PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – On busy Monivong Boulevard, Chanda Hun, 32, is embarking on a five-year project of rebranding the Mittapheap Hotel. As the hotel’s only female director she has risen far from her birthplace in a dusty refugee camp in Thailand.
Cambodian American in Srok Khmer
Ms. Hun lost her father during the Khmer Rouge regime. Her strong mother had to choose between moving back to the chaos of Cambodia or relocating to the unfamiliarity of the United States. She chose to move Chanda and her two brothers to Texas, where they lived in a missionary community.
Eventually, her mother, a seamstress, moved the family to Lowell, Massachusetts, the largest Khmer community in the US outside of California.
There, Ms. Hun grew up not identifying with her Khmer heritage. Entering her rebellious teen years, she visited Cambodia for the first time in 1998. The country had reopened. She and her mother set out to find family they had lost during the chaos of war. Ms. Hun lost four siblings before coming to America.
Amid dirt roads and poor people that surrounded her everywhere she went, she learned how lucky she was to have spent most of her youth in the United States. Seeing people around her still suffering – her people – she set out to be a better person.
“There was nothing in Cambodia, no real roads and it was a different place.” Ms. Hun recalls. When she returned to Lowell, she finished school at Northeastern University and kept in contact with a male distant relative. When her pen pal decided to follow her to the States instead of attending school in Australia, their parents heard wedding bells. At 21, she married and has been happy with her husband and two sons ever since.
Returning to the Motherland
In 2004, Ms. Hun visited her in-laws in Cambodia. An extended vacation turned into an opportunity to help the family business.
“During the time, winter was not as enjoyable as the nice sun in Cambodia, and I was tired of running a restaurant back home,” she explained.
Ms. Hun saw a need in Cambodia for skilled workers for hotel service and guest reception. She began training under an uncle who was the managing director of the hotel for five years, and became the operations manager.
“Mittapheap Hotel was one of the first hotels in the city dating back from the wake of the UNTAC era, my father in law worked for the government,” she said, referring to the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, a UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia in the early 1990s.
Hun’s father in-law renovated a building he owned into a 23-room guesthouse and started investing. He purchased property behind the hotel, which once was known as Orkide Hotel.
After a big renovation, those 23 rooms became 80 rooms and Mittapheap hotel was launched in 2006, just in time for the big tourism boom in Cambodia. Now plans call for a new renovation by 2016, and the hotel will relaunch as Mito Hotel – ‘Mit’ short for Mittapheap, and ‘o’ for Orkide.
Ms. Hun’s uncle and father in-law are now turning toward agriculture. This gives her the opportunity to step into their shoes and embark on rebranding the hotel over the next five years.
Investing in Cambodia
Although occupied with a full work schedule, she is having fun in Cambodia. She even found time to go back to school for a masters degree in HR and public communications. “You work your butt off in the States to get a ‘B’ or a ‘C. ’ But over here, in Cambodia, I find myself winging it.”
Lucky to have received a strong English education, Ms. Hun was at the top of the class. But she humbly acknowledges that students who received ‘B’s probably put more effort into learning the material than she did for her ‘A’.
“I am meant to be here and do what I do in bridging Cambodia and America, coming to Cambodia and contributing to something,” she said. “Helping the economy grow – contributing to the development of Cambodian human resource, sharing international experiences. Overall, I am providing jobs and training.”