Between Pub Street venues serving liquor-filled buckets and cheap beers, and mobile tuk-tuk bars slinging cheap cocktails, there is no shortage of drinking options in Siem Reap – unless you’re looking for an upscale-but-hip ambience with craft cocktails.
Filling that niche was the impetus for 27-year-old Vissoth Nam to open Menaka earlier this year, a self-described “speakeasy bar” around the corner from Pub Street.
“I was wondering why Siem Reap, one of the biggest touristic spots in Cambodia, doesn’t have a proper place to drink and relax,” he said, noting the exception of a few places, like Miss Wong’s and high-end hotels.
The bar is masked from the street by a storefront, an idea Nam says is inspired by America’s Prohibition Era.
Menaka is also a functioning coffee shop open all day and serving straightforward food offerings. But behind two sets of double-mirrored doors and up a flight of stairs is a warmly lit lounge with a Khmer-accented cocktail selection.
“I wanted something that belongs to Cambodia,” Nam says.
To that end, he incorporated stylistic elements from three of the Kingdom’s defined cultural eras: Angkorian, Sangkum and the present day.
Wall columns have stone motifs inspired by the nearby temples, and the name Menaka – a mythical Apsara renowned for her unparalleled beauty – harkens back to the ancient past. Much of the structure’s architecture, in particular the street-level café, as well as paintings of Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, evoke the 1960s Sangkum period, often referred to as Cambodia’s golden era.
Nam was born in Cambodia but moved to France when he was 11. He came back just two years ago, and the modern French design is also apparent at Menaka.
The house cocktails ($6) are also divided into these three “historical” categories – with the present labelled “The Great Era” – on cloth menus meant to look like royal decrees of the past. He recruited Annemarie Sagoi, the mixologist behind Phnom Penh’s Le Boutier, for some cocktail consultancy.
“So what we want to do is create a cocktail that really belongs in Cambodia and in the landscape, with continuity from the temples,” he says.
Cocktails from the “Angkor Era” tend to have classic Cambodian ingredients such as jackfruit, and also inspire a certain nostalgia. For instance, the Monsoon Perfume – a gin and tonic enhanced by Kampot pepper, lime and mint – is meant to evoke the feeling of being in a rice-field right before a monsoon rain is unleashed, he explains.
Moving into the 1960s, the cocktails are named for famous songs, such as Yuvakjon Khoj Jit (“Youth’s broken heart”) – a Yol Aularong classic and now a bitter cocktail, riffing on the idea of an old fashioned, but with walnut bitters.
“We bring the classic cocktails that we can find in a basic place, but we make it our own and inject our own signature – that is to say infuse Cambodian flavour into our cocktails,” Nam says.