From colonial emblem to refugee camp: A brief history of Hotel Le Royal

As Phnom Penh’s landscape has changed beyond recognition in recent years, one hotel has remained a constant feature. As Le Royal traverses its 90th year, Jonathan Evans looks back over the rich but turbulent history of this iconic colonial structure.

In today’s rapidly gentrifying Phnom Penh, it’s not uncommon to see signs of conspicuous consumption transforming the streets of a capital city once synonymous with grit rather than glamour.

As golden casinos loom over royal palaces within the ostentatious Naga World complex, luxury hotels like the Sofitel and Rosewood lure well-heeled travellers, and consumer hubs such as Vattanac Mall draw in affluent residents from the Boeung Keng Kang (BKK) neighbourhood, the 21st-century cityscape bears little resemblance to the conurbation that emerged in tatters from the devastating civil war of the 1970s and the ensuing Vietnamese conflict.

Yet for the best part of a century, the country’s only five-star hotel stood in splendid isolation in the once-fashionable European Quarter, its immaculate façade, stoical interiors and frangipani-festooned tropical gardens belying the political turmoil that increasingly surrounded it. Originally conceived as a refined residence for the colonial elite, French architect Ernest Hébrard constructed the Hotel Le Royal during the 1920s – then with just 55 rooms – with the aim of making it the defining emblem of the city’s conflation of European and Southeast Asian aesthetic styles.

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