Not much to look at, yet home to some of Siem Reap’s most fashionable spots, a gritty backstreet has emerged as one of Temple Town’s most stylish destinations
On a balmy afternoon on Siem Reap’s tiny Hup Guan Street, hidden behind busy Samdech Tep Vong Road, a solo woman traveller sits in the shade outside Frangipani Spa, writing in her journal as she nurses a glass of lemongrass tea.
“It’s so peaceful here,” she observes, surveying the rows of modern shop-houses that stretch down the short street. Aside from two young Cambodian girls quietly cross-stitching opposite, there’s not a soul around. “It’s a far cry from Old Market – I’ve been here an hour and haven’t been hassled to take a tuk-tuk or buy anything once!”
Down the street, the Little Red Fox Espresso cafe and hair salon hums with the chatter of conversation. An old school hip-hop record spins on a turntable beneath an enormous portrait of Amy Winehouse, who appears to watch over the packed room of expats and tourists sipping what has quickly become regarded as Siem Reap’s best coffee.
Several tuk-tuks are parked outside the hip concept store Trunkh. Inside, their affluent occupants, sent here by the in-the-know concierge of a nearby five-star hotel, browse the eclectic range of products: retro hand-painted Cambodian signs, carved wooden cows, kitsch tea-towels illustrated with Angkor attractions, and other curios.
At nearby Louise Loubatieres’ chic housewares shop, a young British holidaying couple – newspaper editors from London – are deciding which handmade ceramic dish to buy. They ultimately opt for both. The couple have spent a few hours on the street, shopping and having coffee.
“It’s a bit like Hackney,” he comments, referring to the east London neighbourhood that’s home to indie shops, vintage clothes stalls and hipster markets.
“Columbia Road,” Loubatieres, a former Londoner, suggests, referencing the engaging shopping street near buzzy Spitalfields and Brick Lane that’s home to scores of fascinating shops, galleries, cafes, delis, antique stores, and a famous flower market. “My brother has a shop there.”
Boasting just a dozen small businesses, including a few cafes, an Italian trattoria, a silk textile shop, spa, and a handful of boutiques and concept stores, Hup Guan Street is not quite Columbia Road yet.
Tucked in between the trendy businesses are travel agencies, ticket offices, a pharmacy and residences with motorbikes parked out front.
“It’s getting there,” says Loubatieres, a young designer of French-Vietnamese-Cambodian heritage, who moved to Siem Reap in 2013 to work with local artisans, weavers and craftspeople to develop original collections.
“When I opened, there was only Common Grounds [an American-style NGO cafe], Frangipani Spa and a few travel agencies,” Loubatieres says. “But in the last year we’ve had lovely businesses like Trunkh, The Little Red Fox and, just recently, Siri Van [an atelier opposite] open.”
“People really enjoy it and comment on how nice it is to stroll without being hassled,” Loubatieres says. “They can easily spend an afternoon here because there’s quite a few shops, and they can stop for lunch, go for coffee and at the end of the day have a spa.”
While the area developed organically, according to Loic and Sirivan Chak Dumas, it took a collaborative effort on the part of the business owners to get people there. Not yet in any English-language guidebooks, Hup Guan Street still remains something of a secret, even among Cambodians and expats.
Located between bustling Old Market and the leafy French Quarter, tourists don’t exactly stumble upon it. In fact, they’ll bypass it, either walking or cycling along the riverside road or taking a tuk-tuk along Sivutha Boulevard to move between the areas.
In the absence of an official tourism marketing body or active city council, the pro-active business owners decided to take the initiative and invest their own time and money into place branding.
Douglas Gordon, who with business partner Marianne Waller established their first Trunkh store in Phnom Penh, discovered Hup Guan Street in February 2014 and opened a Siem Reap branch there in late May that year
“I had a very strong feeling in my gut. I could taste it,” reveals Gordon, who was drawn by the intimacy, charm, central locale and ambience of the street. He knew, however, they had to name it so people could find it. He also wanted to include the two adjacent streets that were home to Weaves of Cambodia textile outlet, Armand’s restaurant, The Hive cafe-bar, Blossom patisserie and Blend smoothie shop.
“Marianne came up with a long list of possible names, and I did some rough brochures and sample mock-ups,” Gordon explains. “All of us in the area then had a meeting and agreed it was a good idea and decided to vote on a name.”
Being American, neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village, East Village and SoHo (South of Houston) immediately came to mind, with their strong identities as vibrant shopping, eating and drinking destinations. Gordon and Waller’s list of suggestions included some 20 names, with everything from SoCo (south of the colonial area) and NoMa (north of Old Market) to NoMa Village and Hup Guan Village.
“We chose Kandal Village because almost all the tuk-tuk drivers were familiar with the name –which means ‘middle’ – plus we are located behind the old Phsar Kandal,” Gordon explains. “We all also liked the word ‘village’”.
Rather than a website, blog or app, which would be the first step for most place-branders, the group chose an endearingly old-fashioned tool of persuasion to promote the emerging new district – a petite paper brochure featuring all the businesses, which they distributed around Siem Reap.
This week every tourist spotted in the shops and on the street was carrying the brochure or had one tucked into a pocket. Once the word was out, however, Australian barista-bartender Adam Rodwell, co-owner of the Little Red Fox, says social media put Kandal Village on the digital map.
“Trip Advisor has helped,” admits Rodwell, whose cafe is currently number one on the site’s Siem Reap restaurant list. “The other day we had a group of Hong Kong tourists in here. And I love the Singaporeans, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong-ers … they take six million selfies and hash tag the place to no end.”
The business owners say Twitter pages, Instagram feeds and blogs will be next – along with more old-fashioned tools, like tuk-tuk advertising.
“It will still take some time to be in the mind of everyone,” admits Loic Dumas. “But we are all original, we have a strong story behind our products and the businesses, and we’re happy collaborating together. Our common perspective and cooperation will speed things up.”
Across the road, Simone Santolini, the Italian owner of Mamma Shop restaurant, which focuses on slow food and fresh-daily pasta handmade with local organic produce, would love to see other businesses opening late (most close early evening), a wine bar, and a regular night market with live music.
“If we get the road fixed and can get better lighting and make it even more pedestrian friendly, I think it will be fantastic,” says Loubatieres, who knows of more businesses opening soon. “We’re getting there.”
“I would love to see a few more eateries and, of course, more shops … and a more cohesive feel and look,” Gordon admits. “Everyone involved has created very unique businesses with love and creativity and a passion for Cambodia. I hope that can continue … It still needs to grow, however. At the moment it’s the diverse collection of spirit and style that makes it special.”