Writer Bridget Di Certo meets Raffles’ dedicated Cambodian historian, former butler Mouth Saravann, in Siem Reap to discover the history of the famous Grand Hotel, where guests have included Charlie Chaplin and Charles De Gaulle. Photography by Chatti Phal.

It’s the charm and romance of a building that hold so many secrets and stories, Mouth Saravann says. As Raffles’ first historian, he has a mission to unravel the past of the rice-field yellow stucco Grand Hotel D’Angkor in Siem Reap and share it with travellers who come to the home of ancient Angkor.

“Under French colonisation, they [the French] wanted to build five premier hotels. So three were built in Vietnam and two here in Cambodia — one in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap,” he explains, standing by a louvered window in the hotel’s morning tea lounge.

The Grand Hotel first opened its doors in 1932, three years after Le Royal in Phnom Penh. As a mark of its importance, the hotel — set across from the fastidiously manicured botanical gardens and the Royal Residence — received the King’s personal seal as its logo.

The four-storey building, also the first hotel in Siem Reap, instantly became an icon. But for Mouth, who was born in Pailin amidst spreading civil war in 1970, its grandeur was an unimaginable vision.

“The hotel was actually closed during this period. It was used as an administrative office and prison by Lon Nol soldiers, and later Khmer Rouge forces took over and used the building as a prison too,” he says.

In a way such violent occupation saved the Grand Hotel from ruin during tumultuous decades of Cambodian history. When United Nations forces rolled into the Kingdom in the early 1990s, the potential of buildings like the Grand Hotel began to show.

Mouth worked for the UN in Siem Reap during the election operation of 1992 and 1993, and later stayed on as a taxi driver and tour guide for the growing number of adventurers travelling to Cambodia to see the Angkor Wat temple complex.

In 1997, Raffles took over the building, restoring it to its original glory as the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor, and Mouth was recruited as a butler. The natural socialite quickly shone and received training in Singapore before being engaged by Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh and later scoring a two-year placement as a butler in the Caribbean.

“Even at that time, people still did not really know where Cambodia was and would always be so surprised when I said ‘I am from Cambodia’,” he laughs.

Upon his return, the discrepancy in hospitality services between his beloved country and more developed countries seemed pronounced. “We are so far behind. We are slowly getting there and slowly putting Cambodia on the map,” he says.

Mouth’s pride in his work
and the hotel saw him promoted to become Raffles’ first Cambodian historian two years ago.

“Every day I learn more about the hotel and I show the guests this and that, and explain when it happened,” he says, predicting that an application for a heritage listing for the 119-room building could follow in years to come.

The older generation love staying at the hotel and feeling like they have been transported through time, Mouth says, while the younger generation are awed by the rich history of the building. He relishes rattling off the famous guests of the hotel — Charlie Chaplin, Charles De Gaulle, Jacqueline Kennedy, Richard Moore —while other celebrities keep their stay a secret.

People can also feel a lot of emotion when hearing about the history of the temples, the hotel and Cambodia itself. “They always ask me — why is everyone in Cambodia still smiling, welcoming and so calm when they have passed through a very difficult time?” he says.

“I tell them: it happened. The past has gone. We cannot keep the old feelings in our heart, we need to open a new chapter and grow up to the next generation. We need our young people to grow up and get out and see the world so we can change our country together.”