Driving down Sothearos Boulevard, if you catch a glimpse of a black painted basket wreathed in fairy lights with the words “Back Street Bar”, take a turn down the alleyway for a casual drink sheltered from the dust and noise of the street.
Kampong Cham native 29-year-old Keo Chenda, who goes by “Thida”, opened the bar last month for a simple reason: “My feeling was just like that,” she says.
She originally set up shop with a Khmer food café, selling coffee and Cambodian breakfast foods like somlor macheu kreung (a meat sour soup with celery) or lok lak (stir fried peppered beef over lettuce) as well as fresh fruit. But Thida decided to re-decorate and extend the opening hours into the evening, and so a bar was born on what she jokingly calls “Kabko Lane”, in reference to the nearby market.
For the furnishings, fixtures and artwork on the walls, Thida drew upon her years of experience at an art gallery, recruiting Siem Reap-based mixed-media artist Monisi Long Riem.
He spent the past few weeks turning salvaged tyres, wooden pallets and other recycled materials into bar-tables, chairs and wall fixings. His unconvential artwork also adorns the walls, made from materials like coconut bark, fish scales, leaves and egg shells, and his paintings and collages depict rural Cambodian scenes.
“Six months ago I went to his exhibition near Wat Phnom . . . I was selling the frames for the paintings,” Thida says. Riem for his part sees this as an opportunity to display and sell his work, which is available for customers, beyond Siem Reap.
But while she’s turned a forgettable storefront into a cosy alleyway watering hole, attracting a small following of loyal customers, she faced fallout from her conservative family.
“They think that it’s not good for a woman to open a bar . . . I tried to explain to my mum, but she did not understand,” she says, adding that her mother refuses to even come see the bar for what it is.
“She wanted me to open a beauty salon,” she says. Even her older brother Sokha, 31, was sceptical at first but now he’s employed as her bartender.
“When he saw that I’m happy with my business he came to help.”
Back Street Bar is located at #43 Sothearos Boulevard, in the nameless alleyway by the VIP Bakery and is open from 6am-5pm as a café and 5pm-12am as a bar, closed on Mondays. Tel: 097 31 44 019