Originally intended as an experiment in energy-efficient living, the Mekong Floating Bungalows have become one of the river’s most romantic spots for an overnight getaway
Watching the sun set from the Mekong Floating Bungalows is a memorable experience. As the red orb sinks towards the horizon, the sky and river turn into a shimmering watercolour painting. And then, as the dusky colours fade, the lights of the city's skyline wink on like rhinestones in the darkness.
Anchored metres from the far shore of the river, the Mekong Bungalows have for a long time been known among expats as a nice spot for a few Sunday sundowners. And more recently the owners decided to make full use of them by offering sunset cruises, meal and accommodation packages for couples seeking a romantic getaway from the city.
But according to French co-owner Alexis de Suremain, the wooden grass-roofed structures were originally built four years ago as a science experiment.
De Suremain, who also has a stake in numerous hospitality businesses in Phnom Penh including the Plantation, Pavilion and Teahouse, explained it like this when we talked this week in the calm surrounds of Plantation’s cafe: “It gets boring sometimes, just selling rooms.”
On a mission to develop an ultra energy-efficient solar air-conditioning system for hotel rooms, he had a heat exchange installed above the bed in one of the bungalows, which would keep the area within the mosquito net cool.
He had found that guests tended to only be in their rooms when they were sleeping, and by not cooling the rest of the room, the system would use less energy than traditional air-conditioners.
The experiment was ultimately shelved because of problems with humidity, and two years ago, one of the bungalows was turned into a bar. Then, this month, the other bungalow became available as overnight accommodation.
It’s another experiment, de Suremain explained: “A bit like a pilot project . . . if the feedback from the guests is positive, then we will consider building more.”
And so, one night this week, my girlfriend and I decided to give it a test run.
The trip began about 4:45pm at the port when we boarded the Butterfly – a converted rice boat with a day bed in the bow and an ice chest stocked with wine and beer. We did a wide, slow sweep around the southern tip of Chroy Changvar, passing other tourist vessels, fishing boats and tumbledown floating homes – where a father was giving his toddler a wash in the river – before pulling up at our destination near the Arey Ksat ferry dock – directly across from Riverside.
As we walked down the gangplank to the floating hotel room, we were greeted by friendly, smartly dressed waiters – who stay on site overnight – who invited us to inspect the accommodation.
The open-air bar has room for about 20 people, with several sets of tables and chairs. The aesthetic of the bedroom next door, reached by a plank over the water, is sophisticated rustic: all stained wood, bamboo deckchairs, hand-made furniture and old Chinese antiques, but with clean white plaster walls, sliding glass doors, air-conditioning and a top-notch bathroom and shower.
After having a look about, we sat on a lounge on the balcony while the sun put on its technicolour show. I sipped a tasty and potent mojito that filled a glass nearly as big as my head.
About 6pm, lit by fairy lights and accompanied by romantic Western ballads, dinner was served. It was a Khmer set-menu: a crispy wonton, shredded chicken, banana blossom and crispy noodle salad, a creamy soup with grilled prawns, fish amok and mango with sticky rice. Afterwards, with full bellies, we retired to our room for the night.
The next morning, my girlfriend and I woke up a little groggy and ate a breakfast of crunchy mini-croissants, a lettuce and carrot salad, bread and eggs. Before boarding the Butterfly again to go back to the city, we watched the fishermen head out with their nets.
It had been an enjoyable trip, the only black mark was the movement and noise as the bungalow bobbed and strained at its moorings; the sloshing and banging made it hard to get a good night’s sleep.
My girlfriend described it as “like sleeping in a luxurious washing machine”.
And while it’s interesting to observe Cambodian river life up close, we couldn’t help but feel a little strange sipping our expensive drinks while eyeballing – and being eyeballed by – people who might work a whole day fishing just to earn a few dollars.
However, for a special occasion, a trip out to the Bungalows makes for an exceptionally romantic sojourn indeed.
“Our ambition is to give that experience of being right on the river – 40cm above the water with the Mekong spread out in front of you, and all the boats and fishermen and the life of the river, and the beautiful views of Phnom Penh,” de Suremain said.
Remembering the beautiful sunset views, the stares of the fishermen and bumps in the night, it’s safe to say a trip out to the Bungalows does exactly that.
A sunset cruise and dinner at the Bungalows costs $45 per person, while a package for two including the cruise, dinner, accommodation, breakfast and a return trip is $138. The bar is also available for parties and functions.
For more details head to the website: mekongbungalows.asia.