The capital’s budget tourism market has shifted, says the owner of Top Banana guesthouse
A lot of future tourism here depends on if Cambodia stays safe.
AMID rumours of vice, and the ongoing filling in of Boeung Kak lake, Phnom Penh’s most popular backpacker area has seen business suffer this year, a situation that has been exacerbated by the global economic crisis and the subsequent slump in tourism.
One rapidly emerging alternative to the lakeside is the area around Wat Lanka in Boeung Keng Kang 1, and Top Banana guesthouse owner Sovy Heng reckons he is reaping the benefits, with a full house almost every night of the week.
“I hear from customers about junky places at the lakeside, about things they don’t want,” said Sovy Heng.
Those budget travellers trying to avoid the notoriety of the lakeside generally hear about the guesthouse through word of mouth and a positive write-up in the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook, he said.
According to the backpacker’s bible, Top Banana has basic rooms but is “designed for ultimate chill-out: lounges, cushions, hammocks and the most welcoming of staff”.
The unusual Top Banana label comes from Sovy Heng’s nickname, which he said he borrowed from a guest. “Years ago I talked to a couple of tourists from England,” he said. “I asked them their names, and one said ‘Easy Tiger’ and the other ‘Top Banana’. That name stuck to me.”
His guesthouse has a problem altogether different to most operators in Cambodia’s present tourism climate – Top Banana has too much business. Guests are staying longer than ever before, and Sovy Heng frequently has to turn away those who do not book ahead.
Part of the problem is the number of tourists who fall in love with the country and decide to turn their short holiday into a long stay, but not long enough to warrant a place of their own.
As a consequence, he intends to limit future long-term stays to keep the atmosphere “fun”, making more rooms available for shorter visits. He also has plans to increase the number of rooms on offer, a project that will require a second location.
However, his expansion efforts have been thwarted by the increasing popularity of the area, which has seen rents soar, making it all but impossible to find a lease low enough to support a budget guesthouse.
The guesthouse was built in 1993 as a boarding house for soldiers from United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) by Sovy Heng’s parents opposite Wat Lanka on Street 278 in Chamkarmon district.
With his personal savings and a loan from his parents, since repaid, he converted the boarding house into its present form seven years ago by joining it with a neighbouring property.
“It took two or three years for the business to become successful,” he said.
He presently charges US$6 a night for a basic room, with rates rising up to $15 for air-conditioning and hot water. The cheap rates are made possible by the relatively cheap rent of $1,500 a month, split between his parents and the owner of the adjoining property. Neighbouring guesthouses pay much more in rent, which means they can’t match his prices, Sovy Heng said. “There is no competition to the Top Banana.”
With 18 rooms to look after, he has six staff, five of whom help out with his small kitchen by cooking or serving. Monthly, he pays $70 for his cleaner, $100 for cooks, and $180 for what he calls the “big chief”. He began the business with four employees.
Mixing with non-natives
For Sovy Heng, success in the guesthouse trade comes down to having fun, which he does by drinking beer with guests and periodically vacationing with them throughout Cambodia, he said. “We go mostly to Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Kep and Rabbit Island.”
Despite the flow of tourists leaving the Lakeside district for other areas of the city, Sovy Heng said he is taking nothing for granted.
“A lot of future tourism here depends on if Cambodia stays safe,” he said. “It’s safe for tourists, but it has to stay safe for businesses, too.”