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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Adios, Cantina. Viva Hurley!

Jet Odrerir (left) and Al Rockoff enjoy the ambiance at Cantina
Jet Odrerir (left) and Al Rockoff enjoy the ambiance at Cantina. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Adios, Cantina. Viva Hurley!

One of Phnom Penh’s most legendary venues closes tonight.

Cantina, the restaurant-cum-watering-hole and brainchild of Hurley Scroggins III, will shut its creaky, iron gate on the riverside late tonight for the last time – probably after midnight – and end a memorable and historic chapter in the life of this fair city.

What Hurley created and ran for more than a decade was a noble nexus for all of us, his pals, the poobahs of the local media scene, the wannabes, the expat parachutists trying to get up to speed on the latest goss, the development dons parsing stakeholder issues, the confused whackos we’d politely avoid, and a whole slew of denizens who would ask each other during the day “Where you want to meet tonight? OK, see you at Hurley’s.”

Why did we say that? For me it was simple, because if the other guy didn’t show up, I knew I could just hang with Hurley and that would be more than sufficient. In fact, it would be, as I know so well from the countless times I parked my weary elbows on his bar, like a small slice of bliss. We’d chat, catch up on the day’s events, surf the unknown and too well-known universe of weird stuff, exchange potential scoops, and just enjoy each other’s witty perspectives on almost everything.

Hurley helped all of us cope. His humour is righteous, clever and infective. He has been the master of ceremonies, the gracious host, the humble and insightful observer, and as the French would say, un homme absolument genial.

We’ve known each other for so long, since back during UNTAC in 1992 when we first met, that we can have conversations where one word can sum up a decade and then we can move on to the heart of the matter without needing to go into the old drama of small details. We can skateboard over the big picture and then move onto the now in a minute. How fun is that!

Hurley used to work for the Phnom Penh Post and he was one of the best writers the paper ever had. Journalism schools say you have to develop your own voice. Hurley didn’t need to be told that. His voice radiated regularly like a nova. Reading his copy was like drinking funny silk tea. Every sip went down smoothly with a wry chuckle. Would that the Post had more writers like Hurley.

One of the best stories he wrote, way back during the Ieng Sary defection days, I framed and gave it to him as a gift. He hid it upstairs, saying “Oh no, people will say I’m trying to tip my own hat.”

Hurley Scroggins and Michael Hayes enjoy a drink at Cantina
Hurley Scroggins and Michael Hayes enjoy a drink at Cantina. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Such a humble guy. I tip my hat to him for the great copy he contributed to the Post (and encourage him to write more while he sorts out his next move).

Starting Cantina was for Hurley a leap into the unknown. I remember him talking about it, sitting outside Happy Herbs and running up a hefty tab, for what seemed like an eternity. He had plans, was mulling over possible menu items, and everyone was wondering if he could pull it off.

He did more than that. He developed a place that ended up being one of the most famous and well-known venues in Phnom Penh, a meeting point for the local journalism movers and so-called shakers, a haven for quality discussion, a rendezvous for old mates, a place to kick back and assess the state of the universe, and a bar where we all knew Hurley would be there to add his wit and hospitality to the mix.

If it weren’t for Hurley, we wouldn’t have gone there. And if it weren’t for Hurley, it wouldn’t have happened.

On behalf of the multitude of your friends and admirers here in Cambodia and all over the world, I say: Thank you, brother.

By the way, the entire planet is invited to come to Cantina tonight to salute Mr Scroggins, an American icon, for his remarkable achievement and toast him for his efforts. See you there.

Michael Hayes co-founded the Phnom Penh Post in 1992 and was publisher and editor-in-chief from 1992 to 2008.



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drnell's picture

I am imagining the last night at Cantina. Bitter sweet. So many are thankful for what Hurley did. No one is more grateful than I am. So many times I arrived there on various contraptions, welcomed by the bookseller kids shouting "HurleyMom".

I watched Cantina grow from a hibachi on the floor to a stainless steel kitchen; and from, oh never mind, to the fancy teal colored tiles in the ladies' room.

Day after day for those ten plus years the sweeping was followed by buckets of water thrown on the sidewalk where the gambling and sleeping locals claimed a shift. The awning went up, the tables went out. The supplies arrived: the truck with the blocks of ice, the moto loaded with beer, and fresh vegetables for the salsa. The fans whirled, and Cantina came to life.

I can taste the chilled French wine and delicious tacos, that were for years made with the the only hand-made with masa tortillas in Cambodia. There were so many extra toppings placed politely on the heavy green table cloths by his little sisters, as Hurley often referred to his devoted staff. Decklan's security guards bounced off the truck and took their posts; the elephant (that Hurley defended against commercial side signs) plodded along the river.

Photographs on the walls and bound copies of the Phenom Penh Post told Cambodia's story. It is a story of a people that kept unfolding in exchanges at the tables and at the solid wooden bar (formerly a bed) under a sign that was made out of guns that like plowshares proudly formed the letters CANTINA.

To me, it was cafe society, a glimpse into an era. It was Michael, Snow, Al, Seth, Nancy...and so many more truly amazing individuals dropping in and out. Hurley is always meek, but he did this. He could not have done it better.

I can't wait to see what he does next.

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