Saturday night was already getting rather long in the tooth by the time we made our way to Star Palace.
Our night had played out much like any other typical expat weekend jaunt: a few Anchors at a friend’s flat before piling into a tuk-tuk and jutting back and forth to our favourite bars across town. The only unusual thing about our night out to this point had been a brief visit to Paddy Rice, in an act of St Patrick’s Day deference to my tenuous Emerald Isle heritage. In the throng of temporary Irish accents and recently purchased green apparel, we queued up for a tray of green-coloured draughts then knocked them back.
Around about this point of night, the truly committed will usually kick on at one of the nightclubs around Street 51. It goes without saying that these clubs are an acquired taste: bass loud enough to feel like CPR chest compressions, strobe lights powerful enough to induce fits, and dance music ferocious enough to bend the body out of shape. While these clubs are easy options for young foreigners in the frame of mind for a late night dance, going to them week after week can feel a tad dreary to the adventurous drinker.
Having been a little put off by the rowdiness of Riverside’s pretend-Irish tourists and expats, we decided to give one of the locally oriented clubs in the area our patronage instead, and after a short ride over to Street 184 we were soon seated around a table at Star Palace’s Lime Bar.
In certain cases, being in mixed company for a night on the town can be a blessing. Many male expats frequent girlie bars for the cheap drinks while being wary of approaches from the staff. If they bring a female friend, they can enjoy a wide berth.
At Lime Bar, I felt the company of expat women put us above a certain latent suspicion which staff and clientele at Khmer nightspots regard foreigners. The presence of women meant an implicit guarantee that the men would be on their best behaviour, that they would not make unwanted advances towards the club’s regulars, and would not try to nick some of the bar’s glassware.
Each table had two or three staff on hand, each demonstrating that peculiarly Cambodian duty-of-care that many new arrivals find so overwhelming: we couldn’t reach into our front pockets for a stick of Alain Delon’s carcinogenic finest without having the flame from a butane lighter veer into our peripheral vision from out of nowhere. Feeling garish in elegant surroundings, the six of us ordered half a dozen different cocktails, all of them appearing on the table simultaneously after less than five minutes.
The place itself was large enough to seat 60, and there were probably about half that number when we arrived: nearly all young and Khmer males, all dressed in tailored shirts and sporting bling around their necks, brooding around their tables and either blowing smoke rings or sipping idly from cocktail glasses.
The Lime Bar’s dance floor is an incongruous-looking thing: an elevated white frosted glass platform, backlit with fluorescent lights and vaguely the shape of a catwalk. Green lasers bounced off mirrors overhead and a smoke machine periodically sputters out its gases. The floor was empty when we arrived, but by the time we’d sucked down our various umbrella-garnished beverages, we were ready to abandon our inhibitions and flaunt ourselves. After some graceless dancing, only palatable to onlookers because of the lack of self-consciousness and the thick layer of artificial smog, we took our seats and ordered more drinks.
What happened next was hard to grasp, but it seemed like a cross between a runway show at Cambodian Fashion Week and the first 15 seconds of a boy band pop concert. A procession of young men – all probably 18 or 19 years-old, some shirtless, and all sporting jeans that looked like they cost north of the average monthly wage – took turns marching down the dance floor / runway and posing with their best Zoolander expressions. When they had all reached their destination, they turned and did a choreographed strut in a circle to the bass-booming strains of “Sexy and I Know It”.
While we debated whether this was some kind of spontaneous activity by the clientele or actually the headline billing for the evening, we were all of a sudden presented with our cheque. Now we weren’t sure what was going on. Had one of us asked for it in our collective stupor and forgotten about it? Had we committed some egregious faux pas by hijacking the dance floor and postponing this amazing spectacle? Or did the staff just intuit that the floorshow wasn’t to our tastes? With none of us sporting enough fluency in Khmer to straighten out the matter, we flopped a wad of bills on the table and took off for more familiar environs around the corner.
For anyone looking for new clubs to explore, it’s hard to offer any advice beyond patience in searching for them, respect when on the premises, and grace when it is made clear that a foreign presence isn’t wanted. Given the way some foreigners behave during a night on the town, there is an understandable demand for venues that offer a respite – an opportunity to socialise in exclusively local company.
The difficulty lies in discerning when this is the case and when Cambodia’s different standards of hospitality – the oscillation of the staff between overeagerness, indifference and total disappearance – are confused with deliberate exclusion or hostility.
Long Island Ice Teas certainly do little to clarify the situation.
Star Palace is located at #36 Street 184.