Hôtel de la Paix’s Christian de Boer meeting with Chan Oudomsak, the wife of his hotel’s original owner, at her home in Tbeang Kert Village. Photo by: MICHAEL SLOAN
A FORMER sorceress and rich woman who had fallen far down the economic ladder into destitution and was no longer able to afford her own medical bills was featured in a Phnom Penh Post article last Tuesday, July 19 – a story which led to the discovery that she was the owner of the original Hôtel de la Paix, a prime Siem Reap property now worth well over a million dollars.
The woman, 83-year-old Chan Oudomsak, the wife of former anti-French guerrilla fighter and later governor of Siem Reap, Dap Chhuon, now lives in a remote village on the outskirts of Siem Reap.
But she once owned substantial property in the city, including the original 1957 hotel, according to local historian Darryl Collins.
Collins alerted the hotel’s sales and marketing director Christian de Boer to the article by journalist Ou Mom, chronicling the ups and downs of Chan Oudomsak’s tumultuous life.
De Boer told 7Days that he was moved by a description of Chan Oudomsak’s medical difficulties and the sad sweep of her life which saw her rise from the ranks of the anti-French Khmer Issarak guerrilla movement into a position of the first lady of Siem Reap.
But this ended abruptly when Dap Chhuon was executed after his arrest on suspicion of plotting a coup against King Sihanouk in 1959.
The property became Chan Oudomsak’s but quickly fell into disrepair.
The article spurred De Boer to offer to pay at least $500 towards Chan Oudomsak’s medical and living expenses, which he says fits with the hotel’s slogan of “respect the past, embrace the future”.
“We want to highlight the fact that this lady is the original owner of the hotel and help her out in some way,” said de Boer. “This is her hour of need and with a limited effort we can make a massive difference.”
He said he discussed her plight with the current owners of the hotel and it was agreed to donate the money to “make sure her life is as comfortable as it can be”.
Chan Oudomsak, now living near her two daughters in Tbeang Kert village, in the same house where Dap Chhuon was arrested over 50 years ago, is frail and in bad health according to her daughter Kherng Bronorm, who explained her mother has been unable to speak following a severe illness three months ago.
“A few days ago I took her outside and she had a bad fall. There always has to be someone with her. If I leave my mother alone she will … scream because she feels afraid.”
A visit by de Boer and Collins, accompanied by hotel staff, to Chan Oudomsak’s home on Monday yielded a list of preliminary ideas to make the ailing great grandmother’s life more comfortable, including the purchase of a new mattress and maintenance work on her roof to stop it leaking when it rains, which de Boer explained “is just a first step”.
Collins told 7Days that several iconic buildings and statues in Siem Reap were owned by Dap Chhuon’s family during his term as governor between 1954 and 1959, including a villa along the road to the Angkor Archaeological Park, and the Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chom gold statues now housed in a shrine opposite Independence Park.
According to Collins, Dap Chhuon’s family also built the original Hôtel de la Paix, which was bulldozed in the early 2000s to make way for the current incarnation of the hotel, which opened in 2005 trading under the same name.
“The original hotel was built in 1957 but was only in operation until the early 70s,” explained Collins. “Most of Siem Reap became unstable by about 1971 or 1972 because there was so much fighting in the area. I would say the hotel closed close to 1970 and then remained closed during the Pol Pot years. I don’t think the hotel ever reopened because it was in a very bad state when I saw it in the early 2000s.”
Chan Oudomsak’s niece Pout Sha told 7Days that Dap Chhuon built a hotel for one of his daughters to manage during the 1950s, which she believes is the original Hôtel de la Paix, but said she could not confirm this as the daughter in question vanished during the Khmer Rouge years.
The Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chom statues, however, are a part of family lore said Pout Sha, and used to be housed on the family farm before being hidden following Dap Chhuon’s arrest.
The statues later ended up in the hands of city authorities.
As Pout Sha told the story of Dap Chhuon’s rise and fall, her aunt proved that while she may be unable to speak, she can certainly still listen, frequently interrupting by clearing her throat when she feels her niece is skipping over important points.
According to Pout Sha, Dap Chhuon’s life began and ended at the very house where we sat as she recounted his story, and it was from there that he fled in 1959, pursued by government troops following the revelation of the so-called “Bangkok Plot”, an alleged conspiracy to topple King Sihanouk initiated by rightwing politicians sparked by his close ties with Communist China.
Surrounded inside the farmhouse, with Dap Chhuon bleeding heavily from an arm wound, Pout Sha explained that her mother was handed a pistol by her husband, who asked her to shoot him.
But after she talked him into surrendering, he parted with the words: “We’ll meet each other in the next life and forever after.” A promise that Pout Sha said her mother still holds true.