Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Top Five Bars in Cambodia

12th AUGUST 2016

Just a few days after I shuttered this blog, as I was in the midst of finalising my intended departure from China for good.... out of the blue I was offered quite an exciting new job, which kept me in China for another two-and-a-half years or so. At least it got me out of Beijing, moved me down to the Suzhou-Hangzhou-Shanghai area. I was completely burnt out on Beijing; but I was pretty much done on China too, and after having to endure another couple of years of the place, I was determined I had to leave and never come back.

During this rather fraught 'China extension', I had the good fortune to discover Cambodia for the first time. Well, I had long been interested in, fascinated by the country. And I had laid plans for an extended visit when I quit Beijing at the beginning of 2013 - but got deterred by the likely difficulty of travelling there around the time of the late King Sihanouk's funeral. In fact, I didn't manage to make my first trip there until Christmas 2014. I took to it at once, and returned twice more within the next few months..... and then relocated permanently to Phnom Penh towards the end of 2015.

By August 2016, after considerable travels around the country, I am in a position to add a little 'Best Bars in Cambodia' roundup to my old drinking blog here (sneakily backdated into my 'Farewell Tuesday').

Yes, it is a little sad that there are no Phnom Penh bars in this list. Perhaps I haven't researched my 'home turf' quite enough yet. I have in fact spent very nearly as much time 'on the road' visiting other parts of the country as I have 'at home' in PP. And I have for most of this past year been drinking only very moderately, or not at all - very different from my wild Beijing days of a few years ago! When I'm off 'on holiday', I let my hair down a little bit, sup a little more. While in PP, I spend much of my time hunkered down in my very pleasant apartment, and sometimes don't venture out from one week to the next. (Also, I worry that I may be something of a jinx: the two best beloved watering-holes of my early months here were both soon demised - one fatally losing its mojo after just a couple of months of near-perfect-bar-ness, and its replacement in my drinking affections being suddenly demolished a scant three months after that! This city, alas, suffers many of the same woes of hasty, greedy, ill-conceived 'development' as Beijing. I have caught it on the cusp of momentous changes, and I fear that everything I now love about it is likely to be swept away in the next few years.)

Moreover, the majority of Phnom Penh bars come up seriously lacking in one way or another. The city has an awful lot of bars, but most of them aren't really much good; and even the good ones are a long way short of great. (It's not quite so ill-served as Siem Reap, which is a very, very disappointing bar town; or the big coastal resort of Sihanoukville, which is the armpit of the world, surely the ugliest city in SE Asia... and has not a single decent bar.) There will probably be a 'Top Five Bars in Phnom Penh' post appearing shortly, but for now.... here's my pick of The Best from the rest of Cambodia.

The Top Five Bars in Cambodia

5)  Picasso (Siem Reap)
Picasso is a challenge to find: very inconspicuous signage, not open during the daytime, hidden down a tiny back-alley (but parallel to and just yards away from the raucous awfulness that is the city's main 'Pub Street'). And it's a terrible name for a bar, a name that cries "twee bistro food" rather than "hardcore dive bar". But the latter is what it is, and thank god for it. I think it used to be more of a tapas type of place in its early days, but it has gradually evolved into the city's best drinking den. It's the decor that makes it: an arched faux brick ceiling gives it the grungy intimacy of a cellar bar (although it's actually at ground level). And it has a long, stone-topped U-shaped bar, almost a complete 'island'; it's the only one of its kind I've found in the country, and it is quite magical how it conduces to opening up casual conversations with other drinkers - whether next to you, or on the opposite side of the narrow room.  The feisty young manager, an Aussie girl called Sam, also plays a big part in maintaining the friendly, chatty atmosphere of the place. Cheap drinks and a small but good offering of bar snacks - and an ongoing obsession with trying to set a new Jenga world record - complete its appeal. It's one of the most sociable bars in the country - and streets ahead of anything else in Siem Reap. Its all-evening 'happy hour' on Wednesdays is one of the country's great drinking events too, a rather dangerous attraction (it's not wise to schedule your bus out of Siem Reap on a Thursday!!).

4)  Indo Bar (Kampot)
Again, a pretty terrible name, but... this unassuming little spot, on a quiet street a block or two in from the river, has managed to recreate the ambience of a traditional British pub - the only place I know in the country to have pulled this off (having the cheery young Brit owner behind the bar most of the time certainly helps; but there are a lot of other foreign-owned bars around, especially in this town, that dismally fail to conjure any particular atmosphere or character). The TV behind the bar is fairly small, but it makes it a good spot for watching football matches (well, it's pretty much the only option in town for this). And they offer a small but very good (and very generously portioned) selection of Indian set meals from the nearby Curry House (I think there's some shared ownership between the bar and the restaurant). My only gripe is that the bar itself is tiny, and you usually have to arrive pretty early in the evening if you're going to stake a claim to one of the handful of barstools. (This is a common problem with the footprint of the typical 'Chinese shop-house' property - long and narrow. If I were turning one of these spaces into a pub, I'd put the bar along the side wall, not at the end of the room.)  [Well, damn - the jinx strikes again! I returned to Kampot just after writing this post, and discovered that Indo had closed down over the summer of 2016. Oh Neil's (see below), luckily, is still going strong. But Kampot becomes a much less compelling destination when its number of attractive boozers is reduced to ONE.]

3)  The Riverside Balcony (Battambang)
Does exactly what it says on the label! Not a terrible name, this time, though rather unimaginatively prosaic - but we're probably stuck with it now. I gather this place has been going for several years, was one of the first foreign bars to open in Battambang - but had got itself a bit of a bad reputation under the last owner. Since the end of 2015, it's been taken over by a young Scot and his Australian girlfriend, and they have completely revitalized it. It is a lovely, lovely space, a large covered terrace on the first floor of a traditional wooden stilt house, overlooking the small river in the bucolic southern fringes of Battambang. The only reason this doesn't make the top spot is that it's a bit too fancy: it feels more like a 'special occasion' kind of drinking destination, somewhere you'd go on a date rather than just for everyday tippling. The temptation to explore their interesting list of cocktails (and/or their very fine selection of single malt Scotches) threatens to make it a bit too expensive for a regular haunt, too. But there is no finer place in the whole country to slake the day's thirst while watching the dusk gently fall, and I make a point of dropping in at least once or twice whenever I'm passing through Battambang. (Their pizzas are also extremely good, and boast some unusual but very effective combinations of toppings.) I am amazed - and resentful! - that there is nothing like this, nothing remotely as good as this in the capital.

2)  Here Be Dragons (Battambang)
OK, this name is perhaps a bit too determinedly quirky, and it doesn't quite fit the traditional templates for bar-naming - but it works. It's actually a very apposite warning, given the hazards of repeated and prolonged drinking that beckon within: it is the 'Bermuda Triangle' of Battambang! On the quiet east bank of the river, just north of the Wat Sangke temple, Here Be Dragons is one of the country's most popular backpacker dorms. (My days of slumming it in ultra-cheap bunk beds are behind me; but, luckily, they have a few quite decent - and also very cheap - private rooms upstairs, so it has become my favoured place to stay in the city.) By some happy alchemy, the young Brit couple who own the place have managed to create such a welcoming atmosphere that many people who arrive anticipating just a couple of days' battery-recharging before they head on to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh or Thailand, end up.... staying rather longer.... sometimes indefinitely. Most of the bar staff are backpackers who couldn't bear to leave. That's how fabulous this bar is! And in addition to its lively - though mostly transient (and mostly very, very young) - population of guests, it's also established itself as the major social hub for much of the expat community there. It tops Picasso [above] as a sociable bar because it's super-lively almost every night of the week (not just Wednesdays) and you're likely to meet a broad mix of people, many of them long-term residents in the city (not just tourists). The food is - mostly - very good, and the menu's extremely varied; the prices are pretty cheap; and they put on a slew of special events (cheap cocktails all night every Friday, themed parties or live music events most Saturdays, the best trivia quiz in the country on Wednesdays). Ah yes, and they don't really close. Nominally, they do, at about 12.30. But the barmen usually like to have a few to unwind themselves after that; and if the owner's in, he'll often settle in for an all-night session. This is the only place in the country where I have found myself repeating my crazy Beijing lifestyle, staying up drinking until 2am or 3am for days in succession (I fear I don't have the stamina to do that at all regularly any more; but it is nice to be able to revisit that over-indulgence just once in a while). The only slight demerit (there's always one!) is that, owing, I believe, to some cock-up in Imperial-to-Metric conversion, the bar is absurdly too high; and the rickety rattan stools you are obliged to perch on if you want to be able to lean your elbows on it are ridiculously uncomfortable. I hope that one day they'll make enough money to rip it out, and replace it with one about 8" or 10" lower. It might then become the perfect bar.....

But for now, I give the coveted top spot to.......

1)  Oh Neil's (Kampot)
Yep, yet another terrible name - but a wonderful, wonderful bar. There are many other bars on the Kampot riverfront offering views of the often spectacular sunsets beyond the Elephant Hills on the far side of the river, but this is by far my favourite. The ambience is more thatched-roof tiki bar than Irish boozer, but in a tropical climate, this seems to work; in fact, this place seems to combine the best of Irish and Caribbean culture (as my favourite bar back in Oxford 25 years ago briefly did). Actually, the Irishness is confined to a few Irish whiskeys behind the bar, and a few Irish items on the menu (I was delighted to find colcannon here - for the first time in years! - but disappointed that the Irish stew, though heartily thick, is made with beef rather than mutton). The general feel of the place is more American, with background music - played at sensibly audible-but-not-obtrusive volumes - sourced from online radio stations specialising in blues and classic rock. Owner Neil seems a nice guy, and is usually on hand himself - in the evenings, at least - to make sure all is running smoothly; although there's never too much of a worry about that, as he has managed to find himself some unusually friendly and efficient Cambodian bar staff. And, unlike nearby Indo [above, in the No. 4 spot], the bar is along the side wall, affording plenty of barstool perches (even so, the place is so popular that it can be difficult to get a seat). Excellent food, excellent service, excellent music, keen prices, and a super view from the small outdoor seating area at the front - this is dangerously close to 'bar perfection'. The fly-in-the-ointment here is the clientele: mostly quite middle-aged, nearly all expat rather than tourist - not nearly as varied as in most of the other venues on this list. Moreover, Kampot expats can seem tiresomely smug and self-satisfied: they're often rather too pleased with themselves that they were able to retire early and set up a moderately successful business there, or just that they were among the first to 'discover' that Kampot was the coolest spot in the entire country. I've had a number of interesting conversations at Oh Neil's, but on the whole I prefer the company (largely NGO workers) at Here Be Dragons; it's a very tight call between those two, for me. Oh Neil's just edges it on the food... and the music... and the hint of Irishness (I'm such a Plastic Paddy!).


Froog said...

A key part of the appeal of Here Be Dragons this year has been Dave, the very bright and amiable young British guy they've had managing the place. He's about to head back to the UK, so I worry that the place will lose a certain something without him. Although it seems to have maintained this warm sense of community - both among its staff and with its guests and customers - for several years now, so I'm hopeful that Dave's loss won't be a catastrophic blow.

I now face a double-header leaving binge with him as he flies home from PP next week...

Andreas Laimboeck said...

There has to be at least one good place in PP?
And what do you do for weeks in your apartment without going outside?

Froog said...

I cultivate the life of mind, good sir. Reading, taichi, meditation - sunbathing on the 'terrasse'.

Froog said...

I spent much of my first ten weeks in PP at The Empire (a 'cinema bar' - that I very nearly bought!). In December a new owner took over; and although he much improved it as a cinema, he pretty much wrecked it as a drinking den - a radical redecoration has turned the place into a harshly lit cinema lobby, rather than the comfortingly gloomy 'dive bar' it used to be.

I was already transferring my allegiances to Quealy's, a tiny, friendly, Brit-owned bar just around the corner from my new apartment. But it got chaid'd at about two weeks' notice this March! Sigh.

Froog said...

There's a lot to choose from in PP - but unfortunately there's nothing that quite compares to any of the great bars listed in this post. They're all good in one or two particular respects, but lacking overall 'greatness' - and not the kind of place I'd end up spending all of my time in (as I did, of course, in the much-lamented 12 Square Metres in Beijing).

For example...

Best Music Venue - Mestizo; pretty good food, too; but unfortunately it has the most ridiculously 'too tall' bar (armpit height on me!), and it's friggin' miles away.

Best Bar Food - Alley Cat; but the bar's too small to sit at, and it rarely attracts very much custom. It's actually my 'local' - but not great for socialising.

Best Cultural Venue - Meta House, a German cultural centre that puts on an impressive variety of speaker events and free film shows on its big terrace... but is also a pretty good bar. I don't think anyone goes there just to hang out and drink, though...

Best Decor - Freebird: it really feels like a typical American bar magically transported to Cambodia; unfortunately, the food and service are just so-so... and it rarely seems to have many customers (at least whenever I go in).

Best Place for Cocktails Overlooking the River - Touk: not much good for anything else, but a great 'sundowner' spot (if you can persuade them not to play their music too loudly...).

Best Place for Getting Shit-Faced on a Budget - Zeppelin: a labour of love for an eccentric Taiwanese metalhead, who has a compendious collection of 60s-80s 'classic rock' (mostly British - and much of it on vinyl: he has a couple of thousand albums racked behind his DJ booth, although these days he plays his picks from his computer); I often go just for the music... although it helps that his prices are also stuck in a time-warp.

Best Place for Afternoon Drinking - Botanico, a chill outdoor space that serves as the headquarters of a local American-owned craft brewing operation; nice beer, nice vibe... just doesn't feel like an evening drinking spot somehow.

Most Characterful Bar - Sharky: a Phnom Penh institution, around for over twenty years, and the biggest music venue in the city; it has a huge island bar, which is fantastic, and a great grungy vibe to it; alas, the food and booze are very average, as are most of the music acts; it's a great place to catch one of the better bands, but not that appealing as a regular haunt.

My Quirky Favourite - Mr Mab's Rhumba: a brilliant space (a smart combination of your typical Cambodian street barbecue beer hall and a Western-style bar: it's really just a big shed, but has been very inventively decorated to give it a classier vibe), unusual but pretty good snack options ("street food from around the world" is the concept: they even offer Scotland's favourite, the deep-fried Mars Bar), and an impressive collection of rums and whiskies (served in double measures - and heavily discounted if you opt for a 'tasting flight' of three!). I probably would be here three nights a week, if it were within walking distance; but unfortunately it is down in the 'Russian Market' district, about six miles away.

Froog said...

I should probably add another post (or two) about the options here in Phnom Penh soon, as I have just enjoyed (endured?!) a two-week visit from my old Beijing buddy The Chairman, and thus got out and about quite a bit more than I usually do - spending a lot of time in places I'd only previously been to once or twice, and checking out a couple of spots for the first time.

However, for now, I think I'll just add a quick little round-up here in the comments. I am still undecided as to how all of this might shake down into a definitive Top Five for the bars in Cambodia's capital.

When I ponder a label for this selection, I'm afraid I keep coming back to.....

A Top Five Nearly-But-Not-Quite Bars in Phnom Penh

5) El Capitan
Good music selection, good beer (one or two of the locally made Cerevisia craft beers usually available), open a bit later than most, and agreeably close to where I live, but.... the decor, the vibe, the ambience just seems lacking somehow.

4) Malaman
Even closer to where I live (and it has a tattoo parlour upstairs, although that isn't exactly a positive for me...), with very friendly staff, attractive prices... and a little street barbecue out front... and a backgammon set (one of only three I've yet located in the entire city). The music's a bit shit, though (mostly rap rather than rock); and it doesn't seem to have much of a regular clientele.

3) Lone Star
Not to be confused with the Lone Pine Cafe in BKK1, this place is like a smaller version of Freebird (mentioned above in my first comment round-up of PP bars), an uncannily perfect recreation of a US-style bar. The bar itself may in fact be my favourite in PP: wooden, a good height, with plenty of barstools. It's a pity that the food's a bit hit-and-miss, and they don't have any decent draft beer.

2) Nameless French Bar on St. 19
I asked the owner a while back, and he insisted the place really didn't have a name, because he couldn't be bothered to get a business licence and was trying to "fly below the radar". I suspect he was pulling my leg a bit, but.... there really seems to be no announcement of a name, either outside or inside the bar, and the frontage is so discreet that it is very easy to walk past it without noticing.... even if you are looking out for it. Good prices, good snacks, and probably my favourite bar ambience anywhere in the capital, but... the regulars are all Francophone, which can be a little exclusionary.

And similarly with my new No. 1.....

1) Blue Dragon
An ideal 'local', since it is only about a 5-minute stagger from my apartment, and with a cool location, looking out on to the bustling park in front of the Royal Palace. Again, alas, it is French-owned and attracts a predominantly French clientele; but at least le patron, Geoff, speaks perfect English and is much more outgoing and Anglo-friendly than many of his countrymen. The bar counter is good, but rather small. Overall, the place is just a bit too cosy and comfy: it feels more like a coffee shop, more like a living room than a bar.

Froog said...

I should also give a shout-out to the new Jazz Club here, just opened up two or three weeks ago in the back room above the Terrazza Italian restaurant in BKK. A bit expensive, as you'd expect from a specialist venue such as this, but it's a great dark, cosy space, and has a fine warm acoustic (lots of damping on the walls and ceilings; other music bars around town could take note).

There may not be enough decent jazz around this town to maintain a very full or varied line-up, but everything I've seen there so far has been pretty good. The best, in fact, was a collection of Cambodian musicians playing traditional instruments (a regular-ish event on Wednesday nights, I believe.)

Froog said...

Here Be Dragons is, alas, somewhat mojo-compromised since the departure of their manager, the marvellous Dave.

Much of its vitality earlier this year had been solely driven by him, and they seem to have stepped back from a number of his cool initiatives: not so many themed parties any more, the Friday cocktail promotion restricted to a few 'specials', and no more experimentation with novel cocktail recipes. Worst of all, they've pulled their closing time back from 12.30 to 11.30 (allegedly, they were starting to get occasional problems with some of the more wayward resident expats abusing this late-drinking facility after getting tanked up at one of the other bars in town, which all close before midnight).

It's still a great bar, but that special 'spark' it had earlier this year has faded for a while. Perhaps it will revive in a while, when a new dominant personality emerges within its core community.

In fact, I could probably get used to - with gratitude - the slightly earlier official closing time (they still quite often have extended 'lock-ins' for the regulars anyway); it's just that on my last trip, I was specifically looking forward to that rare thrill of being able to keep drinking beyond midnight, and was disappointed to be unexpectedly denied it.

Froog said...

Thankfully, Oh Neil's down in Kampot is going stronger than ever, admirably reinforcing its claim to the No.1 spot in Cambodia. You can pretty regularly drink in there till 2 or 3 in the morning.

They have an excellent new bartender who's joined the crew since my last visit as well, an absolutely gorgeous young American girl - who, unfortunately for me, is a dead ringer for one of the (two) Great Lost Loves of my life. I feel no pangs of new lust (well, only a few), but suffer flurries of body-blows of nostalgic melancholy. She is a great barkeep, though.

Froog said...

I finally posted an update on this last week. Two of the bars in this original 'Top Five' have already bitten the dust, two more are sadly mojo-compromised now (perhaps irretrievably so), and the sole survivor, Oh Neil's, still my favourite bar in the country, seems like to close within the next 18 months or so, perhaps a lot sooner.

Damn, things change quickly here - I do NOT like it!

Froog said...

I really worry that I am something of a jinx on bars in Cambodia. There is an absurdly high churn rate of businesses here, but... the places I form an attachment to seem to prove especially short-lived.

Of the ones, I mentioned in comments above... Mestizo, a promising courtyard space and occasional gig venue in the Russian Market district, was forced to close by a landlord dispute within a few months of opening; Malaman, an amusing, locally-run dive bar just around the corner from my old PP apartment, closed this summer; Sharky's, a venerable PP institution that has just passed its 22nd anniversary, has, under new owners this year, gradually lapsed back into allowing/encouraging freelance 'working girls' in, at least on certain nights of the week (this had been how it built its "reputation" originally in the '90s and '00s, but in recent years, its founder, Mike Hsu, had switched emphasis to making it a 'respectable' bar and a hub of the city's rock music scene - alas, that policy seems to have been rolled back, making it a place I would rather avoid; and perhaps even worse, it's currently in the throes of a woefully misconceived 'refurbishment', which looks like it's expunging the place's wonderful 'dive bar' decor... if they get rid of the island bar, there really is no hope for them!!); El Capitan, the only place in my 'hood that sold decent beer (craft ales from the local Cerevisia brewery), and scene of a couple of particularly good sessions for me last year (a farewell for Dave, the great bar manager from my then favourite haunt in Battambang, Here Be Dragons, and then a little later with old Beijing buddy Tony the Chairman), sold out early this year to become a hideous 'hostess bar' called Ming's (I looked in briefly, thinking - hoping - that it might be a Chinese restaurant, but was instantly forced back by the wall of cheap perfume that assailed me... and by the fact that they were playing Wham! - I have never quit a bar so abruptly in my life); Mr Mab's Rhumba, really my favourite bar in the capital, is still limping along with very little custom, and has been forced to scale back dramatically on its menu, now seems to be mainly targeting Khmer custom (but at least it's got back its main barman - the only guy on staff who knew how to make any of the cocktails!); and my one-time 'local', The Alley Cat, lost one of its partners (an amusingly bolshie Brit called Mark}, and inflicted an absurd name change on itself (becoming the bizarre Tacos Kokopelli: I was prompted to remark to Little Anthony, also a fan of the place on one of his visits here, that 'kokopelli' sounded to me as if it should be the Finnish word for 'foreskin'; since he knows a lot of Finns, he did the research for me and told me what the actual Finnish is for that - but, mercifully, I have forgotten), although luckily it remains mostly unchanged in other respects - still cheap, grungy, and providing some of the best bar food in town.

No, it's definitely not a chronicle of good fortune for me. I have very little reason to go back to Phnom Penh any more.