Walking up a wide curved staircase a smoky-sweet scent greets us, pervading the entire corridor. Tan Sopheap, 28, beckons us from the other end of her apartment. In the background violin riffs blare from a widescreen TV playing an old war movie.
The tiled floors provide cool relief from the midday heat, and the half-closed shutters cast shadows over the hall.
In Daun Penh’s Post Office Square stands a beautifully decrepit French colonial building, which was once a grand hotel called the Manolis.
It now houses the penthouse apartment that Tan shares with her Australian partner, Anthony Simms, 42, and their two daughters, Emilia, 5, and Amy, 5 months.
Simms is away in Afghanistan when we visit where he works as a technical adviser for American NGO the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The couple moved in some five years ago, but the renovations took almost three years.
Despite making some modern touches, Simms was keen to retain many of the building’s original features. “Colonial architecture has a huge amount of charm that is senseless to put to waste, and there isn’t a great deal of it left in the city.”
The apartment’s original features are complemented with exotic touches from the couple’s travels. There’s a painting from Myanmar where they went on holiday two years ago, a multitude of furnishings, trinkets and antiques from Afghanistan and a tribal mask from Papua New Guinea. “My mum’s very scared when she sees this,” Tan chuckles.
Kitchen countertop bowls bulge with produce; there’s fresh rambutan here and garlic there.
But this isn’t a show home, where the mother puts on the airs and graces of being the perfect housewife. Tan is a generous host and a former chef (at the Rising Sun). Emilia sits at the kitchen table happily devouring the dried beef and rice cooked by her mother. The same dried beef that perfumes the air with its smoky-sweet scent.
Tan hasn’t always shared Simms’s enthusiasm for their apartment.
“When I first moved here, I thought ‘Oh my God’. I was scared because I thought the old building would maybe fall down one day. But Anthony’s fixed it and it’s a great place [now]. I love it.”