We weren’t ready to take guests, but people kept walking in and asking to stay
Khun Phally is an exceptional woman. As I tour her new business venture Purple Mangosteen, I realise that although I’ve come to see a boutique hotel with fabulous architecture and a beautifully designed bar, she's actually the star attraction.
Phally is a savvy businesswoman, with an eye for quality and warm Cambodian hospitality, and chatting with her is a real treat. A Siem Reap native, Phally is remarkably the only female Italian-speaking tour guide at Angkor. She can also speak English almost fluently, but is quick to apologise for her barely there inaccuracy. She says while growing up, it was always her ambition to own a hotel. “I always worked with tourists and foreigners. In 1999 I worked as a hostess at the Angkor Wat Information Centre, giving information on restoration and conservation. It was a dream of mine to have my own business.”
It was after this stint that she went to Italy, where she learned not only to speak the language but to cook the food.She returned to Cambodia and applied to study as a tour guide. Despite her language proficiency, she wasn’t accepted as she hadn’t completed high school. Eventually, on the recommendation of her tour company, she was allowed to study and sit the exam – coming tenth out of hundreds of would-be guides.
Phally says her success comes from a blend of determination and good fortune. “I’ve been working since I was 14. I’ve always felt responsible, taking care of your family is normal in Cambodia. Some people get less chances, I got more chances, so I took them.”
Now, having taken a hiatus from her work at the temples, Phally has turned her hand to running a hotel. Her venue, Purple Mangosteen, will be better known to many long-time Reapers as Eden Guesthouse.
“I had bought it, but Eden rented it from us,” she says. “We hadn’t planned to do anything, but when the owner Justin sadly passed away it was returned to us.”
Now Phally has turned the building from the formerly cheap and charming guesthouse to a beautifully designed boutique hotel.
“It's a strange shape, a triangle, the ceilings are low and lots of the rooms had no windows,” she says. “We put in skylights, windows in the rooms, made the stairs look beautiful, and allowed the light in.”
The Dali-esque stone staircase is the focal point of the Purple Mangosteen. Phally says she gets several passers-by snapping it each day. Up the spiral beauty are six modern rooms, cleanly designed with gorgeous bathrooms. A breezy rooftop terrace allows guests a panoramic view of Siem Reap.
“We’ve had a lot of walk ins,” explains Phally, “We weren’t ready to take guests, but people kept walking in and asking to stay.”
She says many guests came for drinks and ended up moving hotels. “I show them the room if they ask but ... I don’t want to be pushy. People will look and decide for themselves that it’s beautiful.”
While many guests will move lodgings for Phally’s hospitality, her sense of quality helps too. Everything is a little more luxe than the guesthouse norm here, from the Senteurs d’Angkor soaps to the Earl Grey teabags.
Phally says she knows it makes a difference. “I don’t have experience working in a hotel, but I know that service is number one to make people happy. I know I can do that very well.”
Phally’s time in Italy has been put to good use in the kitchen, though she is quick to say she won’t cook something if she thinks another restaurant in town can do the dish better. “At the moment, the menu is only what I can do the best, it’s
Italian. I work together with the chef. He learned in Siem Reap, I learned in Italy. We have very different styles, so we share ideas.”
Behind the bar, Phally manages her staff in the same way, letting their creativity shine through. “We have very good cocktails, and the girl who works with us in the bar has a lot of experience. I told her to feel free, to not just to make, but to taste and to drink. She doesn’t have to go by what’s written in the book.”
It’s paid off. Phally says Mangosteen’s lemongrass mojito is already developing quite a fan base. “If people come in for one, they stay for five.”
For someone who didn’t finish high school, Phally carries herself, and her business, more like someone with a degree in management: from her professionalism and perfectionism with the construction, to moulding her staff into a team and chatting with the customers.
She may be a novice, but enjoying a drink at Purple Mangosteen is like watching a pro balance delegation with leadership. “I want everyone who works to feel free, to take the responsibility, to be able to talk to the guests and not worry I’ll give out, to be able to talk to me if they have any problems. Not many businesses here are run like that.”
Phally, who looks after her younger siblings, says setting up shop was a daunting task. “I was nervous. When I used to work I got paid at the end of the month. But now I have other people I have to look after, it’s up to me to get the income.”
Despite her fierce ambition and courageous attitude, Phally is quick to note she’s not going solo. Along with English investors, she says her friends have been invaluable in helping her realise her dream.
“It’s kind of scary but I have strong support from friends, and my staff help me 100 per cent. Sometimes we have to work long hours, but I’m not alone.”