Perched along the east side of the Mekong just 30km south of Kratie, Chhlong is a small, sleepy, leafy town that once served as a busy trading port under France’s colonial rule. Traces of that trading past can still be found among the town’s dusty, mango and palm tree-lined lanes where, in among the shops and homes, can be found a row of colonial buildings whose splendour has long since passed. That is not the case though for the former Governor’s mansion further down the river, which has been painstakingly restored to its former glory, and reopened as a hotel as Le Relais de Chhlong.
This gorgeous building in white and buttercup colonial yellow is now over 100 years old, yet looks as fresh today as it must have done when the family of Khmer-Chinese merchants who first resided there in 1916 moved in. It was later leased and converted to a governor’s residence by the French colonial authorities. Over the years, it became a refuge and possible informal hospice, before being abandoned to a crumbling fate. An attempt at revival came in 2003, but it was not to be. Then its current team of owners bought it in 2008 as a countryside getaway from the pressures and noise of the capital. Then in 2014, they decided to build on the building’s stunning natural attributes and renovate it for use as a hotel, so that even more people could enjoy the peace and tranquility of life on the Mekong.
Le Relais de Chhlong has been creating quite a stir since the doors first reopened in February 2018. With such a romantic building so lovingly restyled in an inherently romantic location, it was bound to. The care and dedication the team has put into faithfully restoring or honouring details great and small, from the ceilings to the desk fans has created its own rewards in the rich and fulsome appreciation of Le Relais’ guests.
Chhlong may be quiet, but it is not without its own attractions. For those who can drag themselves away from the verandah or the pool, there is the House of One Hundred Pillars, a huge Khmer residence built in 1884 with the support of 100 timber columns. Sadly, many of those columns have since been removed, some say by the Khmer Rouge, and only 56 remain.
Chhlong used to be an important religious centre, and by the early half of the 20th century was home to 23 pagodas, according to Danielle and Dominique-Pierre Guéret’s history of Cambodian temples. Many were desecrated by the Khmer Rouge, with Buddhist statues thrown into the waters of the Mekong. One account though records local villagers being able to rescue the contents of a cabinet containing 90 small statues, including some gold, from suffering a similar fate.
Among the town’s remaining pagodas, there is Wat Han Chey, an ancient Buddhist temple perched on a hill surrounded by wartime pillboxes and offering gorgeous views of the Mekong. To the south of town, Roka Kandal Pagoda is one of the oldest pagodas in Cambodia and is also — according to some — one of the country’s prettiest, offering an enticing combination of restraint and simplicity. Still retaining its original wooden frame and 30 pillars, its walls have patterns depicting the mythical creature, ‘naga’ or dragon.
If you’re travelling to Chhlong from Kratie, the journey down is itself as much a part of Chhlong’s charm particularly along the last long stretch lined with handsome, solid stilted houses almost encased in bushy fronds of mango, banana and palm. And once you pass the lovely mosque on your left hand side, you’ll know that a soothing sunset cocktail and the chance to truly unwind are just a few minutes away.