Just over a decade ago, Kiwi expat and former journalist Dean Williams helped pioneer Siem Reap’s hip and happening scene by opening his now famous cocktail lounge, Miss Wong – named after a painting by Vladimir Tretchikoff – and described by writer and broadcaster Patrick Winn as a “Sultry ode to 1920s-era Shanghai.”
Having opened that bar in September 2008, Williams decided to do it all again last June by opening a second Miss Wong venue in burgeoning Battambang.
That venue is housed in a 100 year-plus renovated Chino-French shophouse in the heart of the local heritage area of Psar Nat.
“I had been looking for about three years to open in the colonial quarter of Battambang and wanted the design to standout as something new and stylish,” Williams says.
“The theme is really Chinoiserie and I was lucky to work with Siem Reap-based architect Stuart Cochlin and New Zealand creative designer Amanda Louise Barnes. The interior features colonial handcrafted floor tiles, rattan furniture by Siem Reap master craftsman Mr Bun Naruon and a lushly-planted internal courtyard.”
Battambang’s small but discerning tourist market caught William’s attention some time back.
“The tourist market is growing in Battambang, comprising more seasoned and well-healed travelers that are discovering the charm of Battambang.
“There have also been a number of stylish boutique hotels, cafés and restaurants open in Battambang and I think this is encouraging. Miss Wong Battambang is located between Bric-a-Brac and Jan Bai, two of the city’s more-chic establishments and I think the businesses complement each other.”
With his second outlet up and running and a redo of Miss Wong Siem Reap on the books, Williams says he isn’t planning expansion into other Cambodian cities.
“Absolutely not,” he emphasises, adding, “Well at least not in the near future. I would like to give Miss Wong Siem Reap a face lift this low season, and I have inherited a small Kombucha Tea business from a friend who recently left the country.
“I think it’s time to diversify as the hospitality market and the demographic of tourists is changing in Siem Reap. I have plans to roll out a range of non-alcoholic beverages, including tonic water and ginger beer this year and I’m really excited about that.”
Dean Williams is very much the accidental entrepreneur, having arrived in Siem Reap on a sabbatical for a year, having taken a leave of absence from his job as an award-winning journalist at Radio New Zealand National where he had been producing a show called “Our Changing World”.
While in Siem Reap, he helped out Renaud Fichet, the then-owner of Abacus Restaurant, looking after the popular diner for four months while Renaud was in France for emergency medical treatment.
When Fichet recovered, Williams returned to New Zealand, only to quit his job, return to Siem Reap where he signed a take-over lease for the Blue Chilli Too bar , reopening it as Miss Wong.
The rest is, as they say, history although Williams quickly points out that due to financial difficulties in the early days, Miss Wong only pulled through with a little help from his friends – his staff.
“I have a fantastically loyal crew of staff who have all stuck by my side through some hairy financial times at the start,” he says.
“This was my first business and I opened it in the eye of the economic crisis of 2008. My manager has been with me from day one – people get a lesser sentence for violent crimes compared to his stint – and I have watched members of my team graduate from university, marry, have children and go on to build their own homes. To play a part in that kind of development is remarkably rewarding.”
Having lived in Siem Reap for 12 years, he’s nostalgic about the buzz that originally attracted him to the town.
“Perhaps I’m living in the past or I’m resistant to change,” he says, “But I can’t help but feel that the appeal of Siem Reap as a ‘less-traveled’ location has deteriorated a little over the past five years, with the promotion of mass group tourism.
“The town has become homogenised to cater for hordes of short-stay pre-paid package tourists and as a result Siem Reap has lost some of its identity as an intrepid destination. But in saying this there are fantastic business and individuals striving to clean up and beautify the town with rubbish reduction and tree planting programmes.
“In addition, the civic authorities have gone to great lengths to regenerate the river and beautify the Royal Gardens.
“And there has been an influx of fantastic art-based businesses pop up in the last couple of years and I think this is really a great addition to the town – business such as One Eleven, Tribe, Mirage, Batia Sarem Galleries and the Treeline Urban Resort.
“Also there are new pockets or precincts of fabulousness growing such as Kandal Village and the riverside with its streets running through to Wat Bo Road.
“I’m also enthusiastic about the burgeoning gastronomic scene. Chefs such as Joannes Riviere putting Siem Reap, for the first time, in the top 50 placing for Chefs in Asia two years in a row, and Chef Mork Mengly leading a group of talented chefs branded as Asian Street Food Cambodia.
“This gives me confidence that there are people out there who still think there are discerning tourists wishing to visit Siem Reap.”