As coffee begins to saturate the market in Phnom Penh and beyond, with many cafes shut down one after another, young entrepreneurs who are still passionate about the business are finding ways to attract customers.
As some cafes begin to cater for exotic cat and reptile lovers, a local cafe is attempting to turn back time and usher its customers into the 16th and 17th centuries.
At a glance, one can hardly notice anything extraordinary; just a small cart in front of the cafe. But step beyond that and you will see people busy wearing their traditional dress (Kben) which seems like a group of dancers preparing for a performance.
The Vapaktoir Cafe (Culture Cafe), as its name suggests, is a place that shows off to the next generation, traditional dresses that the Khmer wore regularly in the 16th and 17th century.
It gives them an opportunity to know and experience wearing them, besides taking photos for fun and promoting them on social media.
The dresses originate from the eras of Longvek and Oudong that have their capitals named Longvek and Oudong Meanchey, which are located in Kampong Speu Province about more than 40km from Phnom Penh.
Sranh Vanneth is the manager and younger sister of a social media star, Acha Thom, who owns the cultural café and is the well-known conservator.
Vanneth said the cafe opened 10 months ago, and that, “here, we sell coffee and other beverages, while wearing the traditional dresses of the Longvek and Oudong people. We have about 30 sets of dresses and set of Apsara as well as other objects”.
With support from customers, especially students, she often asks for their opinions and if they wanted to wear the traditional dresses. “Often, they answered that they didn’t know where to find a place to wear them. They became interested when they saw us post them on our website,” she said.
They didn’t know where the dresses originated from, Vanneth says, adding that they just knew they were Khmer. “When they arrived here, our team shared information with them and they exclaimed ‘Oh! They are like this, Bong’.”
Wearing a Longvek dress, Pheng Chhorda, a grade 11 student said: “I like traditional dresses because I don’t want to lose our ancestors’ traditions. I want the next generation to know the styles of Khmer dresses. I am happy and excited because I have wanted to wear such dresses for a long time.”
In response to some youths labelling Khmer traditional dress as Karket, a female lead character in the famous Thai drama series, Vanneth said she would like to say that it is wrong.
“Don’t speak like that. It does not belong to the Thai tradition. It is Khmer. The Thais promoted it as a business but the dress we are wearing is the dress of the Longvek people.”
She said she always suggested that she wanted our Khmer people to know clearly about what belongs to Khmer. “Don’t compare that we are like this like that. In fact, it belongs to us, but we don’t realize it ourselves,” she said.
Drinks at Vapaktoir Cafe range from coffee, milk coffee frappe, passion soda, green tea, iced lemon tea, and fruit juice. Prices range at about 4,000 riels ($1).
Staff at the cafe help customers wear the traditional outfits and take photos from a digital camera for memory.
Guests who are company staff and others spend 5,000 riel per person while its 20,000 riel to wear the traditional dress, including taking photos.
Students just donate a fee of 5,000 Riels to help humanitarian activities and cultural cafe development.
Students can visit Vapaktoir Cafe to study and experience traditional dresses, says Khemarak Bunna, a teacher at a computer school. She adds: “I want them to understand their culture, though sometimes I pay from my own pocket.”
Vapaktoir Cafe is located at # 2228, km6 commune, Russey Keo district, Phnom Penh. Phone them at 069 838 989. GPS Coordinates: (11.62237N, 104.9051E)