Standing proudly out of the tin-roofed tenements on riverside’s Street 136 is a relatively new hotel, the Sun and Moon. Incongruous among the backpacker hostels and girly bars that Street 136 is famous for, the opening of the nine-storey hotel could signal the start of a change for the seedy, but beloved, neighbourhood.
The 80-room hotel, where prices start at $80 a night, is the brainchild of Okhna Dr. Chear Ratana, who built it as a gift for his wife. Stepping through the glass doors from the grime of Street 136, you’re transported into an oasis of cool, calm serenity, a world away from the clog of traffic and the relentless commercial imperatives outside.
General manager Noel Furrer says that the area can only grow. “We believe that the Riverside is definitely an up and coming area. There are a lot of buildings for sale at the moment; unfortunately many of them will probably come down, and bigger buildings will go up in their place, and that’s unstoppable, so we wanted to be first.”
Furrer says that while they believe in the future potential of the Riverside neighbourhood, there was an element of chance to the location. “Most of the land here was already owned by our chairman, and he was offered the opportunity to buy some different plots here, so he put them together and built this.”
Furrer, who came to Phnom Penh from Hong Kong and Macau, says the hotel tries hard to be different. “We call ourselves an urban hotel, because of course we’re in an area with lots of bars and there’s lots of funky, crazy people around, but there are also a lot of business people, a lot of owners of companies, but we don’t call ourselves a business hotel, or a holiday hotel; it’s for everybody, it’s a work and play area.”
Noting the environmental impact that the hospitality industry can have on the planet, he says the Sun and Moon takes its responsibilities seriously. “Downstairs we have a water purification plant; we want to create sustainable hospitality. If I use two bottles of water every day for 80 rooms, I’ll use about 60,000 plastic bottles a year, so here we have our own glass bottles, and we’re putting in solar panels, so we’re doing a little bit for the environment.”
The success of the Sun and Moon – its current low-season occupancy rate is above 80 per cent – means the company is considering pushing the brand further. “We’re planning a Sun and Moon farm outside Phnom Penh somewhere in the provinces, and in Phnom Penh we’re building a lifestyle park with a gym and a swimming pool and things like that, and we’re exploring the idea of other Sun and Moon hotels elsewhere in the world.” But, Furrer adds, “We’ve only been open for six months, so we don’t want to expand too quickly; we want to get this right.”
Gazing across the rusted tin roofs towards the Tonle Sap river from the stylish rooftop infinity pool, Furrer considers the neighbourhood. “This hotel is answering a new question. But I think new developments and high rises will come.”
He goes on: “There are a lot of properties for sale at the moment. I know of a big five-star hotel chain that is looking at opening on the Riverside very soon, and then there’s the Rosewood Hotel coming in Vattanac Tower.”
“So yes, it’s happening, but we’re here already, and I believe that the market is big enough for us all.”
Meanwhile, Kim Heang, head of CVEA, is less enthused about the Riverside area. “I think in terms of value, the prices are close to the top. You’d be looking at half a million dollars for a shop house there. If you’ve got a property there, it is easy to rent it out, but for investment, not so much. But it depends where your money comes from. If you’re a government official, for instance, that might be OK.”
According to Nigel Doughan, head of commercial real estate at Independent Property Services Cambodia, the challenge of Riverside is that most apartments are held by individuals on different titles, making acquisition of a whole building difficult.
“This area is probably the most densely populated in Phnom Penh; there will be development, but not like other parts of the city,” he said.