotel. It is a soothing location, wherein hours float along like a melody under the — always so strikingly blue — Cambodian sky. By the pool too, guests can order light bites and treats, with interesting features like Kampot pepper ice cream, or coconut and chili sorbet.
Over at the spa, we went for the Le Royal Spa Experience, which begins with a mineral salt scrub, before continuing with an authentic Khmer massage, and ending with a facial. Be warned: your limbs will essentially turn to butter thereafter, which will lead to a soft and sleek glide across the crisp sheets come nightfall. In a good way. Always a good way.
On that note, let’s touch on slumber. For turn-down service at Le Royal, you’ll be given a ‘night-time’ story in a card. It’s a romantic detail, but almost an ironic one, as the guest him- or herself almost feels as if the story is the entire stay. You’re the grand dame or monsieur of the tale in the most intimate of ways, and the rolling credits at the end will jerk a sentimental feeling.
This speaks volumes, and underscores what differentiates a hotel from a grand hotel, and a place of the present from a place of heritage. On flipping the pages of the Raffles magazine, the classic Raffles quote will pop up: “while at Raffles, why not visit Phnom Penh?”, almost as if the city comes second place to the hotel. It’s not insulting, nor does it feel like a heavy PR exercise, as Le Royal itself already boasts enough reason to visit alone.
It’s shaking, because in a modern age, travellers are becoming a lot more demanding, and have standards that constantly seem to sky-rocket. How Le Royal can still impress is both awe-inspiring and highly commendable, as the genuine sense of prime and place perhaps touches on the one thing in hospitality that we aren’t fully able to do just yet: time travel.
Whisking guests away into a world of history and glamour, Le Royal is reminiscent of the times when we wore suits and got perms to board flights. We wore heels on train journeys with petticoats and hats. Sirloins were grilled on board, cigarettes were stylishly smoked inflight (though we’re okay with that one not persisting), and going on holiday was spelled with a capital G. What it stands for? ‘A Golden Travel Age.’
Leaving Le Royal feels as grand as arriving to it. Banana tree leaves fan out into the sky and breeze a goodbye, framing the pastel yellow hotel like sepia tone in a picture book. Denote it to charm: old-world, and endless.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Sangakt Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, +855 23 981 888.