If you hadn’t heard, the Russian Market area, or Tuol Tompoung, has quietly been undergoing a facelift. To be sure, it’s early days, but affordability, accessibility to the rest of the city and an emergent “scene” are establishing the area as a go-to district for city residents.
Once the preserve of beer gardens and mom-and-pop stores, a hip spillover effect from expat-oriented and increasingly expensive BKK1 is remaking the warren of streets and alleys off Mao Tse-toung Boulevard. Even the Russian Market itself appears to have lifted its act in recent years – it’s cleaner these days, and offers some genuine bargains for those who have the patience to bargain and don’t breeze in and out like tourists.
“In the old days, when Phnom Penh felt like a small town, the Russian Market seemed like it was a long way away, but today it’s just a couple of kilometres from the riverfront and it’s become an area that’s not only about tourists heading to picks up some arts and crafts, but an area you can hang out in and have lunch and dinner,” says Cambodia Lonely Planet author Nick Ray.
“Funky” is the word some are using to describe the area’s burgeoning restaurant scene, but the reality is that even a casual wander through the area turns up unexpected surprises. Take American-run Brooklyn Pizza and Bistro, which flung open its doors late last year and is already acclaimed in some quarters as having the best pizzas in town – “artisanal” was the word owner Jay Miller used to describe his New York-style pizzas to the Post shortly after the opening.
Brooklyn is directly opposite the latest Frangipani Group’s hotel offering.
Somethearith Din, who goes by the name of Ritz, took the bold move of opening the hotel –Frangipani Living Arts Hotel and Spa, on Street 123 – in the area, because he says he thinks until recently it was a neglected a part of town.
“In the past people only came to the area to go to the market and shop, but I wanted to make a point,” he says. “This is an area that is developing fast, and it’s really not far from the rest of town.”
And with more than 100 balconied rooms, gardens, a downstairs swimming pool and a rooftop bar and swimming pool, Ritz has made his point – and it has paid off. According to Ritz, the hotel is enjoying close to 100 per cent capacity.
For expats moving into the area, the lure is chiefly affordability, but there’s also a certain cachet to going “local”.
“If you’re going to live in Phnom Penh, sure, you could rent a place in BKK1, and everything is at your doorstep, but the Russian Market area offers apartments as good as most of those in the BKK1 area and at half the price,” says managing director of MAXEM PropertySaraboth Ea, who goes by the name of Lee.
Other property agents agree, maintaining that rental values can often be as much as a third those of BKK1.
Meanwhile, with other in-the-know eateries already taking root in the area – take Japanese Ichiban and Sesame Noodle Bar, and the Alma Café, which with its Mexican-style “soul food” is already being heralded as among the best in town – some of the bigger operators are looking at Tuol Tompoung to expand their operations.
Michael Harder, chief operations manager of Joma Coffee, a regional coffee chain with branches in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, for example, plans to open the chain’s third Phnom Penh branch in the Russian Market area in September.
“It’s becoming an area in which people drop in and shop, and we want to be part of that,” says Harder.
“It’s Phnom Penh’s up-and-comer, with new places opening by the day,” says Lee of MAXEM. “It’s kind of like the Williamsburg of Phnom Penh,” he added, referring to a trendy part of New York City borough of Brooklyn.