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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Siem Reap comes down with Shisha fever

Siem Reap comes down with Shisha fever

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Nomad employee Lak Bon hitting the hookah pipe.

Whether it’s a heavy or light taste, you fit it to the flavour of the tobacco

Trekking somewhere south of the Oregon border, Etienne (Stephen) Papillon had a brainwave. Two days later, he was booking a ticket to Siem Reap.

Temple town’s latest entrepreneur was two months into a trek hiking the Pacific Crest, a trail that was set to take him from the Mexican border in California to Manning Park in his native Canada.

But somewhere along the way he decided he wasn’t enjoying it, so he downed his tools – and his hiking boots – and headed to Asia in search of a business opportunity.

Now almost two months later, Stephen is the proud owner of Nomad – a Siem Reap shisha bar.

“I really wanted to work with tourists, but there are so many tour companies here,” he said. “I’ve been to many other countries and I always enjoy sitting down in a shisha bar and smoking with other people. I think it has a great social aspect. Plus a shisha bar was definitely something missing from Siem Reap, especially with the tonnes of backpackers coming through every year.”

And so Nomad – named after Stephen’s passion for wandering the world – began sending smoke signals to punters on Pub Street and beyond.

“The first night, I just opened a little bit of the bar to chill out and we had lots of curious Khmer people passing by who wanted to try the shisha. Then on the second night, we had lots of people stopping as they passed, and we ended up staying open until 3am.”

By the third night, Stephen had a small cluster of regulars, so it seems his risk has already started to pay off.  

Shisha is a kind of tobacco smoked through a large water pipe called a hookah. The pastime of sharing a pipe with friends is hugely popular in parts of North Africa and the Middle East, and has gained popularity in the US and Europe in recent years.

“I did a lot of research into the pipes, the tobacco, the coals and their suppliers,” he said.

While he was able to source the charcoal from within Cambodia, he said he looks to places with larger Arabic communities.

“I had to look into the tobacco, particularly to get something that tastes really good, but still lasts a long time. I chose Al Fakher, from Dubai.” One pipe which costs $7.50 can last several hours shared between a group.

While Stephen started with the traditional shisha flavours of apple, mint, watermelon and strawberry, he said there are an infinite amount of flavour combinations.

“There is an American company I hope to source from which makes crazy flavours like Coca Cola, cappuccino or bubblegum shisha.”

To add to the experience, Nomad also provides ice, fruit juices, vodka and milk to mix with the water in the pipe.

“Ice makes the smoke cooler so it’s softer for the throat. The milk changes the taste of the smoke a bit, but it’s mostly to have a thicker smoke. And mint water helps improve the flavour a lot, as do fruit juices. Whether it’s a heavy or light taste you fit it to the flavour of the tobacco.”

But Nomad isn’t the first time Reapers have dabbled in shisha. By massive coincidence (or force of fate) the venue of Siem Reap’s latest shisha bar, on a side street between The Lane and Pub Street, was home to its original smoking venue.

“Geeko Gecko Shisha Bar was open in this spot for three years, and the sign is still outside. I only found out when my landlord told me,” said Stephen.

He employs one staff member, Lak, who has already perfected his shisha smoking technique, something Stephen suggests they might pass on to the punters.

“I’ve seen shisha cloud competitions in other bars. Who can make the biggest cloud, the cloud that lasts the longest, who can make waterfalls with the smoke – so I might do that. It creates a great atmosphere and draws people in.”

While still just a fledgling business, Stephen has big plans for Nomad in Siem Reap and beyond. “The bar itself isn’t finished just yet. I have cushions on the way and a graphic designer friend of mine is creating a logo which I’ll paint on the
wall. And if this one goes well, I’d love to open bars in other cities around Cambodia.”

It seems the sky really is the limit for Nomad’s smoke clouds.

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