Sunday, January 18,1998
The Straits Times : Life Section Page 4, 5

Romancing Cambodia

IT IS not the best of times, and Cambodia is not exactly the best of places.

But the recent opening of two hotels in that tragic but still charming country by Raffles International cannot be left unrecorded, just because there is so much gloom in the daily news and the spirits are low.

Indeed, it should be celebrated, for the two hotels -- Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh and Grand Hotel D'Angkor in Seam Reap -- represent what is best about Singapore transplanted on foreign soil, without the brash arrogrance with which it is usually associated.

There is, instead, a fine sensitivity for the spirit of the place, in the company's dealing with the government and local authorities and the community, and in the architecture of the buildings.

The two properties are not trophy hotels like, say, the Plaza in New York or the Dorchester in London, which are simple acquisitions. These are historic hotels acquired in 1995, and then restored painstakingly the way the Raffles Hotel here was, complete with all the hidden mod-cons.

Raffles International, which also manages the Raffles Hotel, is the hotel arm of Raffles Holdings, incorporated in 1995 as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore property group DBS Land. The two hotels in Cambodia have the Raffles signature elliptical gravel driveway at the entrance, and the traveller's palms and frangipani trees. They are also stately colonial buildings, in this case French (Cambodia was a French colony from 1863 to 1953).

Yet the architecture also has distinctive Cambodian features, like long verandahs, fish-scale roof tiles, swimming pools built in the fashion of the ancient royal Khmer baths, and the liberal use of indigenous wood on the floor, walls, and in beams and columns.

Le Royal, which was built in the '20s and first established as a hotel in 1931, was the premier hotel in Phnom Penh at that time. It became widely-known in the second half of the century when Mr Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times and British journalist Jon Swain, among a few intrepid others, stayed in it to cover the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

Mr Swain -- who had a gun pointed at his head by a black, pyjama-clad Khmer Rouge leader, and whose life was saved by Mr Schanberg's translator, Dith Pran, as portrayed faithfully in the movie The Killing Fields -- describes the hotel in his 1995 book, River Of Time, as a "spacious, almost baronial building".

He says: "I liked its romantic air at once. Its carved wooden staircase leading to what seemed like miles of dimly-lit corridors, the garden lush with strange plants, with a pool at the back, the faded picture of Angkor on its snuff-coloured walls, the machine-gun rattle of French from old rubber planters downing Pernods at the bar."

The carved wooden staircase is still there, restored beautifully. The corridors are no longer dim, but they seem just as endless, and the pool is still out in the back with the lush plants.

On the walls hang old paintings and photographs selected carefully by Raffles' curator Gretchen Liu, who also sourced the Khmer antiques and art objects that are showcased among the Art Deco furnishings.

Mrs Liu was also responsible for the Khmer object d'art in the Grand in Siem Reap. She had built up a network of supplies when she curated for the Raffles Hotel Museum.

Still, she says: "We're very lucky because material on Cambodia is very rare. Over the course of two years, we found books, photographs and pictures.

"When Raffles was being restored, there was a lot of publicity, so we had people approaching us with their old materials. But there was little publicity when these two hotels were being restored.

"Now that they are open and there is going to be more publicity, we'll get more material. So collecting the right material for the hotels will be an on-going process.

"It is very moving to see the Cambodian guests as well as the staff looking at the old pictures and talking about them." IF THE vision to create Raffles Holdings and make it a key player in the Asia-Pacific hotel industry is that of deputy chairman and CEO of DBS Land Dr Han Cheng Fong, then the vision to restore historic buildings with sympathy for their sense of place and time and meticulous attention to detail must be that of Raffles International chairman and CEO Richard Helfer, 47.

What makes the 68-year-old Grand in Siem Reap stand out is a US$2-million (S$3.46-million) garden park which fronts the hotel. An expansive 645,840 sq ft (about 1-1/2 times the size of Singapore's Padang), it is divided into four gardens which feature the formal, domestic, aesthetic and spiritual elements of the Cambodian way of life. It is a community park in which the locals gather to stroll or picnic or pray at a shrine.

The idea of the gardens is Mr Helfer's. It is a win-win strategy: Even as it brings the locals right to the doorsteps of the hotel, making it a part of the community, it also ensures that no other hotel will come up and block its frontage, because right across the road is the King's villa, and anyone driving up the road to the Angkor Wat will not miss the splendid sight of the gardens and the hotel.

Inside the building, the sandstone replicas of Angkor bas-relief, which portray the non-religious but more domestic scenes of Khmer life, found in some of the function and dining rooms, are also his idea.

The murals on the wall that faces the swimming pool, styled in the fashion of the three royal pools in the Walled City, the Angkor Thom, were commissioned copies of the murals that line the walls of those pools under the water level.

The original murals can be seen only during the dry season, when the water level goes down. Such is the kind of attention that Mr Helfer has paid to the inclusion of Khmer elements in the hotel. He has also restored the hotel's novelty, a wooden caged lift which had been left disused and derelict for the past 25 years.

It speaks much of his adroitness in dealing with the government that although negotations of the purchase of the hotels were made with the then First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was deposed in a bloody battle last July by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, the latter sent a note for the soft-opening of the Grand, held on Dec 30.

In it, Mr Hun said: "Raffles Intenational has not only shown perseverance as a serious and long-term pioneer investor, it has also ensured that two famous landmarks of Cambodia take the rightful pride of place among the few remaining grand historic hotels of the world."

Le Royal in Phnom Penh was opened in November last year. The Governor of Siem Reap, Mr Toan Chhay, was present not only at the soft-opening ceremony, but also showed up at Mr Helfer's private New Year's Eve dinner, and helped arranged the early morning visit to the temple Preah Khan, north of Angkor Wat, by the latter and his guests to view the first sunrise of the new year.

It was the first such event organised at the Preah Khan, complete with torches lit along the long path to the temple, and dance performances staged for the guests, who included Singapore's ambassador Mr Mushahid Ali and his wife, after the sunrise.

Mr Toan was a royalist resistance leader who fought in the jungles for 15 years, and who made the news last year when he led a breakaway movement from Prince Ranariddh's party in April. He could be made a deputy prime minister after the coming July election, should Hun Sen win, and there is little doubt about that.

According to Mrs Diana Ee-Tan, Raffles International's vice-president, marketing and technical services, all 52 rooms of the Grand were taken up during the opening, and more than 40 of them by paying guests.

The hotel is expected to have 131 rooms by the end of the first quarter of this year. Le Royal in Phnom Pehn also has 52 rooms at the moment. The completion of the second phase of the project, also by the end of the first quarter, will see a total of 210 rooms.

The two hotels have a total staff of more than 400, most of them local, 60 of whom have undergone training programmes in Singapore, says the company's director of personnel. More are being sent over for training.

The Grand is managed by a Singaporean, Mr Gilbert Madhavan, 42, formerly the Food and Beverage Manager at Clarke Quay, which is also managed by Raffles. At Le Royal, the director of rooms is Singaporean Bernard Chong, who supports the general manager, Englishman Charles Morris. The two hotels represent an investment of some US$70 million. "We are in it for the long term, not two years or three years," says Ms Jenny Chua, Executive Vice-President of Raffles International and General Manager of Raffles Hotel.

"When you go into a country like Cambodia, it can either be too early or too late. We're rather that we be early."

Last July's battle, though brief, had frightened off other potential investors and hurt the tourist trade, which had been growing gradually since 1992, after the peace agreement signed in Paris in October 1991. People are watching for the outcome of the coming July election, which may bring stability to the war-ravaged country.

Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who carried out one of the century's greatest crimes, killing more than one million people when his party came into power in 1975, is reportedly ill and detained in the jungles by his own people.

On Friday, The Straits Times reported that leading Cambodian dissident Sam Rainsay had returned to the country after nearly a month abroad, and disclosed that a ceasefire between the two factions headed by Mr Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh would be agreed upon by the end of the month. Thailand is reported to be brokering the agreement.

Mr Sorpong Peou, a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies who specialises in Cambodian affairs, believes it is fairly safe to invest in Cambodia.

"Well, I don't think Cambodia will fall to pieces," he says. "Hun Sen has consolidated his power such that there will be no challenge to him from either the Ranariddh faction or the Khmer Rouge or even his own people, at least in the medium term.

"There may not always be political stability, but there is no potential for a social revolution. The country will not be at war with itself the way it used to be. Even if there is a coup d'etat, it is unlikely to jeopardise foreign investments," he says.

"In the long run, however, continued political stability will depend very much on whether the foreign aid that goes into the country will dry up or not. Cambodia will still need foreign aid, even if in the middle term more foreign investments come in."

Because foreign aid comes in US dollars, the American currency is almost a second national currency, next to the riel, so the economic crisis in South-east Asia does not appear to have affected its economy.

Its tourists come largely from Europe, the US, Taiwan and China, so the regional crunch may not hurt its tourism industry.

Toyota Cambrys, BMWs and Mercedes, together with motorbikes and cyclos jam the dusty boulevards of the capital, which retains much of its colonial charm. The Cambodians seem purposeful, everyone going some place. Their recent bloody history has not made them any less lively and vigorous as they go about their daily business.

Over the new year weekend, there were many weddings -- and they represent investment of a sort in the future of the country.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia