Bar girls. Go-go dancers. Brothel. All are words that crop up when you delve into the history of the Soksan Palace.
Now the name Soksan has been reborn as such. Under the same ownership, management and name, Soksan has moved a bit down the road, re-launching itself as a family friendly karaoke bar, food court, performance venue, and nightclub, all known as Nokor Soksan Plaza.
But despite just opening its doors less than two months ago, the new Nokor Soksan Plaza is already re-branding once again. Shops which have only just launched are moving out to make way for more food outlets. Fast food counters will be abandoned for table service. And merely weeks’ old chairs and tables will be replaced by plusher, more comfortable ones.
For a business that has been in operation for years, Soksan still doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be yet. What it does know however is that for any kind of longevity, a change of image is vital.
“We are aware that the old Soksan doesn’t have a good reputation and that we need to rebuild that reputation,” explains ceo Chris Ho.
“That is difficult to do. So by promoting family entertainment, a food plaza, and things like that we can’t go wrong, and eventually the old Soksan name will disappear.”
While it may seem naïve to think the venture is failure-proof and that a rep that dire will ever be truly vanquished, Chris reckons the transparency of the new venue is a major asset. “Initially we spoke about changing the name, but if people found out who was behind it, they’d think we were hiding something. It’s worked so far, people have come by, curious, some looking for the old Soksan, but we tell them, it’s gone.”
So apart from dodgy punters in search of the now-defunct Soksan “massage”, who is the new venue hoping to attract? Well, it seems, just about everybody.
Operations director, Michael Foidl said the new establishment was bringing in a Khmer clientele who have previously been shied away from karaoke bars.
“We’re very happy with this. Girls who have never liked to go to karaoke bars, but who love to sing together come here, it’s inexpensive and they have a great time,” Foidl said.
But things change so fast at Soksan that before this article could even be printed, Foidl announced via Facebook that he no longer works for Soksan.
Meanwhile Chris says the operation is eager to pull in expat support to help keep the venture running year-round. “Come low season, you can’t rely on tourists so we have to concentrate on people living in Siem Reap year-round. Our reputation has to be fantastic, no adverse publicity because it’s a family place.”
While the belief is this brand of light entertainment will draw in Asian tourists, the newly launched Alien Bar should draw a western tourist crowd and the low prices should bring in the many volunteers living around the area.
To launch its new image, Soksan held a charity event for flood relief, show-casing the entertainment central to its new brand.
But now there are murmurings around town that the venue has not been transparent about how much was actually raised at the charity shindig.
Put that aside, Soksan will host dancing, but not of the risqué kind.
“Every evening we’ll have Apsara shows. We created our own show called The Boys of Siem Reap, who are crazy and then after that there will be a band playing,” Chris says.
Along with the karaoke, the new Alien Bar will also be pumping western style soft rock and trance.
As for the eats, Soksan already has, or did have at the time of writing, a veritable around-the-world ticket of cuisines. Space Burger has received much publicity, Tomato Pizzeria has relocated to the plaza with some sweet treats available alongside the Italian fare, and Khmer, Filipino, Malaysian, Indian and Japanese outlets are also open. Over the coming weeks, American-style steak, fish and chips, kebabs, sausages and a salad bar will be added. Or at least, that’s the plan.
“With all these concepts the food plaza becomes a total product,” divulges Chris.
“You don’t need to go anywhere else, you don’t have to spend a lot of money, that’s the idea.”
Despite its foggy agenda, Soksan seems to be attracting international attention from press and television crew from Spain, Russia and China. However closer to home, the media are less than complimentary of their own locale.
Chris explains that aside from Soksan, Siem Reap is a boring place, “Young people, they come all the way from Europe, so they expect Siem Reap to be vibrant but it is not. There is hardly anything happening, it’s the same things year after year, if you went to Pub Street five years ago, the same things would be happening as now. So we aim to be a bit different.”
Despite ragging on the neighbours, Chris says he wants the new Soksan to be a friendly place where everyone is welcome.
So why did he swap the glitzy life of sordid nightclubs for a tamer kid-friendly endeavour?
“We are all getting old. We don’t want that bad image any more. Everybody does something when they are young, and we did something when we were young,” he explains. “So now it’s time for a change. This is more sustainable in the long run. Our children are going to inherit this business, we don’t want them to inherit a business that has a bad image.”
Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a nightclub or is it a restaurant, we’re not yet quite sure. It’s a work in progress.