Phnom Penh’s most iconic hotel, Raffles Hotel Le Royal has a storied history going all the way back to 1929 when it first opened as Hotel Le Royal. It was a little less chic then, but today the building breathes a deeply sophisticated old world charm, with its stylish blend of art-deco, colonial and Khmer design, attention to detail, and impeccable service.
At King Sihanouk’s behest, the hotel was given a facelift in the 1960s, by French architect Henri Chatel, and it became the only place in Phnom Penh where the Royal Palace would accommodate their official guests including, of course. American First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. The cocktail created in her honour, a Femme Fatale, can still be ordered at the Elephant Bar. This was during Cambodia’s heyday, when a confident, independent capital rocked to its own beat.
But the years grew dark, and at the height of Cambodia’s civil war, the hotel became a hub for journalists and those seeking refuge from the advancing forces of the Khmer Rouge. British journalist, Jon Swain, gives a heart-stopping account of the scenes played out at the hotel, and city, in the run up to the Khmer Rouge take-over in his unforgettable book, River Of Time.
Four years later, when the Khmer Rouge were themselves finally overrun by the Vietnamese in January 1979, the city was virtually empty. As a sort of peace settled in, aid agencies took over the building, and ran their operations from there. But as a hotel, it wouldn’t function again until Raffles acquired the property — and Le Grand in Siem Reap — in the 1990s, gave it a major refurbishment and reopened the doors once again in 1997, rebooting a legend.
Today, it’s hard to imagine that turbulent past as you glide through the creamy front doors swept aside by sparkling liveried doormen. The airy, high-ceilinged lobby presents a comfortingly sophisticated space, where business meetings and honoured guests hold sway. Stepping through, you come to the twin-pool area, flanked on all sides by buildings old and new but all in keeping with one another, with imposing colonnades, powder blue wood-framed windows, and sturdy, timeless elegance.
The rooms are all classically inspired, with four-poster beds, rugs and wooden floorboards, sun-kissed yellow walls, beautiful marble and porcelain bath fittings, and porcelain-topped coat-hangers. It’s old world with a tight, clean edge.
Even if you’re not staying here, you could drop in to the pool for a day, for $20++ on a weekday, or $30++ on the weekend, you can use the pool, jacuzzi, gym and steam rooms all day. Or, drop in for a drink at the elegant Elephant Bar, where a half-price happy hour between 16:00 and 21:00, means you’ll soon be grinning from ear to ear, especially if you’re a gin fan. They have a selection of 23 world-leading gins, with more on the way.
For the hungry, there’s always afternoon tea, a sumptuous feast of cakes, scones, sandwiches, and more, for just $14++. And if you really want to go for it, the Sunday brunches are famous, with a sumptuous buffet, including a carvery, from $58++ including a welcome drink, to $78++ including a free flow of Champagne.
While official rates are high, shop around online as some serious discounts are often available — we met someone who managed to pay under US$100 a night during October 2015.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 3rd February, 2016.