The restaurant was about to serve a party. It was going to be wild.
Napkins and wine glasses had been carefully arranged on the diners’ tables. Steaming bowls of soup and platters of fresh fruit sat ready for the taking at the buffet table. The smooth mahogany wood of a dimly lighted bar waited for elbows and beer glasses to fill it.
The first guest came in through a window. He carried a club.
This was the first minute of the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel’s sacking Wednesday night. By the time they were done, the rioters had looted most anything that could be carried away and burned the rest.
The devastation meant that 220 Cambodians lost their jobs, but at least two watched with smiles as their countrymen laid waste to the stylish, low-slung buildings along Sothearos Boulevard that make up the hotel. Some 27 people were arrested Thursday as the looting continued, police said.
Foreign guests staying there fled, some immediately, others only after they witnessed rooms being set on fire. A Thai man who had been in the restaurant minutes before the rioters arrived wandered off toward the back of the hotel to escape notice.
If people had taken the rioters seriously, it might have been easier to avoid trouble. They told reporters that they were heading there, but then took 30 minutes to get across the city. By the time they arrived, two reporters were inside the restaurant waiting for the storm to hit.
At 8:15 pm two motorbikes carrying three and four young men sped past, the boys shouting taunts. Four guards standing in the hotel parking lot exchanged nervous glances as a hotel manager made vague utterances into a walkie-talkie.
A rock landed in the parking lot and the guards fled. The manager slipped back into the hotel.
Eight foreign guests inside the restaurant continued to dine even as rioters began smashing the guard booth in the hotel driveway. Oblivious to the noise outside, they sipped at coffee cups and spoke softly.
Not until a club smashed a window did anyone look up to see the scene unfolding outside. Seconds later the restaurant was empty—and eerily quiet.
The first rioter inside ran to the buffet table and smashed a silver tureen, sending it sailing across the room. Not knowing what to do next he watched as another rioter knocked over the maitre d’s stand and pulled power cords from the wall.
A dozen rioters hurtled over the bar and broke into the liquor supplies, drinking as they toted six-packs and bottles out through the front doors.
“I hate Thailand!” a young man shouted to foreigners standing in the room. He karate kicked a plate of spring rolls and nearly fell over from the recoil.
The rioters were setting fire to a Jeep in the parking lot when a young man approached the reporters.
“Excuse me, sir, you have to check out now,” he said. He said he had worked at the hotel until this night, and now he worked to dismantle it.
He was caught between two roles but for a moment became once again a hotel employee serving his foreign guests, not what he had been moments before—an enraged Cambodian youth feeding on hysteria and paranoia to destroy buildings worth more money than he would earn in a lifetime.
“I am sad, but I have to do it. I am Cambodian,” he said.
The destruction continued. A motorcycle was tipped over and set on fire. Guests who had not fled earlier began emerging from their rooms with bags in hand.
An elderly French couple watched with horror as six Cambodian youths jumped and kicked at the door of room 107, just two doors from their own. The implication was that someone was about to break into their room. Their only escape was past the youth, but finally they walked toward the front only to find that they were being ignored.
They made it to the street, and as people smashed televisions, fans and chairs on the street next to them, they sat on the backs of two motorcycles and rode off to the Sunway.
Escape was not so easy for others.
Two Japanese men and a woman ran for the front when they were surrounded by the mob.
“Thais! They are Thais!” someone shouted. The Japanese tourists protested in English that they are not from Thailand.
“Then speak Japanese!” they were ordered.
They did, and one of the rioters suddenly turned polite and offered them a ride to the Japanese Embassy.
A hooligan with a club dashed through the lobby and landed a perfectly placed strike at a display case stuffed with pastries. Glass and day-old muffins fell to the floor. An older boy wearing a magicians’ hat, the cone-shaped black kind, held an emergency light he had ripped from the wall to shine the way for his friends.
Sarina, a young woman, stood in the lobby as her friends tipped over a food case. “Why are you angry?” a reporter asked. She shrugged her shoulders, turned around and threw a bowl on the ground.
A young Cambodian man ran up to the reporter as the hotel burned: “Thais look down on Cambodia,” he offered, apparently by way of explanation. “On CNN this morning I saw that they killed the Khmer ambassador in Thailand and 20 people.”
This is a rumor that spread among the rioters, but like others who repeated it, he said he gleaned the story from television news Wednesday. “I saw it this morning,” he said.
By 9:15 pm, the mood shifted among the rioters, who no longer smiled back at the reporters following them through the hotel. One of them turned on a reporter and tried to steal his hand phone. Another grabbed the reporter and led him to the door of the hotel: “You go outside now. Dangerous for you. You not from Cambodia,” he said.
A rioter walking into the hotel no longer said, “Chow Siam” (Thai thief), the chant that fueled the protesters for most of the morning in front of the Thai Embassy. Instead he shouted, “Money, money.”
Paul Dawson, an Australian tourist in Cambodia for 12 hours—his first visit—stood on Sothearos Boulevard contemplating a run to his room. Before him the hotel burned and he could see amid the flames young men running with other people’s belongings in their hands.
He had been at a restaurant when rumors of a riot at his hotel sent him running back. He stood on the street for 30 minutes as protesters smashed office furniture , but they left him alone.
“They’ve been lovely,” he said.
His cash and credit card in his back pocket, he turned to leave for another hotel.
“I think I better go now.”