Dara Khoy, who is now proud proprietor of Selantra Restaurant, Siem Reap. Photo by: PETER OLSZEWSKI
A NEW breed of entrepreneurial Khmer restaurant owners is starting to give the established old hands a run for their customers in Siem Reap.
Restaurant-owning husband and wife team, 41-year-old Moun Sobey and his 28-year-old bride Moun Sophors, operate an extremely hard-to-find restaurant that few resident expats have heard about, yet it’s usually packed with travellers.
Even more astounding, Touich Restaurant Bar, named after Sophors’ nickname “short”, is listed on TripAdvisor.com as being the number one restaurant in Siem Reap, with a perfect rating of 5 out of 5. And the rating isn’t just the result of a smattering of reviews, as Touich has had more than 100.
It’s a pretty good result for a 28-seat restaurant that’s tucked away several kilometres from Pub Street, near Wat Preah Enkosei. Even the tuk tuk drivers don’t know how to get there, which is why the adventurous pair purchased a $3000 jeep that they use to pick up guests and deliver them back to their hotels. And this little touch of extra service has also become a handy marketing tool, with the novelty attracting custom.
Touich opened in 2009, after being built by the owners themselves and their families over a five-month period.
“We only had $2500 to open,” Sobey said. “We were thinking, ‘wow, how are we going to do this?’
“My brother-in-law is a policeman and he traded rice in villages for bamboo and wood. We had no knowledge of how to build, so I became the architect and my brother Yorl was the builder.
“I checked on the internet and chose a style of building from Indonesia. It was funny when we built it, with even my sister-in-law hammering away.”
Sobay had absolutely no experience running a restaurant, although Sophors had done some waitressing. She’s now the chef, after learning cooking at home for her family when she was younger. The waitressing, cleaning and other jobs are also done by other members of the family.
Before opening the restaurant, Sophors and Sobey visited almost every restaurant in Siem Reap to gain cuisine insights.
“The internet is very important for us now,” Sobey said. “We had no money for marketing or flyers and one day someone told me about TripAdvisor, that it’s free.”
Sobey said he and his wife were surprised when they realised they were number one in Siem Reap, but added that being the top rater on TripAdvisor has drawbacks, with many people expecting
a five-star restaurant.
“We are just a simple Khmer restaurant,” he said. “We have to explain that the restaurant is not five stars and that we are just a family restaurant.”
For Sobey and his wife, hard work and a dream is paying dividends. The same is the case for 26-year-old Dara Khoy, married with six children and owner of Selantra Restaurant and Lounge on Wat Bo Road. Dara grew up in an orphanage, now known as Sunrise Children’s Orphanage, where his mother worked as a cook. He first went to school at age nine, when he was sponsored by a French lady.
Dara said he studied hard, and in 2001 at age 17, he started working at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor as a waiter. In 2002 he moved to the Victoria Hotel as a waiter, and in 2003, was appointed restaurant captain.
In 2004 he was appointed restaurant supervisor at Hotel de la Paix and was later promoted to assistant manager of the restaurant.
In 2008 he opened his own restaurant, then called Honolulu. He was supported by a Hawaiian sponsor named Magda Alexander.
“She was interested in helping me and she paid to open my restaurant,” Dara said. “She keeps coming back and sponsoring me. For me, it was an unbelievable life change, from being in an orphanage to now opening a restaurant.
“The first year was very difficult. But we started to become very busy and needed more room, so I needed to renovate.”
Which is what Dara did. In three months, he extended the size of the restaurant and renamed it Selantra.
Selantra is now thriving and Dara is thrilled with his business, which has now doubled its high season takings.
Now he wants to expand again. He lives with his wife, two children and four other children whom he adopted, above the restaurant.
He now wants to buy a house and turn the living area into a small hotel, or open another restaurant with air-conditioning.
The common factor with both of these stories? It’s hard work and persistence that always pays off in the end.