Sihanoukville’s Neglected Independence Hotel Is On the Road to Recovery

Standing proud on a promontory overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, Sihanoukville’s Independence Hotel has for 40 years mirrored the turbulent fortunes of its country. Once a beacon of modernity, it became in turn a Khmer Rouge hideout, a crumbling shelter for Untac forces and a shuttered relic of more peaceful times.

Now this classic symbol of 1960s optimism is being dragged into the 21st century with a futuristic, $35 million face-lift, courtesy of Canadia Bank. But will it be possible for renovators to retain the building’s original spirit—and would they want to?

Designed by Leroy and Mondet, a duo of French architects, the hotel entered construction in 1962. Completed in 1964, the seven-story building was the highest in town—and quite possibly the country. At the time, fashionable Cambodians were flocking to the villas of Kep for their weekends by the sea; government town planners hoped to lure them back to Sihanoukville with the most impressive hotel they had ever seen.

And impress they did: Casting a long shadow down the pristine sands of Independence Beach, the hotel, with its space-age circular dining room and orange-upholstered furniture, was a vision of forward-thinking 1960s design.

“It’s typical 1960s hotel architecture,” said Helen Grant Ross, an architecture researcher. When Sihanoukville was designed as a new town in the early 1960s, the motels in town were all low rise, Grant Ross said. But the Independence Hotel towered above a landscaped garden and a stretch of untouched coastline: “It’s high rise, instead of being low-key and integrated—a typical statement.”

The “Independence Hotel,” as the original signboard christened it, swung through the 1960s and early 1970s, its sea views and stark spaces attracting both national and foreign tourists by the busload.

But, in the later half of the 1970s when, Cambodia entered a darker phase, the Independence’s bubble-shaped ballrooms and long corridors fell silent. It is said that Khmer Rouge forces occupied the hotel during their regime; soldiers camped out in the empty, echoing rooms, locals say, and used them as headquarters, even capping the kidney-shaped swimming pool with bamboo to hold prisoners.

“[The hotel] was in a disastrous state, run down when left empty in the 1970s,” explained Daryll Collins, Grant Ross’ research partner. The Independence Hotel reopened in 1982, and hobbled though the following years in semi-decrepit condition. “It was used by Untac people visiting Sihanoukville from Phnom Penh,” Collins said. Just half of the towering structure’s 50 rooms were usable in those decades, with electricity problems plaguing those guests brave enough to stay.

Several local stories told of the ghosts that stalked the hotel, including the spirit of a young woman who committed suicide in an empty room, and the phantoms of four thieves executed there in the mid-1990s. Desolate and damp, the Independence Hotel finally closed its doors in 1999.

Talk in those days was of demolition. The scale of the government-owned building and its advanced state of disrepair seemed enough to put off even the most deep-pocketed investor.

“There’s very little interest on the part of the government in restoring 1960s buildings,” Grant Ross said. “They don’t value the architecture from this era very highly. But there is interest from the private sector.”

Some see the Independence Hotel as a strong reminder of the achievements of then-prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime—something not everybody in today’s government may want to be reminded of, Grant Ross added.

“But if you talked to the average man in the street, I think he would be very proud of these buildings, that represent a time when his nation was a great place,” Grant Ross said.

Canadia Bank signed a 70-year lease on the building in 2001. Venture capitalists at the bank are hoping to attract conferences and honeymooners to what will be the town’s only three-star establishment. “Because of its history, we believe people will like to visit the hotel,” said Yee Con Long, Canadia’s senior finance manager.

The bank’s plans for the old dame of Sihanoukville are radical. A 60-meter tower crowned by a circular, glass-walled coffee shop will be added. An open “lobby-lounge” will house a new reception area, while six detached bungalows will be built on the grounds, bringing the total number of rooms up to 52.

A new pool is under construction; the original, a grim reminder of worse times, is to become part of a spa-garden with a massage facility suspended above the water. And a 200-meter stretch of Independence Beach has been leased from the government to be made into an exclusive, guests-only area.

Many of the original features of the hotel will be kept—such as the signature oval cut-outs in the dining room walls. But in order for the hotel to keep up with the times, some have to go.

This, Collins said, is the way a renovation project should work. “There are two ways of renovating a building,” he explained. “Either you try to completely preserve its interior and architectural integrity, or you try to do it to meet the demands of the building’s new purpose.

“It’s neither feasible nor desirable to restore a building exactly as it was, but it takes a sensitive architect to design a successful renovation,” he said.

Above all, a building needs to be functional and commercially viable in its contemporary use—regardless of its past role, Collins said.

Architect Khuy Py was part of the team that initially investigated what needed to be done to the Independence Hotel to bring it up to today’s standards.

“There were features that served a function in the 1960s, but when we checked them, we found that some things were missing. So we needed to install and remanage some of the functions of the hotel,” Kuy Py said.

“The 1960s aesthetic was a modern, very functional design, but now we have better technology, so we need to update how the space is used.” For instance, each story of the hotel houses rooms just one deep. This design gave broad views of the coast and sea, with sunset and sunrise visible above the water. “Aesthetically, the idea was good,” Kuy Py said. “But in terms of business, it was not good.”

The designers at Canadia Bank recognize the value of the building’s original kitsch aesthetic. “I think we should keep the old design—it’s good,” said Sok Sambath, the bank’s in-house architect. The interior will be finished in a simple, modern style, he added.

“The building will keep the look of the 1960s—it’s hard to change,” agreed Kuy Py.

The renovations are due to be completed at the end of the year, in time for a February 2004 opening, Yee Con Long said. Revamped, refurbished, its grisly memories buried under a new coat of paint, the historic building will once again represent a nation’s optimism.

Most of all, the renovation will preserve what many see as a design classic: “As an architect, I am glad they decided to renovate the hotel,” Kuy Py said. “If they knocked it down, it is unhappy for all architects.”

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