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Continental-style hotel is struggling to survive and grow in postwar Cambodia


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- In tone and spirit, Karl Marx Quay, the site of this unfortunate city's first new hotel in 30 years, is more than half a world away from the Place de la Concorde, the Parisian monument to reconciliation that provides a suitable setting for the Hotel Crillon.

That's fine with Jean-Marie Bertron who, with wanderlust in his heart, gave up his post as concierge at the Crillon to come to Phnom Penh, to practice his affable and pleasing arts on a worthy target, the Hotel Cambodiana, which opened in July.

"I became 30 this year, and, of course, it's an important year," Mr. Bertron said. "So I thought I should travel for six months and see another part of the world."

He started in Taiwan, he said, a raw and noisy place that he did not find to his liking, and having come here as a tourist in April, "I discovered the builders working on this hotel."

He asked for a job, and was hired as manager of guest services on a one-year contract.

Mr. Bertron soon discovered the oddity of this enterprise, which boasts the distinction of having the only decent toilet paper in Cambodia, and of being the only hostelry in all of Indochina that provides little foil packets of French shampoo in bathrooms with impeccable plumbing.

Construction began 25 years ago under Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, who had been selected for the throne by Cambodia's colonial masters, the French.

The prince insisted upon the setting, a lovely spot overlooking the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac Rivers, and upon the installation of a casino. By the time he was overthrown, in 1970, only the casino was functioning.

With the victory of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, Phnom Penh was evacuated and abandoned, a symbol to the Khmer Rouge of the decadent influence of an urbanized West upon the pure spirit of the Cambodian peasantry.

Prince Sihanouk's Hotel Cambodiana, a weathering concrete shell, went unfinished and unremarked. The Vietnamese expelled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and installed a government, now led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, that slowly has restored a semblance of normality to Phnom Penh.

But except for a few projects, like a Japanese sawmill, there has been little investment, in large part because of an American-led embargo. Singapore, in particular, has been especially vocal in its ban on investment here and in Vietnam.

Singaporeans have managed to shut their ears, however, and in fact represent the major investors in the Hotel Cambodiana. They have put more than $20 million into finishing the hotel.

One hundred rooms are open now, largely to journalists and an increasing number of tourists, with work continuing on 280 more rooms. The only restaurant open is a cavernous Chinese place that turns into a disco at night for wealthy Cambodians.

But Mr. Bertron said a coffee shop for Western breakfasts would soon be finished, as well as "a smaller, quieter restaurant," to be called the Mekong and serving Continental cuisine, "for a romantic dinner in the evening, overlooking the river."

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