The Riverside, being one of the most visited places in the capital, has been a witness of how and when restaurants, bars, hotels and massage parlors have sprouted along its strip. While these establishments have offered people venues for night booze-ups or chill moments, the feels and routine of Sisowath Quay have quite become redundant and unexciting. But Rama Ariadi discovers Chez Tonton – a newly-opened bar that has easily gained popularity beyond its menu.
Many urban centers across the world have embraced their river systems – dubbed the giver of life – as a part of their cityscape, turning them into tourist attractions with a plethora of dining and entertainment options. Along Melbourne’s Yarra River, for example – trendy restaurants and bars line the southern end while public parks and open spaces can be found at the opposite end. Even Bangkok and to a certain extent – Jakarta, have begun to realise the potential of being crisscrossed by the Chao Phraya and the Ciliwung, and both governments and entrepreneurs have begun to set up shops along both rivers’ canals and tributaries.
But in Cambodia, the case seems to be a little different. Despite Riverside’s longstanding status as Phnom Penh’s hub of tourist activities and its historical role as the center of the Kingdom, the area has turned rather seedy. With just one look at the facades of restaurants and bars lined up horizontally, you would know that the area’s main strategy is to lure backpackers with cheap booze by offering hyper-extended happy hours. This is, of course, a source of delight for tourists who come to the capital for pure fun and leisure. But the locals and long-term expatriates seem to feel differently. Many of them have chosen to settle in to the southern suburbs of Phnom Pehn, where tuk-tuk drivers are less likely to moonlight as drug dealers as soon as the sun sets.
“This is an anomaly because in most major cities, any area by the river is often considered prime real estate for businesses,” said restaurateur Lam Chhong. “I don’t think that the government has fully realised the potential of the area, and the economic benefits that it could bring – not just for the city, but also the country’s economy.”
This is the sort of change that Mr Lam wants to see in Phnom Penh – to give the Riverside area its former glory. But with minimal government initiatives to revamp the area, the move has to come from the community. This is where Mr Lam and his partner come in with their latest creation, Chez Tonton, in Phnom Penh’s bustling Sisowath Quay.
“We wanted to make something different that sets us apart from the venues that have dominated the area,” explained Mr Lam. “Plus, I wanted it to become a place for people to mingle, that this is not just a place for expatriates to come to enjoy some after work drinks, but also for locals and tourist to enjoy the views of the river.”
And what better way to bring people from different walks of life together other than sports? For Mr Lam, the answer is petanque – a form of boules that originated in the Provence region of France. “Given our colonial ties with France, petanque is a natural choice because it is a sport that is also widely enjoyed across Cambodia,” explained Mr Lam. “Cambodia have produced athletes that have received international acclaims for their achievement in petanque,” he added, referring to Ouk Sreymom – dubbed the Petanque Golden Heroine of Cambodia – who defeated Tunisian Beji Moussa in the final round of the 2017 World Petanque Championships in Ghent, Belgium.
“A lot of people may think that our decision to have a petanque field built inside of the venue is to attract more expatriates,” continued Mr Lam. “In fact, since we opened our doors three months ago, the number of Cambodians who come in to play continue to rise.”
“Cambodians enjoy petanque. But there are simply not enough places for them to enjoy the kind of lifestyle that they want,” continued Mr Lam. “Yes, there are wide open spaces in Wat Botom and along the Independence Monument. But the bulk of these spaces are taken up by vendors and locals to have their own al fresco picnic.”
As such, continued Mr Lam, having an indoor petanque pitch is a simple feasible solution. And yes, irrespective of the weather.
But Chez Tonton’s rising popularity is not soley because of the indoor pitch. Petanque, just as much a sport, is also a leisure activity that is traditionally enjoyed with a glass of pastis, served leached with ice and cold water to bring out the liquorice and aniseed aroma of the spirit.
“To go with the whole theme of the bar, we also serve different kinds of pastis, like Jean Canon and Ricard,” said Mr Lam. “But what we pride ourselves on is Pastis Henri Bardouin.”
A selection to be proud off indeed, as Chez Tonton is one of the only two places in Phnom Penh where Pastis Henri Bardouin is served – the other one being served at Rosewood Hotel’s Sora Skybar. “No one else has it, at least for now, because we bought out the supplier’s remaining stock!” exclaimed Mr Lam.
Quite a gamble, considering pastis is not everyone’s cup of tea and at Chez Tonton, a glass of Henri Bardouin goes for only $3 a pop. But Mr Lam is confident of Chez Tonton’s odds, as evidenced by his attention to the kitchen that churns out food of the south of France. “I always make the point of sourcing the best ingredients,” said Lam. “It does mean that our profit margin is lower, but it is, again, a gamble that I’m willing to take as sub-par ingredients are surefire ways to repel customers that we want to attract.”
Mr Lam could come off as a bit of a micromanager, but it is this keen attention to details that he believes would improve Chez Tonton’s chances of survival. “We didn’t want it to be just another bar – everything is designed by architect Ta Sonakry from scratch and everything serves a function from our tables to USB wall-plugs,” explained Lam. “Our idea is to create a place for expatriates, locals, and tourists alike to burst out of their respective bubbles.”
The question is, are other entrepreneurs willing to take the gamble and start pushing for the revitalisation of Phnom Penh’s Riverside area? It will take some time; but Mr Lam believes the outlook is positive. “The key lies in adopting and sticking to long-term strategies, as opposed to focusing on short term gains,” concluded Mr Lam.
With Mr Lam’s drive to promote petanque and patis as atypical ways to enjoy the Riverside, Chez Tonton may just be the starting point of Sisowath Quay’s much needed reform.