Rasmey Sokmongkol, known to his friends as “Raz”, says he was just another guy looking for opportunities when he came to Cambodia. During the early 2000s, he owned a small van called "The Midnite Train" selling hotdogs and burgers and fries opposite the Heart of Darkness nightclub on St 51.
Prior to flipping burgers for the late night crowd, Raz often relaxed at the Freebird Bar & Grill where owner Paul Guymon was thinking of expanding his bar.
Guymon was having trouble communicating with local builders, and Raz thought his Khmer language skills might bridge the gap.
That connection eventually led to Raz getting the job to put in the bar that’s there today.
Anyone who visits the Freebird Bar & Grill on Street 240 today will notice the craftsmanship of the long bar that dominates the place. Constructed of reinforced concrete, covered in plywood and veneer, the design was Raz’s own innovation.
“The bar has been ergonomically designed and at the time it was revolutionary and now it sets the standard,” he said.
Today he’s located in an office just opposite the Russian Embassy where his company East West Corporation Asia is headquartered, performing not only construction services, but also translation and advising people on the visa application process to many western countries.
Born into a Khmer-Chinese family in Phnom Penh on May 3, 1975, only two weeks after the fall of the city to the Khmer Rouge, Raz was the youngest of four siblings. His eldest brother died of malnutrition; his father died at Tuol Sleng. His mother and twin sisters, Vattey and Meardey however, survived.
His father had been a government official and they were upper echelon people, with a variety of business interests.
“We lived in villas with maids and servants,” he said.
Raz vividly remembers life under the Khmer Rouge.
“I remember going to some education school and they would feed the kids really well and then give scraps to the adults. I remember they put all the kids together, and the adults to look upon.”
Raz and his family escaped to Thailand at the age of five, following a perilous journey with his mother and sisters. After six months they were sponsored by the St Vincent De Paul Society and arrived in Adelaide, Australia, in February, 1981.
At school he was a house captain, popular in sports, he excelled in athletics. He played Aussie rules football, basketball, tennis and many other sports.Lacking financial support his sporting life grounded to a halt. Reflecting on his circumstances in Australia and seeing that many Cambodian athletes are in dire need of help, he created a charity called The Kingmaker Foundation to assist upcoming local athletes achieve their goals.
Raz serves as president of The Cambodian Bodybuilding & Fitness Federation [CBBFF], along with some other regional executive bodies.
After completing high school he later attended Queensland University of Technology, studying business management with an emphasis on retailing. He graduated in 1996.
While still in school, he took his first job at a Coles Myer store as a trolley boy at age 15. By the time he was at university, he had graduated to area sales manager. Through the years of experience he acquired the reputation of “Mr Fix-it”.
At the age of 26, in the year 2001, Raz arrived in Cambodia on holiday, with traffic jams and dusty roads and he thought “a guy like me could do well here”.
Despite his “fix it” performances in Coffs Harbour, Coles Myer had a company policy was that store managers had to be at least 30 years old, so Raz didn’t mind walking away and making a new life in Cambodia.
“So I took all my pro rata leave and came to Cambodia and I’ve never looked back.”
Since then, reputation and word of mouth has led Raz to job after job, from bars and restuarants to the Canadian and Australian embassies, to buying and transforming old apartments into luxury living spaces.
As a construction contractor, Raz says he’s “25 per cent higher than locals, but 25 per cent lower than foreigners”.
His company motto is to deliver western quality at an eastern price.
After the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand, Raz got contracts to build bars, cafes and restuarants on Koh Phi Phi, Koh Pangnan and Koh Samui. He brought in a team of 18 Cambodians, rotating them every three months and stayed on for two years to complete contracts worth about $250,000.
“The best part was the boys got to go on the plane. When I told my boys we were going to Thailand, and I got the passports they still didn’t believe me: they only believed me when we got on the plane.”
One of Raz’s big supporters is Post publisher Ross Dunkley, who was struck by his qualities. Dunkley commented: “Raz has got the best of Australia inside him with a sense of mateship and self-deprecation and also this desire to serve his community, yet he preserves the wonderful Khmer persona with sincere politeness, a deferential streak, respect to those older than him and a ready smile and willingness to help you out.
"I also respect Razz's go get it attitude where nothing seems to be too small or too big. He is your classic small businessman and completely salt of the earth. I know if it came to a crunch Razz would be one of the first I'd have in the trenches with me. I hope he makes a million bucks because I know that he will still be the same person, and surely that's pretty rare these days,” Dunkley said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]