Kann Soann is one of Siem Reap’s emerging hospitality entrepreneurs – just over a year ago, on July 27 2013, he opened the stylish Khmer restaurant Chanrey Tree, overlooking the Siem Reap River on Pokambor Avenue and specialising in traditional Khmer cuisine.
The opening of this restaurant followed the opening of Sokkhak Spa on October 17 2012, another of his successful ventures into a very crowded market in town.
Then on September 1 this year he entered another crowded market, the hotel sector, with the opening of Sokkhak Boutique Resort on the edge of town.
Now he is in the midst of constructing a downtown French restaurant, which will open next door to Chanrey Tree on November 1.
But despite all this activity, Soann does not look even remotely fatigued while showing Insider around the gleaming white 12-room Sokkhak Boutique Resort. His relaxed manner may have something to do with the restful tones in the resort rooms, which he designed himself, or the blooming green gardens which he also had a hand in creating.
In fact, getting involved in every detail seems to be a defining feature of how Soann works.
“I do everything around here. But that’s because my head is very clear. I tell my team, ‘follow me first. Let’s see what happens afterwards. If I make a mistake, then we can talk about it’.”
So far, it’s been a winning strategy.
There’s something beguiling about the neatly composed 35-year-old, and it’s clearly something that others see in him too. From the moment he left his home in Pouk District in 1997, he seems to have made a mark, thanks to his confidence, work ethic and a willingness to take risks where others might not.
“When I started working in Siem Reap, there were not so many options, but at every interview I went for, I got the job,” he said. “I think it’s about my capacity and character. I’m not afraid of much. If I don’t get what I’m looking for, I move on to the next thing. I know that if you don’t pick yourself up, then no-one else will.”
He worked in restaurants and then joined Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort when it opened in 2000, being quickly promoted to a food and beverage role. He then moved to the Intercontinental in Phnom Penh but, not loving life in the capital, he returned to Siem Reap after a year to work at Le Bistro in the Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa, where he stayed until 2006, when a new opportunity came his way.
Soann was asked to create Siem Reap’s arguably first non-hotel upmarket spa, Bodia Spa, from scratch, despite never having worked in a spa before.
“It was a big risk for me,” he said, “but I worked hard, and really started trying to understand everything at the same time.”
It wasn’t just that Soann had no experience of working in a spa, he was also pretty sketchy on a computer, had never recruited anyone, and knew nothing about design.
“There was nothing. No mise en place, no equipment, nothing at all. But I wasn’t afraid,” Soann said. “I was confident that I could make it. What I needed was time, patience, and motivation. And I had all of those things.”
He also relied on his network. With friends and family working in spas all over town, he called on their assistance and expertise. As a result, Soann is now also highly proficient in massage techniques, and has also become an accomplished designer and confident team leader.
“We all should be as talented as Kann Soann,” said Christian de Boer, the general manager of Shinta Mani Hotel. “We would be in a different world if we were.”
Soann appears to be a part of rising wave of educated and sophisticated young Khmer entrepreneurs who are emerging in Cambodia.
“I think Cambodia is changing,” Soann said. “We are more educated and experienced, and we are taking back some ground. It’s related to the country’s development, and a new generation who are really into design and technology. They’re also into social media, and this is being reflected back into what they are creating.
“After the war, there was none of this, and we couldn’t see so much of the outside world. But now I see my colleagues and they are combining what they see in the world around them with their own traditions and creating new things. It’s very exciting.”
Surprisingly for one so focused, Soann is also a university drop-out. He didn’t mind his studies, but felt that there was more to the world to be seen.
“I wanted to travel,” he said, and travel he did, bringing back his own ideas and storing them for later.
Soann also stresses the opening of Sokkhak Restaurant on November 1 won’t put an end to new plans.
“Oh no,” he said. “I have to take a break. I have a lot of work to do to make sure they work. But I will take a little break, but then I have more plans for the future.”