No visitor or resident of Phnom Penh can fail to note the astonishing number of extremely good, high-quality boutique hotels that have sprung up around the city in the last couple of years.
One of the men behind this surge in accommodation excellence is Frenchman Alexis du Suremain, who is responsible for a string of excellently-priced and surprisingly luxurious hotels across the capital. His latest venture, The Plantation, which opened in December, showcases his vision for the future of Cambodia’s tourist industry.
But it was a long and difficult journey to make his vision reality. The site “was originally a branch of the Ministry of Labour. They had different spots around Phnom Penh, but they decided to put them all together in one spot.”
De Suremain had already built up an impressive portfolio of hotels in the city, but when he saw the site, it spoke to him. “At the time the owners were considering several options, and I don’t think they were considering a hotel at all. A shopping mall was the preferred option for them. It was my idea to turn it into a hotel because I felt that there was a need for something different and I launched talks – as soon as I discovered this space I tried to find out whose it was and how to convince the owners.”
The process was a long one, de Suremain says. “A hotel was clearly identified as a need and was the most obvious and manageable option, but it was a very long discussion, it took about a year to talk all the details through, different ideas, what to retain, so it was a long process.”
Once the decision to create a hotel was made, the work itself was long and arduous. “It took more than a year of building and construction. Most of the investment was undertaken by the owners, because I didn’t have that sort of money to pay for renovations of this size - we had to put in a contribution, which was for me very high, and took a lot of effort, but overall it was a small share of the costs.”
De Suremain says the job was a challenging one. “There were difficulties. Not huge difficulties, but difficulties nonetheless. Some of the buildings weren’t as strong as we had thought, so we had to do a lot of reinforcement. The original construction was not of very good quality so we had a lot of very important structural reinforcement to be done. That wasn’t easy because we’re talking real concrete, beams and foundations, so that was much more complicated than expected.”
It was important for the owners that as much of the original character of the buildings was retained. “The first building at the entrance, which dated from the 1930s, had been very badly damaged in the 1970s, when the occupants had needed more space, and had turned the terraces into rooms, so we ended up removing almost three metres of the front of the building, to get back to the original shape and design from the 1930s.”
De Suremain says they had to draft in foreign experts to make sure they got everything right. “We had a specialist, working at the French embassy on the conservation of colonial architecture, as well as on the Angkorian temples, and he worked to identify which were the original structures and what was added.”
The location also threw up its own challenges. “The fact that we are neighbouring a school was a problem, because there is a lot of noise from there and we had to build walls of nine metres all around, and building nine-metre walls isn’t easy, in order to prevent the noise from entering the property. That was significant constraint.”
There were also unexpected finds. “When we dug the swimming pool, we found the foundations of what would have been quite a significant villa, which we don’t really know what it had been used for, but it probably wasn’t too old, because it was made of reinforced concrete, but it had been removed, we don’t know why, and turned into a parking space.”
Because they were essentially renovating the buildings, rather than constructing from scratch, the government and local authorities took a fairly hands-off approach to the work. “We just did renovations, so no one really came and looked at what we were doing. We didn’t change the shapes of the buildings, apart from the balconies. To do more would have involved a building permit, which is more difficult to get than a renovation permit,” de Suremain said.
The company has big plans for the future. “We’re really looking at Siem Reap next, because 70 per cent of our guests go to Siem Reap, and we don’t want to lose that, so that’s our next priority. Then the coast – we’re looking at Koh Rong Island at the moment. It’s one of the nicest islands in Cambodia, and we’re in talks, and I’m looking forward to that.”
De Suremain says that Cambodia’s taking the ASEAN chair has been very good for business, and has raised the profile of the country as a whole. “When I started seven years ago, people were always asking me about landmines, and now that’s almost gone and no one really thinks about that, and the country has a much more positive image.”
Sitting in the shade by the pool at the Plantation, de Suremain looks out over the hotel with pride. “For the moment we’re very happy, we’re fine tuning a few little details, but we’re very happy.”