By Joe Cummings
Feb 20, 2020
WHEN FRENCH NATURALIST Henri Mouhot explored Siem Reap’s moated cities, palaces and temples in 1860, his reports on Angkor unleashed Cambodia’s first tourism boom. In 1907, the city’s annexation to French Indochina further enforced Angkor’s reputation as an adventure destination, and by the late 1920s, up to 3,000 visitors per year were strolling the dirt lanes from temple to temple.
As he shows me around the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (doubles from US$404), which reopened last fall after an extensive redo, Saravann Mouth, the property’s first in-house historian, explains that this was one of five premier hotels in Indochina planned by the French-colonial government to house the growing influx of arrivals. Designed by Ernest Hébrard, Hanoi- based architect and town planner for all of French Indochina, the 62-room Grand Hotel opened in 1932.
With its gabled roofs supported by eave struts shaped like carved wood, Art-Deco balconies and a sentimental French garden in front, the Grand resembled a resort on the Riviera more than a government-funded project in a far-flung Asian outpost. It was the first hotel on the main thoroughfare between Siem Reap and the archaeological zone, and for many years it was the only hotel in the city where all guest rooms included en-suite bathrooms.
In the early 1970s, Cambodia’s civil war drove away all the visitors and by the time the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, tourism had come to a complete halt. Like the majestic ruins themselves, the Grand stood neglected, unvisited and mostly untouched. Although Pol Pot’s armies were ousted from Phnom Penh in 1979, their continued presence around Siem Reap made the city unsafe up until the early 1990s. Shortly thereafter, Raffles International acquired the Grand, reopening it in 1997. Originally recruited as a butler, Mouth has been with Raffles ever since.
The most noticeable change after this latest reopening is the Grand’s exterior paint, replacing its government-office shade of pale ocher with a bold white that makes it even more suited to a spot on the Cannes waterfront. Its interior spaces sparkle from a meticulous facelift while retaining all of their original charm. Rooms and suites boast redone colonial features— hardwood floors, vintage-look ceiling fans, brass rotary phones— along with such modern flourishes as Segafredo espresso machines and Simmons pillow-top mattresses. The most endearing conservation is that of the original teak-and-iron cage elevator, Cambodia’s first. Although my suite is only one floor above the lobby, I take the silent glide between floors several times during my stay.
Mouth points out a crest prominently emblazoned on the façade. The elephant-headed lion gajasingha on the left and the royal lion rajasingha on the right clasp five-tiered parasols on either side of a stylized crown. It’s the personal seal of Cambodia’s monarch, who has granted permission to display the emblem in the hotel. King Norodom Sihamoni is actually a neighbor. Opposite the hotel sits the Royal Residence, where he stays when visiting in town. He and his entourage occasionally dine at the hotel, where part of a new menu is dedicated to royal Cambodian recipes handed down over the last century.
In fact, 1932, the Grand’s new restaurant, is one of its most impressive innovations. Australia-born executive chef Angela Brown immerses herself in local culture to develop menus that combine Khmer ingredients and traditional flavor profiles with progressive cooking methods, inviting ideas from the Cambodian kitchen staff.
“Even though some of the crew have worked at this hotel for twenty years, they were reluctant to share their home-cooked recipes with me, believing Western palates wouldn’t like the flavors,” Brown says. She tells the story of a kitchen staffer who was cooking beef in a local style one day for the crew. When Brown caught a magical aroma, she asked about it and discovered ma-om, a common rice-paddy herb with flavors of lemon, sage and cumin.
One evening at 1932, I sample the dish it inspired, an enchanting, melt-in-your-mouth version of khor ko, a Khmer beef stew that here uses braised wagyu beef cheek with a ma-om infusion, quail egg, baby carrots and a green tomato puree. Another mind-blowing dish is the seared sea bass laced with num banh chok foam, based on traditional Cambodian fish broth—“something I tasted when I first moved here and couldn’t get out of my head,” Brown says. It’s heavy on local ingredients like banana blossom, riverhemp, water lily and edible flowers dressed in a lime-and-coconut reduction. “We’re getting amazing feedback both from guests and from people who live here,” she says, “as if they’re discovering Cambodian culinary history for the first time.” Funny, this thoughtful renovation has me feeling the same way about its hospitality history, as well.