Louise Southerden is treated like royalty at Phnom Penh's most resilient hotel.
In theory, Raffles Hotel le Royal shouldn't exist. Designed by French architect Ernest Hebrard (like Cambodia's other Raffles, in Siem Reap) and opened in 1929 by the then-king, his majesty Sisowath Monivong, it's the only luxury hotel in Phnom Penh to have weathered the Khmer Rouge storm of 1975-79.
There's no sign of Cambodia's dark past, of course, on the steamy Monday morning my partner, Craig, and I arrive by tuk-tuk from the airport. But as we're greeted by a doorman in his day-of-the-week pantaloons (a different colour for each day, according to Khmer custom) I can't help wondering: how did such a grand hotel, whose guests included Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham and Jackie Kennedy in its heyday from the 1930s to the '60s, survive the turbulent '70s?
The lobby is cool, calm and collected - and so, suddenly, are we, sitting on cream sofas, dabbing our faces with chilled towels and sipping from tall glasses of iced lemongrass and ginger tea as if we've been doing this all our lives. That's the charm of five-star hotels, particularly in Asia. It's like taking a subliminal deportment class that urges you to glide (not walk), whisper (don't talk) and slow down (rushing is ever so common).
It doesn't help that we're treated like royalty. It's only eight in the morning but our room is ready and we're invited to enjoy breakfast on the terrace at Cafe Monivong. After, we check in and meet our white-suited butler, Thy "Mr T" Sothea - Raffles is the only hotel in Phnom Penh with a 24-hour butler service.
Freshened up and ready for the day, we take a city tour in two cyclos (rickshaws). It's a little colonial but surprisingly peaceful to be pedalled around, past the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the Tonle Sap river, the Russian market, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - all of which we mentally bookmark to visit on our three-day stay.
After lunch at Romdeng, a restaurant that trains street kids in the art of hospitality, we catch a tuk-tuk back to Raffles, where word has spread that it's Craig's birthday. Exhibit A: on the desk in our State Room, a chocolate cake with "Happy Birthday" in icing on the top, and a card signed by Mr T and the hotel's management.
For the rest of the day, there are birthday greetings around every corner. Whether we're retrieving our key at reception, ordering a drink at the bar or arranging a wake-up call, our room number never fails to elicit a cheery "Happy birthday, sir!" in Craig's direction.
There's an elevator to the third floor, and our room, but we find ourselves taking the dark-teak staircase to reach the 25-metre pool - where we spend the afternoon in splendid anonymity, swimming, reading and napping. Until one of us gets thirsty for a beer and the other needs a cup of tea. The pool attendant comes over. Room number? Craig tries to say it quickly: "Three-oh-five." The attendant writes down our order. Perhaps he's just started his shift. Then it comes, with a smile: "Happy birthday, sir."
When the shadows lengthen across the patio, we climb the creaking stairs back to level three to dress for dinner. It seems a pity not to spend more time in our beautiful room - with its stone balcony overlooking the pool, chiffon-like curtains billowing romantically in the breeze and black-and-white-tiled bathroom, complete with claw-foot bath - but it's happy "hour" at the Elephant Bar, from 4-9pm.
Pre-dinner drinks in this elephant-themed lounge on the ground floor are a Phnom Penh institution. Once the domain of war correspondents, it's classier than the Foreign Correspondents Club by the river, the kind of place Elizabeth Taylor might have swept into from the tropical garden. And everyone we see surely has a story: two European gents in wicker armchairs discussing world politics, the pianist tickling the ivories of an upright piano, expat families reuniting over gin and tonics.
We're dining tonight, on this special occasion, at one of the best restaurants in Phnom Penh: the hotel's Restaurant le Royal. There, under crystal chandeliers and accompanied by classical music from a grand piano, we're treated to a parade of French and Khmer dishes - including Norwegian sea bass, crepes Suzette, Khmer petits fours, another complimentary chocolate cake - created by Michelin-starred Belgian chef Steve van Remoortel.
How delightful it is, after a few glasses of celebratory champagne, to have your room just minutes away, the bed turned down, slippers at the ready, a thoughtful quote on your pillow. Like being on a luxury cruise ship, one that is firmly anchored in its surroundings and has sailed through interesting times, and changed with them. That's probably the secret to Hotel le Royal's success - and its survival.
It's hard to believe this elegant building, which for three decades played host to visiting celebrities and heads of state, was home to foreign journalists, ringed with barbed wire and declared a neutral zone by the Red Cross in Cambodia's troubled '70s. It was later occupied by Khmer Rouge cadres, and taken over by international aid agencies and the United Nations in the '80s and '90s. Its name even changed four times: from the original Le Royal to Le Phnom in the '70s, Hotel Samakki (Solidarity) in 1979 and finally Hotel le Royal in 1993, when Prince Norodom Sihanouk (who died late last year) was restored as king. But all this gives the hotel depth. It's luxury - with substance.
Besides, staying at this Raffles is a Gatsby-like experience of other-worldly elegance - from its stately facade and impeccable service to its cool, checkerboard floors and french doors that make you stand back as you open them, arms wide to embrace a new day. Isn't this why we holiday? To escape world events past and present, and the flotsam of our everyday lives, and immerse ourselves in another time and sensibility? If it is, Hotel le Royal is an ideal escape hatch - and if it's your birthday, so much the better.
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Air Asia and Raffles Hotel le Royal, Phnom Penh.
Getting there Thai Airways has a fare to Phnom Penh for about $1158, low-season return, from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Bangkok (about 9hr) and then to Phnom Penh (75min). Phone 1300 651 960, see thaiairways.com.au.
Staying there Raffles Hotel le Royal Phnom Penh, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Sangwat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh; phone +855 23 981 888, see raffles.com/phnom-penh. Rooms start at $US216 ($226) a night during the low season (April to September). In the high season (October to March), rates start at $US243 a night.