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Hotel Renakse - a Post script

The Phnom Penh Post was born in the Hotel Renakse in 1992. As the latter moves towards an uncertain future, Post founding editor Michael Hayes looks back at a shared past

Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON

This file photo of the Renakse Hotel was taken shortly before an eviction notice was served January 5 on the leaseholder, Kem Chantha. The inset photo was taken in 1991, shortly before notice was served on Post founding editor Michael Hayes by a legless Vietnam vet. The future of the Renakse is uncertain.

The Hotel Renakse may be sadly headed the way of too many historic buildings in Phnom Penh, but it will at least be remembered by this reporter for the role it played during the creation of the Phnom Penh Post.

On January 1, 1992, I arrived at Pochentong airport with a letter for then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in his capacity as Head of State and President of the Supreme National Council requesting his permission to start a newspaper.

Right at the visa counter I was approached by a young man named Pok Essaravuth offering to take me to his sister-in-law's hotel. I told him I needed to find Nate Thayer, who was running the Associated Press bureau at that time. Essa, a Cambodian returnee from Long Beach, said:  "Oh Nate, he's staying with us at the Renakse."

And that was the beginning of my three-month sojourn at the idyllic hotel just across from the Royal Palace.

Nate, whom I had only met once before, said the paper was a great idea and that he'd help me in any way he could. We became fast friends.

I delivered my letter to the Palace and then with nothing to do but wait for a response tagged along with Nate as he moved about meeting sources, attending press conferences and cranking out the wire copy.  I knew nothing about journalism, so it was a perfect introduction to the new profession I was trying to get off the ground.

By January 16, I was getting restless so I sent another letter to Sihanouk.

Finally, on January 21, an official letter from Sihanouk was delivered to me at the Renakse in which he said I could start a paper immediately.

I remember thinking to myself: "Oh God, what do I do now?"

It was during this time that I met Sara Colm at the Renakse. She had worked for a paper in San Francisco called The Tenderloin Times which was published in Khmer, Vietnamese, Lao and English, and was looking for work in Phnom Penh. I offered her a job as managing editor and Sara thankfully became the paper's first employee.

Sihanouk's permission letter had a caveat. It said that I also had to "comply with the administrative formalities of the State of Cambodia", which meant getting the green light from the Cambodian People's Party.

I sent off a letter to the Foreign Ministry which told me I needed to deal with the municipality. After a letter to them, I was told that I had to deal with the Foreign Ministry. The back and forth was tedious as I didn't even have a computer or a printer or letterhead or anything. I'd sit on the veranda of the Renakse hand-writing letters and then scramble around to find a computer to use to produce final copy.

The Paris Peace Accords had been signed in October, 1991, and by late January UN civilians, police and soldiers were starting to trickle into Phnom Penh.

Covering my first conflict

The first new restaurant and bar to open to cater to all the new foreigners was a place called The No Problem Cafe on Street 178. Like any good journalists, Nate and I found ourselves there nightly. 

On one evening I got into a heated discussion with an American Vietnam vet named David who was working for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.  He'd asked me who my paper was going to endorse for president before the elections, and when I tried to explain that it was unlikely there would be presidential elections, the message didn't seem to penetrate the booze. The conversation disintegrated from there.

David had lost both legs during the war, but that didn't prevent him from eventually getting out of his chair and punching me five times in the face before I could even blink an eye. A crowd of soldiers prevented the situation from getting worse.

Later, back at the Renakse, I thought it would be good to capture this small bit of history so I took a whole bunch of photos of my bruised face in the mirror before collapsing in bed, only to wake up in the morning and discover that my camera had no film in it.

A small lesson in journalism learned at the Renakse!

BY MICHAEL HAYES, PHNOM PENH POST EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Prime Facts Hotel Renakse

  • What A 100-year-old hotel with an uncertain future
  • Where Across from the Royal Palace on Sothearos Boulevard
  • In control The Cambodian People’s Party owns the property
  • Outgoing Kem Chantha, who has managed the hotel since 1992, has been given her marching orders despite having a 49-year lease on the hotel
  • Incoming Private firm Alexson Inc bought the hotel from the CPP for $3.8 million after a long series of official negotiations that went all the way up the chain to Prime Minister Hun Sen
  • The dispute Minister of Religion Min Khin claimed Kem Chantha broke her lease by failing to renovate the historic hotel adequately, allowing it to be sold. Kem Chantha claims she did maintain and renovate the hotel and maintains the eviction notice does not follow proper legal procedure
  • The twist The eviction order was signed by Phnom Penh Municipal Court Deputy Director Ke Sakhorn. His nephew is married to Ching Sokuntheavy, the owner of Alexson Inc
  • The likely outcome No one knows, but although the hotel is on prime real estate, its location near the Royal Palace could prevent its destruction
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