Nine decades after opening, one of Southeast Asia’s finest historical hotels has embarked on a new chapter.
It’s a sultry June night in Siem Reap, and the stout brick towers of Prasat Kravan are spotlighted in hues of red and pink under a full moon. As dancers from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia enact a classical Khmer performance on the terrace of the 10th-century temple, dinner is served to a select group of guests from the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, which is hosting the evening in celebration of its 90th anniversary. Candles flicker on the linen-swathed banquet table; attendants in traditional livery help swat away insects. Save for the low drone of the generator powering the stage lights, it feels like we have stepped back in time. This is reinforced by the meal itself, a re-creation of a fivecourse menu served at the hotel in 1936. So if you’ve ever wondered what Charlie Chaplin ate when he stayed there that year, I might have the answer: seared scallop with curry jus; rissoles of foie gras; Kampot pepper–crusted pork chop with potato purée and mango-chutney coulis; and a perfectly flaky apple tarte Tatin.
Chaplin, Charles de Gaulle, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Margaret … resident historian Saravann Mouth recites the Grand’s long list of famous guests during a tour of the property the next morning. Back in the day, Mouth explains, this was one of the grandest hotels in French Indochina, and certainly the only luxury address for early visitors to the nearby ruins of Angkor. Shortly after its opening in 1932, the building — an imposing mélange of French colonial, Khmer, and art deco elements — was described by British travel writer H.W. Ponder as an “immense and dazzling white concrete palace that would look more at home on the Côte d’Azur than in its present setting in the middle of the Cambodian plains.” The Grand featured en-suite bathrooms in all of its 63 guest rooms (a rarity at the time) as well as the country’s first elevator, a teak-and-iron cage lift that’s still in service today.
The hotel, too, has seen its ups and downs over the decades, enduring civil war and the traumas of the Khmer Rouge era. By the time tourists began to trickle back into Siem Reap in the mid-1990s, the building was a deserted shell. Enter Singapore-based Raffles International, which was invited to redevelop the property and its equally iconic Phnom Penh sister hotel, now the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, both of which reopened in 1997 after extensive overhauls. (For the Grand, this included the addition of a new wing built in the style of the original building, as well as a vast swimming pool and a spa.) Some two decades later, in need of a 21st-century upgrade, the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor closed for six months of renovations. Its new look was unveiled toward the end of 2019, though hardly anyone got the chance to see it: just months later the pandemic forced the hotel to suspend operations yet again. When I visit in June, the newly reopened property is just waking up from a two-year slumber.
The first thing returning guests will notice — aside from Siem Reap’s profusion of smooth new roads and sidewalks, the fruits of a major infrastructural project undertaken during the pandemic — is the Grand’s luminous white facade, repainted from its previous creamy-beige shade. Inside, a thorough yet discreet makeover has seen the 119 rooms and suites refreshed and rewired without sacrificing their old-world appeal, with gleaming wooden floors complimented by a color scheme of taupe and bone, French windows dressed in silk curtains, faux-antique rotary phones, and framed black-and-white photographs of Angkor. Other enhancements include Segafredo espresso machines and rain showers in the Italian-tiled bathrooms. Public areas have been similarly restored, like the lovely, light-filled Conservatory lounge that now greets guests with licks of blue and brass.
Beyond its cosmetic upgrades, the hotel has also assembled an adventurous roster of “curated journeys.” Early one morning, a bunch of us hop on the back of Vespas for the 15-minute ride through the darkness to Angkor Wat, arriving in time for sunrise. A guided walk through the temple complex is followed by a lavish champagne breakfast set up in a private garden across the road from Ta Prohm, whose root-tangled ruins we later explore. Another evening, I join a Tipples by Tuktuk tour around town that takes in Theam’s Gallery (home to the remarkable collections of Cambodian artist Lim Muy Theam), The Sugar Palm restaurant for a taste of locally beloved chef Kethana Dunnet’s homestyle Khmer cooking, and Miss Wong, a retro-Shanghai-themed cocktail bar that recently relocated to new digs near the Siem Reap River.
Back at the Raffles Grand, I find the hotel’s well-balanced blend of the classic and contemporary encapsulated at its new fine-dining restaurant, 1932, where the modern approach to Khmer cuisine sings in dishes such as the khor ko (beef stew) of braised wagyu cheek with green tomato puree, quail egg, and an infusion of a citrusy herb called ma-om. It may not be what they were serving back in 1936, but surely Chaplin et al. would have approved.
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This article originally appeared in the September/November 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“An Icon Revisited”).