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An elephantine overhaul

More customers can now prop up the much-larger bar following the renovations.
More customers can now prop up the much-larger bar following the renovations. Kimberley McCosker

An elephantine overhaul

Raffles Le Royal’s Elephant Bar has been the sumptuous kingpin of Phnom Penh’s up-market watering holes ever since its post-Khmer Rouge reopening in 1997. But after 18 years of being frequented for its heritage and its generous happy hour (five hours to be precise) the old colonial-style bar was due for a facelift.

“It was very used and damaged,” project architect Romain Brenas said of the previous fittings, adding that the furniture had been in a particularly poor state. “It was old rattan – not very comfortable and very exhausted.”

But it’s not just the furniture that’s new – the whole place has had a complete remodel. Looking around at the results of Brenas’ redesign, the scale of the refurbishment – which was completed last week – is initially disorienting.

The room’s old-fashioned corner bar has vanished and been reborn, at least twice the length and with a drinks cabinet twice as high, in the centre of the room. The long counter, now lined by 10 bar stools, has retained some original features, such as the ornate, elephant-shaped handrail brackets, but the overall effect is distinctly modern. The bar’s mounted centrepiece (which has yet to be installed) is a huge brass elephant head: a safari trophy reimagined for the twenty-first century.

The old rattan furniture has been replaced with leather chairs but the signature murals remain.
The old rattan furniture has been replaced with leather chairs but the signature murals remain. Kimberley McCosker

“Before, it was called the Elephant Bar but there was no bar – it was just used for service,” said Brenas, describing the new addition as his favourite fitting in the room.

Elsewhere, the gist of the redesign can be summed up in its substitutions: leather chairs in place of rattan loungers; suspension lamps with black shades rather than gilded ceiling fittings; and fitted carpets replaced by gleaming faux-wooden panelling.

The Le Royal hotel was built in 1929, and prior to 1975 was the go-to residence for the city’s rich and famous visitors. Notable guests included Charlie Chaplin, André Malraux and Jackie Onassis, who inspired the Elephant Bar’s signature cocktail, the Femme Fatale.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the hotel, which had been gutted under the Khmer Rouge regime, was finally restored in opulent style by Raffles International. Since then its historic charm has remained its USP: several suites are named after famous guests and staff still dress in the traditional costumes of a bygone age.

Brenas said every effort had been made to preserve the bar’s historic feel, including venetian blinds, new rugs under some of the window seating and conservation of its famous elephant murals.

Still, the cumulative effect is to diminish the bar’s nostalgic charm in favour of fittings that bring it closer in line with other top-end venues around the city: the bar’s pool table has been replaced by additional seating – and while the pianist has clung onto his perch, he has been moved from the entrance way to a spot in the corner.

Brenas explained that the shift towards a more contemporary aesthetic was intentional.

“The problem is that, historically, this is the place of the happy hour,” he said.

“[Raffles] wanted to keep those customers but attract new rich Cambodians from Phnom Penh. They want to compete with new places in Phnom Penh – Van’s Restaurant or The Exchange.”

But for a heritage venue like the Elephant Bar, the tastes of this new demographic aren’t always easy to cater for.

Raffles’ general manager, Thomas Christiansen (left), and project architect Romain Brenas.
Raffles’ general manager, Thomas Christiansen (left), and project architect Romain Brenas. Kimberley McCosker

“They like what is new but after a few months they choose a new place,” said Brenas. “Cambodian people, most of them don’t care about the past . . . They just want a good design; [somewhere] comfortable and to just enjoy the food.”

A top chef drafted in from Australia is currently in the process of revamping the bar’s menu.

Speaking over gin and tonics in a new wood-panelled side room off the main bar, Raffles’ general manager Thomas Christiansen tempered Brenas’ suggestion of a new direction.

“When [the design team] created the concept they had to create a concept that worked for everyone,” he said, adding that the idea was to create an environment “where everyone from royalty, to ambassadors, to backpackers can come in and have a nice time”.

He said that while the new bar was “a little more modern” it had retained the “traditional Elephant Bar feel”, adding that the bar remained a unique venue in the city. “If you have to compare apple to apple, I don’t think we have a competitor,” he said.

With the Elephant Bar reopened, the team is now turning their attention to Raffles’ opulent Restaurant Le Royal, whose refurbishment is scheduled to be completed by the start of the high season.

Plans have yet to be finalised, but according to Brenas it doesn’t look like the restaurant’s grand piano has made the cut. “It takes up the place of two tables,” he said.

A previous version of this article stated, based on information provided to the reporter, that the renovated Elephant Bar's furniture was made with imitation leather. The hotel's management has since clarified that the leather is real.

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