Rebuilding a Bygone Era

Among the many visitors who come to Cambodia, there are those who secretly dream of a time long gone, when the “Far East” meant adventure and exotic settings, elephant rides through the jungle and lost cities to discover.

That “Far East” has long since ceased to exist, but many still  yearn for the 1920s and 1930s, an era that books and movies have shown filled  with lavish colonial homes and daring adventurers who trekked into the  unknown, to return with tales of mysteriously beautiful temples.

It is this nostalgia for a past era that inspired the design and concept of Victoria Angkor Hotel, which officially opened in April in Siem Reap.

The hotel is adorned with genuine artifacts from that era‹such as a photo of the airmail plane in the 1930s; binoculars and a travel inkstand from the 1900s; and an 1863 watercolor of King Norodom that for more than a century has been in the family of Baudoin de Pimodan, director general of Electricite et Eaux de Madagascar, a French firm which is the parent company of Victoria Hotels and Resorts.

“We wanted people who would walk in to feel as if this was not a hotel, but one of those grand Indochina homes from the 1930s whose owner had traveled throughout Asia and collected objects a lacquer box from Burma or a console table from Mongolia,” said Christian Decaudin, the hotel general manager.

The Victoria Angkor is EEM’s sixth hotel in Southeast Asia. The five-star property has 120 guestrooms and 10 suites decorated on various themes‹from maharajah and Ta Prohm temple, to admiral and plantation owner.

The hotel chain has five hotels throughout Vietnam and is considering future ones in Phnom Penh, Laos and Burma.

Still, visitors are left with no doubt that they are in Cambodia, he said.

In the middle of the lobby‹an open room leading to the courtyard stands a Baisei. This flower arrangement made of banana leaves was a traditional part of Hindu ceremonies in Cambodia for years, said Denis Gambade, the hotel’s cultural attaché. The arrangement at the hotel is a non-religious Baisei made by a local Cambodian florist, he said.

The historical re-creation begins with the Victoria’s architectural plans. The building was to sit on the west side of the gardens fronting the Royal Residence, which are bordered by the Siem Reap river to the east and Grand Hotel d’Angkor to the north.

“We wanted to give the impression that the building had always been there, that it was as old as the trees,” said Decaudin.

“We had to respect the setting, to make the structure discreet so that it would blend in,” said architect Jean Francois Chevance, director of Archetype Cambodia, a design and construction company.

He opted for a mix of early French-style Indochinese architecture and traditional Khmer features. The stone-lined, whitewashed arches on the ground floor are typical of the French-style buildings in Cambodia similar to those near the old market in Siem Reap‹while the overhanging roofs and wood pediments resemble Khmer twin-slope structures, Chevance said.

Shutters, railings and the frieze around the clay-tile roof are made of koki, a yellow-shaded wood that turns brown in the sun and darkens with time; resistant to humidity, it is often used for ship hulls, said Chevance.

Inside the hotel, doors and windows are in doum chem, a soft, malleable type of wood, and the guestroom floors in thnong, a variety of rosewood, he said.

In the lobby and corridors, the muted yellow tones, typical of buildings of the period, prevail on walls and tiles.

Inside, decorator Brigitte Dumont de Chassart wanted the ambiance of a home filled with the memories of explorers who saw Angkor when the temples still belonged to the jungle, she said.

To avoid producing an artificial-feeling environment, she said, “I decided to work with the symbolism of the place and time, to refine, modernize it, and set up some sort of expedition museum with all that implies, throughout the whole building.”

This meant touring antique shops and auction houses for authentic objects from that period‹from maps and prints, to marine compasses and luggage trunks.

To illustrate the 1860s, Baudoin de Pimodan lent some documents he inherited from his great-great grandfather, French Admiral Pierre Paul Marie de La Grandiere, who governed Cochin-China (now Southern Vietnam) from 1862 to 1868.

The 1863 watercolor of King Norodom was drawn during the signing of the French-Cambodian treaty that established the French Protectorate the following year. It was done by Mr. Lamirault, aide de camp of Admiral de La Grandiere, who attended the event, said de Pimodan.

Lamirault also handwrote and illustrated three volumes on de La Grandiere¹s stay in Indochina, with sketches of the region and caricatures of the French officers serving under him. He gave the books to the admiral’s three daughters, who accompanied their father to Indochina. Numerous illustrations from these volumes adorn the walls of the hotel.

But de Pimodan’s family relations with Cambodia do not stop there. His father Francois de Pimodan, a cavalry officer, was assigned in 1948 and 1949 as the private military instructor of King Norodom Sihanouk at (the military academy of) Saumur, he said.

In search of more illustrations, Dumont de Chassart used the 1873 book “Voyage d¹exploration en Indo-Chine,” which describes the Indochina expedition of Doudart de Lagree‹Cambodia¹s first French administrator and includes detailed drawings of Angkor temples and watercolors of the country.

“Underlying the choice of concepts and artwork was the determination of using, as much as possible, local artists and artisans,” she said. Dumont de Chassart worked with Cambodian furniture makers, lacquer artists, painters, sculptors and traditional-silk weavers.

Cambodian artwork was to be present throughout the hotel, Decaudin said. “We told artists to look at Angkor for inspiration but not to copy it.” For the sandstone wall panels along the reflecting ponds in the wings off the lobby, “we asked them to create a modern interpretation on the symbolic theme of fish (which appear on a bas-relief at the Bayon temple),” he said.

Decaudin’s big extravagance was to get a 1931 French Citroen C6 shipped from France to serve as the hotel limousine. Although history justified the expense, selling the idea to EEM took some doing, he said.

Decaudin found the Citroen on the Internet. A French antique car collector offered to check it for him and reported that all its parts were original. An antique car club gathered on the docks of the French port Le Havre to see the Citroen put in a container and loaded on a ship, said Decaudin. The car arrived six weeks later and is usually parked in front of the hotel as part of its image, he said.

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