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Living within a heaving watering hole

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A stark contrast to its sister alley, Bassac Lane, this alley runs adjacent to it and houses the original, local residents of the area. Hong Menea

Living within a heaving watering hole

Daytime sees the leisurely and relatively quiet pace of residents in an alleyway off of Street 308 going about their daily lives – elderly men riding around their bicycles outfitted with crates selling fruits, vegetables, and dried fish, ladies balancing baskets laden with an assortment of banana-leaf-wrapped Khmer delicacies like num ansom jhake (sugared sticky rice wrapped around a ripe banana), youths sitting on raised wooden platforms playing cards, and kids playing catch while expertly manoeuvring their way around passing motorbikes.

The meanderingly narrow alleyways play home to these residents, while also literally providing the backstage to one of Phnom Penh’s most eminent nightlife haunts – Bassac Lane.

When night falls, however, the same locals are treated to the side of life that they would otherwise not be so intimately exposed to before their sleepy neighbourhood went through regeneration three years ago. This birthed a series of microbars starting with Seibur in 2013, subsequently followed by two others.

Bassac Lane is now host to at least five bars, and two eateries. Brothers George and William Norbert-Munns are the main orchestrators of this pulsating web of sophisticated tippling cosies that each draws its own stream of regular clientele and tourists in the know.

While expats have welcomed the seemingly covert speakeasy-styled suite of bars conveniently streaked down the single main alleyway, residents have mostly been excluded in the lyrical waxing of Bassac Lane.

“Sometimes it is fun living in this neighbourhood, and most expats respect the local rights and do not abuse us. They can be better than some local residents even,” said 52-year old Bun Theary, a housewife who has been living in the area for the past 30 years.

Whereas many of her neighbours have moved out, either selling their property to investors or because they wanted to maximise on the price boom of the area in tandem with the bars’ openings, she has opted to stay put. Various local and foreign investors alike still approach her to purchase her property, which sits favourably as the first house adjacent to where the last bar along Bassac Lane ends.

She added, “My neighbours had sold their property for between $80,000 and $130,000 according to the size of their land.”

Further down the opposite end of the same alley, Muy, 55, who has lived in the same house for 15 years, disclosed that for a good price, she would not hesitate to sell her land. “Some house-owners here want to sell and move out because they heard they can fetch a price between $50,000 and $60,000.”

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Tuk-tuk driver Keopisey wants more such bars in Bassac Lane. Hong Menea

“I also heard that some of the bar and restaurant owners will expand their spaces if business runs well in the future,” she added, indifferent to whether or not she found the neighbourhood rowdier since the gentrification. “It is normal for me. I am only afraid sometimes the noise might affect the monks in the pagoda next door.”

Because there is almost never a shortage of patrons, hordes of tuk-tuk drivers and motodops are on constant standby along the main street.

Chet, one such driver, capitalises on the lucrative value of the area by holding two jobs. A barber by day in one of the shops along Street 308, he switches to ferrying passengers home at night with his tuk-tuk.

Claiming his stake as an exclusive Bassac Lane tuk-tuk driver, “I never venture out of this area, and my customers are mostly foreigners who drink here regularly,” Chet said, adding that “with more bars and business here, it is good for everyone and I can earn more money now.”

However, not all is rosy with the locals.

57-year old Sim Soun disapproves of the “party and dancing on the street”. She has lived there for the past three decades and, since the start of the street’s bar takeover, has found it increasingly annoying that her neighbourhood is now dominated by swarms of expats.

“The narrow road is more blocked now and it is difficult to get in or out,” she lamented. Soun also voiced her resentment at having some foreign shop owners chase the local kids away for fear of them breaking the shop doors or windows.

Nevertheless, Paul Freer, partner at Harry’s Bar on Bassac Lane, said, “When we have musicians playing, all our local neighbours’ children love to come and watch and dance to the music.” Harry’s has been operating as a bar cum retail space for the past 12 months.

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A resident rides out of her home area, bypassing one of the eateries along Bassac Lane’s alleyway. Hong Menea

Freer emphasised that his management, along with the Lane’s other establishments, take extra care to ensure a good relationship with their neighbours, closing their shops at 11pm, or midnight at the latest.

“We’ve not yet had any complaints and we’d like it to stay that way – we are after all but temporary guests on the Lane.”

Land prices around the entire Sangkat Tonle Bassac, which includes Bassac Lane and Street 308, have almost doubled compared to three years ago, now commanding prices of $2,500 to $3,000 per square metre.

This hike, though, according to Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agents Association president Kim Heang, may have reached its peak.

“I do not think that the current market price can increase any more than 20 to 30 percent annually as it may have already reached the top,” Heang said.

Regardless, Bassac Lane’s foreign proprietors have managed to balance on the fine line of coalescence between locals and expats.

A Bassac Lane native of 30 years, tuk-tuk driver Keopisey said, “It is fun and noisy but it never had problems before. The foreigners are kind and friendly to the locals, they like walking through the area and they feel safe.”

“I want more of this in our neighbourhood.”


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