Phnom Penh Rises

As a new lux­ury ho­tel opens, change looks afoot in the Cam­bo­dian cap­i­tal, a city where qual­ity of life shifts in small but per­sis­tent steps.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - By Jeninne Lee-St. John

A new lux­ury ho­tel sig­nals that real change is fi­nally afoot in the Cam­bo­dian cap­i­tal.

MY FRIEND ASH­LEY LIVED IN Phnom Penh’s Raf­fles Ho­tel Le Royal for two months 10 years ago, in the his­toric wing in the front of the build­ing, which opened in 1929. His room had a claw­foot tub. He has fond mem­o­ries of their tom yum soup, their French restau­rant with clas­sic sil­verser­vice din­ing and their old-school gin-and-ton­ics.

Rose­wood Phnom Penh—which is con­tem­po­rary and crisp, while ar­tis­ti­cally and prag­mat­i­cally in­cor­po­rat­ing lo­cal de­sign el­e­ments, like wall pan­els that re­sem­ble lou­vered shut­ters—opened this year, and, from our high­floor room, we lit­er­ally look down on the Raf­fles, as well as park­land Wat Phnom to its west and the for­ti­fied U.S. Em­bassy to its east. “I’ve never seen Phnom Penh from this per­spec­tive,” Ash­ley mar­vels. “It looks so clean.”

I met Ash­ley the day he moved to Saigon, where I was liv­ing, from Phnom Penh. He ar­rived with tales of dodgy night­clubs and a gen­eral sense of law­less­ness. That same year, 2008, the New York Times noted the ar­rival of KFC and other for­eign money in Cam­bo­dia, ad­vis­ing: “This may be your last chance to see Phnom Penh be­fore this former vil­lage...once called the Pearl of Asia, turns into a boom­ing metropolis. The city seems to shim­mer with the sense that its low-slung build­ings, am­bling cows and smil­ing monks are not long for this world.”

Ah, that ground-level ru­ral-ur­ban­ity is still very much the world of Phnom Penh. The city has seen sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion, both in pop­u­la­tion (it’s now at 2 mil­lion) and cash flow (thanks to Chi­nese and Ja­panese do­na­tions, the city bus sys­tem has gone from one line to 10 since 2016, with free rides for fac­tory work­ers), but it hasn’t ex­ploded in any way close to the way Saigon has. The coun­try’s eco­nomic growth hov­ers at 6 to 7 per­cent year on year.

That’s not to say things aren’t mov­ing for­ward. “We have peace and sta­bil­ity. You can sit here in a nice cof­fee shop not wor­ry­ing about war,” Nov Povleakhana, 27, a dig­i­tal re­porter for Voice of Amer­ica Kh­mer, says when we meet her in a nice cof­fee shop, a roast­ery, in fact, that is the flag­ship of a hugely pop­u­lar home-grown chain in a leafy neigh­bor­hood where vil­las go for US$1 mil­lion. “Peo­ple are spend­ing more money.” Sub­tle shifts over the past decade span in­no­va­tive na­tive non-prof­its like Tiny Toones, which uses break­danc­ing to keep kids off drugs and in school, and com­mu­nity-minded en­trepreneurs like the ex­pats be­hind Cere­visia brew­ery, who teach lo­cals to make craft beer and have cre­ated a so­cial space that pulls from across the cul­tural and eco­nomic spec­trum.

Yet things like th­ese have been in­cre­men­tal qual­ity-oflife changes, noth­ing to sig­nal that Phnom Penh was mak­ing a play for tourism prime time. So, when I heard a Rose­wood was open­ing in the city cen­ter, I was in­trigued. There have long been a Sof­i­tel, an In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal and, of course, grande dame Raf­fles Ho­tel Le Royal, but be­sides those re­treats, this has been at best a bou­tique town. On my first visit in 2009, the river­side roof­bar of the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents’ Club was the coolest spot in town. What glit­ter­ing fu­ture did one of the world’s more elite ho­tel brands see in Phnom Penh? It sounded like the city was skip­ping a few steps. How were they go­ing straight from KFC to, like, Noma? I brought Ash­ley with me to find out.

IT’S NO EASY TASK TRY­ING TO LOOK Rose­wood-re­fined while slurp­ing a bowl of sooth­ing kuy teav, the Cam­bo­dian ver­sion of beef pho, while mak­ing small talk with the ho­tel lounge singer, who has pulled up a chair for some tea. The clear af­ter­noon sky stretches out over his shoul­der and I put down my spoon, drawn up from the ta­ble to check out the near-ver­tigo in­duc­ing view.

We’re right on top of the Cen­tral Mar­ket, its four ca­nary axes look­ing like a gi­ant compass. The low-rise city sprawls out south­ward and I can make out the peaked roofs of the Royal Palace. Fol­low­ing the river, I can see the not-yet-fin­ished, planned sub­urb Diamond Is­land. Once a fish­ing vil­lage, it has its own di­ver­sions and of­fices and mu­nic­i­pal ser­vices, from a golf course to a city hall to lux­ury apart­ments go­ing for US$3,500 per square me­ter. Devel­op­ers are up­grad­ing the moniker to “Elite Town.”

It oc­curs to me that this ridicu­lous ti­tle could aptly de­scribe the prop­erty I’m stand­ing in, if only Rose­wood weren’t such a de­cid­edly, en­dear­ingly un­pre­ten­tious brand. Phnom Penh is full-on, there are no en­claves of com­plete seren­ity. Rose­wood is at last such an en­clave, all sub­tle so­phis­ti­ca­tion. Wit­ness the cut-crys­tal glass­ware you’ll love to cra­dle, the branded leather cock­tail kits in the bou­tique, the Giza-sized pyra­mid of house-made choco­lates. Lo­cated in the top 14 floors of the coun­try’s tallest build­ing, the Vat­tanac Cap­i­tal Tower, it’s ideal for busi­ness trav­el­ers. Comfy but stylish open-plan spa­ces in­vite you to treat the ho­tel like your liv­ing room. With its French brasserie, Ja­panese iza­kaya, mul­ti­ple bars, spa, gym and 20-me­ter pool, it’s an oasis from the chaos and grit that you re­ally needn’t leave. But it also wel­comes the city in, not least via the many floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows. It show­cases lo­cal art: on my visit its gallery fea­tured a show by Nok Chean­ick on the ter­ror of the Kh­mer Rouge. It has a lo­cal brew­ery make its craft beer. It has a fleet of sleek, sus­tain­able, navy, elec­tric tuk tuks. Pull up to the Na­tional Mu­seum in one and the envy em­a­nat­ing from other tourists is pal­pa­ble.

THE CITY’S TOURIST AT­TRAC­TIONS haven’t changed much over the years. But the so­cial life cer­tainly has. For the lo­cal ris­ing mid­dle class, it started with cof­fee. Brown Cof­fee and Bak­ery (brown­cof­, where we meet Nov, was founded in 2009 by a Cam­bo­dian who had

stud­ied in Aus­tralia. It has 19 out­lets, a bak­ing fa­cil­ity and a train­ing cen­ter that pri­or­i­tizes un­der­priv­i­leged stu­dents from the provinces. “Be­fore when you had a photo of your­self with Star­bucks, peo­ple would say, ‘Wow, you are so well off,’ be­cause you had to leave the coun­try to get it,” Nov says. “Now we have choices here.” Nov says go­ing out at all is a gen­er­a­tional change, and her friends usu­ally choose for­eign din­ing. “As long as it’s from out­side, peo­ple will try it. They want new things.”

One such spot is Oskar (, a re­cent out­post of the pop­u­lar French bistro in Bangkok. Also on my must list is Le Boutier (, which her­alded the ar­rival of the craft-cock­tails cul­ture in the city. Small and glass-fronted, it has a var­ied clien­tele and a bliss­fully syrup-free cock­tails menu. The man­ager, Visith, of­fers sam­ple-size drinks, al­low­ing me to win­now my choices down to La Vie en Ros Sereysothea. Made of pine ap­ple in fused vodka, Cam­pari, grape­fruit, jas­mine tea tinc­ture and bub­bly, it’s named af­ter a beloved Cam­bo­dian singer.

The next night we hit up Bat­tBong ( bat­tbong­bar), a leather-filled, den-like speakeasy be­hind a fake an­tique Coca-Cola ma­chine in an alley. The mu­si­cians are play­ing chill acous­tic, and the bar­tenders let me shake a few things be­hind the bar. We also go to Est (es­t­, a bright wine bar that looks 1980s Wall Street but is friendly, well-stocked, and open til 2 a.m. Ash­ley re­mem­bers a “wine bar” in Phnom Penh circa 2008 where the owner had to leave to buy prosecco when he or­dered it.

The apex of Rose­wood per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the new nightlife scene. De­li­cious Ja­panese restau­rant Iza has open-kitchen ar­eas for ra­men and udon, sushi, and its cen­ter­piece ro­bata and irori char­coal grill, plus a sake list to drown in. Whisky Li­brary has a wall of bot­tle lock­ers for club mem­bers and a stash of Co­hibas. And then there’s the bauble-ceilinged in­side of Sora, which spills out onto a spec­tac­u­lar roof bar that feels like a beach club and is west­ward-fac­ing for per­fect sun­sets, mak­ing it the hottest drink in town. From here we’re look­ing down sev­eral sto­ries over an old he­li­copter pad. “The city’s never seen Phnom Penh from this per­spec­tive,” says Hanny Gu­nawan, the Rose­wood’s direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, as we watch the sky go ma­genta, mar­ti­nis in hand. As Nov told me, “liv­ing here now is ex­cit­ing.” No, it’s not your last chance to see the cap­i­tal’s per­sis­tent ru­ral-ur­ban­ity. But be­ing able to look down on a he­li­pad? Surely that’s a sign of a city on the rise.

rose­; dou­bles from US$240.

See the sights in style via Rose­wood's elec­tric tuk tuks.

CLOCK­WISE FROMLEFT: Phnom Penh's new­est per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of top-notch ser­vice, at Rose­wood; tuna Ni­coise in the ho­tel's Brasserie Louis; Rose­wood's main lobby/lounge is aptly named The Liv­ing Room.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Rose­wood's leather­filled Whisky Li­brary; views of the river from a Mekong suite in the ho­tel; the cap­i­tal's famed Wat Phnom lights up the night.

FROM TOP: Craft-cock­tail pi­o­neer Le Boutier; Sora sky­bar, atop Rose­wood, is the hottest drink in town; the Art Deco ceil­ing of the city's Cen­tral Mar­ket.

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