While the NGO and business communities in Phnom Penh usually maintain a
safe distance, a number of bars provide an opportunity for interaction
Photo by: Tracey Shelton
Local businessman Tim Gibbons enjoys a feast at Freebird during one of the bar's quieter moments.
THE foreign residents of Phnom Penh come from one of three worlds - the NGO world, the business world or the diplomatic world. While the citizens of the first two worlds regard each other with suspicion on a good day, and contempt on a bad day, do these two worlds ever collide?
The answer is, yes - but not much. There are a couple of ways these two worlds interact.
Some NGO's seek out the private sector for funding, a bit of business expertise and perhaps even a different perspective on life. Some businesspeople dip into the NGO world to do charitable acts, including bits of pro bono work for a worthwhile cause, or simply to hand over some cash to aid a project.
But socialise together? Where would that happen? People with a common interest might meet at a gym, or an exhibition opening - but that doesn't happen much. NGO workers don't go to gyms, they either run or go to yoga classes, while a lot of businesspeople have gym equipment at home. Art openings are possible but businesspeople only go to art openings to buy art and meet the artist. No, if they meet it must be in a bar. But which bars attract both types?
Bars to mingle in
Metro immediately springs to mind. Both crowds like the chic, "could be anywhere" feel of the place - but did you honestly ever meet anyone new at Metro? And why was that? Is it because that feeling like you could be anywhere in the world takes away your mood to be part of any world at all?
Metro probably has the most attractive interior of any bar in the city, and for those who feel relaxed and comfortable in the cocktail bar's prettiness will probably meet new people who also feel relaxed and at home in a cocktail bar of such calibre.
Huxley's is another possibility. It's a businessmen's bar with a smattering of non-businesspeople, and you're more likely to strike up a conversation as it gets tightly packed when it's busy.
You'll meet new people there, for sure, and they'll all be straight blokes as for some reason the bar seems to repel women. Why is that? Don't women like all that wooden-interior feel?
Freebird is another possibility as it attracts anyone who appreciates good food and excellent service. Singles find it the best value diner in the city - if you're cooking for one, you can't even get the ingredients for the price of a Freebird meal.
The places where the two worlds meet are perhaps some of the best bars in the city.
Freebird's mixture of clients from suits all the way to sandals get squeezed in pretty tight when its busy. The people you're going to meet at this establishment are all comfortable with meat and Americana and feel relaxed in a bar-diner. The place really works as a social melting pot and it's always a bar where everyone - starting with the staff - is happy.
One place where the two worlds meet is Talking to a Stranger. It's very name is a clue to its atmosphere and the owners actively stop their customers remaining strangers for long.
Despite its location on the fringes of NGO-land, the business community finds its way there. It has that ‘yesterday in the tropics' feel as it's in a garden in front of an old house.
Doing without things we take for granted - like being inside a building with lighting and air-conditioning - add to the charm of the place, rather than just cause inconvenience.
The business community is attracted to Talking to a Stranger by the youth and vigour of the crowds of interns who regularly fill the place, as well as by the eccentric Aussie owners who have been compared to Basil and Sybil Fawlty - not without reason.
The fact that there are so few bars where the NGO world meets the business world is probably a reflection of their differences in taste, but the places where the two worlds do meet are worth noting as they are perhaps some of the best bars in the city.