It dates back to the early 1930s, and has gone through a few name changes: Hotel
Le Royal (during the French colonial and subsequent Sihanouk administrations), Hotel
Le Phnom (the Lon Nol republic) and Hotel Samaki, or "Friendship" (the
1980s). The grand old hotel has played host to many who have witnessed Cambodian
history in the past six decades. As a newly-renovated Le Royal is opened by the Raffles
company, veteran British journalists Tim Page and Jon Swain take a
walk down memory lane. At top, Tim Page, in his inimitable style, races through 30
years of Phnom Penh hotel history. Below, Jon Swain, in an extract from his book
River of Time, recounts the last days of the hotel's 'guests' in April 1975.
Motoring into Cambodia, way back in '64, compliments of the British Embassy Vientiane
CD-plated Ford Cortina, albeit with the 2nd Attaché politico, we could not
afford the majestic Royal Hotel. We stayed at a one-star mahogany and formica-lined
edifice, the Sukhalay, now the mega-block occupied by the City Central; I see from
my aging guidebook, rooms were between $4.50 and $7.05.
Years later at the height of the war next door in Vietnam, I took a working R&R
in Cambodge en route to Singapore. Funds kept quality of abode to the 4-star Paris,
confined to my chambers with one of the worst cases of Indochine nab-dabs. I turned
dehydrated, pouring liquids from every orifice, sustained only by a daily then twice
daily cyclo ride to Madame Churn's house of therapeutical repute. The cure finally
took hold from a bottle of milk of magnesia dispensed by Alex Brauer, a CBS cameraman,
beside the pool out back of the Royal. Even a non-resident could sneak in and use
the facilities or crash out in one of cage-grilled, verandah-front, ground floor
rooms that the press corps was just starting to co-opt. In a pinch you could ride
your bike up the front steps and park it right in you room.
But it was the bungalows out back that certain bits of the hard core Cambodian crisis
coverage Corp. tend to associate with easily. In the 70s several agencies opted to
rent out some of the dilapidated garden bungalows. These purely colonial upcountry
annex structures afforded the discretion offered by the back entrance, with amenities
and chow proffered by room or pool service, and the isolation created a fire base
Each unit was a miniature French equivalent of a Dak bungalow of bygone India Raj
days. One or two bedrooms, bathrooms with French aging-tech plumbing and a day area,
checker-tiled, and the inevitable uncomfortable naugahyde armchairs and sofas. A
few had pullman or separate rudimentary kitchens with office style multi-purpose
The power supply, even with the advent of most NGOs basing themselves there in the
80s, remained subject to the whims of the city and whoever controlled the necessary
fuel flow. NGOs and coalitions of freelancers came to bunk in the bungalows once
the Vietnamese made aid easier and the border with Thailand became porous. The Royal
staggered back to a form of nostalgised life, the bustle never at the peak known
in its former flamboyant years. The bar was always gloomy, a 40-watt neon-lit lizard
nest, the naugahyde glinting uninvitingly, with a few reptiles hanging out at the
bar awaiting NGO or UN crumbs.
It was renamed the Samaki though everyone still knew the bird by its original name;
Pol Pot, and then Viet-communism, had not treated the place kindly. Pilferage and
neglect eroded the fabric of the once-splendid facade, trilled greenery originating
from the ground and self-propagating, stucco and tiles littered in the shadows of
the eaves. Fauna of unpleasant species occupied the glop-flooded basements. Ripped
screens guaranteed an intimate knowledge of the bug life that had led entomologists
to originally re-discover Angkor.
The bungalows had donned multiple coats of mildew, fixtures ripped out by retreating
Potists or Vietnamese; the taps disgorged intermittent coughs of barely treated water
that had to pass under the basement quagmire. When Raffles got hold of the property
two meters of slime sludge and attendant wildlife were scraped from beneath the colonial
structure. No reports of human remains, though ghost stories like those from the
palace in Dalat remain confirmed or otherwise depending on your source. The German
hermaphrodite's python was never rediscovered.
Heydays are only to be remembered by those who were upon them. The boom, or boom-boom,
days seem to have come in waves reflecting decisive moments of Cambodia's jagged
history. With a building that has housed or hosted so many Epoques, it would
be difficult to zoom in on any one chapter that is its quintessence. My heyday has
to be that of the '91 return to normalcy, when all political parties plus Sihanouk
reverently returned to town with UN aegis to get the place jump-started.
It was the birth of the PPPost. Kathleen and Michael Hayes bursting into the Associated
Press firebase/bungalow and trying to exact the cover price from the assembled mass
of media, drivers, A-teams and passers-by. The Bangkok bureau's advance post headed
by Nate Thayer, under Denis Gray tutelage, was sweeping the wire coverage, whilst
gathering legendary gin & tonic bar bills at the Cambodiana. The move was set
and the doctors decamped to the back of the Royal to re-hang their slate. Compliments
of Arthur, Reuters' star photographer, we ran a seven-course dinner brewed up on
a hot plate and kerosene heater, the common room table swept clear of mounds of classified
Khmer Rouge material. Remember the fire and riot at Khieu Samphan's new villa that
we all got cover photos from?
The desk drawers were herbal apocotharies, the walls an audio-visual of Indochina.
The happy snap wall perfected by Mark Dodd of Reuters at the Pailin office came out
of LZ AP, already well-embedded in a rapid fire, mad hatter blur of crazed journo
delight in the Royal's backyard.
It was the party, it was the drop spot, and it was normal to awaken in the morn or
post-nap to find a complete new cast - hangers-on, wanna-bes, and the trickle-turned-flood
of parachuted hacks hot on the trail of budding UN-believable tales. Mini-conferences
took over the corner cozy, spooks of every persuasion sifting through Nate's gleanings.
At night, out front on the patio, served by the hotel basement culinary enterprise,
a beer bar/dancing/café flourished administering to the burgeoning population
of Blue berets and UN civil task forces. Comfort girls surged in cross-border by
the truckload from Vietnam. The only reliable refurbishers of villas and the housing
stock were Cochinois from Can Tho and Chau Doc. The folk who had been genocided and
deported were back making the place tick, running the border black market, soaking
up the hard cash for hot and cold comfort. The cigarette and beer companies proselytizing
their products on the new booming economy festooned the patio in banners and brollies,
and sponsored bevies of hostesses. Our predilection for a nite cap on the terrace
simply led to some of these flowers traipsing back to the quarters for further enlightenment.
The biggest problem was, when enforced, finally decamping to permanent digs, given
the abysmal state of the Royal's communication system. One can but pray for something
Singaporean-modern today. Then it was a switchboard that had done duty when Dien
Bien Phu fell, Lon Nol took over, and Pol Pot brought in East Bloc-ers to correct
the previous errors. The Thais were then only just starting to push mobiles onto
For the Royal, there were fears and rumors, buyers and pull-outs. I don't think anybody
wanted to see the grand old lady's demise. An ex-US ambassador, the last to serve
in '75, came back touting for an Indian hotel chain; the hostelry fell empty, gutting
It is a joyous thing for those of us imbued with nostalgia to be able to scoot past
the hotel on the way from the French embassy or Calmette hospital, and know that
the reassuring facade now boasts a full deck behind.
Gone I suspect are the 16-buck-a-nite suites, but then gone too are Sean Flynn and
Dana Stone and 17 other MIA journalists lost in another heyday when the last photo
of the two lads was snapped out front of the Royal as they left on their bikes on
that last ride. Their fate drew me back to this memoir of renovation.