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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Legendary 'Independence' reopens

Legendary 'Independence' reopens

With a stylistic face-lift described as "rococo-modern," the grande dame

of Sihanoukville hotels has reopened after a $35-million upgrade funded by Canadia

Bank PLC.

The Independence Hotel, once a modernist icon of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era, then

a Khmer Rouge redoubt and, later, reputedly a swinging hangout for off-duty UNTAC

troops, is welcoming guests for the first time since 1999.

Known by locals as the "7 storey hotel," or "The Ghost Hotel,"

the Independence was a gilded symbol of 1960s decadence that would be mired in subsequent

decades and ultimately left to squatters. It's past is the stuff of myth and mystique,

but in the future investors hope it will return to its flagship position amid a boom

of luxury hotel development on the Kingdom's coastline.

"Everybody in Cambodia knows this hotel," said Michael Chau, the hotel's

temporary general manager.

The State-owned property, perched prominently over Independence Beach was completed

in 1964, under the direction of French architect M. Mondet and the interior design

of then-prince Norodom Sihanouk.

According to Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins' Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture

1953-1970, Sihanouk's original design included wall-to-wall carpeting and imported

Bohemian crystal chandeliers.

The authors wrote: "Photographs from the period show color schemes of ochres,

oranges, red and black, mint green, reds and charteuse adding to the vivacity of

interior design in keeping with a destination for holiday travelers."

It also had colorful guests. The Independence became a favorite of the Phnom Penh

elite and attracted jet-setting foreigners including, some sources say, Jacqueline

Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve.

The hotel closed in the mid-1970s and the building's futuristic ballrooms and posh

dining halls were used by the Khmer Rouge. A Cambodian scholar of that period told

the Post the building was used exclusively by Democratic Kampuchea's Ministry of

Foreign Affairs and that Chinese experts used to stay there. The scholar said that

rumors of mass executions -and using a bamboo-covered swimming pool to hold prisoners-were

"total myths."

In years to come the hotel would be completly abandoned-bullet strewn and overgrown.

It reopened in 1982 in what Collins described as "semi-decrepit condition,"

and was allegedly appropriated by UNTAC troops in the early 1990s. The Independence

finally shut down in 1999.

In 2001, Canadia signed a 99-year lease with the government and began a stop-start

process of renovation that has taken four architects and six years. Carolyn Pung,

daughter Canadia Bank owner Okhna Pung Kheav Se, is the hotel's executive director.

Canadia would not disclose the terms of the government concession.

"We're going to be at least four-star- as high end as possible. For now our

target is Western customers mainly," said Chau on July 23.

Still not completely finished, the Independence started accepting guests two months

ago. According to Chau, hotel management aims to be completely open in two months-peak

tourist season. The Independence employs 160 staff and rooms run from $110 to $410

for the Presidential Suite.

"We're pushing hard to finish fast, but we want quality, too," said Chau.

"When we say 4-star, we really mean 4-star." In the meantime, staff and

management have had some interesting explaining to do.

"We do have some customers who used to hear that the hotel has ghosts but when

they went to stay at the hotel, they saw nothing. It is just the rumor," Phlong

Chandarith, front office cashier at the Independence Hotel, said July 24.

The re-opening of the Independence Hotel comes amid a flurry of hotel development.

"We're walking the path of Thailand," said Chau. "And we're catching

up very fast."

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