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Cambodia coffee: grounds for optimism?

June 2017 - An update

Three months away from Takhmau and “By Golly” what a lot has gone on.

The “Coffee Culture” is full of beans. I see three more have opened, although “Heart” has suffered cardiac arrest. Its competitor across the road has bounced back, as a  Sports Bar, nice collection of football shirts including Leicester City!

The latest Coffee Bar on the scene, enjoying its “soft opening" just this week (third week of June) is MAC Coffee and Bakery, a name that could be confusing.  It is big and when its upstairs opens soon the biggest in Takhmau. It occupies a site behind Lucky Supermarket that used to be our infamous nightclub.  That was also an afternoon club where many a schoolboy and schoolgirl used to hang out.  Now a respectable, airy and nicely decorated place, “Roma” there told me that it’s based on a Taiwanese franchise with three more outlets coming soon.

I made the point to Roma, as I have made to others, that really they should serve at least one Cambodian authentic coffee such as the genuine Mondulkiri one, not those from over the border masquerading even if they are of the same Robusta bean variety.  No need for me to say more.  I have already made the case for protection of Cambodia’s indigenous people and their culture, and cultivating Mondulkiri coffee (or Stung Treng or Ratanakkiri) is one way.

Welcome anyway to “MAC”.  It would not be out-of-place in London or New York, though no doubt the service is better due to having plenty of bright keen staff on hand.  The toilets are immaculate.  A sure test of Takhmau’s hostelries is whether or not the facilities stay clean. Sadly normally they don’t. They usually go downhill and quite quickly.

The coffee was excellent and on a par with the bigger chains.  The bakery products looked good too.

And if you want your brain examining.......look very close (red triangle)!  Yes, we can do that in Takhmau!

Original posting:

Use numbers to locate on street map below

In 2013 I posted an article about Takhmau (or Takhmao) and its many beer gardens. They were then, and remain today, far from friendly to women and girls. 

In fact back then I used a pseudonym as certain owners, patrons, and local elite would not have been pleased. I think I am safe to own up today, so it is reproduced below.

At that time Takhmau only had simple coffee on sale. It was the usual strong Robusta bean, usually Vietnamese, high roast, and served after being dispensed through a cloth filter. It came with canned sweetened milk.  The most popular establishments were packed out whenever kick-boxing was televised.  You would know by the din and haphazard packing of motodop bikes.  Three of them are still in business (Photographs 1,2).

There has however been a revolution in the coffee trade, with numerous establishments now opening up all over Takhmau (see map below).  Even if they won't supplant the ubiquitous beer gardens; karaoke parlours, micro-finance and hair-dressing shops for some time, they are well on their way to do so. 

You can now choose any variety of good coffees, although sadly in my view Mondulkiri and Strung Treng coffees are hard to find.  Owners do  not convince me that what they offer instead is better.

Two things distinguish the new crop of coffee places.

The biggest development is that women and girls frequent these new places, often on their own without males, and in this sense, they do mark a revolution; liberation with no loss of respectability. Secondly, they actually have clean toilets; hand-basins and soap although that novelty may not last. My insinuation is based on previous experience with new restaurants in Takhmau.

The first attempt to introduce shall we say a modern cafe-type place was Papa’s (3).  It did quite well but not well enough and the site was taken over by “Rosewood” Coffee shop that has now become “Burlap” (4).  A similar venture opened around the same time near the Kandal Provincial HQ.

Those pioneers did not reach beyond an older well-to-do clientele, at least not until they saw the success of “Conexion” and “Spring” that catered for the first time to the emerging social media savvy youth.  These places model themselves on European continental cafes.  The only thing that is missing is neither sells much coffee!  They both offer live music and modest food prices as well as cocktails. 

One of the owners asked me not long after opening “What do I do about these schoolgirls?”  The girls arrived in their school uniforms; went around the back to the toilets and changed.  The boys didn’t bother.  He was worried that he would be shut down for defying tradition. ‘What if their parents see them here?”  In my usual way, the way that older Cambodians seldom employ, I suggested “Well ask them?” They seem to be pretty well-behaved youngsters to me. Not many take alcohol or seem under influence of drugs.  Isn’t it better that they hang out here than street corners, etc? They’ve proved to be no bother, wi-fi addicts occupying their time peering in to small-screens, hardly a word in conversation.

Now please be under no doubt most of these youngsters are pressing boundaries.  They loved King Sihanouk and Sam Rainsy almost as much as their selfies. They wanted change.  They still do.

Then as we see so often in Cambodia, commercial success is soon copied.  Quite a lot of more modest cheaper coffee places popped up (7,9) as well as two exact copycats and one similar but offering cakes. Two of these lasted less than a year.  Most recently we have one of the Phnom Penh elite brands “Xotique” (5) opened up.  There is also the pleasant small but in my view best value “Coffee Today” opposite Lucky Supermarket and the Pizza Company.  Apart from the obvious photogenic quality for the centre spot, you will see one more variation on our UK national flag!

To go with the new coffee shops, we also have two hotels (so far) with swimming pools. Oneis definitely family orientated.  The other is also one of a bunch of mega-karaoke parlours, needed to address Takhmau’s chronic shortage of such establishments (sic).

"Cool" Beer Garden
The Beer Gardens still proliferate, and though they are "cheap and cheerful", for families, you can't be sure how respectable they are, any time day or night. Two, however, are fine - "888" on the main road to Sa'ang left almost opposite a mega-karaoke and Westland School.  The other "Cool" head further out, turn right at the orbital road, and you will see the signs for Cool on the right and A-one on the left, just before LHR and Total stations. It is a real rural garden spot.

Sundowner at Fresh Beer
The shame about most ventures in Takhmau is after a lively start - courtesy of the traditional free opening feast - trade falls off. Anyway hats off to those who try, especially ones who are different such as our new Korean Restaurant.

And finally we have our very own micro-brewery.  If you appreciate British-style cask beers, bitter and stout, and not served via gas propulsion, then it is well worthwhile making the trip out.  Let them know the Takhmau Barang sent you.

Who needs to go to Phnom Penh or want to be part of it?  Let’s keep Takhmau in Kandal!

My 2013 Article - first of its kind about Takhmau.

Women and girl customers cannot feel at home in beer gardens that cater exclusively for their menfolk, with female staff to entertain them as hostesses; singers, dancers and more. They survive only through working long and hard, with meagre income unless tipped generously. They are at even more risk than Beer Promoters. See also Guardian.

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