It’s 6.30pm and Srey Oun tends the broom, cleaning the floor of the Missing In Action bar in downtown Siem Reap’s The Lane, near Pub Street. She’s readying the bar for the evening’s trade, or lack of it, because the owner, her husband Joel Tanner, is missing in action himself.
He’s back in Australia working for The Man because his bar hasn’t been bringing in the bucks as expected. In fact, according to Srey Oun, it has been so poor that the business, which only opened in November, is up for sale for $12,000.
It’s an oft repeated story in Siem Reap, just another bar gone bust, just another lifestyle dream soured.
For many a working man in the West the idea of a radical change – chucking in the job, cashing in the superannuation and opening a “nice” little bar in Southeast Asia – is a dream to pursue. They open bars in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, wherever, few realising that in most cases the dream turns into a nightmare that sucks up savings.
Especially in Siem Reap where, conventional wisdom has it, there are too many bars for not enough patrons.
In Joel Tanner’s case, he thought his luck would turn good in Siem Reap after it turned bad in Australia. In 2006 his beloved 18-year-old dog had to be put down, shortly after he’d been made redundant at his well paid construction job for a mining company in Northern Territory.
He had a healthy severance package to blow, and said he embarked on a two-year bender throughout Southeast Asia, washing up in Siem Reap.
Here, in a guesthouse early in 2008, he met the Khmer woman, Srey Oun, who is now his wife and, according to him, she changed his life. “I wanted to compliment the chef on the delicious meal and she turned out to be a beautiful woman,” said Joel before he returned to Australia to cash-up again. “So I decided to stay a bit longer.”
The two were married that same year and Joel’s drinking and travelling-man lifestyle was curtailed.
But he still had to earn a living, and with his wife opened the Missing In Action bar in the Lane in November, only to discover that this was no way to earn a living.
But across the laneway another bar, Miss Wong, is also open for business and already has a clientele. It’s a bar with a difference that distinguishes it from all the others – it’s well designed, cosy and has a chintzy old-Chinese décor theme. Thus far, it has proved popular with the expatriate cocktail set.
It’s owned by New Zealander Dean Williams, a Siem Reap mover and shaker who came to town in 2007 after a seven-year stint hosting an environmental radio show called Our Changing World for the public broadcaster Radio New Zealand National.
He came to Siem Reap, fell in love with the town, and worked in bars and restaurants until September 2008 when he opened Miss Wong.
He’s much more level headed in his approach to bar proprietorship.
“Well, I’ve had lots of bar experience,” he says. “I worked in bars in New Zealand for eight years when I was a university student, and I saw an opportunity here for a bar, but not necessarily to make money.
“Siem Reap is a cool small town to hang out in, and a bar is a very social environment. It’s quite a fun thing for me to have a bar in Siem Reap.”
He explains that part of the attraction of initially opening a bar is that it’s a relatively inexpensive business to start up, particularly when compared to Western start-up costs.
“It’s easy to open a business in Siem Reap, there’s not so much bureaucracy,” he said, “And my entire budget for opening Miss Wong was half of the cost of a liquor licence back in New Zealand.”
But it’s been tough for him to break even and the tourism slump of the last 18 months hasn’t helped.
Meanwhile, in The Passage nearby, the owner of the Sports Bar, Jamie Rossiter sits at a table outside his establishment chatting to his wife Yaty and bouncing his five-month-old daughter Maya on his knee.
He’s a Londoner who came to Siem Reap three years ago from South America. The first thing he did on arrival was open a bar, but for an unusual reason.
“I’m a football fan and there was no one in town with a big screen TV,” he said. “So I decided to open a sports bar with the TVs so that, along with like-minded people in town, I could watch the games.
“Plus opening a bar gave me an interest, it gave me something to do and it provides a base for my other business activities. But as far as making big money, no.”
He said Joel Tanner came to consult him about opening a bar.
“I asked him why, and he gave me all the wrong reasons. He was expecting to make money.”
Around the corner on Sivutha Boulevard, Doug Lorder from the Golden Orange Hotel arrives with his Khmer wife Jenny to check on their relatively new Mikey’s Bar.
Asked why he runs a bar he replies, “Jeez, I don’t know. I had most of the equipment on hand anyway. The bar business can be a good business when there are a lot of people around.”
Mikey’s Bar has a brief and turbulent history. It was opened about a year ago as Johnny’s Bar, by Tony of Tony’s Bar in Phnom Penh. But Tony became sick and had to return to Australia so the bar was taken over by an elderly New Zealander who tried to turn it into a Phnom Penh-style girlie bar.
Big mistake, as girlie bars are seriously frowned on by authorities in Siem Reap as they are deemed not in keeping with the spiritual nature of Temple Town.
Needless to say Johnny’s Bar went bust; Doug bailed it out, turned it into Mikey’s and is slowly building a trade.
But for any hopefuls who turn up in town to realise a dream by opening a small bar, Doug’s sage words of advice are, “It’s not an easy gig. Just a bar alone is not really a viable business. It’s very questionable.”
Additional reporting by Byron Perry