Phnom Penh’s Riverside area is rapidly turning into a den of iniquity and it isn’t hard to see why. Filled to the brim with wary backpackers who seem to believe that they could find what they are looking for at the bottom of $2 jugs of cheap beers, before moving on to munch on the ubiquitous ‘happy pizzas’, it really is hard to see imagine the area in its former glory.
What was once a hotspot for foreign activists and journalists who ached for a touch of something familiar, is turning into a hotbed of wanton activities. And as tourists and Phnom Penhers begin to shift their attention southwards, one could be forgiven for thinking that Riverside’s days are numbered.
But despite having the odds stacked against them, some premises have managed to survive the test of time. One such venue, is the Zombie Birdhouse, a stone’s throw away from the Old Market on Street 110. And according to the owner-proprietor of the drinking hole, David Scek, the recipe to Zombie Birdhouse’s longevity, is consistency.
“When I first came to Cambodia in the late 1990s, Cambodia had yet to open up to the world,” said Scek.
“There are bars, of course, but the majority of the premises are bars that cater to locals, complete with their pop tunes and beer, which had little appeal to the expatriate population that lived within a bubble in Cambodia at that time.”
“Personally, I am a fan of rock,” continued Scek, who counts Iggy Pop as one of his idols – hence the name of his premises. “So my idea was to fill in this niche, to set up a bar where people can come in and enjoy rock music over a drink in a very casual setting.”
It was a well-thought out move. When Zombie Birdhouse first opened its doors in 2004 at its original location on Street 278, rock-loving expatriates flocked to his premises, lured by tunes from the likes of Motörhead, The Rolling Stones and other great rockers of the period. For years, patrons continue to pour into Zombie, and as Cambodia began to open up, the mix of clientele has also increased in diversity. But when Scek decided to close down in 2011 with an epic party dubbed the Zombie Funeral, loyal patrons were rightly disappointed. The question that hung over their heads was: where would they go to bop their heads to the tunes of the gods of rock?
“I can never stay in one place for too long, hence my decision to take a hiatus,” explained Scek of his decision that was lamented by his loyal patrons. “But Cambodia has this appeal that I cannot quite put a finger on, so when I returned I decided to re-establish the same bar, although at a different location.”
When Scek re-opened his doors in the new location in late 2017, the buzz it generated was immense, to say the least.
“I’m fortunate enough to be able to see my old patrons that I have served since I started in 2004 return, despite the new location,” he said.
“And the increasing diversity of patrons that I have seen come and go is a blessing – more and more people are coming in not just to drink, but to enjoy the music.”
But as with many premises that have been around for decades in Cambodia, Zombie Birdhouse is also feeling the pinch, as many long-term expats that he calls his regulars have decided to leave the country due to the recent tightening of immigration rules by the Cambodian government.
“While it is true that many long-term expats have decided to emigrate, as the country opens up,
I have seen quite an increase in the number of local patrons that frequent my premise.”
“As a result, compromises have to be made. But there is one thing for sure – you will never hear Justin Bieber playing over my soundsystem for as long as I’m charge,” finished Scek. “This is a rock bar, and I would like to keep it that way.”