A clutch of new bars has optimistically opened up in Siem Reap, despite the pandemic-induced economic crash and tourist downturn that prompted many restaurant and hotel closures.
But that hasn’t held back the entrepreneurial hopefuls, and leader of the pack of new bars in town cheekily named Sh*thead Shack, Sh*ithead, the name of a card game popular amongst backpackers.
The Shack is the brainchild of Scottish expat Paul Mackie, a photographer and musician who plays in the Siem reap duo, The Knights of Groove.
Mackie has a musical history of note – in 2010 he became lead vocalist for the renowned UK band Pallas, which began in 1976 and was at the forefront of the 1980s neo-progressive rock revival. The band still records, plays at festivals, and does the occasional tour.
Mackie first visited Siem Reap in 2016, to catch up with fellow bandmate, guitarist Niall Mathewson who was already residing in Siem Reap and is a formative member of Pallas, having joined the band in 1979.
Mackie, 52, then moved to Siem Reap in July 2019.
“I had enough of the West, feeling like the same old story, and having enough of the aches and pains from the cold in Scotland,” he says.
Having arrived in town, Mackie slipped into the groove almost instantly. “I hosted the Harbour Bar about a week after I arrived,” he notes, adding that he was contemplating buying that bar when COVID-19 struck, making that purchase unattractive.
Instead he found a funky upstairs space at Pomme Hostel, and the Sh*thead Shack was born on December 18, 2020, opening on Friday and Sunday evenings with a Thursday film night in the planning.
“I’d been thinking of Sh*thead for about three years,” he says, “I had a very solid intention, to get people off their phones, as if they’re sitting around the kitchen table for a chat, playing cards, listening to music.”
Having come in from the Scottish cold, Mackie set out to make his Siem Reap bar cosy and warm, with a crackling virtual fire in a fireplace being shown on a big screen in the bar emulating a bophy, a small Scottish hut or cottage, usually left unlocked for anyone to use as a mountain refuge for free.
Mackie says his shack is, “A homely place, full of art and music, music played by a rotation of musicians who play what they want to play when they are feeling it. Of course, a Sh*thead competition every Friday.”
Meanwhile, on Street 26, Dain Hurita, co-owner of Bangkok-based Bodega party hostel chain is presiding over the opening of the new Bodega bar with a hearty, “Well helllllllo – it’s happening! We have opened up Bodega Siem Reap for all to enjoy. The beer pong tables are out, the pool is nice and cool, the bean bags are comfy and the bartenders are rockstars.”
Bodega planned to open a hostel in town, but for now, took the unusual move of simply opening a bar first.
“Normally, a hostel will open fully with accommodation driving the internal business,” Dain says. But because of the lack of foreign travellers, the plan was amended to focus on expats and locals.
“We are known for our epic parties,” Dain says. “We are hoping to throw some fun pool parties and weekend events to keep some energy going in the city.
“The bartenders are rockstars, the pool is nice and cool, the bean bags are comfy and we are always ready for a friendly, yet competitive game, of beer pong.”
Pub Street is in the doldrums, but Bar Road, aka Sok San Road is pumping. Whether the busy strip needs more bars is a moot point – but they keep opening all the same. Bois bar opened on the busy end of the strip in December, billing itself as “the only exclusively gay venue currently in Siem Reap.”
But Bois is now taking time out, according to co-owner Matt. “Bois is looking to partner with other local gay venues to garner the support and awareness of the gay community locally,” he says. “As a new venture, it was open two weeks prior to Christmas but did not receive more than a handful of visitors in that time.”
“We are closed for a week or two over this New Year period while we search for the ideal partnership, and install more lighting and electrical equipment.”
Meanwhile, on the quieter end of Sok San Road, Johnny English, aka John Ladbury has barred up more successfully, opening Rock Around the Clock in late November.
Johnny came to town in February to be a school teacher, only to discover that the schools were closed. So he involved himself in charitable works and then opened his venue, with a website claiming that it, “Isn’t a gangster bar or a girlie bar, nor is it a dive for drug addicts and weirdos.”
This puts a dent in potential Sok San clientele, although the bar is proving to be a busy watering hole for that near-extinct species, older white males, most of UK and Aussie heritage, with many married to Khmer women.
Basically, it’s beaut likable Pommy pub-style bar, featuring 75 cent beers and welcome doses of pub grub such as steak and kidney pies, and bangers and mash for around the $4.50 mark.
Making itself somewhat unique in Sok San, the bar notes that is “A place you can even bring the wife and kids… in moderation.”