Go back in time on seeing French architecture, or spice up your meals with kompot pepper. You will fall in love with Phnom Penh either way.
by Laurence Civil, from Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and the kingdom’s largest city, sits at the confluence of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers. In the 1920s it was known as “The Pearl of Asia,” regarded as the loveliest French built city in Indochina. A Parisian feeling prevails in the ornate villas lining picturesque boulevards and precisely manicured parks. Phsai Themei, the Central Market, was built in the French Art Deco style. The city has the feel of the romantic nostalgia of that era as depicted in the 1992 French film “Indochine,” even though the film was set in the part of the former French colony that today is Vietnam. A reason to visit Phnom Penh is to see one of the finest collections of French colonial architecture in Asia, as well as to try the city’s food.
If the French colonial era can be seen as the most romantic of times for Cambodia, then by contrast the worst of its times must have been the genocide of the Pol Pot regime (1975 to 1979), that saw a total of 1.7 million men, women, and children killed and buried immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970 to 1975). Two sites show respect: S-21 Prison, the site of many of the atrocities, which is preserved as Tuol Sleng Museum in memory of those killed. Or travel 15 kilometers outside Central Phnom Penh to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to see the memorial stupa with 80,000 skulls stacked in rows behind a clear plate glass window. The name “The Killing Fields” was coined by Cambodian journalist Dith Pron, who managed to escape the regime. His story was told in the 1984 film of the same name.
Part of the magic of visiting Phnom Penh is being able to stay in properties with a sense of history. Being fascinated by colonial hotels, I visited the city on several occasions during the reconstruction of Hotel Le Royal, and I had the honor of being the second guest to check in the night it reopened. This property, together with the Governor’s House, a boutique hotel that represents a new generation of more intimate luxury stays, is more than just another place to rest one’s head. They offer a an experience that steps back to a bygone era, and provide a chance to feel what life was like back in the French colonial era.
Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Duan Penh, +855 23 981 888, (www.raffles.com/phnom-penh/) has been at the heart of Phnom Penh’s society for more than 80 years. It was designed and built by the town planner, Ernest Hébrard, on a tree-lined avenue that is arguably the most beautiful street in Phnom Penh. It opened November 20, 1929, as an elegant French colonial building, with cool black and white tiled floors, a dark teak staircase, high ceilings, louvered shutters and 54 rooms upstairs: 41 with private bathrooms, 13 with showers, and four with a communal bathroom.
The different names the hotel was given reflect the town’s changing fortunes. During the Lon Nol period (1970 to 1975) it was Le Phnom, and reopening after Pol Pot regime, it was Hotel Samakki (Solidarity Hotel). After Norodom Sihanouk’s reinstallation as king, in 1993, the name reverted to Hotel Le Royal.
The story says that while the hotel was being renovated, a case of champagne glasses was found in the cellar, one of which had a lipstick stain in a very similar shade to that worn by JFK’s wife, Jackie Kennedy. And there actually is a photograph of her holding an identical glass at a reception hosted by the king … whether the story is true or a mere Rafflesology is a subject of conjecture.
Raffles reopened the refurbished hotel on November 24, 1997, having added three wings set around the private gardens, with two swimming pools, palms, and monkey pod trees.
The Governor’s House (Villa 3, Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, +855 23 987 025), in the meantime, is set in an elegant colonial-style mansion built in the 1880s. It’s located in the heart of Boeung Keng Kang I (BKK I), Phnom Penh’s most preferred downtown residential area, just a 10-minute drive from the riverfront. It was originally the residence of Senator Kim Lim Heng during King Sihanouk’s reign. Its current owner, Alain Garnier, is a Belgian antiques dealer who exquisitely converted the villa into an exclusive 12-room boutique hotel that perfectly balances colonial style and modern functionality.
To get an insight into Phnom Penh’s dining scene and current trends, I had breakfast at Raffles with Morgan Wong, managing partner and co-founder of nhammm (www.nhammm.com), the city’s ultimate online restaurant and dining guide. “Phnom Pehn is coming of age as a city, with a maturing dining scene,” said Morgan. “With the steady influx of expats, the local dining scene is getting a healthy injection of international inspiration. There is demand for a finer style of dining with more exotic tastes [.…] The trend is for single cuisine restaurant with compact higher quality menus […], a mix of globally popular all day eateries competing with higher end fusion and nouvelle cuisine from Europe and the Americas, many owned and operated by locals. There is a quality of food and wine that wasn’t previously seen in independent restaurants. Owners are having their own unique wine selection and are taking pride in the consistency of their produce and what’s coming out of their kitchen. Less so the latest style, but more chefs are taking inspiration from these types of food, and the locals are enjoying ‘raw’ food like sashimi and sushi, oysters, etc., catering to middle class locals eager to expand their palates as the city becomes more international.”
Where to Eat
Luna d’Autunno (6 Street 29, +855 12 990 768)
Australian-managed restaurant serving Italian and Spanish cuisine with a great wine list, set in an old villa with a lush tropical garden. Excellent pizza. A glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is USD 3.50.
Doors (18 Street 47 & 84, +855 23 986 114, www.doorspp.com, open noon till midnight)
Serving a tapas selection prepared by a Catalan chef fresh from Capella Hotel Singapore.
Malis Restaurant (136 Norodom Blvd, +855 23 221 022, www.malis-restaurant.com, open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Chef Lun Meng reinvents classic Cambodian dishes, blending and working his ingredients to the fullest.
The Common Tiger (20 Street 294, +855 23 212 917, open noon till 10 p.m.)
Pioneers of experimental cuisine with a daily changing menu; one to watch.
One of the world’s best black peppers, it delivers a strong yet delicate aroma. Its taste ranges from intensely spicy to mildly sweet, revealing hints of flower, eucalyptus and mint. Organically produced, it’s Cambodia’s only product with geographical designates status, and it can be legally grown only in certain districts of Kampot and Kep.