Ehran born, London raised property tycoon Howric Ghotbi has a preference for all things old and antique, shunning the modern and slick aesthetic often synonymous with property developers in Cambodia.
“You can tell a lot about someone by their home…By what is inside,” Ghotbi says as he greets us at the gated entrance of his sprawling, five-story Phnom Penh house.
“You can tell if they have taste or not. Sometimes money doesn’t help. Old stuff is classic and makes you feel good. I lived in London, renovating properties in the best areas of the city. I love these old buildings with rich histories…the chateaus of France too. I saw an article on Bill Gates’ home…it’s a mess, very unusual and modern, I guess his personality is like that.”
Ghotbi was first lured to Phnom Penh, he says, after a holiday to the Kingdom in 1997, captivated by the grand, French colonial villas peppered around the city. The developer soon snapped up several of the crumbling structures and renovated them – including one on Street 240 which now boasts the British ambassador as a tenant.
“Every time I walk through this front door, I am taken aback. That’s important I think – every time one opens their front door they should be surprised.”
The home certainly is surprising. Built three years ago on a parcel of land close to the ostentatious ministers’ residences surrounding the Independence Monument, the daunting, neo-colonial mansion was once a humble Khmer style wooden home.
“There was nothing here then, now look around at all of this construction. There were some nice 60s villas, smaller homes, but I wanted something big, huge, that was going to last!”
Past a columned porch and entering through the elaborate front door, the main room opens into a soaring, vast atrium, closed in by a cascading glass ceiling, Ghotbi’s “oasis in an urban jungle.”
“[The house] is bigger that what you think, isn’t it?” he says.
With four living spaces, a dining room, six bedrooms (all with separate sitting rooms), a huge kitchen manned by at least three staff on our visit (he has a total of 14 live in staff), and a heated, basement pool (looked down on through a glass floor in the atrium), the house hasn’t a whiff of modesty about it.
Crystal tear-drop chandeliers swing from the ceilings, an elevator whirs up to the fifth floor roof top “secret garden”.
“It’s all about privacy and open space, a cool space. We spend a lot of time in this room. I like having an outdoor space but without the irritations here- the heat, the bugs, cockroaches and rats.
The pale walls, tawny floorboards and sandstone tiles are a muted backdrop for an eclectic mish mash of items gleaned from around the world.
They reflect the different tastes of he and his Cambodian wife, and there’s a sense of far East meets East meets West.
Gilded mirrors are placed alongside 19th century and contemporary paintings and ornate Vietnamese pottery next to bejewelled hookahs from Iran. Elsewhere, modern bronze female figurines flank apsaras, buddhas and a spirit house.
Ghotbi often refers to his love of British and French antiques but they’re largely missing in his Cambodian home.
“I left most of the antiques that I had brought over in the mansion on Street 240 – they fit the style of that house.
“I had a big collection of antique furniture and paintings that I sold up in 1999 at Christies [auction house] in London...how could I bring them here? They’d get damaged. So now I collect cars instead.”