Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Restaurant recreates houses from Battambang's 'Lordship Era'

Restaurant recreates houses from Battambang's 'Lordship Era'

The interior of Labaab, which is meant to replicate the feeling of a lordly home from 19th-century Battambang.
The interior of Labaab, which is meant to replicate the feeling of a lordly home from 19th-century Battambang. Heng Chivoan

Restaurant recreates houses from Battambang's 'Lordship Era'

At Labaab, a new restaurant close to Vattanac Capital tower, designer and owner Rith Yoeun has transplanted a 19th-century Battambang-style design into a Phnom Penh dining room, serving up a medley of cuisines running the length of the lower Mekong.

From the outside, there is no indication that above a pharmacy on the second floor of a building on a commercial stretch of Street 110 is a replica of the grand wooden houses that used to be common in Northwestern Cambodia.

The brainchild of Rith Yoeun, a civil engineer and designer educated in the United States, Labaab restaurant is an homage to Battambang’s historic homes and to the cultural traditions along the Mekong River.

Yoeun, a 29-year-old Stanford alumni and the CEO of a local design company, and his team spent seven months planning his venture before the official opening of Labaab, a “Mekong fusion” restaurant serving up dishes from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

The most challenging part of preparing the restaurant was to select the theme for the design.

While struggling with this decision, some of his friends who study architecture told him about the unique homes in Battambang, which date back to the province’s “Lordship Era”. Yoeun visited those houses in the country’s northwest, hoping to find inspiration for the décor.

The “Lordship Era” is a period between 1795 and 1907, during which Battambang was under Siam’s (or modern-day Thailand’s) control. During the period, a Khmer official named Pen was appointed the governor of Battambang by the king of Siam, and his family ruled over the province for six generations, until it was handed back to Cambodia in 1907.

“We called this period the ‘Lordship Era’ because the local people at that time addressed Pen and his male relatives as Lok Mchas, or ‘Lord’,” says Sambo Manara, a Cambodian historian and Khmer culture specialist.

During this era, Battambang was a melting pot, and the local culture was mostly shaped by the combination of Khmer and Siamese culture, while Vietnamese, Chinese, and other ethnic groups who settled there contributed to a dynamic cultural blend. The accommodations in the province at that time, which according to Manara were a sign of the owners’ social status, show this multicultural influence.

The historic houses scattered all over the province were built entirely of wood, with intricate carvings – or kbach chomlak – throughout, and their style and solidity fascinated Yoeun. Almost immediately when he saw them, he decided that they were the perfect theme for his restaurant.

“When I entered one of them for the first time, I felt a sense of peacefulness and calmness from its hybrid internal design,” Yoeun says. “It is mostly similar to other Khmer traditional houses but some woodwork and artwork is Thai, Vietnamese, or Chinese. I believe it was a house of a lord or a wealthy man. ”

Rith Yoeun, the CEO of a local design company, was inspired by the ‘Lordship Era’ for his venue.
Rith Yoeun, the CEO of a local design company, was inspired by the ‘Lordship Era’ for his venue. Heng Chivoan

“As a Cambodian, I value Khmer culture and styles very much but I also appreciate the melting pot culture and styles. In terms of design, sometimes when you mix two or more completely different things together, the result could be unexpectedly wonderful.”

The theme also fits the menu at Labaab, which carries cuisines from the Southeast Asian countries through which the Mekong River flows. Yoeun and his Vietnamese business partner Vincent Nguyen, intent on originality, see the name – which refers to the fertile soil left by the flowing river – as the best substitute for Mekong, a broadly used name for restaurants and other institutions throughout the region.

“The Water Festival, which is held in November every year, is to pay tribute to the Mekong River, which brings fertile soil for Cambodia’s extensive farming, which for centuries has been the backbone of the people’s livelihood,” Yoeun says. “To us, it is the best representative of the relation between the people and the rivers.”

At a glance, Labaab almost resembles a dining room of a Battambang lord, incorporating an open plan and wood carvings. Soft jazz music, contemporary photography and of course air conditioning give it an old-meets-new feeling.

Throughout the restaurant are objects that represent the river. At the entrance, the first thing that hits the eye is a collection of agricultural products, like grains of unhusked rice, string beans, cabbage, papaya and so on, as well as farming gear. The walls are decorated with traditional bamboo fishing equipment, including fish traps, cages and nets.

The food, meanwhile, is beautifully presented and eclectic. The most popular dishes include samlor kako ($5.80), a Khmer soup consisting of a spice and herb paste, fish paste, fish, pork or chicken and vegetables, and amok ($6.20), the steamed fish curry with coconut and galangal, two of the signature dishes of Cambodia. Other popular dishes include the fried quail eggs with ground fish ($5.50) from Ho Chi Minh City and steamed stuffed pork and snail with lemongrass ($4.50) from the southern region of Vietnam.

Chef Hang Sopheanorak, who has years of culinary experience from working in restaurants and hotels around the city, praised the nutritious value of the cuisine, which mostly consists of vegetables and fish.

But the main attraction is how unexpected Labaab is amid the concrete and exhaust fumes of the city.

“We have a very peaceful, relaxing place with healthy, delicious food, and people could never expect that it is in an old building in a busy, crowded neighbourhood,” Yoeun says.

Labaab restaurant is located on the second floor at #81 Monivong Blvd across from the Bank of China building. It is open every day from 11am to 11pm. Tel: 099 335 666


  • Would you like fries with that? US burger chain makes Phnom Penh debut

    California-based The Habit Burger Grill restaurant chain is all set to serve up a delicious array of charbroiled burgers and sides at its newest international location in the centre of Phnom Penh. The Habit is “renowned for its award-winning Charburgers grilled over an open flame,

  • Banteay Meanchey flood victims receive aid

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday provided aid to more than 10,000 families affected by flooding in Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borei district and offered his condolences to the 18 victims who drowned in the province over the past week. He said flooding had occured in

  • Angkor provides ‘valuable’ water storage

    The Apsara National Authority (ANA) has stored millions of cubic metres of water at reservoirs in the Angkor area after Cambodia experienced a series of rainstorms over the last few days. The storing of the water, besides serving temple conservation, will also be used to

  • PM urges caution as Polish man tests positive for Covid

    The Ministry of Health on Wednesday reported that a 47-year-old Polish man tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Cambodia on Monday. There are a total of six Covid-19 patients currently in the country, all of whom are being treated at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital

  • Banteay Meanchey floods kill one more as death toll reaches 15

    As floodwaters start to recede in Pursat, Battambang and Pailin provinces and Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey continues to bear the brunt as one more person was killed on Monday, bringing the total number of flood-related deaths to 15 in the province this month. Banteay Meanchey provincial

  • Serving coffee with a side of robots

    The eye-catching glass building surrounded by greenery at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district is more than just another coffee shop where you can while away a few hours. UrHobby House cafe is filled with robots and characters from