A Khmer house. Wood upstairs, stilts downstairs. Hammocks swinging below to escape midday heat, rice sacks piled safely inside, orchids hanging in little pots and a sweet yappy dog nipping at your heels. A typical Cambo set up. So far, so normal.
But this isn’t a village dwelling, it isn’t even a house. It’s a bar, and it’s bang smack in the middle of Siem Reap’s tourism precinct.
The bar, Asana, is the work of Little Pari bar owner, Unn Sophary (aka Pari) and designer and builder Guilhem Maitrepierre. Their wooden house-turned-bar, between the Lane and Street 7 just off Pub St, is one of the last of its kind in the centre of town. “The first time I came here, twenty years ago, all around Sivutha, these wooden houses were everywhere and they disappeared,” says Guilhem, “And now again we can enjoy this way of living.”
Pari credits Guilhem with the design, but says for her, the new venue, just around the corner from her eponymous jazz bar, already feels like home, “Here is like home. My house is exactly like this, the way I’m living,” she explains. “We wanted to have it looking like a house in the village, like the rice bags are always kept inside, so when you arrive, it’s more like home than going into a restaurant.”
The rice bags are in fact deceptively comfy cushions. Perched alongside are those heavy wooden chairs. Downstairs seating options range from beds and hammocks, to chairs cut out from palm tree trunks and papier-mâché seating (“made from The Phnom Penh Post”, Pari tells me) that give the effect of cement water urns.
It’s this array of posterior perches that lends to the name of the bar. “Asana is a Sanskrit word which means the position of sitting,” says Guilhem. “And here we have 18 different positions of sitting.There are lots of new chairs, cushions, and during the night we’ll have finger food, so you can eat with your drinks, but still be sitting how you want.”
While the loungey vibe is essential to any accurate depiction of Khmer culture, so too is the more lively side to life here.
“It’s a Khmer party place,” says Guilhem. “What we like and what we match is the Cambodian way of living and the Cambodian spirit. And when I met Pari I was very touched by the quality of making something very nice simply and a way of thinking about the new Cambodia. It’s not bling bling, it’s not an imported concept, it’s born here. We want to create places that are connected toCambodia, connected to Siem Reap.”
Along with cocktails, beers and wines, Asana will mimic the Khmer bars by selling spirits by the bottle. “They can have their name on it for when they come back, like in the Cambodian place. Which also makes the price less expensive for locals. It’s more easy, they can drink it how they want,” says Guilhem.
As for food, the bar will have a tapas style menu with Cambodian-made meat and cheese platters along with Asian favourites. Downstairs the bar will soon open for lunch during the day. “We’ll have a grandmother’s kitchen, Khmer food but from the old, old time,” explains Pari.
Pari and Guilhem say they hope the venue captures Cambodian lifestyle and celebrates modern culture, while preserving the past.
The bar is fashioned from a formerly standing house so the project was more of a restoration than a build. “We had to take the house down but we put it back exactly the way it was . We took out all the wood, cleaned it and threw away the old ones,” says Pari. “A family lived here. I’ve no idea why they moved because it’s a beautiful place. When you walk in, you don’t want to leave.”
Along with refurbishing the wood, the area was paved, (sans fence as per the Khmer way), walls were painted a pagoda shade of sienna and the timber stilts were reinforced with concrete.
The twosome say that aside from bring Khmer culture into 2012, their other aim is to create something they felt was missing from Siem Reap’s nightlife. “A place where you have the noise of speaking, the energy of the ‘blah blah blah’,” Guilhem explains. “And here, we try to make it like this. If five people come in, already you have this mood.”
Guilhem also hopes this energy, and the concept of the bar, will attract a blend of visitors. “We’ve had Khmer people, tourists and some expats come and it matched. People speak together. It’s really what we wanted and we want this exchange of communication, of people having fun. A place for everybody.”