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Old timers

What emerged from the afternoon was a treasure trove of oral history: stories of the lives of ordinary folk

Last month the management of Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor honoured the hotel’s illustrious former employees, one of whom had first clocked on for duty over half a century ago in 1946.

Many of the staff honoured had also proven their loyalty, having weathered the closure of the hotel in 1969, and then duly reporting back for duty when the hotel reopened and the political situation had calmed down.

Former employees were tracked down and then, on the big day of the formal Afternoon Tea Reception on June 22, the staffers were collected from their homes by car, treated to a welcome reception from general manager Robert Hauck and his team, and entertained by a pianist in the conservatory.

They were then treated to a tour of the hotel, presented with gifts and escorted home again.

But what emerged from the afternoon was a treasure trove of oral history: stories of the lives not of the generals, the leaders and the big people, but the stories of the ordinary folk. The stories that emerged from these “common people” were, in some ways, similar to the stories gathered by American author Studs Terkel who documented the heroism of everyday American people in works like Division Street: America.

Take the case of former hotel bar woman, Ek Somaly, who is now living on the road near Angkor Wat with one son, one daughter, and two granddaughters. She makes a living renting out a small restaurant and selling crocodile skin bags.

She started working for the hotel in 1964 as a telephone operator but after three months became bar woman and cashier until 1969 when the hotel closed.

She returned to the hotel in 1979 as bar woman and left again in 1984.

She says the highlight of her career came in 1967, when she shook hands with illustrious hotel guest Jacquelyn Kennedy.
Ek Somaly recalls that a slew

of famous guests and dignitaries passed through the hotel doors in her time, and while she remembers the titles, her memory of names
is scant.

She does remember that visitors included the Malaysian president, as well as a big delegation of Malaysian government nabobs, the Egyptian president, the French president and a famous Columbian artist.

She recalls that sad day in 1969 when all the staff were gathered and informed that the hotel was shutting due to war, and the only work alternative that could be available to staff was to join the military.

She says that most of the staff did end up joining the military, and adds that on her return to the hotel in 1986 there was an average of only 10 guests a day.

She also points out that in her day, what is now the extremely upmarket Amansara hotel was the Apsara Villa of Grand Hotel d’Angkor.

Dos Bo, 74, clocked on as a steward and public area attendant, together with six other attendants, way back in 1946.

He left the hotel in 1993, now lives with his wife and six children, is an acha for monks, and is building a “business apartment”.

In 1947 he graduated to being a waiter, left when the hotel closed in 1969, and returned in 1979 as restaurant manager.

Dos Bo remembers that shows for the rich guests, mostly French, were never held at the hotel but rather at the temples, mostly at the Elephant Terrace and around Srash Srong, or Banteay Kdey temple.

The shows always featured apsara dances and the walkways at the temples were lit with oil lamps.

San Phath, 68, now lives near the Angkor High School and has a farm.

He joined the hotel in 1958 as a cleaner and then became a room attendant in 1960. When the hotel closed in 1969 he joined the military, which he quit in 1975.

He returned to the hotel as a housekeeping and restaurant trainer in 1979, and retired in 1985.

Sor Son, 78, an acha for monks, now lives at Wat Po Lanka with his wife and two children. Two other of his children died during the war.

He started at the hotel in 1953 as a room attendant and became a waiter in 1959. He left in 1969, returned in 1987 as a public area attendant and waiter, and quit the hotel business in 1991.

Mouth Khan, 72, also an acha for monks, started at the hotel in 1953 as a public area attendant, and then as a bartender. He now lives with his wife and three children near Wat Damnak. He also had two children who died during the war.

When the hotel closed in 1969 he joined the military, and in 1979 returned to Siem Reap town from the Tonle Sap community.

San Sophon, 70, lives with his wife and seven children and is now retired. He started at the hotel in 1965 as a steward and then became a waiter in the restaurant. He left Siem Reap when the hotel closed in 1969, but returned to the town in 1979 to work at Siem Reap City Hall. He clocked on at the hotel again in 1989 as restaurant manager overseeing 10 staff, all decked out in uniforms of white shirts, trousers and shoes.
He retired in 1993.

He recollects that in the early days none of the staff had “proper training” but shared skills among their peers.

He remembers that the Grand Hotel d’Angkor organised a dinner at Preah Vihear temple in 1960, a Herculean task given the obstacles, including terrible road conditions.

Men Touch, 82, now lives on his farm in Pouk district with his 68 year old wife. They have three children.

He started work at the hotel in 1948 as a laundry operator when everything was still washed by hand. He became the laundry manager in 1951 and in 1960 witnessed the wonders of technical advancement, with the installation of washing machines.

He joined the military in 1970 but quit after six months and later became a farmer. He rejoined the hotel in 1985 as laundry manager, and retired in 1994.

He recalls that what is now the conservatory was used during his time as an art gallery, and that functions were usually prepared there.

The beauty of Raffles’ special day was that not only were these people recognised for their work and their roles, no matter how humble, but their stories are now preserved for prosperity, and will help ink the pages of Siem Reap’s history.

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