With a pool, vodka towers and a multilingual band, one Phnom Penh bar is leading the race to attract Cambodia’s growing number of image conscious, cashed-up young men and women
On the astroturf lawn of Phnom Penh’s trendiest new bar one night this week, the capital’s young and cashed-up sprawled on silver pyramid beanbags around a shimmering blue pool.
Each group’s table had a glowing “vodka tower”; an innovative, and colourful, new take on the traditional beer tower, while, on stage, a live band rocked out ballads in Khmer, English and Thai.
The Summer Bar and Bistro on Street 294 – which had its official launch party on July 31 – is just the latest in a growing number of upmarket new bars in Phnom Penh owned and patronised almost exclusively by young Cambodians.
Other venues that have opened this year offering a similar mix of live bands, Western-style food and drink and a glitzy, contemporary setting include Apros Pub and Cafe, Mango Mango and Arab Street.
Each has its own distinct look – from ultra-modern lounge chic to low-key brasseries.
The demand for such places is increasing as the number of twenty-somethings with cash to spend continues to rise, according to Lina Hak, president of the Cambodian Restaurant Association.
The growth of the Kingdom’s economy is back to more than 7 per cent a year on average since a dip during the global economic crisis in 2009 and an estimated half of the population is under 25 years old.
“There are now more members of the younger generation who have jobs, and they’re looking for places to hang out,” Hak said.
Most of the young entrepreneurs behind these venues have spent time overseas – either studying or as migrants – and are bringing back Western influences and standards.
But she added that many Cambodians prefer to go out to venues where most of the other clients are Cambodian. “If there’s a lot of Westerners in a place, they will not go,” she said. “They will not feel comfortable. They will feel like the place is for foreigners, not them.”
Enjoying a romantic dinner sitting on large square pillows on the floor upstairs at The Summer, Chhay Hok, 25, and fiancee Oeng Siev Ing, 21, said they didn’t mind going to bars with foreigners.
But they also said it felt “natural” to be around other Cambodians and they enjoyed listening to the band singing in Khmer.
Meanwhile, businesswoman Alin, 38, who was sitting nearby, said she didn’t like going to Western bars because they often smelled of cigarette smoke.
“The behaviour of foreigners sometimes doesn’t make sense to Cambodians,” she added. “For example, I don’t like it when I see them kissing.
“But a lot of them are good and respectful.”
NGO staffer Pich Ratana, 23, said she liked going to places such as Riverhouse and Eclipse Skybar but felt that a lot of the expat hangouts were “noisy and unsafe for women”.
Restaurant association head Hak said it was becoming more common for young women to go out at night as social media influenced what was acceptable.
“The country and culture is changing,” she said.
“[The young women] have a job, so they can afford to go out and spend some money,” she added, and parents were becoming less protective and restrictive about their daughter’s security and safety.
She said things that were important to young Cambodians included: easy parking, a modern aesthetic, good lighting, an open plan so they could see and be seen and some form of entertainment, like a live band. But most of all they wanted to experience something new.
She said The Summer was so popular, in large part, because of all the innovations it introduced.
For example, the cocktail towers (which cost $33): Each has a light installed in the base that makes the contents glow in bright, shifting colours. Taking the “booze bucket” concept to a whole new level, punters can drink from straws sticking out of the top or they can pour a glass from a tap at the bottom.
It also helped that the place was photogenic; often the first thing patrons do on arrival is take a photo to put on Facebook.
“People see their friends checking in at these places on the social networks like Facebook and, of course, they want to go there as well,” Hak said.
Around the time of The Summer’s grand opening – just a month after a soft opening in June – its Facebook page had more than 10,000 likes and nearly 2,000 followers on Instagram.
Co-owner Kong Kimsour said The Summer was the result of collaboration between a group of like-minded friends influenced by stints living in other countries such as Singapore, Thailand and the US.
“The young people these days are willing to spend money to try new things. That’s why a lot of new places are opening up.”
Over in Boeung Keng Kang 1, the general manager of Apros Koun Sokunthen said five years ago the capital’s only upmarket bars were along the riverside and they were filled with foreigners. Cambodians going out for a drink would generally go to a beer garden, disco or KTV.
“But this year, many places like ours have opened up,” Sokunthen said.
Apros, a modern but low-key bar that has a live band most nights singing in English and Khmer, was originally located near the Russian Market but relocated to larger premises in March.
He said the venue’s success was thanks to its friendly service and because people liked the music.
He added that even though foreigners were more than welcome, he didn’t get a lot of them coming in.
“I don’t know why,” he said.
It’s not just the big, trendy venues that are seeing the benefits of Cambodia’s rising bar culture.
On Street 100, the Big Glass – a small lounge-style bar with room for less than 30 people that serves double-size glasses of beer – opened in February with foreigners as the target audience.
Manager Mith Chansereypiseth said it was a surprise when their primary clientele turned out to be young Cambodians instead, a mix of university students, business owners and professionals.
They seemed to enjoy just listening to music, drinking beer and “chit chatting” in a place where they could sit and relax.
“They have more work, so they want to have more fun,” he said.
Other longer-established venues in town are also noticing a change in the tastes of Cambodia’s youth.
Damien Gonon, the new French co-owner of Maison Saint Tropez (formerly known as just Saint Tropez), said the club was undertaking rebranding and refurbishment.
Gonon said the club used to cater for “ultra VIP” Cambodians – government ministers, officials and big business owners – but was now targeting their children.
Gonon said the new generation had slightly different preferences and habits. For example, they seemed to prefer vodka cocktails instead of whiskey, wanted to mingle and dance rather than just sit and drink in booths and needed a constant flow of new special events and entertainments to keep them interested.
“They want more fun,” he said.
As for the punters themselves, they say what they look for is good music and a chance to unwind.
Royal University of Phnom Penh student Kim Vanna, 21, said young people like him wanted somewhere where they could relax with their friends after a busy day.
“I know [The Summer] from my friends because they went there more often, and I also like their design,” he said.
Receptionist Pouk Ralin, 22, said she went to The Summer after seeing photos on Facebook.
“I rarely go out drinking,” she said. “Normally I go shopping or to restaurants with my friends.
“I like the live music and all the different types of alcohol. It’s very interesting.
“But the main thing is just to be with my friends.”
THE SUMMER BAR AND BISTRO
The hippest new joint in town. The Summer has live music, picnic-style seating on beanbags outside and pillows upstairs, a pool, Absolute vodka towers, Western-style tapas and a wide range of standard and special cocktails.
#18 Street 294. 017 611 959.
Ostensibly a restaurant, serving Cambodian food, Arab Street also has live music. Dancing is more than welcome. Interesting feature: Tables can be partitioned off by white curtains reminiscent of a four-poster bed’s.
National Assembly Boulevard. 096 711 152.
APROS PUB AND CAFE
A low-key bar in a noticeably modern building. The talented house band, with a singer who does songs in both English and Khmer, is the major drawcard. Frequented by families as well as groups of friends and couples.
#21E Street 322. 023 696 9222.
A slick, restaurant, lounge and club, Mango Mango is all about the food during the day and partying at night. Serves Western and Asian cuisine and has a selection of cocktails and wines. Live bands and DJs provide the soundtrack.
National Assembly Boulevard. 086 322 322.
THE BIG GLASS
A smaller bar suited to having a quiet drink after work. Doesn’t have live bands but friends occasionally break out an acoustic guitar for impromptu singalongs. Main selling point is the eponymous $2 big glasses of beer.
#5 Street 100, 096 555 7474