about le relais and beyond
Gateway to Cambodia Northeast, Le Relais de Chhlong is an iconic building reflecting the country's rich history.
Here, we invite you to a
Journey Through Time and Timeless Cambodia.
The Mansion by The River
Once upon a time, Chhlong, nowadays a small town on the Mekong River in the southern part of Kratie Province, was a thriving commercial and fluvial hub. Local timber merchants had established strong connections with Chinese traders along the river, and with the European brokers in Phnom Penh.
The same family which had founded the Chhlong sawmill – without doubt the first industrial plant of substantial size in Cambodia –, and also built the famous House of a Hundred Pillars in town, wanted a brick-and-mortar mansion, a state-of-the-art building reflecting their success accordingly to the architectural gout-du-jour.
At the turn of the 20th century, this architectural style combining Austro-Hungarian “Baroque” and French Second Empire idea of comfort, very much in fashion among the emerging social elites, was adapted to tropical climates: large balconies and high ceilings enhancing natural airflow.
The Chhlong mansion which is now Le Relais, and this (left) private residence fronting the Phnom Penh Royal Palace’s north-east entrance, nowadays hosting the UNESCO delegation in Cambodia, were obviously built by the same team of architects and engineers.
Completed in 1916, the Chhlong mansion was during decades the abode of the Koy family. “They took an active part in the development of the town and the region”, recalls Mr. Pech Bunten, who to these days have fond memories of his childhood, when he was visiting his aunt, Ms. Koy Tieng, at the beautiful house; “My aunt’s father had seen that the Chhlong “Prek” (the smaller river that merges into the Mekong nearby) be dredged for the timber boats, and a woodland path established along the southern bank. Then, after the Independence, my uncle, Mr Koy Kong, went on to undertake administrative positions in Kompong Thom and Phnom Penh, and he let the house to the Head of the Customs and Excise office in Chhlong.”
Tax on Timber
The fact that the noble house by the river was inhabited by customs officials is backed up by the seals we discovered buried into the grounds during the renovation works which started in 2014.
Even though French administrators and entrepreneurs had given up their dreams of navigating the Mekong all the way up to China, due to the numerous rapids and water-level fluctuations, Chhlong and Kratie remained crucial to regional and transregional exchanges in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the Sangkum era following Cambodia’s independence, when King Norodom Sihanouk himself wrote many songs and singers such as Sin Sisamoth or Ros Sereysothea were rightfully idolized, it will not seem so surprising that the chief customs officer who settled in the house was also a talented music composer and lyricist: Phoeng Bopha composed several songs still popular nowadays, many of them celebrating the natural beauty of this area, in particular អនុស្សាវរីយ៍ព្រែកឆ្លូង (Anuksavry Prek Chhlong, Memories of Prek Chhlong).
(Listen to the song by Bun Chanthorn and Un Sophal)
According to various local sources, the House by the River remained vacant starting from 1968. The political situation was dramatically deteriorating in the whole country. In the Northeastern provinces, irredentist movements such as the Issarak, infiltrations by the Vietnamese resistance against the US aggression, and the relentless carpet-bombing operations over Cambodian areas close to the Vietnamese border covertly ordered by the Nixon administration, triggered a deep sense of insecurity, in addition to the loss of countless lives and to material damages.
Golden Sixties Fashion Photoshoot at Le Relais, Khmer New Year 2018. Courtesy of Sovrin Magazine.
The first photographs taken after the Khmer Rouge regime collapse show the roofless building, with its façade and walls sturdy enough to have weathered the impact. It was in this empty shell that displaced civilians and local citizens took refuge during the darkest years of the civil war. Several pharmaceutical vials recovered by the second renovation team on the works site in the 2010s indicate that the damaged mansion was also used as a field hospital at that time.
After Troubled Times: the house in 2001 ; pharmaceutical vials found on the grounds
In February 2001, Caroline Nixon, then a medical volunteer in Cambodia, went to Chhlong by herself. Here’s her account of discovering what was to become Le Relais:
"Walking on into town I came to a place that had caught my attention before : a big old ruined house that I can only describe as Rococo in style. It must once have been very grand, but was now ruined and roofless. Picking my way over broken glass, charred wood, and mangled balustrades, I wandered around, trying to imagine its’ previous glory. Fragments of delicate stencilled borders still adhered to the walls. Vestiges of ornate tiled floors remained. The back part of the house, which was better preserved, was inhabited by a Khmer family, who made it clear I was welcome to wander. It reminded me a little of the ruined Hotel at Bokor Mountain…"
In 2008, a first renovation was initiated by a private hospitality entrepreneur. Later on, a 2-year rehabilitation program restored the mansion to its former glory, adding also a new building in the exact same style, and a wooden pavilion hosting the restaurant area.
Thanks to artist Ly Pouthavi, frescoes on the high ceilings were re-created where they have been damaged by rain infiltration and time.
“We had to retrace original patterns and trompe-l’oeil effects, design stencils with local artisans, source earth pigments fitted to the previous hues”, recalls Ly when remembering her months of meticulous work atop ladders and scaffolding.
“What I found particularly fascinating was the ubiquitous vegetal patterns, often inspired by the local flora”.
To complete the structural renovation, which involved tiling, wrought-iron and carpentry craftsmen, rare pieces of South-East Asian furniture were hunted across antique dealer shops, or crafted from original designs by local artisans.
A Town Between River and Forest
ឆ្លូង, transcribed Chhlong or Chhloung, is an ancient settlement on the Mekong River, at the confluence of the eponymous river. The origin of the name is still in debate: some say it comes from the Khmer word for “crossing” – to reach the Mekong’s western bank --, while others believe it is named after a native tree. In any case, both versions reflect the dual force and inspiration behind this quaint district of Cambodia’s Northeast: river and forest, water and wood.
Formerly an important trading and transportation outpost for timber, the small town has also been at another confluence, that of several ethnic and cultural influences: Khmer, Chinese, Cham, Vietnamese, Laotian, as well as minorities from northernmost territories.
Elders still remember the Vietnamese hermit who lived alone on a tiny islet, Koh Kandau (Island of the Rat), so close to the town that, in their childhood, they would swim to the sandy shore and sit listening to his tales. Chhlong’s prosperity, he foretold, would wane once the islet be submerged by the rising water. And fact is, gone is the islet, gone the timber trade, gone the first and country’s largest paper mill built here during the Golden Age of the Sangkum, while many mansions not unlike what is now Le Relais are in urgent need to be salvaged from decay.
The important Khmer-Chinese community still maintains its school (opposite to Le Relais on the main road), the oldest one in Cambodia, and a precious pagoda. Local traditions keep alive many Chinese influences, especially in funerary rituals. As for the dipping nets you will see deployed along estuaries and islands, the French explorers called them “carrelets chinois” (Chinese fishing nets), yet it is believed the technique was initially brought here by Malay traders and fishermen.
Khmer-Chinese grave in a village nearby; the Chhlong Chinese School across the street from Le Relais
Floating house (Nha Bé) on the Chhlong River; Building up Wat Chhlong Krong -- circa 1898
Chhlong of Yore
In its monumental sum dedicated to Cambodia (Le Cambodge, 1900), French explorer Étienne Aymonier (1844-1929) described Chhlong (spelled Chhlaung) as “a large village and market, a small province laid along the Prek River, which runs from and through the Eastern forests, and is only navigable at its lower part. A canal, or chomnik in the local language, leads its water to the inner lagoons, feeding large rice paddies. Treang palm trees abound here, the wood of which is used to make hunting bows while the dried leaves are the support for indigenous manuscripts (…) The 725 registered residents pay obedience to the Okna Snehanurak, from the Royal House, and to the pagoda and village chief, who holds the title of ‘Udaya Khsatra’."
The two main pagodas in town belong to a string of sacred monuments dating back from the beginning of the 17th century, when King Preah Ang Chan I established Sambour (72 km north of Chhlong) as a royal city.
When you follow the riverbank southbound, you will also see many more recent wats among orchards and fields, built by wealthy local families.
This is Cambodia as a still mostly agrarian society, where the remnants of the native forest are revered and attempts to curb illegal deforestation have met mixed success.
A group of local investors have recently submitted a masterplan aimed at preserving architectural heritage and revitalizing local arts and crafts.
Between river and forest, with its rich culture, Chhlong has the potential to become a sustainable tourism destination.
Gateway to Natural Wonders and Vivid History
With the improvement of the national road from Phnom Penh, Chhlong is also the portal to a vast region encompassing hauts-plateaux and fertile valleys, rainforest and traditional agriculture, from Kratié to Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Stung Treng and up to the Cambodia-Laos border. A land rich in history and natural wonders.
In an era marked by a sense of urgency to act against the deterioration of our natural environment, the area nearby Le Relais de Chhlong holds some reasons for cautious optimism.
For instance, travel 40 km north, to the Kampi Dolphin Sanctuary: in 2019, seven newborn Irrawaddy dolphin calves have been spotted there. With six more in the Stung Treng area, Cambodia have welcomed 13 new additions to this highly endangered species pool in 2019, a slight yet significative increase from the previous years. And what about the rare River Tern bird (Sterna Aurantia), recently spotted on the multiple and pristine natural islets gracing the Mekong in this area? And the Mekong tortoise, scrupulously and passionately protected by local environmentalists?
Local fauna, especially birds, can be observed in several places around Chhlong, in particular at the Phnom Sambok Natural Park or on the many inhabited islands gracing the Mekong River. The Cambodian wild cow is now protected in several dedicated areas around Kratie. And the Mekong turtles, close to extinction a few years ago, are also under protection.
As for the flora, in spite of severe deforestation, native species have been multiplied and replanted. The area is known for its various types of the Acacia family, in particular the native Mimosa tree which seasonally lightens up the landscape with its vivid yellow flower clusters (it is called here daem lueng, the Yellow Tree). Citrus fruit from Koh Trong Island (28 km north of Chhlong) are praised all around the country. Pepper, papaya and many local herbs are also appreciated for their quality. And the fountain grass (Pennisetum Setaceum) that grows wild across the whole region (Cambodians call it antat chachoek, Wolf Tongue) is more and more popular among urban landscapers in the big city.
Above: Wat Roka Kandal ceiling, and the Wat Vihear Lao (Pagoda) north of Kratie.
History around Us
In the last two years, Cambodian archaeologists have unearthed the remnants of more than 100 previously undiscovered temples dating from the 6th and 7th centuries in Kratie province’s historical Samphu Borak area, former capital of the pre-Angkorian Chenla Kingdom.
In 2019, an archaelogical team led by Thuy Chanthourn unearthed the remnants of a temple in Kompong Damrei dating back from that period. In nearby Koh Rongeav, three other temple foundations of smaller size were also discovered.
Chenla was made of several Indianized principalities spread over the northern and central areas of modern Cambodia. These entities were gradually absorbed into the Khmer Empire centered around Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat.
Continuing your journey through Cambodia Northeast?
Only 25 km north of Le Relais, stay in one of the precious traditional villas at Rajabori Villas, on the serene island of Koh Trong.
To enjoy the bracingly fresh air and natural bounties of Mondulkiri hauts-plateaux, stay at Mayura Hill Resort.
And with the majestic rainforest around, Ratanakiri Terres Rouges Lodge with Airavata, the only elephant sanctuary in a natural surrounding and respect of the ancestral interaction with the gentle giants of the jungle.
The area is also rich in archaeological sites and echoes from a complex history. We know that the Chenla Kingdom, which predated the Angkorean civilization by at least six centuries, established one of its capital cities, Samphu Borak, in the area of what it is now Sambour village and its One Hundred Column Pagoda.
Then again, after the fall of Angkor, the region was the center of renewed attempts to develop a power strong enough to resist Siamese and Cham invasions, mostly under the reign of Aung Chan I and his descendants.
Pagoda paintings and oral traditions have kept alive many legendary or historical stories.
Also in Sambour, one vihear (monastery) is dedicated to the Preah Krapum Chhouk (also called Bopha Vatey), the King’s daughter who had been swallowed by the supernatural crocodile Nen Thun in Longvek, the temporary capital city south of the Tonle Sap lake.
The long journey along the Mekong River and its tributaries, which reflects the journey of survival of the Kingdom, has landmarks near and in Chhlong: 12 km downriver, at the foot of Phnom Soporkaley, the crocodile fought for for three days with the female crocodile Oray, then briefly took refuge in the Prek Chhlong, then went upriver, escaped its hunters at Russey Chaar (between Kratie and Kampi), and was finally held in Sambour, where the remains of the swallowed Princess are to our days kept in a stupa with other royal remains. To fully grasp the symbolical message of the saga, it has to be kept in mind that Nen Thun was initially a monk who was trying to save Bopha Vatey (Lotus Flower) from a fatal illness.
A little farther, you will discover Stung Treng Province with its cascades and luxuriant plantations, the ethnic villages and elephant reservation in Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri with its waterfalls and dense forests…
And everywhere, the smiles and spontaneous hospitality of the Cambodian people in a region that remains out of the beaten path, with much to offer to the discerning traveler.
from top to bottom, left to right:
Avy Travel (1&12); Le Relais; Archimages; Khmer Times (bird); Voyage Virtuel; The Wild Wonders; North South Travels.