The War Hotels: Cambodia's Le Phnom

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During the war in Cambodia, the Hotel Le Phnom was where the journalists and NGO workers filled rooms after the tourists fled in the early 1970s and the war began in earnest.

At the Le Phnom, before and after known as Le Royal, there was a sense of camaraderie and a somewhat hysterical relief in the feeling of comparative safety when you came back from harrowing days of reporting in the field.

Vignettes are frozen in the mind's eye like scenes from a play. There was Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times standing on his balcony playing badly on an old French bugle that the Khmer Rouge armies had left on the battlefield. There was the curt note in formal French asking that the photographer Al Rockoff — later to be played by John Malkovich in "The Killing Fields" — remove the hand grenade from his bedroom. And I can still see, while tip-toeing by the front desk upon returning late at night, the hotel staff sleeping cocoon-like beneath mosquito nets in the lobby.

John le Carre captured this scene when his "honorable schoolboy" comes into the Phnom one night: "The lobby was in pitch blackness except for a single moonbeam, which shone like a spotlight on to a huge luminous chrysalis spun around the naked brown larvae of a human body. 'Vous desirez, monsieur?' a voice asked softly. It was the night watchman asleep under a mosquito net ... A note is waiting. 'Darling, I am in room 28 and lonely. Come see me, L.'"

Some four decades earlier, Ernest Hemingway, who set his play "Fifth Column" — about the Spanish Civil War — in a hotel called Florida, had his heroine, Dorothy, call for her lover to come to her in Room 109.

Hemingway's character Dorothy was inspired by Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who later married Hemingway. She covered the Spanish Civil War for Colliers, and wrote that, "It seemed a little crazy to be living in a hotel, like a hotel in Des Moines or New Orleans, with wicker chairs in the lounge and signs on the door of the room telling you that they would press your clothes immediately ... and in the meantime it was like a trench when they lay down the artillery barrage. The whole place trembled to the explosion of the shells."

Although the front lines around Phnom Penh were never as close as they were to the Florida in Madrid, they were not far from the city, and occasionally, rockets would arrive on the afternoon rain. Fearing falling shells that might burst in the trees outside our windows, some of us moved our desks into dark corners, lit by orange candles from a Buddhist temple supply store, when the electricity supply went out, which was often. An electrician plays a big part in Hemingway's play. "Comaradas, no hay luz." I never saw an electrician in the Phnom, and at night the hotel shook to the aftershock of bombs from B-52s that raged outside the city like demented intruders rattling the window panes.

When the Le Phnom Penh was about to fall, "the bombardments were so intense that journalists abandoned their rooms at the top of the Phnom, which were fully exposed to rocket and artillery fire," wrote British journalist Jon Swain in his memoir, "River of Time." The Red Cross attempted to turn the hotel into a neutral zone, and bathing was forbidden in the swimming pool. "It was thought that if there were a long siege, the pool water – turgid and soupy after months of neglect — might have to be drunk. "'C'est la guerre,'" said the manager, "with a wring of his hands, as if anyone didn't know already."

A long siege was not to be. With forced evacuation of the city already underway, "without warning the Khmer Rouge soldiers forced their way into our quarters at the Hotel Le Phnom." They harshly told the Red Cross to evacuate within half an hour.

The hotel staff "clutched imploringly at our arms. 'Don't abandon us.' Their words come back to haunt me now, for most of them are dead," Swain recalled. "It was time to say goodbye to the hotel." He and the other foreigners moved into the French Embassy compound, from which they were eventually evacuated.

Before the fall, journalists took their stories to the city's post, telephone, and telegraph office (PTT)  where they were forwarded, incredibly slowly in those pre-computer days to Paris and then America. Towards the end some journalists hoarded fuel oil to keep the PTT going should supplies run out.

In Hemingway's play, the journalists are either too busy making love or indulging in counter-espionage to actually file a story. But filing before the computer age could be time consuming and difficult.

In Laos you had to bribe the PTT in the capital, Vientiane, if you wanted your story to move. The cable office was upstairs, but a basket on a string through a hole in the ceiling was lowered for your copy. You put the story in the basket, along with what you hoped was a suitable bribe, and your story was hauled back up through the hole. If the bribe was deemed insufficient, the basket would come tumbling down for some more Kip, as the local currency was called.

Stanley Karnow, then working for TIME Magazine, remembers trying to file from up-country in Laos in 1960. The tiny town of Samneua was being threatened by communist insurgents. "The telegraph office was a bamboo shack manned by a sleepy native," Karnow recalled. "Showing me a stack of mildewed papers, he asked: 'What should I do with these?' They were pieces by a colleague who had been there earlier and had proudly cabled his editors that he was the first reporter to reach the 'strategic city' of Samneua. When I informed him that his triumphant scoop had been gathering dust for three or four weeks, he went out and got drunk."

If there was censorship — there was none during the American wars in Indochina — it was even more of a problem. In Israel, for example, before computers made it impractical, you had to take your story to a military censor to have it stamped before you could take it to the cable office. If you tried to telephone the story out, your telephone would be interrupted by a stern voice reminding you that you had not followed the censorship procedure. You could usually reason with the Israel censors, but for some stories correspondents flew out to Athens or Cyprus to file.

Towards the end of her long life, I wrote to Martha Gellhorn asking what it was like to file a story from Spain during the civil war. "Filing in Madrid has a certain dash to it," she wrote back. "The censor, Ilsa, a stern, dumpy German woman, had her office in the Telefonica building in on the Gran Via. Telefonica was the tallest building in Madrid and was used by Franco's German gunners on Garabitas Hill as regular aiming point. As nobody ever knew when artillery bombardments would begin you could either find yourself running on the Gran Via or listening intensely in Ilsa's room, or at night, never with a flashlight, stumbling around new shell holes.

"You took your copy to Ilsa who read it whenever she got around to it, and what happened afterwards I don't know ... Sometimes you could send your copy out with another correspondent who would mail it in Paris. There wasn't any great sense of haste and there weren't many reporters. We all disliked Ilsa and were vilely smarmy with her."

Editor's note: From the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to today's conflict in Iraq, it seems that in most wars a hotel provides a stage set for a cast of characters trying to cope with the tragedy outside. You can read about some of them in this series:

The War Hotels: Introduction

Vietnam: the Continental Palace

Cambodia: Le Phnom

Bangladesh: The Intercontinental in Dacca

Lebanon: Beirut's Commodore

Iraq: The Palestine Hotel in Baghdad

Afghanistan: Kabul's Gandamack Lodge

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