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Cambodia’s star shoemaker

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The shopfront at Beautiful Sy Phal, on Street 273 (L); about 20 staff work in the back office, crafting shoes from the hides of cows, sheep, crocodiles and pythons. Photograph: Roth Meas/Phnom Penh Post

The shopfront at Beautiful Sy Phal, on Street 273 (L); about 20 staff work in the back office, crafting shoes from the hides of cows, sheep, crocodiles and pythons. Photograph: Roth Meas/Phnom Penh Post

It's not easy for Westerners to find suitable shoes in a country where people are so much smaller than they are. But seasoned expats in Phnom Penh have found the solution: a hidden local shoe shop known as Beautiful Sy Phal that is increasingly attracting a local clientele.

Outside the shop, racks of sandals for men and women are for sale. Behind the scenes, however, in the back of the shop, around 20 shoemakers are hard at work cutting leather, making moulds for shoes, and sewing.

This family business has been open for more than 30 years, although it was forced to close during the Khmer Rouge years. It specialises in shoes made from cow, sheep, crocodile and even python.

Ay Sisopheap, the owner, says: “The shop existed before the 1970s, but we postponed during Khmer Rouge time. Around the 1980s, we revived our shoe shop at the same place. We don’t want to give up our business because this is our career left from our grandfather.”

It wasn’t until 1997 that the shop attracted notice from foreigners, according to Sisopheap.

Frustrated with the local markets, where they were unable to find the right-size shoes among the mix of flip flops and tiny shoes, expats flocked to Beautiful Sy Phal, on Street 273.

The shop is always busy, especially at weekends, according to Ay Sisoheap.

The majority of customers are expats and tourists, but an increasing number are Cambodian, he says.

“Most of our clients are expats or foreign tourists. At least 70 per cent are foreigners.”

But his client base is changing. “Recently, we have noticed Cambodian people who always buy their shoes from the market have changed their behaviour. They are beginning to get their shoes made like foreigners too.”

The shoes, made from leather and rubber imported from Thailand, come in up to a hundred colours.

Clients usually bring their old shoes to show and ask the shop to copy them, but sometimes ask to have shoes designed and made on the spot. The process takes three or five days.

Men’s shoes are available for $30, while women’s sandals can be bought for between $17 and $22.

“If they want to have their shoes made with python or crocodile leather, it’s three to four times more expensive than cow leather because those are rarer materials. But I think the quality of the leather is the same,” Sisopheap says.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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