Greet Caboor, his staff and the famous red piano. Peter Olszewski
One of Siem Reap’s most famous and longest running venues, the Red Piano, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, and owner Geert Caboor points to the framed photo that helped propel his business to stellar heights.
It’s a nondescript happy-snap sort of photo, but it’s a picture that’s worth a million bucks.
It shows the then 34-year-old Caboor together with an actress in his bar in Siem Reap in 2001. She was working on a movie that was about
to bring her broad appeal and international fame and, as an offshoot, help put Siem Reap more firmly on the world tourist map.
The actress was, of course, Angelina Jolie, and the photo was taken early in 2001 during the filming of the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
It’s a photo that brought Geert Caboor a lot of luck, and a lot of trade, and today he still can’t quite believe the largesse that fell his way only a few months after he opened his bar in a quiet, rat-infested dirt-track backstreet.
That street itself became famous when it was later renamed Pub Street, and the history of Geert Caboor, Angeline Jolie, the Red Piano, Pub Street and Siem Reap is intertwined.
It all began in the late 1990s when Caboor, a former Belgian factory hand, came to Cambodia looking for his big chance.
In Belgium, Caboor also worked in his spare time as a waiter and DJ, and graduated to co-owning a bar with a friend – the original Red Piano, so called simply because it housed a red piano.
He then sold the bar and decided to travel the globe, winding up 12 years ago in Phnom Penh.
“I became interested in Cambodia because of the potential it had for the tourist market,” he says. “I was not interested in Tenerife or Thailand which is already full of thousands of German restaurants, Belgian restaurants and beer gardens. I thought Cambodia was the place to come to, and I liked it right from the beginning.”
Caboor worked in restaurants in Phnom Penh for about 18 months, checking out the lay of the land. He then embarked on a two-week study trip to Siem Reap and figured that was the place to set up shop.
“As soon as I came here I said to myself, ‘This is it.’ Siem Reap was even more chaotic back then, but the tourists were starting to come. The people were nice, and you could just start doing anything you wanted here at that time. You could start up a bar with a small amount of money, which many people did.”
He found a restaurant and guesthouse that had been opened by a Cambodian who had run out of money, and after a lot of deliberation, he took it over despite it being a gamble.
“The guy who opened the restaurant failed because there was nobody here. He was too early, I guess. There was no guarantee that tourists would come here, because the tourism business at that time was on the river, near the Old Market.”
When Caboor opened the Red Piano, there was only one other nearby bar. But in a relatively short period of time the little strip took off to become Pub Street, as it’s known today, the hub of Siem Reap’s tourism.
So what made Pub Street happen?
“I think it’s fair to say that Red Piano was one of three places that helped create Pub Street,” said Caboor. “Angkor Wat bar was here first, and there was a small restaurant on the corner, but that had no impact on the tourists.
“Then we came as the Red Piano, and then the Soup Dragon came. That was already a popular place in another location, but they moved to the other corner of Pub Street.
“Those were the three popular places that started to bring people to this area. People were coming for a drink here, a meal there. Then a fourth business came, then the fifth one. And then suddenly away it went, the river died out, and we were it.”
But what really helped Red Piano to become “it”, with a subsequent flow on to other Pub Street joints, was the arrival in November 2000 of the Tomb Raider film crew.
“The guys from the movie, the technicians, started coming here regularly. It was God’s gift, as we say. And I decided that OK, for them I would make a cocktail, the Tomb Raider cocktail.”
Today it’s a big seller, a drawcard for the Red Piano, and figures prominently in the anniversary celebrations. Caboor is quick to add: “By the way, it’s a very good cocktail as well. It’s very refreshing, and for a hot country it’s perfect. It’s made of lime and tonic and Cointreau.”
The cocktail helped cement the venue as a home away from home for the film crew and, according to Caboor: “The guys then said, OK, we’ll bring Angelina Jolie in, so she came. A few of the expats and I were also extras in the movie, and we’d see her then as well.
“Film crews always have a party on the last day of shooting, and the Tomb Raider crew had the party here. “That was a wild night. And for a small restaurant like us that had just opened, we immediately had our biggest night ever. The producer came in and said, ‘Here, have $500 and tell me when the drinks are finished.’
“There we were, in a backpacker place where all the customers would scratch for a dollar. All the kitchen staff had to help out just to get us through that evening – it was our first big evening ever.
“Angelina Jolie came as well, tried the cocktail and of course she liked it, and that’s when we got the picture.” And the rest, as they say, is history.