When the metal gates of the Walkabout Hotel on Street 51 were closed for the last time on April 21, it was one of the few times they had been shut in nearly 20 years.
The hotel and bar – known for its seedy crowd, Joker Draw tournament and abundance of sex workers – had operated 24 hours a day, including national holidays, since it opened in 1998. The closure marks another lost Phnom Penh expat institution, and a nail in the coffin of the city’s “Wild West” image, according to longtime foreign residents and business owners.
“Phnom Penh is not the same – it never will be,” said Adam Parker, the editor of Bayon Pearnik, a foreigner-friendly magazine distributed for free since 1996. The publication’s offices were once located above the Walkabout, with a front-row view into the din below.
“The office looked down into the bar, with a wall of glass windows,” Parker said this week. “It was like a spectator sport, looking down on the menagerie downstairs . . . The world’s strangest zoo.”
For years, that “zoo” involved fairly usual suspects: foreign men and the Cambodian sex workers they came to meet. Patrons were free to rent the rooms upstairs. But in a city where prostitution wore a thin veil, the Walkabout still stood out in its upfront operation.
It also contrasted with the growing number of hostess bars nearby: the sex workers were “freelancers” – there was never a bar fine, according to Parker.
“Simply, it’s a place that lots of women went to meet men,” said Mike Hsu, the owner of Sharky Bar, which opened in late 1995. The Walkabout was once the last stop on a well-worn route that included Sharky and the old Martini bar, he added.
After a law that cracked down on prostitution – and associated activities (advertising, transport, accommodation) – went into effect in 2008, commercial sex work was rebranded as “entertainment” and relocated: to karaoke and hostess bars, a move critics argue put women at greater risk. Remaining brothels were shuttered, and bars like the Walkabout – or, at one time, Sharky – fell into a grey area.
The Walkabout was a draw for many, including foreign vacationers. One, who returned annually, recalled the place wistfully: “Ten years back, the Walkabout was a perfect reflection of the dusty, pot-holed town it resided in: It was like any streetside market stall, with all its best out front and stuff in the back you never wanted to see,” he said. “So yeah, it was good.”
Perhaps the bar’s most consistent attraction was its Joker Draw tournament: a 53-card deck was set up; patrons bought in for a ticket to flip a card; each week, one was turned over. Small winnings corresponded to aces and queens, but if someone picked the joker, they won the pot. In 2010, the contest reached a near-impossible 53rd week, leaving nearly $25,000 up for grabs.
The Walkabout never shed its reputation: it was at once derided and lauded as “Cambodia’s sleaziest bar” in a Vice article in 2012. But in the end, the business suffered a familiar fate: when the lease was up, the landlord doubled the rent, according to former manager Yanna. They decided the venture was no longer worth it.
The reclusive owner, Glenn Press, retains ownership of the Blue Tongue hotel around the block, where the furniture, operating hours and Joker Draw have moved – but not the women. (Press, who now resides in Australia, could not be reached for comment.)
On Tuesday evening this week, Blue Tongue was empty and bore no resemblance to its predecessor: open-air; cool, white walls; quiet jazz. Hostesses at a nearby bar suggested the sex workers who used to come to the Walkabout must have moved – to the riverside, perhaps.
Observers suggest such changes are indicative of broader shifts in the city – with expats gravitating to upscale strips like the one around Bassac Lane. There are also just more options: TripAdvisor now lists more than 80 bars and clubs in Phnom Penh, compared with the 10 expat-oriented joints Sharky Bar’s Hsu claims existed 20 years ago.
The shift could be demographic, with an increase in foreign workers that came in the mid-2000s. “The new expats were better educated, wealthier and more professional,” Hsu said. “They didn’t want what the old bars offered.”
Longtime expat Ken Cramer pointed out that while taste and laws had changed, there in fact had been an increase in hostess bars, just with a concentration in one neighbourhood: on streets 104 and 136.
“But the edgy weirdness is gone,” he added. “It is much more controlled now in every respect, and that ‘anything-can-happen’, Wild-West feeling is no more.”
And finally, it could just be the money issues experienced by bars across the board. Howie Taing, of the eponymous bar up the street (and once a winner of the Joker Draw), expressed little surprise at the closure. “Their business had gone down since [Golden] Sorya Mall opened,” he said, adding that his business, too, had declined in recent years.
The former manager of the now-defunct Equinox, Anthony Mrugacz, agreed. The bar, formerly located on Street 278, faced similar issues. “New landlords and high rents on the short term seem to be becoming a norm,” he wrote in an email.
Today, old standards remain on Street 51: Howie’s (opened 1999), Shanghai (1997), Heart of Darkness (1993). Some have simply changed their model.
Jun Rockwell, the owner of Zeppelin Café which for years was located next to the Walkabout on Street 51, said his business had improved since he relocated his bar to Street 278: people stay longer, and he’s drawn a new crowd.
On an afternoon this week, he was prepping a dress in his dry-cleaning operation downstairs with a mixture from a shot glass. “I’m much better off here. Except for Pontoon and Shanghai, business on 51 is going down,” he said. “The place is confused.”
Sharky shifted its primary focus – from hosting women to music – beginning around 2004, Hsu said. He added that the “older crowd” was displeased: “They look around and they don’t see dozens of girls. They say this place has changed for the worse.”
As for the Walkabout, much may remain behind the shuttered gates. Asked for tales from his old vantage point above the bar, Parker declined to comment. “I know tonnes of them, but none of them deserve to be put in print,” he said.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong