In May 2019, I checked into the Somerset Maugham Suite at Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh, a colonial era-style heritage property which is situated along a tree-lined boulevard in the heart of the Cambodian capital. The 175-room hotel is a short tuk-tuk ride away from local attractions such as the Royal Palace, National Museum of Cambodia, Central Market and Wat Phnom, as well as 25 minutes away from Phnom Penh International Airport. Notable former guests at the hotel include former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Charlie Chaplin, Barack Obama and Angelina Jolie.
The UTW (“Under Ten Words”): Romantic, idyllic heritage hospitality in Phnom Penh.
The must-dos (if any): Spend time luxuriating in your room, have breakfast along the corridor outside Cafe Monivong, have cocktails at Elephant Bar.
Built in 1929, the hotel possesses a very rich history, from its long list of illustrious guests since the hotel’s launch to the turbulent years under siege by Khmer Rouge cadres during the Khmer Rouge years in the late ‘70s which led to significant distresses to various parts of the hotel. The hotel eventually reopened as Raffles Hotel Le Royal in 1997 after careful restoration and refurbishment, with a newly-built extension where most of the hotel’s State Rooms are located.
The hotel’s aesthetic combines French colonial, Khmer and Art Deco styles, with the proceedings playing it simultaneously stately (the lobby is especially elegant) and dreamily idyllic with creamy hallways, checkered floors, generous sunshine and lush greenery at every turn. Almost every inch of the premises – from the original French doors and teak staircase to the bookcases and bureaus which line the corridors – is positively steeped in history, with various pieces of furniture originating from the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
The hotel’s private garden courtyard houses two outdoor pools – one for children and one for adults – which are surrounded by sun-beds and shaded by frangipani trees. Elsewhere, the Raffles Spa offers various treatments using THANN products as well as male and female changing rooms with their own saunas and steam rooms. A common hot tub area that feels ripped from the ‘90s and discouragingly situated fitness centre are accessible past the changing areas.
Boutiques along the ground floor arcade offer Khmer fabrics, art, souvenirs, gemstones and gifts.
SOMERSET MAUGHAM SUITE
With a private balcony that overlooks the tree-lined driveway and the iconic traveller’s palm tree near the grand entrance (i.e. the same tree depicted in the Raffles logo), the 48sqm Somerset Maugham Suite is one of the hotel’s four Personality Suites, each inspired by the life and work of different well-known luminaries who have once stayed at the property (one of them being Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, former US First Lady). The suite is specially adorned with paintings and photographs of Somerset Maugham, the British writer popular in the 1930s who famously said “Raffles stands for all the fables of the exotic East” after his stay at Raffles Hotel Singapore.
The Somerset Maugham Suite plays it all colonial chic meets hazy romantic resort laid-back with its high ceilings, French doors, hardwood floors, Cambodian handicrafts, old-fashioned cabinet, quaint lampshades, four-poster bed and ceiling fan – the perfect setting for sultry summer passions. The minibar is equipped with a BonMatic Mini coffee machine with Segafredo coffee capsules, as well as 1872 Clipper Tea Co tea-making facilities.
The hefty, 200-page “Soirées, Sojourns & Stories By Raffles” tome on the writing desk is not so much a glossy coffee table book than it is a proud, dignified statement of intention, featuring not just extensive detailing of the history and development of the brand and its concepts but also various engrossing and interesting anecdotes, letters, photographs and illustrations. It is an effective and transportive reading (or, in my case, browsing) experience, serving to contextualise whichever Raffles property you may be at as part of the overall Raffles narrative and immediately strengthening the heritage property’s sense of place.
Elsewhere, the white-tiled bathroom is equipped with an original claw-foot bathtub and a separate shower space, with bathroom amenities from Algotherm.
Champagne breakfast is served at Café Monivong, the hotel’s all-day dining concept with buffet and a la carte options. The breakfast buffet comprises a Peking duck station, an egg station offering dishes such as eggs Benedict and truffled scented scrambled eggs, a noodle soup station with your choice of either chicken or beef, Khmer selections such as the simple but tantalising fresh water fish soup with herbs (I had three bowls and pretty much emptied the big earthen pot of all fish slices by the end of breakfast service) as well as the usual pastries, cold cuts, fruits, Western sides with your choice of either soft or crispy bacon and Asian selections such as dim sum, Indian flatbread and stir-fried udon noodles.
Guests are better off skipping the rather dimly-lit and lethargic indoor seating in favour of the al fresco seats along the brightly-lit and idyllic potted plant-lined and ceiling-fanned corridor, which makes for an ideal setting for Carrie Bradshaw-esque laptop musings and self-improvement book-accompanied champagne sips alike.
The Restaurant Le Royal serves Royal Khmer cuisine – recipes handed down to the hotel by the Royal Palace – in an elegant, fine dining setting. I tried the Royal Khmer Cuisine Tasting Menu with an accompanying wine pairing and was suitably smitten by the jungly sweet Samlor Machu M’Noas (fish soup with pineapple and local herbs) as well as the surrenderingly soft and firmly mushy Amok Bangkong (steamed Mekong lobster in mild spices and local herbs).
My favourite dining space at the hotel is the Elephant Bar, which manages to tastefully incorporate its elephantine elements into the sophisticated and timelessly romantic bar setting without ever veering into cheesy exoticism. The jasmine-sweet Kaf Kaf Gin & Tonic and energetically fizzy Femme Fatale – an honorary cocktail created for Jackie Kennedy Onassis made from crème de fraise des bois, cognac and champagne – were highlights. The latter cocktail was apparently sipped by Jackie O herself whilst she was listening to the jazz of King Norodom Sihanouk played on the bar’s piano during her 1967 visit to the hotel, and her lipstick-stained glass remains on display at the hotel to this day. The bar snacks I tried – the Beef and Pork Sausage and the Lobster Amok – were rather excellent, although the presentation of the former was somewhat unappetising in its evocation of imagery I observed during my tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum earlier that day.
Elsewhere, the humble Writer’s Bar at the lobby as well as the Poolside Terrace offer tipples, snacks and other refreshments.
It is not difficult to see why, after so many years, the hotel remains one of the essential luxury experiences in Phnom Penh as its product offerings – from its unique heritage and historical significance to the strength of their F&B offerings, in particular Elephant Bar – remain distinctive and unrivalled in the Cambodian capital. It would be interesting to see how the property matches up to its sister property Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap, which is due to complete its facelift and reopen in October 2019.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh
92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh
Sangkat Wat Phnom
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
This review was written at the invitation of Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh.
Postscript: The hotel has commenced a significant renovation and refurbishment of the property, and certain wings/blocks will be closed in stages. However, the hotel remains operational throughout the refreshment period.