Back in 1995, Sang Kha Vi was a 24-year-old motodop chasing down $1 fares from foreign tourists.
On a daily basis, he picked up and let off passengers at dozens of low-budget accommodations across the city. Soon, he started getting more ambitious. A business plan was born, and he spent the next 15 years making it happen.
“It was my dream to be the owner of a guesthouse one day, but I didn’t have any money,” said Kha Vi, now 42.
Opened in 2010, the Kha Vi Guesthouse on Street 258, while hardly distinguishable from other cheap options for tourists in Phnom Penh, is the result of the eponymous owner’s single-minded determination, years of working the lower levels of the hospitality industry, and not a little good fortune.
In the mid 1990s, Kha Vi’s main gig was as a moto driver outside Okay Guesthouse near the Royal Palace. After a year and a half, he was offered a job as a waiter. Then he moved over to man reception. In a few years, he was a manager.
Breaking off on his own, he started a tuk-tuk business and made a $4,400 investment in land in Siem Reap province. After the government’s paving of provincial roads drove up property values, he says he sold the land off for $48,000 to a company looking to build a petrol station. Now he had seed money.
But back in Phnom Penh, as a tuk-tuk driver, he was doing research, noting down popular tourist areas, and finally settling on Street 258 as a potential opportunity.
“Location is very important, [no body will stay there] if you build a guesthouse in the wrong location,” he said.
He also developed an established network of customers and other drivers – which would come in handy later when they would recommend his guesthouse to tourists.
“I had a business card and website in English with my name, number and email. I had a lot of people to drive every day,” he said.
With his funds and the help of outside investors, Kha Vi opened his guesthouse.
He says business has been good. Three months after the initial opening, he expanded by renting a villa across the street.
Everything he learned about hospitality at Okay Guesthouse applied to the new venture.
“What I did there is the same as what I do for my business here,” he said.
“I would buy other tuk-tuk drivers food and drinks because I want them to bring me customers.”
Competing with more than 250 low-rate guesthouses in Phnom Penh, he pushed the rate down a few dollars to stay competitive.
The main building has 28 rooms, and the villa has 15. The cheapest single bed accommodation, equipped with a fan but no window, is $8. A larger room, for two or three people with air-conditioning and balcony, costs $15.
With one dream done, another has risen to take its place. Kha Vi is now scouting properties to build a three-star hotel.