Raffles Resurrects Two Cambodian Hotels

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Associate editor Tyler Davidson traveled to Southeast Asia to tour Raffles International Ltd.'s two new properties in Cambodia as well as its flagship hotel in Singapore. His report follows:

SINGAPORE -- Hoping to establish itself in a country lacking quality properties, Raffles Hotels International has reintroduced colonial-style class to Cambodia.

Following a nearly $100 million renovation in 1991 that returned the Singapore landmark Raffles Hotel to its glory after years of neglect and the threat of demolition, the Straits-based luxury hotel chain spent $55 million delivering two French colonial Grand Hotels from their shabby Cambodian cocoons: Phnom Penh's Hotel Royal, the premier property in the capital city, and Siem Reap's Grand Hotel d'Angkor, located a few miles from a true Wonder of the World, the Angkor Wat temple complex. Angkor Wat

"The Hotel Royal is a palace, and the Grand Hotel d'Angkor is a large home," said Raffles' chairman and CEO Richard Helfer about the two "new" properties. "We try to make them distinctively different. The [Siem Reap property] is 70% leisure and 30% business, which is just the opposite of Phnom Penh."

Originally built in 1931, the Hotel Royal is the place to stay in Phnom Penh, having hosted luminaries such as Jacqueline Kennedy, Somerset Maugham and Charles de Gaulle. In contrast to dingy, low-rise French-colonial buildings sorely in need of a fresh coat of paint -- the French got the boot in 1954, after all -- the Hotel Royal stands fresh and staid with its grand elliptical driveway and Art Deco stylings.

But, as with the Siem Reap property, the $25 million reconstruction of the Royal was fraught with peril in the form of a short civil war last July that pitted the forces of the country's two prime ministers against each other. Although expatriate staffers were evacuated during the battle, a Cambodian crew continued to work on the hotels and the opening dates were delayed a few months. "If anything it worked to our advantage," said Hotel Royal general manager Charles Morris. "The gardens became more beautiful ... and it was only a matter of time, about 48 hours, before the city was back to normal. People say today that the city hasn't been as peaceful and safe for a long time."

The Hotel Royal features 52 rooms in its original wing, with 158 more included in the two interconnecting low-rise wings added during the renovation. The hotel also contains five landmark suites, each with one bedroom, a sleigh bed with a handmade bedspread, a clawfoot tub, high ceilings, local art gracing the walls and fine hardwood providing a warm accent to the accommodations.

The Raffles Suite features two bedrooms, a sitting room and the extra touch of having the Sir Stamford Raffles crest embroidered on pillowcases. The top-of-the-line, two-bedroom Suite Royal, which is located on the fourth floor overlooking the front gardens, is appointed with Cambodian and French furniture, a pantry and a living room. Clients with a sense of history will enjoy the property's four one-bedroom Personality Suites, which come with articles reflecting the lives of celebrities who have a connection either to the hotel or to Cambodia; these include Maugham, de Gaulle and author Andre Malraux. Residents on longer stays will appreciate the Royal's Studio Suites, which come with an in-room stereo system, a work station and a fully equipped pantry.

Through Sept. 30, the hotel's State Rooms are offered at a rate of $140, single, and $160, double.

"The Grand Hotel d'Angkor is the first hotel in Siem Reap to have an elevator, and it remains the only hotel with an elevator," Helfer said of the wooden-caged, Paris-made Otis lift. Installed during the construction of the hotel in 1929 and the focal point of the Grand Hotel d'Angkor's lobby, it remained unused for 25 years before the $30 million restoration.

Helfer always starts a visit to the Grand Hotel by praying at the Buddhist temple and walking through the massive garden fronting the property, which is connected on a straight line running through the temple and to Angkor Wat. Nevertheless, he decided to ban the display of religious symbols in the hotels, instead opting for items such as the 12th century Cambodian artifacts that grace the Siem Reap property. The exterior of the hotel is inspired by Chinese architecture, with obligatory French colonial elements such as an elliptical driveway.

The 124-room hotel recently began a cautious expansion by adding another wing connected to the main building and three bungalows. "We have room for 310 keys," he said, glancing at the key cabinet at the front desk. "We came in here to be the leading hotel in a growing market." The expansion, however, will be conducted with the bottom line in mind. "If we came in and opened 310 rooms in Siem Reap, we would probably have a $30 room rate," he said only half-jokingly.

Highlights of the hotel's accommodations include four-poster beds with Cambodian-patterned duvets as well as wicker furniture and bathrooms with heated mirrors and Fleur d'London bath amenities. Service at the property aims to have a personal touch, with 24-hour valets on each floor and a service staff who keep in mind the little things such as determining a guest's preference before restocking the in-room candy and fruit baskets.

Room options include two two-bedroom villas (with full pantry facilities and a private wine cellar) located in the hotel's inner garden and with an unobstructed view of the pool, six studio suites, 48 landmark rooms, and 52 staterooms and 12 cabana rooms located in the new wing of the property. The hotel is promoting a summer rate through Sept. 30 of $248 per night, single, and $300, double, for a stay in a stateroom under the modified American plan, which includes breakfast and dinner. Helfer said the average stay at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor is three days under the modified American plan.

At the time of my visit, the Grand Hotel was putting the finishing touches on a full-service health spa that has since opened. "What we attempted to build here is repeat visit, repeat visit, repeat visit," Helfer said. "Between the health center, the temples and the bicycle [rental], it's a complete environment. There will be two reasons to come to Siem Reap: to see the temple complex and to stay at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor."

Raffles International, Reservations: (800) 525-4800 (Small Luxury Hotels of the World).

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A Kennedy Connection

An interesting artifact at the Hotel Royal comes not from royal Cambodian history but from a family that is as close as one gets to American royalty. During a 1967 visit to the hotel, on her way to fulfill a lifelong desire to see Angkor Wat, Jacqueline Kennedy left a deep-red lipstick impression on a champagne glass while listening to Cambodian Prince Sihanouk play jazz clarinet. The Femme Fatale champagne cocktail, a concoction of champagne, creme de fraises sauvages and a dash of cognac is still served in the hotel's Elephant Bar. The champagne glass, found during the most recent renovation of the hotel, is permanently displayed in a corridor of the ground floor, and Kennedy has a Personality Suite dedicated to her.

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