Robb Report Singapore
Luxury with Substance
Put your hands together for two superbly renovated properties in Cambodia that put the H in hotels and history.
WHEN IN A charitable mood, I spare a thought for marketing and public relations executives. Especially those in the hospitality industry, and particularly those whose job it is to try to persuade people to stay at the hotel they represent rather than someone else’s.
It’s simplistic to assert that a hotel room is a hotel room, much like an airplane is an airplane, but the common denominators are unavoidable. A plane gets you from A to B, and you sit in a seat, often being offered food. A hotel room contains a bed on which you sleep and, hopefully, a bathroom – for other activities.
This school of thought, however, is as facile as suggesting that any old timepiece will do because it tells the time, and that a car is a car because it gets you from where you are (A) to where you want to… B.
The lacuna, however, between, for example Turkmenistan Airlines economy class and Etihad Airways first class – much of it filled – is vast, as is the difference between a Tata Nano and a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
In the hotel industry, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a USP – the ‘something’ that compels a traveller to pay the price for the right experience – ‘special’ as opposed to ‘functional’; the Patek Philippe not the Casio – and it’s probably safe to say that the Raffles Hotel Group (along with its marketing and PR people) didn’t have far to look.
History is something that many claim, but those who can genuinely boast it have the upper hand when it comes to appealing to discerning guests for whom such things are important. I confess to being one of them.
Built between 1929 and 1932, the Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap has recently undergone a major refurbishment. It fell under the purview of the Raffles Hotel Group in 1997 after Cambodia’s reinstalled King Sihanouk had pronounced himself so delighted with what had been done with the group’s grande dame hotel in Singapore, that he invited it to have a crack at two properties in his own country.
The Grand Hotel, along with its sister property, Le Royal in Phnom Penh, thereby became the first ‘Raffles’ hotels outside Singapore at the time – and by royal appointment. It was either a blessing, or a poisoned chalice, depending on how the renovators decided to go about their business, but with considerable assiduity and a brand statement that doesn’t even need stating, the group set out to refine, refurbish and reinvigorate two faded splendour properties and make them resound
with history. It’s an exercise that’s been accomplished with considerable care and aplomb, thanks in large part to David Grace Designs and its managing director, Grace Soh, who appears to have embraced the concept of legacy with fervour.
The renovations* have been so thoughtfully carried out – retaining, for example, the same warm and inviting hardwood floors that characterised the original design, as well as the characteristic art deco features and checkerboard corridor flooring that are so redolent of a bygone era – but finding other elements that needed to be updated to remain competitive in an unforgiving 21st century market.
Bathrooms have been spruced up throughout, despite the retention of some delightful clawfoot bathtubs, but still have a sense of colonial style that can only displease for ideological reasons.
Impeccable service is something one has come to expect from all luxury hotels, but Raffles goes a step further. There is warmth among the personnel, and nary a hint of the lip service you can get in other establishments. I may be a fantasist, but throughout my stays at both establishments, I got the impression that everyone genuinely enjoyed and believed in what they were doing. It seems clear that the management in both places has clutched the concept of mutual respect to their heaving bosoms.
Stepping through the portals of The Grand is a little like stepping back in time, especially after a quick glimpse of the lift (elevator) installed in 1929 and still in use today in its original (now immaculately kept and polished) state.
The facade and the overall structure haven’t changed (save for a lick of paint) and each section in the common areas retains a sense of calm and old-world charm that provide instant relaxation and reflection. One can imagine the glitterati of yesteryear sipping gins and tonic, as one can imagine diners in their finery gorging themselves on the superb cuisine created in the hotel’s signature restaurant – aptly named 1932, and now expertly helmed by the charming executive chef, Angela Brown.
The menu is so inviting that it’s a genuine headache when it comes to ordering, and it’s more than mere ‘fusion’ cuisine. Brown seamlessly blends the classic with the modern, the foreign with the local, in a succession of excellent dishes.
And if you’re really looking for a taste of history, Le Royal restaurant at Le Royal in Phnom Penh is a throwback to the cut-glass finery of yesteryear, where you can even dive into the same menu that was created for Jackie Kennedy on her visit in 1967. It’s such a wonderful nod to the past that you feel like humming an old tune under the hushed tones created by the wait staff gliding about their business. There’s even a gueridon menu harking back to the days in which
watching your food being cooked tableside was a delight rather than an invasion of privacy. It’s almost spectacularly kitsch, but, somehow, nostalgia acts as a digestif in what is a fun-filled, embraceable experience.
The Grand Hotel d’Angkor has been “a pioneer throughout its illustrious history,” according to Oliver Dudler, the cluster general manager – he oversees both properties. “It was home to visitors and explorers during the golden age of travel… those who wanted to experience the magic of the temples of Angkor.”
That spirit of excitement and discovery is alive and kicking for The Grand’s guests, catered to by specially curated tours that will appeal to the curious and the adventurous. If you fancy exploring the temples on a Vespa, it can be arranged, and Raffles will organise an alfresco luncheon in the bargain.
While the Culinary Tour needs a little refining, the Art Tour is a triumph for anyone who has an interest in local culture. The hotel has thought about how discerning guests might like to spend their time, and geared itself up accordingly. Quite frankly though, it’s hard to drag yourself away from the tranquillity of a poolside around which it is impossible not to unwind.
Unlike certain hotel chains, the Raffles Group hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel. It has taken what it has – history, splendour, charm – and run with them, staying true to the brand. There’s a timelessness and sense of place about both the newly renovated properties that is alluring, irresistible and well worth a visit.
“It was home to visitors and explorers during the golden age of travel… those who wanted to experience the magic of the temples of Angkor.”