Mekong Meanderings: Phnom Penh
It seems now that few places are untouched by tourism. Those along the Mekong River have certainly seen their share, for better or worse; fortunately, there are a few new luxury destinations that offer travel with a bit of sensitivity to the local culture. The final part of our Mekong series gets cosmopolitan
Moving down river to where the Tonle Sap meets the Mekong as it runs seaward, the final and somewhat more cosmopolitan experience awaits; in fact, those who haven’t visited Phnom Penh in several years may find it difficult to recognise the gleaming skyline – and the various pieces of infrastructure built by a gaggle of competing regional donors.
A glass edifice just off Russian Federation Boulevard — for the Cold War hasn’t entirely loosed its grip here — houses another recently opened Rosewood property on its top 14 levels. The building, Vattanac Capital Tower, is the tallest in Cambodia and was designed by architects Farrells to echo an east-facing dragon.
Despite the nearby hubbub, the property manages to effect calm from the moment a visitor reaches its grand entrance, flanked by a soothing water feature and shielded by a living wall that is part of a series of rammed earth barriers. Wood panelling in the porte cochère and cloth wall coverings lend an immediate warm contrast to the concrete and glass, and evoke a French mansion. Regional and local touches are provided through decorative doors and commissioned sculptures of traditional rattan and modern wound wire. The Cambodian motifs are subtle — door handles, window designs — and contribute to an overall direction cogent with Rosewood’s philosophy: there is a sense of place here, one that looks forward without forgetting its legacy.
Most of the public spaces are the work of Melbourne’s BAR Studio, as are the guest rooms, and all are characterised by subtlety and exquisite material sensibility. The 35th-floor lobby serves as the mansion’s living room; classic tropical elements such as screens and rattan are given a bespoke touch through the custom furniture and soft furnishings, with an overarching warm palette. As in much of the hotel, the French colonial legacy is evident in space and proportion, in elegant brass and smooth leather, the Cambodian in woven touches, objets and screens. For a further local flavour, a gallery exhibits a rotating roster of local artists.
Guests in the sophisticated brasserie are treated to a panoramic view through floor-to-ceiling windows from a variety of spaces. Open kitchens, tasting counters and semi-private nooks combine to form a versatile, welcoming space accented by brass and earth tones. Aromas waft through the space from the kitchen-like patisserie at certain times of day. As so much light is let in by the windows, most of the artificial light is decor-driven rather than architectural.
The guest rooms continue the aesthetic. Natural light paints a muted but cosy palette of browns and subdued gold with brighter touches in the soft furnishings. Materials are oriented towards wood, rattan, leather and brass, while lattices and shutters form recurring motifs. All the rooms are generously proportioned, while the suites are frontal to the Mekong.
Tokyo-based Bond Design Studio contributed with the designs of izakaya Iza and bar Sora, both on the 37th floor. Elegantly masculine Iza welcomes guests with sake drums and a large steel beer tank; lattice screens sculpt light and define spaces, while their patterns are echoed in soft furnishings that bridge Japanese and Cambodian design motifs. A mix of low and high seating at multiple different bars contributes to the casual feel with its playful riff on wingback bar stools while maintaining an elegant, modern feel.
A passage bounded by a living wall leads to Sora, whose design was inspired by the graceful movements of an Apsara dancer, translated into a leitmotif of elegant curves. The central bar’s outside edge melds into a line of sculpted lotus bulbs with tapered stems, complemented by the elegantly tapered stools. Classic chunky lounge chairs in earth tones sit under a large light fixture that echoes silver water droplets forming on the bottom of a bowl. The bar maximises the panorama with window seating (wingbacks, of course) and a series of semi-private nooks enclosed on three sides by shimmering silver-leafed walls and cosy banquettes, while a cultivated lived-in look pervades the adjoining cigar and whisky library. There is also a cantilevered outdoor terrace, where modern steel and rattan furniture are centred around the highest bar in the city; those seeking as much height as possible can sit on a raised platform overlooking the overlookers.
All three properties are testament to design that creates a sense of immediate comfort and separation from the outside world. The Mekong region continues to draw the crowds, but they don’t need to be the madding type.
Text / Philip Annetta