He's already famous everywhere he goes, but with his album debuting next month Phnom Penh’s most charismatic papaya-salad seller may reach a new level of celebrity. Pulling into Street 136 near the Riverside on a motorbike, the city’s best dressed vendor created a stir on Tuesday with his mobile papaya salad stall, vest and bow tie, pointy white shoes, infectious smile and the slogans he sings at the top of his lungs.
“Papaya makes you pretty! Papaya is perfect with beer! Papaya brings you luck!”
Customers flock to him snapping up packages of marinated green papaya, and exchanging banter with the charismatic young man from Pich Sar village in Takeo province who turned being a street side vendor into performance art after arriving in Phnom Penh a little over a year ago.
Now, almost a year after he was first profiled in the Khmer edition of the Post, he’s about to release his first album, and has already downloaded the first single on his cell phone.
“It’s not been edited yet,” he says as he holds his phone next to my ear. I can’t help smiling, but am not sure whether the delight I feel comes from the tune or his enthusiasm, which is indomitable, or both.
The oldest of six children, Mao Bora arrived in Phnom Penh searching for a way to support his family in January of 2011. With just a Grade 3 education there were few options open to him. When no one would hire him he decided to start his own business to support himself as he pursued his dream to become a pop star.
He bought a second-hand bike, attached a laundry basket to it, and began making village-spiced papaya salad to sell along the riverside to Cambodians and tourists alike. He was quick to learn that along with his recipe, he had to make himself stand out, something he admits came naturally.
“I started singing at weddings when I was 16,” he says. “I was always talkative and I’ve always enjoyed making people smile. Even when I was a child I liked to clown around for people and I felt happy when people laughed. It made them relax.”
It did not take him long to make an impression in Phnom Penh. Sales surged within weeks, and he bought a motorbike after nine months. Then he began hiring more staff – young men from his village who did not have jobs. He brought them to Phnom Penh, dressed them in suits and taught them his tuneful sales pitch.
“I get excited when I talk to people. It’s just natural for me. People start smiling and they like to chat. Sometimes, as soon as we show up and start chatting and singing the mood of the street changes. Even if people don’t buy anything they pay us with a smile,” he says, explaining how he turned a job most people would shun into an adventure. The enthusiastic reaction from strangers reinforced him.
After being profiled in the Post last year, other media outlets took interest, as did music producers. He was interviewed by several and his voice was tested in studios.
The interviews and voice testing raised his hopes, but – as is common – the first batch did not follow through. “I was always excited. Every time I got called to meet them. I was always full of hope, but most did not call back because they did not think I could be a star,” he says.
One, a new production company called Green Stone, finally saw his potential. “I met the manager of Green Stone and he said he was interested in finding new talented people,” Mao Bora says.
The company invested time in voice coaching and training, as well as rehearsing. “My first album has been recorded, and once it is edited it will be released. It has several songs and the first one is a pop song about papaya,” he says.
The switch from vendor to singer has meant that he has fewer hours to make papaya salad. In the morning and early afternoons he’s either rehearsing or recording, but with new staff spread throughout the city his sales have hit about 100 kilograms per day.
“We’re a team of six with three motorbikes selling at different places. The income has surged, but I also pay them daily rates so expenses are higher,” he said.
Although Green Stone is not a famous production company, Mao Bora has faith in them. He likes that they are original, and has seen first hand that this has been good for business and drawing attention.
“Even though it’s the newest production company, I am hopeful. People who have met me say they are waiting to see me perform and hear me sing.”
He admitted in his first Post interview that he settled on papaya salad because it was the easiest snack for him to make, and that it goes well with beer. “I’m a lazy cook,” he said.
Before arriving in the capital he had been the cook at wedding ceremonies, but always dreamed of becoming a pop star to help his family.
Even if he becomes famous, however, he says he won’t give up his motorbike papaya business. “No matter how famous I become, I will not look down on this job. Instead, I’ll expand it across the country.”
Green Stone manager Chhun Lyheang said the company had high hopes for Mao Bora, and was excited by his natural talent.
“It’s a combination of his great voice and his unusual start. Sometimes, though he tries too hard so we have to teach him to relax and allow more emotion into his songs,” Chhun Lyheang explains.
He’s also a bit shy making the transition from street side vendor to celebrity, his manager says. “Sometimes he is too humble,” Chhun Lyheang explains. “When we take him to a party or a club he sometimes gets so worried he almost forgets that he is already a singer, and that he might become a star.”