Travel and Lifestyle Journalist

Taste the Past

Originally published in SCMP, 26 June 2016

Hong Kong

Taste the Past

Originally published in South China Morning Post, 26 June 2016.

While Hong Kong has been criticised for neglecting its architectural heritage, many Asian cities not only preserve but transform crumbling colonial estates into some of the region’s finest contemporary boutique hotels.

Here are some that have already been restored to their former glory, as well as Yangon’s Strand Hotel, built in 1901, which reopens in November.

The Governor’s House, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Cambodia’s colonial vestiges can be found everywhere, especially in the capital, Phnom Penh. The Victorian-era Governor’s House was recently converted into 12 exclusive rooms. Inspired by such famed hotels as Singapore’s Raffles, Bangkok’s Oriental and the Strand in Yangon (see below), the “house” has a facade and design features that showcase a bygone era, but with all the technological conveniences modern travellers demand. Rooms are named after such literary luminaries as Kipling and Hemingway and range from the standard attic balcony to the junior suite, with prices starting at HK$800 a night.
Mao Tse Toung Boulevard 3, Boeug Keng Kong 1, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, +855 23 987 025,

Villa Song, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Located on the banks of the Saigon River in expat-friendly Thao Dien ward, Villa Song is a shining example of how to transform a dilapidated colonial residence into a luxurious boutique hotel. A former 1930s French mansion, its 23 distinctive rooms and suites have been tastefully decorated as tributes to an era when simple furnishings and discreet design sat comfortably with lavish lifestyles. Breakfast al fresco by the river, laps in the pool, lazing on a sun deck with a copy of a French crime novel – Villa Song feels like a 1930s holiday at your diplomat friend’s abode. Some of the city’s finest Gallic restaurants are just five minutes away. Rooms start at HK$1,500 a night.
195 Nguyen Van Hurong, Thao Dien, HoồChí Minh, Vietnam, +84 8 3744 6090,

Old Harbour Hotel, Kerala, India
India has a seemingly endless supply of dilapidated structures, but the Old Harbour Hotel in Kerala’s Fort Kochi district has withstood 500 turbulent years during which the British, Dutch, French and Portuguese colonial powers all left their architectural mark. Said to be the oldest guest house in the area, its elegant archways and graceful gardens have been authentically restored to their former glory. This is a place where Panama hats are de rigueur and gin and tonics are the libation of choice. Rooms are particularly minimalist and start at HK$1,100 a night.
1/328, Opp Nehru Park, Tower Road, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi, Kochi, Kerala, India, +91 484 221 8006,

Museum Hotel, Penang, Malaysia
Visitors to Penang will not only be impressed by stunning Chinese shophouses and South Asian temples and mosques but many colonial edifices. The Museum Hotel, in the centre of the capital George Town, has mixed inspirations. Its eccentric owner restored the historical building to house a personal museum downstairs of Peranakan, British and Portuguese antiques, and an old-fashioned boutique hotel upstairs. The 22 rooms have a vintage feel, while a library is well stocked with era-appropriate books. Prices seem in accord with the past, with standard doubles starting at HK$350.
No 72 Jalan A.S. Mansor, George Town, Penang Island 10050, Malaysia, +60 4-226 6668,

Strand Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar
Unlike other properties on this list, the Strand is not a recently restored venture but a refurbishment due to finish at the end of the year means it’s almost as good as new.
From the early 1900s, it gained fame as one of the finest colonial escapes in Asia after it was acquired by the Sarkies brothers, of Raffles fame. Over the decades, it has hosted such era-defining names as Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell. The Strand fell into disrepair in recent years, but Myanmar’s relentless tourism push prompted a makeover. In November, guests will be able to get a taste of the hotel’s famed hospitality and take a drink at the new-look Sarkies Ba.
92 Strand Road, Yangon, Myanmar, +95 1 243 377,