Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Hotel Cambodiana and the River Mekong - 22 December 2019

One of my favourite pastimes in Phnom Penh is sitting poolside at the Hotel Cambodiana watching the river traffic go by. Norodom Sihanouk came up with an idea for the hotel and even contributed early drawings for bungalows, before it morphed into a full-blown hotel, then one of the biggest in town. It was built, but not finished, during the “Golden Age” of 20th century Cambodia referred to as ‘Sihanouk Time” in the 1960s but wasn’t completed and opened for a further 20 years due to war, and the political and economic chaos in Cambodia. Like some other things in Cambodia, the hotel encapsulates the country’s recent history—it’s aspirations, triumphs, tribulations, and challenges.


The hotel sits at the junction of the ‘X’ formed by the Tonle Sap, Bassac, and Mekong rivers, the four arms of what the French called “Quatre Bras” and in Khmer is known as Krong Chaktomuk. When I first started visiting the hotel it had its own beach complete with deckchairs, that part of the riverbank visible in the dry season and submerged in the wet, when the river level rises almost 20m. The hotel then had its own jetboat moored on a floating pontoon, and a small pier complete with covered seating area for watching sunsets. Continuing reclamation has seen the beach and pier gone, replaced by a promenade which now extends the city’s riverside all the way to Koh Pich or Diamond Island, and runs right past the hotel.


The river intersection is a wide expanse of water, maybe 1km across maybe more, and always busy. The ferries run from near the hotel to Changravar Peninsula to the north and east to Kandal Province at Akreiy Ksatr Village where new developments are going on. What was once a dusty road through low level buildings now has high rises going up. The ferries are the battered looking small wooden variety for cars and motorbikes but now accompanied by the larger white steel vessels big enough for full sized buses which arrived in Phnom Penh when the new bridge at Neak Leoung opened in 2015. Where once you floated across the Mekong now you can drive over it.


Every day on the river there are bulk carriers moving fully laden up river loaded to the gunnels, so low in the water they seem to be sinking. The bridge is forward, the living quarters aft. To move from one to the other when laden the crew must balance along the side of the vessel. Once relieved of their cargo, they ride high in the water while heading back the other way. Before they serviced a large dredge moored near the peninsula. Reclamation is an ongoing process. There’s the natural cycle all its own and then the anthropogenic. Take from here to put there. There are the river people. Whole families born and raised on tiny boats, basically a canoe with a tin cover, which serve as house and home, transport and business. Boats are lined up nose in across the river at the peninsula but can often be seen on the opposite bank near the hotel, like birds around beasts, carefully navigating their way across the river between the much larger vessels. There are fish farms; houses with fish pens suspended underneath, though these are usually found upriver. They can sometimes be seen moving location, a convoy of fish farms towed by a tugboat and strung out in-line in full-flown migration.


The fast boats from Chau Doc in Vietnam come upriver late morning, their passengers disembarking at the port near Wat Phnom. If the passengers are wise and use sunblock, or board early enough for a seat below, they won’t be sun burned and wind blasted from a morning on the Mekong River. It’s a lesson once learned and never forgotten. Some of the freight vessels arriving in Phnom Penh are Vietnamese flagged having travelled up river from Saigon via the Mekong Delta before making their way back again. The large river cruise ships, some over 100m long and three stories high round the peninsula, their engines at full throttle to make the turn against the force of the water. In the wet season the Mekong becomes the fourth largest river in the world by volume, filling the great lake near Siem Reap 200kms upriver inundating as much as 10,000sqkms, and reversing the flow of the smaller Tonle Sap for several months in the process. In the evening floating restaurants and bars make the journey around the peninsula into the Mekong from the city and back again, their coloured lights reflecting off the water.


I first went to the Hotel Cambodiana on the recommendation of a friend, Full Moon. They told me there was a gym membership special on, USD150 for 6 months I think it was, so I joined up. Dearer than the basic sweat gyms found in the city, which charge as little as 1,000 riel (USD0.25) a session, and cheaper than other higher end gyms some charging USD180 a month. At the Cambodiana you seem able to avoid the affluent clientele—high-ranking government and police officials—who feel they have full freedom to do as they please with a resulting chaotic vibe: people hogging machines, intruding into your workouts, and blaring loud music. The Cambodiana is tranquil, low key, pleasant, and with a river view.


The gym sits under the pool area, also home to the bar and now, a wood-fired pizza oven. The pool area has undergone a renovation. There’s new furniture and potted ferns. The deckchairs remain the same, though one less as the last time I was there I broke one sitting down. There is a pretty good range of gym equipment and free weights in a good state of order and is quite well maintained. There are hot showers, a bit of a lounge area in the changing rooms, and a wet sauna. Some might argue the tropics are a wet sauna anyway so why bother, but I’m told there are benefits. You get a photo ID, eventually, when you join Club Physique, though the last time I was a member this never materialised. Every day you sign in and get a green towel and locker key. There are water dispensers with glasses provided. There were continuous problems with the ceiling in the gym leaking water from the pool above, but they seem to have sorted this out. They gym is better equipped than that of the more modern Himawari Hotel next door or was, they’ve upgraded, and the pool gives you a better view of the comings and goings on the river. These days the Himawari, which strangely shares the same address as the Cambodiana, has developed a micro-brewery, so you can go from the beer to the pool and back again.


Poolside at the Cambodiana

I’ve met a few gym regulars over the years living and visiting Phnom Penh at the Cambodiana. Mostly expats living in town. The routine for many is gym in the morning and pub in the afternoon. They all have their set routines. Exercise, to varying degrees of intensity, followed by the pool, usually with the morning paper, shame the Cambodia Daily has gone, or a pulp novel available from the few remining second-hand bookshops in town. It’s the usual crowd; Canadians, Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Scandinavians, North Americans and French. Occasionally, a hotel guest wanders in. Expats are often ex-military, many are comfortably off seemingly on an array of pension schemes providing regular income. Their life does seem unproductive, often boring. When I asked one what he did with himself he said gym, followed by the pool for reading, home for lunch and then “a bit of work on the computer”. Every day, that was it. One Brit told me he had three pensions and a Cambodian girlfriend. He was bald, 60ish, tanned and covered in bling and old faded tattoos. He said he had a girlfriend for “a few months” and then he’d go and get another one.


The Cambodiana has history. The original concept may have belonged to Prince Sihanouk, but the eventual design came from Lu Ban Hap, one of the leading lights of what became known later as New Khmer Architecture. “New” as opposed to classical, even old, but not colonial. New Khmer Architecture represented Sihanouk’s vision for a newly independent Cambodia. Between independence from France in 1953 and the 1960s, the urban area of Phnom Penh doubled in size. Filling that space was the job of Lu Ban Hap, commissioned to set up the Phnom Penh municipality’s department of housing and town planning with a staff of a mere dozen or so. A vast task he relished. It was a job he held for 15 years from 1960 until he was sent to a labour camp in 1975 by the new rulers of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge. After three months he escaped and walked – mostly at night – all the way to Saigon, eventually making his way to France. He didn’t return to Cambodia until 1988.


The Hotel Cambodiana came about originally when Norodom Sihanouk asked Lu Ban Hap to design 10 bungalows to be built on a piece of land near the Olympic Stadium, one of Vann Molyvann’s projects, his favourite in fact. Norodom Sihanouk himself had made sketches for the bungalows and a kitchen pavilion in which he wanted to accommodate and entertain close friends and state guests. Lu Ban Hap then made blueprints out of these drawings, and so began the first expansion stage of the hotel. Economically the project was thought unsustainable, and so the idea for a large hotel came about.


Lu Ban Hap thought only a “proper hotel” would do. The Ministry of Tourism said the hotel needed 100 rooms to make money. To finance construction, the state-owned company SOROTEL was transformed into a joint venture with the National Bank of Cambodia being the largest shareholder, Norodom Sihanouk had further shares. Lu Ban Hap later said in an interview later that Sihanouk “probably held about one-third of the shares”. I think that’s probably called using state assets for your own ends. It was hoped the Air France Group would also back the project by marketing it worldwide using their connections, but this never happened.


The design for the building dates to “1966 or 1967”. Lu Ban Hap recalled in an interview with German architect and journalist Moritz Henning, a fan of his, that with his concept he outdid a proposal by Vann Molyvann’s Ministry of Public Works, which proposed a high-rise building. Lu Ban Hap convinced Sihanouk to keep the hotel’s large building mass as low as possible and to provide it with a roof based on nearby buildings in the area. Lu Ban Hap said he got the idea for the hotel’s design from walking along the banks of the Mekong River from where he saw the traditional styles of Wat Phnom, the Royal Palace, the National Assembly, and Wat Lanka, so thought “you cannot build anything that’s not in the traditional Khmer style.” It’s a pity today’s developers don’t do the same.


Originally the rooms all had balconies, each in turn provided shade for the balcony below. The hotel was originally set up on pillars, like traditional Cambodian houses, to provide a view of the river on the ground floor. Today the ground floor is completely enclosed to gain additional space for the hotel and the balconies long gone. During the civil war (1970-75) the hotel was turned into a military camp, and the balconies walled in when Phnom Penh came under fire. I’ve seen a photo of the hotel still under construction during the civil war period with howitzers in firing positions facing the main road south from where the Khmer Rouge forces were advancing, the gunners firing over the building with the barrels elevated, the shell trajectories almost vertical.


The north wing of the hotel was finished in 1970 but the building was never fully completed until the late 1980s because of the security and economic situation in Cambodia. The hotel was scheduled to be opened in 1970 by Sihanouk when he returned from an overseas trip to France, but he was overthrown in what is often called a military coup but was in fact a vote by the National Assembly. The hotel was never officially opened, and Sihanouk didn’t set foot in Cambodia for the next five years. As well as use by the military, with the growing unrest in the countryside refugees flooded into Phnom Penh using the building and the land (during this time the population of the capital increased from about 600,000 to over two million). To protect the building from looting and destruction during the civil war, Lu Ban Hap had the entrance to the building bricked up in the early 1970s and eventually had the whole site fenced off. After 1975 when they took power, the Khmer Rouge emptied the city of its population and sometimes used the building as a fertiliser depot.


Singaporeans re-launched the project in 1988 and finally completed the hotel. Traditional Khmer architecture is still prevalent around the façade of the hotel, with large landscapes at the front and a lawn and huge concreted area on the rear, the river side. I like the entrance drive as it sweeps up to the front door past the fish ponds. The whole building is symmetrical, the line of mirror image being through the lobby. I wish they’d put the balconies back. The hotel rooms and restaurants were designed and given pagoda themes. I don’t know but I’d calculate by adding up the number of windows, the hotel has at least 200 rooms. It was first opened and fully functional as a hotel by Sofitel in June 1990 when peace, of sorts, returned to Cambodia.


Nearly all the diplomats and foreign journalists coming to Cambodia during the UN mission in the early 1990s stayed at the hotel. It was a boom time for the Hotel Cambodiana and anyone else with marketable property. Many celebrities and politicians were seen at the hotel during that time including: François Mitterrand, then the President of France; the President of Switzerland and actors Peter Ustinov and Jackie Chan. In 2005, the Cambodian owned ‘Royal Group of Companies’ a conglomerate owned by Kith Meng, one of Cambodia’s richest businessmen who is not without controversy, purchased the property lease and has managed the hotel since then.


Aside from the gym, there’s a spa at the Cambodiana and Khmer dance classes every week if you’re keen. Weekend specials are designed to attract families. When I first started going to the Cambodiana they had a shop selling Omega watches in the lobby. You could buy a USD10,000 watch in a country where most people earned two bucks a day. The shop has now gone but there’s a café and ice cream parlour. As part of ongoing renovations, the open patio area on the river side has been built in with a conference room.


The last time I visited the Cambodiana my poolside leisure coincided with a police conference on human trafficking and homicide investigative techniques complete with international guest speakers. There were more high-ranking Cambodian police officers—the lobby was full of their bodyguards—than I’d ever seen in one place at one time or would ever want to. Some of them didn’t seem that interested in learning about investigative homicide expertise, given how much time they spent poolside in uniform on their smart phones. That maybe not that surprising given the Cambodian police force isn’t really a traditional criminal investigative force, more a body involved in various entrepreneurial activities usually requiring political connections.


The hotel has its own organic herb garden on the north side next to the Himawari. I used to park my motorbike there, but now they’ve put a chain across from the corner of the building to the fence of the shrubbery to prevent anyone riding around there. The kitchen is run by the formidable executive chef, Song Teng, also featured in Cambodia’s Top Tables, a book about fine dining in the kingdom. You can sometimes see him walk across the pool area resplendent in his work attire, including toque noir but sometimes blanche, heading for the garden often with one or two of his charges in tow. Given they’ve done away with the natural oasis of Boeung Kak, now filled in, I find the Cambodiana a comfortable replacement. Hopefully, it will be around for a while as no one will be able to build in front of it, so the view of the river traffic will carry on.


Hotel Cambodiana - 313 Preah Sisowath Quay, Chakto Mukh, Doun Penh, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia.
See: https://hotelcambodiana.com.kh/

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