Back in the early days of Siem Reap’s tourism boom, art entrepreneur and hotel manager Loven Ramos joked with his friends that if Starbucks and Gucci ever opened in Siem Reap, it would be time to pack up and go.
Now there’s a Gucci outlet in town and not one, but two, Starbucks cafes, and Loven and his family are leaving Siem Reap, although Loven stresses the departure is not really because of Starbucks but due to a commitment he made to his loving wife when he moved to Siem Reap in 2005.
Loven Ramos is part of a slew of long-term expats who carved out careers and high profiles, mainly in the hospitality and philanthropy sectors, who are leaving town.
Departees include Pierre Caroen and his wife Dianne, leaving after more than 20 years, and Dr Rob Overtoom, who has been in Siem Reap for about 30 years.
Pierre Caroen was the long-serving and at times controversial manager of Angkor Village Hotel and Resort, and his partner Dianne worked in a variety of NGOs, winding up as team leader consultant for WWF and a director of Qualis, which provides early childhood education and services.
Rob Overtoon came to Siem Reap with Medicine Sans Frontier, and worked in several other roles including UN Children’s Fund health adviser to Siem Reap province, and Swiss Red Cross project co-ordinator.
Also quitting town are the pioneers of Pub Street, former London financier Alex Sutherland and his partner Jennifer O’Sullivan, a former American record label executive.
Sutherland, worried that his London financier job would turn him into an alcoholic, wanted to change his life and did so by following up a friend’s tip in 2003 about an unheard-of destination, Siem Reap, which had just been de-mined, and because of its proximity to Angkor Wat, was regarded as being the next tourism hot spot.
Shortly after arriving, Sutherland, together with partners, opened a bar on a small dirt strip.
He named the bar Angkor What? and another business, Red Piano then also opened on the strip which then became known as Pub Street which became known world-wide and the rest is, as they say, history.
Sutherland opened a string of other cafes and bars including The Sun, Café Central and Beatnik, but earlier this year, he quit town.
“I left in February and I’m living in South Wales now,” he says, “I moved partly due to business conditions no longer being favourable to me, and partly due to my desire to get my kids educated in the west.
“It was a fun 16 years, but it was the first ten before the Chinese invasion that I enjoyed most.”
Partner Jennifer O’Sullivan, who moved to Paris this month, reminiscences about her time in Temple Town.
“Over the years of doing business in Siem Reap, at one point we had six restaurants open and our staff was at least 150 people,” she says, “I’ve gotten to know hundreds of staff and many of their stories.
“The people who make up the fabric of everyday life in this wonderful community will be replaced by the anonymity of big city life once again.”
But Siem Reap’s expat community really reeled on July 4 when one of the town’s leading lights, Loven Ramos, announced via Facebook that he and his family were leaving town permanently to move to Bhutan – that FB announcement generated 582 likes and 153 comments.
Loven says that when he first was offered a job in Siem Reap almost 15 years ago, he begged his girlfriend to leave her robust career in Manila, marry him and join him in the new town – at the time he vowed to her that if in the future she ever wanted to move to another country for her career, he would do the same for her as she had done for him.
“Unfortunately, that day has finally come to fulfill that vow,” he says.” My wife Faith and I will both work for a luxury resort group with five lodges based in Bhutan.
“My wife was offered a position as a reservations and tour planning manager, while I will be taking the role as marketing and communications manager.”
During his tenure in town, Loven opened a bewildering array of businesses, art outlets and he managed hotels, as well as owning one.
He recalls that his string of startups was all in a day’s work.
“The highlights of our time here though are as random and as quirky as Siem Reap itself,” he says.
“This includes being able to name streets and alleys – and for them to show up on Google maps – as well as creating the names for several hotels, restaurants and establishments here.
“It includes becoming a hotel GM twice and becoming a hotelier, and being an official photographer to kings, queens, sheikhs, presidents and Hollywood celebrities.
“It also includes opening my own businesses and/or collaborating with many wonderful expats and locals here through start-up projects like the One Gallery, Poetry Boutique, Art Deli, 1961 Hotel, Ministry of Art, Potions & Metaphors, East of Narnia Restaurant, Vain and Vicious Vegan.”
But while shortly Loven Ramos will be going, he won’t be completely gone as his business spirit lives on.
“Believe it or not, even though I’m leaving, I am also opening a restaurant at the end of this month with chef Seiha Chomnab.
“As I will be away, my role at the new restaurant venture, Jomno Street Food, will be more as an offshore creative and operations consultant, but chef Seiha Chomnab, who I have with worked before when I was GM at Mane Hotel and Riversoul Residence, will be the full captain of this ship.
“It’s crazy what amount of opportunities this town can offer you!”