Cambodia: From Chaplin to Clinton: The Grand Hotel d’Angkor turns 90

Siem Reap.
The temples of Angkor have been the destination of every Cambodia trip since colonial times. The Grand Hotel d’Angkor has been an integral part for 90 years.

Images of ancient Indochina come to life as you approach the Grand Hotel d’Angkor. The colonial-style building exudes history from every pore – and could speak it – it would have a lot to tell.

Opened in 1932 in the small town of Siem Reap, the Grand Hotel, together with its former partner Hotel des Ruines, is one of the oldest in Cambodia. Simultaneously with the reopening after the Corona lockdown, the famous building recently celebrated its 90th birthday with great pomp – complete with fireworks, light shows and a dinner in the tenth-century Prasat Kravan temple.

Post-lockdown reopening celebration

While the Royal Ballet of Cambodia danced, which, like the temple itself, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the complex shone in a magical light. The invited guests were treated to the original menu that was served at the Grand Hotel for Christmas 1932. Even the king had a princess of the court read a personal message.

The location of the hotel could not be more ideal: a few kilometers away in the middle of the jungle are the breathtaking temples of the Khmer kings – including the largest temple complex in the world Angkor Wat, the remains of Ta Prohm overgrown with gigantic roots or the Bodhisattva faces carved in stone by Bayon.

Charlie Chaplin celebrated his honeymoon here

The Grand Hotel, meanwhile, harbors secrets, stories and anecdotes, all closely linked to the Angkor temples. “When I put my ears to the walls, it really is as if the hotel were talking to me, like a rustling seashell on the beach,” says Dennis de Groot, the current general manager. “The visit of Charlie Chaplin, who was here in 1936 on a secret honeymoon with Paulette Goddard, his co-star from Modern Times, particularly stands out for me,” says the Dutchman.

A black-and-white photo shows the couple dressed all in white at the Angkor ruins. The well-known archaeologist and art historian Victor Goloubew accompanied the visit of the silent film comedian and the US actress.

Later, politicians, princesses, actors and other celebrities passed through each other’s hands. “Jacqueline Kennedy came around 1967 and fulfilled her long-held dream of visiting Angkor Wat,” says De Groot. The British Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, Charles de Gaulle, the Spanish ex-Queen Sofia, opera star José Carreras, James Bond actor Roger Moore, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have also stayed in the “Grand Hotel d’Angkor”.

Lectures in the hotel show the history of the country

Anyone who would like to learn more about the eventful history can contact Saravann Mouth during their stay. The in-house historian gives lectures and guides interested guests through the corridors, halls and suites of the Grand Hotel.

Since 1994, the hotel has belonged to the exclusive hotel chain Raffles, which is named after the explorer and founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. After an extensive renovation, the Grand Hotel was ceremonially reopened in 1997.

Khmer Rouge chased away hotel workers

But there were also dark times in the long history of the colonial building – especially in the years of the communist Pol Pot regime, which plunged the whole country into endless suffering with its Khmer Rouge and, according to estimates, cost the lives of almost two million people.

When Pol Pot’s guerrillas invaded Siem Reap in 1975, no more guests were staying at the Grand Hotel. Koy Savauu, who was 29 at the time and worked as a pastry chef, told the Los Angeles Times about the beginning of the horror in 1998. The Khmer Rouge gave hotel workers and citizens five days to leave Siem Reap and go to the countryside, Savauu said.

The rebel army consisted mostly of uneducated teenagers. ‘They had never seen a dining room, let alone an elevator like the one in the Grand Hotel. they gaped. They used the bedroom furniture for firewood,” he said. At that time, almost all documents relating to the history of the hotel were destroyed, says general manager De Groot. Vietnamese troops only put an end to the terror regime in 1979.

The hotel has survived many crises

When the hotel was later taken over by Raffles, Koy Savauu went back to work as a confectioner in the kitchen. Many of the staff have remained loyal to the hotel over the years and through all crises.

Whether despot or pandemic: the grande dame has survived everything so far. Even if there are no more elephants in front of the door today, the time jump is perfect for a moment when the concierge opens the front door.

He wears a shimmering golden headgear and a traditional sampot, a cloth that Cambodian men drape like trousers on festive occasions. With a bow, he hands the guests a fragrant, ice-cold towel. And for a magical moment, it’s suddenly again…1932. (dpa)

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