From Bungalow d'Angkor to Hotel des Ruines to Auberge Royale des Temples: 1909-1976

by Angkor Database

The six-decade history of the one and only accommodation inside Angkor Archaeological Park.

Auberge temples 1968

Publication: ADB Reference Documents HISSR4

Published: 2023

Author: Angkor Database

Language : English

Where did archaeologists, draughtsmen, photographers, architects sleep on the Angkor site during the pioneer times? From Captain Auguste Filoz's Cambodge et Siam, a relation of his 1871 tour helping the Delaporte mission to prepare the first plaster mouldings of Angkor Wat bas-reliefs, we learn that they accommodated themselves right inside the temples, in a sometimes awkward cohabitation with Cambodian bouddhist monks.

But then, the need for a hospitality structure near Angkor Wat became pressing, and here is the history of a rare attempt of a hotel facility right on an archaeological site.

Bungalow d'Angkor

With the expansion of EFEO activities, archaeologists and conservators started to build their own houses in the vicinity of the Bayon, where the first Angkor Conservation compound was to be build. Visitors were lodged there, until French colonial authorities decided a proper residence for visitors should be erected. In a 15 April 1909 letter sent to Henri Cordier by Général de Beylié, then resident-general in Saigon, we learn that "l'hôtellerie d'Angkor Vat, comprenant dix chambres et quatorze lits, sera définitivement terminée le 15 octobre. Les murs seront en briques; chaque chambre aura sa salle de bain; plus tard, on pourra l'augmenter de quatre ou cinq chambres. Il y a un salon et une salle à manger. Les frais (35.000 francs environ) seront supportés par la province de Battambang. On va s'occuper aussi de remettre en état la fameuse chaussée khmère qui va de la rive droite du Mékong à Angkor; cette route, jamais inondée, peut servir en toute saison et a l'avantage de faire voir les plus grandes rivières du Cambodge. Malheureusement le désouchement des arbres qui ont poussé sur cette route sera une grosse affaire. La Société des Études indo-chinoises va charger M. Commaille, conservateur des ruines d' Angkor, de faire un guide pratique franco-anglais pour ces ruines ; on le fera imprimer à Paris avec 50 ou 60 illustrations, format de poche." ["the Angkor Wat Hotel, comprising ten rooms and fourteen beds, will be definitively finished on October 15. The walls will be made of bricks; each room will have its own bathroom; later, it will be possible to expand it by four or five rooms. There is a lounge and a dining room. The costs (approximately 35,000 francs) will be borne by the province of Battambang. We will also take care of rehabilitating the famous Khmer roadway which goes from the right bank of the Mekong to Angkor; this road, never flooded, can be used in all seasons and has the advantage of showing the largest rivers of Cambodia. Unfortunately the clearing of the trees that have grown on this road will be a big deal. The Society of Indo-Studies Chinese authorities will commission Mr. Commaille, curator of the ruins of Angkor, to produce a practical Franco-English guide for these ruins; we will have it printed in Paris with 50 or 60 illustrations, pocket format." [Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 53ᵉ année, N. 5, 1909. pp. 353-354]

The Bungalow as shown on a colored glass panel part of a Angkor Magic Lantern from the 1920s (available on ebay in December 2023).

Until 1932, with the opening of the Grand Hotel (now Raffles) in Siem Reap downtown, the Bungalow will remain the main 'luxury' accommodation in Angkor area. In its 1927 edition, the famed Guide Madrolle states for "Angkor (Siem-reap): Hôtel-Bungalow d'Angkor, 50 ch. | Hôtel-Palace (en 1927), à Siem-reap, 40 ch. avec salle de bain ou de douche; installation moderne." And Henri Marchal, in his Archaeological Guide To Angkor 1932 English edition (published by...Alfred Messner), gives the distances of each temple in relation with "the Bungalow": "Phnom Bakheng, 1 Kil 500 from Bungalow, Baksei Changkrang, 1 Kil 600 from Bungalow...."

Yet French investors and politicians were pushing for the development of hig-end hospitality resources in town, rather than in the vicinity of the temples, even if Georges Garros, the father of aviator and tennisman Roland Garros, remarked in 1923 that "l'accès du magnifique groupe des ruines d'Angkor sera facilité en toute saison par deux routes actuellement en construction de Siemréap et Pursat, vers le Tonlé-Sap : les travaux d'agrandissement du bungalow d'Angkor seront achevés cette année même." [access to the magnificent group of Angkor ruins will be facilitated in all seasons by two roads currently under construction from Siem Reap and Pursat, towards Tonlé-Sap Lake: the work to enlarge the Angkor bungalow will be completed this very year."]

This view of Angkor Wat was taken "from bungalow 10-31" in the 1920s, Louis Finot Archives (EFEO Photo Collection)

That same year, in May 1923, the newspaper Les Annales coloniales report on the launch of a 'Société d'études pour la construction d'hôtels en Indochine' [Planning Agency for Building Hotels in Indochina] and add that "en cours de séance, l'assemblée a formulé son avis sur la construction d'un palace à Xiem Réap [Siemréap]. Cet avis, conforme au sentiment du syndicat d'initiative, se résume ainsi : "Le bungalow actuel d'Angkor peut être conservé et indéfiniment agrandi ; tout autre hôtel doit être édifié à proximité des ruines, mais doit être construit en surface, et non en hauteur, et rester caché par la forêt"." [During the session, the assembly formulated its opinion on the construction of a palace in Xiem Réap. This opinion, consistent with the sentiment of the Tourism Office, is summarized as follows: “The current Angkor bungalow can be preserved and indefinitely enlarged; any other hotel must be built near the ruins, but must be built on one ground level, without upper floors, and remain hidden by the forest."]

In 1924, however, the tone has changed: "La Section de Propagande et du Tourisme s'est nettement prononcée pour la construction de l'Hôtel à Siem-Réap et non à Angkor, mais le bungalow actuel d'Angkor serait conservé et même agrandi et passerait de 28 à 50 chambres."[The Propaganda and Tourism Department clearly supported the construction of the hotel in Siem-Reap and not in Angkor, yet the current Angkor Bungalow would be preserved and even enlarged and would go from 28 to 50 rooms."] (L'Éveil économique de l'Indochine, 20 April 1924).

Why? In 1923 has been established the Société des Grands Hotels d'Indochine (SGHI), a consortium in which private French entrepreneurs are competing among themselves. Tourism is booming, Angkor is a prime destination and developers understand any major development has to happen outside of the Angkor area.

Said Society is soon rocked by scandals, among them the 1928 embezzlement trial of M. Debyser, with the temporary shut-down of the Bungalow, which will officially reopen in December 1930. [Note: Debyser, who was on trial for a 600 piastres theft, was a notorious drunkard, and the fact that practically all Bungalow's managers were boozers is documented in different testimonies, up to 1937.]

Above: we have found a rare photograph of the Bungalow in the late 1920s, illustrating the chapter 'Le Tourisme' by Princesse Achille Murat, née Chasseloup-Laubat, in Un empire colonial francais: l'Indochine, sous la direction de Georges Maspero, editions G. Van Oest, Paris, tome II, planche XVIII). Forefront, the wooden platform helping the tourists to hop on elephants. 

The Bungalow d'Angkor in 1935 (Bulletin d'information économique et sociale)

(Grand) Hotel des Ruines

With the boom of tourist visits, the former 'bungalow' gains the status of full-fledged hotel. But the grand Grand Hotel wants to attract wealthy visitors, and author Harriett Ponder relates in her 1935-6 Cambodian Glory how she had to practically fight with the new hotel manager to stay at the Bungalow (then renamed Hotel des Ruines), which she had loved so much at her first visit, as the management wanted to attract travelers to the Grand. A few years earlier, another American writer, Grace Thomson-Seton, was able to stay near Angkor Wat, and recalls her moonlight strolls from Angkor Wat causeway to her room in Poison Arrows.

February 1932: the Hotel des Ruines management is adjudicated to hotelier and entrepreneur Alfred Messner (1880-1943), the owner of successful La Pagode in Saigon and L'Ermitage in Thuduc. Convinced he can expand Angkor Bungalow's attractiveness, he organizes the first elephant tours of Angkor for tourists, a gimmick that will end only in 2011, under the pressure of animal rights activists. [Note: the retired Angkor captive elephants and their descendantsare now living a lush, natural life within the vast expanse of Kulen Elephant Forest.]

Alfred Messner

Messner was a workhorse, but when Le Courrier d'Indochine praised him no end, L'Écho annamite on Sept 3, 1928, published a letter from a Japanese customer censuring him for posters set at L'Ermitage swimming pool stating that "Access to the pool is exclusively restricted to Europeans".

And the competition between French businessmen was raging: in April 1936, André Vergoz, a travel agent founder of the New Siem Reap Hotel, and representative of the Grand Hotel d'Angkor (later Raffles) in Saigon, made sure that Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard stay at the Grand, not at the former Angkor Bungalow.

For Angkor lovers...and for hunters: a tourist's map ordered by Messner showcasing his two hotels in Siem Reap and Angkor.

Later on, after World War II, another issue was the security, due to the Issarak insurgency, particularly active in the Angkor area with the legendary warlord and guerilla leader Dap Chhuon ដាប ឈួន (he was killed by one of his lieutnants while hiding in the Phnom Kulen forests in 1959, according to Charles Meyer in Derriere le sourire khmer (Plon, Paris, 1971). In 1951, Norman Lewis wrote in his A Dragon Apparent: "As there was nowhere to stay in Siem-Reap, I had to go to the Grand Hotel outside the town, which draws its sporadic nourishment from visitors to Angkor. I returned to the town — a blistering, shadeless walk of a mile — for occasional meals. In the whole of Cambodia there is not a single Cambodian restaurant. True Cambodian dishes, just as Aztec dainties in Mexico and Moorish delicacies in Spain, are only to be eaten in the market booths and wayside stalls of remote towns, which are the last refuges of vanishing, culinary cultures. While from fear of infection, one dared not at Siem-Reap risk those brilliant rissoles, those strange membraneous sacks containing who knows what empirically discovered tit-bit, there was always a restaurant serving what came vaguely tmder the heading of Chinese food. This is, at least, light, adapted to the climate, and consequently less burdensome than the surfeit of stewed meats inevitably provided by the Grand Babylon hotels of the Far East. The Grand Hotel des Ruines had had several lean years. It was said that one or two of the guests had been kidnapped. The necessity, until a few months before, of an armed escort, must have provided an element of drama not altogether unsuitable in a visit to Angkor. Now the visitors were beginning to come again, arriving in chartered planes from Siam, signing their names in the register which was coated as soon as opened with a layer of small, exhausted flies falling continually from the ceiling. Perking up, the management arranged conducted tours to the ruins. In the morning the hotel car went to Angkor Thom, in the afternoon it covered what was called the Little Circuit. The next morning it would be Angkor Thom again and in the afternoon Angkor Vat. You had to stay three days to be taken finally on a tour ofthe Grand Circuit, Naturally in the circumstances the hotel wanted to keep its guests as long as possible. And even Baedeker would not have found three days unreasonable for the visit to Angkor. There were many remoter temples, such as the exquisite Banteay Srei, thirty kilometres away, which the bus did not reach, as it was doubtful whether the writ of Dap Chhuon ran in these distant parts. The forces of the tutelary bandit seemed to be concentrated in the immediate vicinity. There was a sports field under my window and every morning, soon after dawn, a party of Dap Chhuon’s men used to arrive for an hour’s P.T. Against a background of goal posts, they failed to terrify. They were thin from the years spent under the greenwood tree and as drey ‘knees-bent’ and ‘stretched’, each piratical rib could be counted. Beyond the playing-field and the gymnasts, was the forest, tawny and autumnal, from winch in the far distance emerged the helmeted shapes of the three central towers of Angkor Vat."[pp 221-2]

Auberge Royale des Temples

After Cambodian Independence in 1953, then Prince Sihanouk, as head of state, personally supervised hospitality industry development. In October 1963, Le Monde Diplomatique commented: "Jusqu’en 1955, le tourisme khmer demeura inorganisé ; il lui manquait notamment les moyens essentiels d’accueillir les visiteurs. L’hôtellerie ne comprenait que deux établissements de grande classe — sans être luxueux — : l’hôtel « Le Royal », dans la capitale, et le « Grand Hôtel d’Angkor », bâti en 1932 à Siemreap, sous le protectorat, vétuste et démodé." [Until 1955, Khmer tourism remained unorganized; In particular, it lacked the essential means of welcoming visitors. The hotel industry only included two high-class establishments - without being luxurious: the hotel "Le Royal", in the capital, and the "Grand Hôtel d'Angkor", built in 1932 in Siemreap, under the Protectorate, decrepite and out-of-fashion."]

On 24 August 1959, ending the decade-long rivalry between French private developers, Prince Sihanouk created the Société khmère des Auberges royales (SOKHAR), with a focus on Siem Reap establishments [the Villa Princiere was added to Grand Hotel and Auberge des Temples] and with affiliated destinations in Kampot, Kep, Bokor, and Poncheutong (Phnom Penh). He presided the Board of Directors, which included then Prime Minister Penn Nouth, expert Sonn Voeunsai, Information and Tourism Secretary of State Tim Dong, vice-president of National Parliament Ang Kim Khoan, and his colleague Ky Heng.

Later on, in 1963-4, Plan and Tourism Minister Nhiek Tioulong commissioned renovation works at Auberge Royale des Temples, involving renowned architect Lu Ban Hap (1939, Cambodia - 25 June 2023, France), a leading figure in the New Khmer Architecture movement. Typical of his apportation to the Auberge bungalows are the under-roof natural ventilation and decorated tympanum, a technique he applied to several other buildings including the Svay Rieng Market [information kindly provided by Poum Measbandol]. Lu Ban Hap, who had studied with Vann Molyvann in France and was later decorated by Prince Sihanouk for the conception of the Chenla State Cinema, had married a French citizen, Aurélie Rouard, and moved to France in 1971 with their three children, but he was on the last flight to land in Phnom Penh at the time the Khmer Rouge took over the capital city in April 1975. He survived by escaping with a niece by foot to Saigon.

Architect Lu Ban Hap decorated by Prince Sihanouk in 1969 (from Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture)

The 1964 works, carried by state-owned building company SONAC, comprised a 42-room extension and creation of a swimming pool for a grand budget of nine million riels. Also contributed to the redesign Roger Colne, an architect and interior designer of French background who was to disappear in the late 1970s, probably killed as he was working as war correspondent. At that stage, according to the reference book Building Cambodia, "the Auberge Royale des Temples in front of Angkor Wat had developed from a small guesthouse for early visitors to the site. By the sixties. it had been enlarged and modernised to cater to those who wanted to gaze at Angkor through the large windows of the dining room. [...] SOKHAR managed Auberge Royale de Bokor, Auberge Royale de Pochentong, Hotel Khemara, Hotel Le Royal, Hotel Mondial, Hotel Monorom and Hotel Sukhalay in Phnom Penh. It also ran Auberge Royale des Temples, Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Hotel de la Paix and Villa Princiere in Siem Reap and Motels Krung Preah Sihanouk in Sihanoukville. Another state-owned enterprise, Magasin d'Etat (Magetat), ran the Battambong Motel, the Bokor Palace and Kiri Hotel in Bokor as well as the Angkor Travel Agency, Chaktomuk Night Club, MAGETAT Night Club and Olympic Night Club in Phnom Penh. It also operated the Hotel Independence in Sihanoukville." [Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins, Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture, (research assistant Hok Sokol), The Key Publisher Company, supported by the Toyota Foundation, Tokyo-Bangkok 2006, ISBN 974934121X, p 166).

During the Golden Age' of Cambodia, tourism thrived: SOKHAR registered in its 215 rooms around the country 6,213 guests in September 1959,  22,780 in 1965, and 25,382 at the end of August 1968 (SOKHAR, Internal Report, 1968).

The Auberge letterhead in a 19 Dec. 1968 letter written by traveler-photographer Solange Brand.

The following years were darkened by civil war, and ultimately destruction. On 11 March 1969, a traveler noted in her blog: "Reaching Siem Reap we changed into a motorcycle pousse for the last 7 km to the Auberge Royal des Temples. The hotel is right opposite Angkor Wat, across the bridge over the “moat”. There were a few buffalo in the water with ibises sitting on their backs."

SOKHAR activity report, Dec. 1968

The circumstances of the demise of Auberge Royale des Temples remain unclear. The common idea that it was destroyed by bombardments, which seem unrealistic since the Khmer Rouge, in spite of their destructive drive, were keen to preserve Angkor temples from destruction. Their pipe dream was to drive back the site to a mythical, pastoral past where paddy fields, not tourists, would prevail. According to Dith Pran, who worked as a receptionist at the Auberge from 1964 and had been an an interpreter for the British film crew that was producing “Lord Jim” with Peter O'Toole in Angkor, the hotel "was dismantled [by the Pol Pot forces], who used the bricks and stones from the walls to build irrigation works." [The New York Times, 12 Oct 1979].

Main photo: Auberge des Temples in the late 1960s, promotion photography.

Tags: Modern Cambodia, modern history, tourism, cultural tourism, civil war

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