What do Jacqueline Kennedy and I have in common? Sadly, nothing. However, the transcendent style icon has always fascinated me and for a sweet moment in time, I could envisage what it might have been like to be Jackie when she visited Cambodia in 1967 at the invitation of the King.
Our presidential treatment starts with the airport transfer. Travelling along the wide avenues of Phnom Penh in our chauffeured BMW, a Raffles flag flutters on the hood and, for a brief flicker, I imagine that we’re part of a VIP motorcade. We should feel special, as we are en route to Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Yes, THE Raffles – the luxury hotel brand synonymous with unparalleled service, the well-travelled and an era of luminous movie stars, famous writers, royals and heads of state.
Pulling into the circular driveway of Raffles Hotel Le Royal, its grand French colonial facade is breathtaking. Shuttered windows, breezy verandas and a red carpet lead up to the impressive entry. It’s a ‘pinch me’ moment. The exquisite lobby is an intoxicating blend of Khmer, Art Deco and French colonial style with dark timber decor, a stunning chandelier and exotic orchids overflowing from vases.
We are introduced to our personal butler. The butler thing is not really our scene (hubby is squirming at the concept), however it is very much a part of Raffle’s exceptional service as we are led to our room for the next two nights – the Charles de Gaulle suite. It is one of several ‘personality’ suites and is a gorgeous room featuring a four-post bed, elegant decor and tastefully integrated mod cons. There’s no balcony on this one, which I would recommend for those romantic balmy evenings.
The hotel has arranged a tour of the property – for anyone who appreciates history, it’s a must. From its beginnings in 1929, Raffles Le Royal has been a part of Phnom Penh’s history for the past 91 years and it is one hell of a history. I spent flight time listening to podcasts about Cambodia, gleaning an insight into its rich and tragic past. In particular, the powerful and enthralling series by Melbourne journalist Lachlan Peters, 'In The Shadows of Utopia'.
Yet, while the hotel reverently honours its past, its eyes are set to the future and, located in the city centre, it’s a major player in today’s business and social scene.
The hotel is wrapped around a central courtyard, which features two stunning pools lined with established trees and sun lounges. Pool boys (their words, not mine) are on hand to take drink and food orders. Mental note: make time for lunch and an ice-cold G&T poolside – we did this the day of our departure.
But it’s The Elephant Bar that captures my imagination. The decor is both timeless and romantic, adorned with whimsical paintings of elephants, each of particular significance. It’s no wonder that locals and visitors alike flock to the bar for its elegant yet relaxed ambience, and I can imagine Rudyard Kipling whiling away the time, seeking inspiration over a Gin Sling or two. This is a truly beautiful place to enjoy happy hour, pre-dinner drinks or a late-night tipple – it’s my favourite place in the hotel. The cocktail list is impressive and so enthralled with the former First Lady, the hotel created an honorary cocktail for her - The Femme Fatale with crème de fraise des bois, cognac and sparkling wine. Her lipstick-stained wine glass is also on display.
The enchanting Jacqueline certainly captured the heart of Raffles and the menu at Le Royal Restaurant features her moniker. The five‑course Jacqueline Kennedy Heritage Menu (including a welcome Femme Fatale) is the actual cuisine served during her stay and the dining room offers a truly special experience. However, the charm and luxury of Raffles doesn’t stop here.
If the Elephant Bar is my fave spot, The Raffles Spa runs a very, very close second. An oasis of calm with sweetly fragrant rooms, it offers luxuriously cool respite from the tropical heat. The spa menu provides a selection of Khmer and modern treatments. I opt for the Raffles Face and Body Rejuvenation treatment - a 120 minute top to toe massage and a customised facial complete with a multivitamin eye mask. I literally dribble and snore through the whole thing, (very un-Jacki-like), but leave feeling ah-mazing and my skin plumped and hydrated. I highly recommend a spa treatment after a day of sightseeing - it’s a beautiful way to unwind and prepare for an evening of dinner and drinks.
And when it comes to sightseeing, there is plenty to see in Phnom Penh - an itinerary can be customised to suit your interests (simply talk to concierge). Personal tours are fabulous because you have your own guide, driver and air-conditioned vehicle, you see only what you wish to see and you’re not part of a large group. An itinerary can include a traditional Khmer performance or even a visit to a local gin distillery (where they brew a Raffles Elephant Bar infused gin). As we have limited time (and my share of Gin Slings), we choose a guided half day tour to take in the main highlights - the Royal Palace located in the centre of town; the National Museum, and Wat Phnom, a hilltop temple.
The Royal Palace is a sprawling compound and features the Silver Pagoda which houses an impressive collection of Buddha images. Members of the Royal family live on the property. Serendipitously, on the day we are there a luxury Mercedes-Benz pulls up alongside a crowd of sightseers and palace workers. Our guide informs us that inside the car are members of the royal family. So it's a surprise to see the car stop, the back windows roll down and an elderly lady start handing out crisp bank notes to those who are lucky enough to be close by. This goes on for a good three minutes or so - individuals are handed bank notes much to the delight of the crowd. It appears to be a lot of cash. It’s no wonder the family are so revered.
The Raffles Le Royal experience really is ‘First Lady’ stuff, however for a sumptuously indulgent 48 hours or so, we too were fortunate to relish the charm of Phnom Penh and that spectacularly royal Raffles treatment.
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