Travel

Young Cambodians are transforming Siem Reap into a vibrant commercial and entertainment hub. By Diana Plater.

Siem Reap’s entrepreneurs

The bright lights of Pub Street, downtown Siem Reap.
Credit: Brent Lewin / Bloomberg via Getty Images

“They’ve spent the whole day at the hairdresser, having their hair and make-up done,” my friend, Borey Hang, explains as we squeeze past women lining up to have their pictures taken by a professional photographer.

They are in stiff organza and tulle ball gowns, their hair is piled high in ’50s beehives, and they are wearing enough make-up to sink a battleship.

In my cotton pants and T-shirt, I feel grotty and too-obviously mosquito-bitten as I drink a beer, one of 10 people at one of the 60 round tables laid out in the garden for Borey’s sister-in-law’s house-warming party.

We’re in an outer suburb of Siem Reap, the town in the shadow of the World Heritage Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia. Once men were forcibly enlisted here for the Viet Cong army; now it’s prime real estate for foreigners.

Food is not served until all the places are taken, but we seem to be the first to start the feast cooked on open fires on the vacant block between the new house and Borey’s home. The air is thick and I’m wondering how the women can stand wearing those uncomfortable outfits as some of their make-up slides down their faces.

The little boy across the table from me, dressed in a pint-sized tuxedo, is not the slightest bit concerned about the Academy Awards-style red carpet nearby. He’s more intent on polishing off the 10 courses, including the jelly dessert. He licks his fingers and runs off to play with his mates.

The party is part of a growing trend here that we would commonly call “keeping up with the Joneses”. Here it’s known as Piti Loerng Kehathan Thmey. It involves asking as many people as you can to a do, putting on a grand feast, and expecting them to leave a cash donation of $US10 or $20, or more. When it’s your turn you make it even grander than the previous and thereby enjoy a profit.

“You have to give them more than their gift amount. Like, they gave $10, you should give them back $11 or $12,” Borey says.

He himself has no plan to host one of these shindigs, which are also held for weddings and birthdays, even if his wife tries to berate him into it.

“It is kind of a big concern for people who have low incomes, if they get many party invitations, and sometimes they get five invitations in the same day,” he says.

As we leave, I hand over an envelope containing a $20 note to two girls at a table; they give me back a strip of chewing gum.

When I first met Borey in 2007 he was a tuktuk driver and translator, working closely with the University of Sydney archaeology team based here. Since then he has qualified as a guide and with a colleague is running his own business, Angkor Heritage Tours. With some other guides and drivers, he has also opened a massage clinic, offering training and employment to underprivileged and blind people.

Borey’s story is reflective of the changes in Cambodia, and Siem Reap in particular. You could say he is one of the new breed of entrepreneurs here, even if at this stage his businesses are on a fairly modest scale.

For a country shaken to the core by the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, and the Vietnamese occupation that ended in the early 1990s – and perhaps despite the Cambodian People’s Party, which has been in power since 1979 – the energy and positivity of its people are inspiring.

From the guide at the War Museum (exhibiting deactivated weapons, landmines, tanks and helicopters), who displays his wounds to tourists, exclaiming he has had more lives than a cat, to restaurateurs and clothes designers, there’s a feeling of “can-do”.

I am in Siem Reap for a writers’ workshop run by Australian Jan Cornall, staying at a small traditional guesthouse with a swimming pool just long enough to do laps in every morning before a French breakfast and some workshops and outer temple visits. It is owned by Jade who, like all Cambodians, has a harrowing story to tell – escaping to Paris and starting her own business there before returning home.

I discover a buzzing, creative hub as my enterprising tuktuk driver takes me to smart new interior shops, art galleries and boutiques, such as Tonlé, which sells clothes made from recycled material, crafted by small teams of sewers, printers, dyers and weavers earning what they consider “proper wages”.

The freewheeling nature of the tax system has made it easier for many locals to open businesses. As one told me, the tax department “comes along and tells you when they want tax. You just go ahead in the meantime and open your business. There’s no red tape to worry about.”

However, this is gradually changing with rules being tightened, especially for foreigners.

Seven years ago the main entertainment area, Pub Street, was certainly busy, but nothing like the mini-Phuket it is today. The roads may be dusty and full of potholes but Siem Reap also now hosts a sophisticated food scene, with new places blossoming every week.

One night a fellow writer, Natalie – a British entrepreneur who works in Singapore – goes with me to a restaurant overlooking the Siem Reap River on Pokambor Avenue, where we are impressed by the French–Khmer fusion cuisine. I ask the waiter about the owner of the restaurant and the next minute Kann Soann has arrived at our table. He is young, slim and very, very smart.

The 36-year-old invites Natalie and me to lunch the next day in his adjoining restaurant, which he opened in 2013. Between mouthfuls of delicate traditional Khmer food, I ask him his story.

When he was 10 years old he went to live with other people to earn money to send home. He grew vegetables and cooked food and sold it at the markets.

“I did this to help my family have a better situation,” he says. “I learnt Khmer food from when I was young.”

After working in hotels and spas, his first business venture was a spa from which he expanded to a hotel on the edge of town. The design of his properties is based on the Angkor architectural style, using bamboo, stone, water and tropical plants.

“The country can grow or not grow depending on the government. If the country stays at peace there will be a big change,” he says, pointing out the “younger generation” is heavily into design and technology, combining what they see in the world around them with their own traditions.

But he says it is private enterprise that is leading the change, in a country still in need of the support of foreign non-governmental organisations, and where the reality they face includes no proper labour laws and huge corruption affecting the quality of buildings and work.

Training his staff is a top priority, he says. Bristling with ideas for expansion, in the near future he would like to start growing tea, sunflowers and other plants in order to create his own line of natural spa products.

Kann suggests we visit his friend Eric Raisina, a Madagascan-born, Paris-trained fashion and fabric designer, who fell in love with Siem Reap and decided to base his business here.

We enter Raisina’s three-storey “fashion couture house” in the enclave known as Charming City, and my breath is taken away by the brilliant colours of woven silk, organza, raffia and “silk fur” that fill the store.

The tall, elegant Raisina is dressed in a black and white spotted T-shirt and bright orange jeans, matching the racks of clothes.

“I’ve been amazed by this place,” he says, taking a spot on the couch in the centre of the store, which also has space for fashion shows. “I love the temples, the people and the food. Every village had looms before the war, they always knew how to do fabrics.

“The younger generation are not concerned about their history – they are looking to see what’s next.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2015 as "Reap the rewards". Subscribe here.

Diana Plater
is a freelance journalist who specialises in the arts.

Continue reading your one free article for the week