The $1280 Presidential room (above and top right), gleaming corridors (left), the reception hall (right). Photograph: William Kelly/Phnom Penh Post
It's the dozens of luxury Lexus, Audi, Toyota SUVs and more which suddenly appear from 6pm in the normally quiet Sangkat Toul Tompong area a few blocks south of the Russian Markets which stand out.
The area has few general stores, only one or two bars, a few massage parlours and its main feature was its plant market until three months ago.
Now a three storey neon tower lights up the otherwise empty street 436, and the super-vehicles turn into a dirt laneway and fill its parking spots and ones in surrounding streets, or drive into a three level parking lot.
There must several million dollars worth of engineering making this a seven day destination, and they disgorge wealthy groups of Chinese and Khmer people who obviously enjoy the best of life.
The Mecca they have come to is Phnom Penh’s newest and most expensive karaoke palace, the KTV Royal Empire which glaringly takes up a corner of a new fancy office and shopping centre which has few other tenants, but a mall which is perhaps the city’s most modern street market.
A case of beer alone costs $96, $100 or $200 for a bottle of vodka – and we’ll get onto the price of rooms later.
The neon tower is a sign to the palace – for that is what the neon covered place can only be described as.
Golden Egyptian lions guard its entrance where three people led by customer greeting boss Richard Thay, a former office worker and marketing department head of a company, welcome customers.
Behind him sit a group of heavily armed security guards – some of 16 who work there each night - who store any guns customers may be holstering before the guests get into a lift where an attendant presses button for the fourth floor.
“We have had many visitors in the three months we have been open and while we are busiest on Friday night and the weekend, we have a steady stream of guests each night,’’ says assistant general manager Guoyong Hui.
“The majority are Chinese but we also have many Khmer guests as well.
“There are 39 rooms with three different prices, and we rent out an average 126 rooms per week.
“The guests are businessmen taking their clients out for a night of karaoke, and other people who just want to unwind – people like factory and company owners who are wealthy enough to enjoy our services.
“Some are families having a special night out.”
When the elevator doors open, an incredibly opulent scene unfolds before them. Two rows of karaoke hostesses form a guard of honour, in uniforms of red and blue. The guests walk over a marbled floor under thousands of stick lights hanging from the ceiling, past a pond and fountain, two life sized gold elephants and onto the reception desk.
The tower pointing to KTV (left), Hostesses who greet and wait on guests (right). Photograph: William Kelly/Phnom Penh Post
The humble groups hand over $88 for the smallest rooms, which hold five people on a three sided velvet lounge in either red or blue (the two colours seem to be a theme here) with one TV screen.
Other groups may decide for the Royal Empire Room which can hold 15 to 20 people. They will pay $888 for their room featuring several gold gilded velvet couches, throne like chairs and is a split level design with soft drinks, ice tea and water set out on tables – costing $4 a pop.
But it’s the Presidential Room which boggles. In a country where there is much poverty there is also great wealth, concentrated at the top of society.
It is these people who pay $1280 for an average four to five hour stay, using cable free mikes while singing under five chandeliers, padded blue velvet walls, five huge gold-gilded couches with red velvet cushioning.
It can hold 20 people and has four huge screens for singers to read lyrics from as they sing from wireless microphones.
But it’s not just locals who frequent this palace, which it must be said would be seen as over the top by some.
This multi-million dollar karaoke palace has a total 50 staff, including the hostesses who wait on their customers and prepare drinks and like. The owner Chen Ai Ming arrived from Shanghai, where owns a string of bars, a year ago and has a network which has spread the word among wealthy Chinese planning a holiday in Cambodia.
“Word has spread amongst the tourists and KTV has become known as a must go-to place when they are Cambodia,’’ claims the greeting chief Richard Thay, 30.
“Our reputation has spread far and wide among Chinese tour groups. We believe that we are now Phnom Penh’s best karaoke operation.”
Thay – who adopted the English name after he was given it by his English teacher more than a decade ago – says the 6pm to midnight hours have made his life much easier.
“I was the head of the marketing department at a tobacco company and before that I had done many jobs including being a driver,’’ he says.
“My hours mean I can continue my studies in English, Korean and Chinese.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Marcus Casey at [email protected]