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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Keeping the business afloat

Keeping the business afloat

After the crowd sank Pontoon’s dancefloor on its first big party night, the new management took the opportunity to completely redecorate its unique nightclub space on the Tonle Sap river

The nightclub boasts a popular river location opposite the Night Market in Phnom Penh.

Oh the twists and turns one's life can take.  One year ago, who would have imagined two Scottish nightclub managers would end up transforming Phnom Penh's sleepy club scene from a pontoon afloat on the brown waters of the Tonle Sap river.  Certainly not Simon Shaw, 27, and Eddie Newman, 28.

Originally from Glasgow, these two young entrepreneurs have slightly different Cambodian timelines.  Eddie has been in Cambodia on and off for four years, while Shaw came here for the first time a little over a year ago.  Both had experience working in bars, clubs and promotions back in their homeland, and it was only a matter of time before they fell back into their old ways.  Their latest business enterprise has seen them turn the Pontoon Lounge and Club into one of the city's most popular nightclubs.  

"Cambodians love Western culture," says co-manager Shaw. "Our aim is to attract both Khmers and local expats by showcasing international acts in a European-style venue."

Our aim is to attract both Khmers and local expats by showcasing international acts in a European-style venue.

So far Shaw has kept true to his word by securing the services of acts such as Ministry of Sound co-founder Bert Bevans, Akil from Jurassic 5 and a host of other English, American, Thai and Singaporean DJs.

Pontoon is host to international DJs.

The venue has proved to be somewhat more challenging.  Last July, on only its fourth night, Pontoon sank during the first big party night under the new management.

"It was a blessing in disguise," explains Shaw. "Firstly, it showed the owners that we were the real deal.  We knew how to throw a party.  Secondly, it meant, once refloated, we had to completely redecorate the whole pontoon."

The first port of call was to secure the pontoon, so 300,000 extra litres of ballast were added to the vessel's underside. Next some interior changes were needed. The dark colour scheme chosen exudes sophisticated elegance. Jet-black floorboards, walls and arching roof canopies set the backdrop for the sultry burgundy and black leather sofas that encircle the dancefloor. The dancefloor was enlarged by moving the seating and bar areas back, allowing extra couches to be added.

With the dancefloor sorted, the DJ booth needed work.  "The focal point of any club should be the DJ booth," reveals Shaw. For this reason, it was painted an angelic shiny white and moved into a central position. The new sound system required changes to the power supply to handle the extra wattage. The speakers were imported from Thailand, Singapore and England.

On the other side of the pontoon, against the all-black background, the glossy white, marble bar stands out like an oasis in a desert. At night, red and yellow strip lights below the counter illuminate the marble, showing off the stone's beautiful inner contours and strata. Ten extra leather bar stools have been added and the bar lengthened to accommodate the expat tradition of bar-hanging.

Cocktails are served on a newly extended marble-topped bar, lit from underneath.

The downstairs living quarters.

As Shaw explains, with a hint of Glaswegian sarcasm: "The four extra metres of bar counter we have added has meant we can now deal with a lot more customer complaints."

The lack of wall space in the pontoon limits the artwork or ornaments that can be hung.  However, on either side of the main walkway exit, two stunning cityscapes of Phnom Penh, by local expat artist Victor Blanco, instantly grab the attention of visitors.  

"I gave Victor complete freedom with the wall space, and to be honest I couldn't be happier with the outcome. It's probably my favourite ornament in the whole club," reveals Shaw.

With the pontoon in order, Shaw and Eddie's attentions turned to the 30-year-old ex-casino boat Mekong Queen moored next door. Under the previous owners, the upstairs had been a restaurant.  However, the two Scots decided a chill-out bar would more suit the club theme they were looking for.  As with Pontoon, black wooden floorboards and walls set the backdrop for the chic leather sofas and leather-padded bar. Each sofa set is partitioned by innocuous-looking glass-box tables, which spring to life when darkness falls.

"It is not until nighttime that the real atmosphere of the chill-out bar comes to life," explains Shaw.

"The lighting system we installed is simple but very effective."

Ambient red lighting within each glass box illuminates the whole room with a soft, warm red glow. This glow reflects off the floor, the beautiful varnished roof, a solitary gold painted pillar and the room's many windows to create the illusion that light is coming from all angles.  

Downstairs, under the chill-out bar, lies Shaw's living quarters.  Here the dark black wood of the pontoon and bar are replaced with much lighter pine. Harsh light spills through the circular portholes stretched along the starboard side of the room, illuminating circular pockets on the varnished floorboards. A partition  of black metal and white fabric partially hides the sleeping area. Around the room, entertainment systems, TVs, stereos and even a backgammon board give an indication of the occupant's hobbies.

When asked of these hobbies, Shaw admits he is not the party animal one might expect. Although nights can be a bit hectic, his favourite pasttime is relaxing in his favourite corner of the dance floor watching the world drift by on the Tonle Sap.  "I am a lucky man", he says with a wry smile.  "My living room is a floating pontoon with a spectacular view.  And not many people can make a claim like that in their lifetime."

The warm red tones of the "chill-out area" on board the Mekong Queen.

Punters dance the night away.

After a big night of dancing, you can relax and watch the world drift by.

Words and Photos by Conor Wall

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