The Walkabout Bar and Hotel in Phnom Penh is somewhat of an expat institution, albeit a rather seedy one. Some might say it’s got character of sorts, with the majority of its regular patrons usually fitting a particular stereotype. Spending time in there can be an interesting exercise in people watching, though it pays not to make eye contact with many of the customers. The men don’t want to be noticed and the women, mainly Vietnamese prostitutes, take a glance as an open invitation for business.
The bar has been referred to as “Cambodia’s sleaziest bar” but that’s a bit unfair, besides there are other more deserving contenders for that title. Others refer to it as “a good honest den of iniquity open 24 hours” and “probably the Penh's dodgiest western bar”. While still others have said it’s as an UNTAC bar still sporting much of the same ambience, a reference no doubt to the bar’s origins when thousands of UN-personnel descended on a war-ravaged and poverty-stricken nation with dollars to burn.
The Walkabout brands itself as “the only place in town serving ice cold beer and great food 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” but that’s not true. The Pickled Parrot does that also but it’s not a dive. Like Martinis and Candy Bar, the Walkabout is full of “taxi-girls” and often pudgy expats casting furtive glances about the place. The décor resembles a grimy railway station or police holding cell, and is probably best not viewed under a strong light. Dark and dingy does it. The lack of light makes it hard to identify anyone inside, which is the general idea. Like Sharky’s Bar, another Phnom Penh institution, the taking of photos is discouraged
I first went to the Walkabout in 2006. It had a bit of Australiana going on, still does. The manager then was an affable Australian named Ken from Sydney “somewhere”. Ken was as laid back the bar itself. Back then it had a mezzanine floor, named the Bradman Bar, though no one went there and no drinks were served. The upstairs bar had a veranda which overlooked the street, a couple of pool tables and wide screen TVs showed sport. Replica football shirts lined the far wall. The music was mainstream and Western. The food is a mixture of Western and Khmer.
The cash register made me laugh. It’s a steel box which holds Cambodia’s de facto currency, the US dollar, with local riels for small change.
There are the usual pool competitions held at the bar, nothing special about that. The rest of the time the taxi girls dominate the tables, especially the one downstairs. The rules are the winner stays on. Games are free and challengers put their name on the blackboard. That is fine except the taxi-girl mafia rarely take any notice of due process, so unless you’re paying attention your name will be passed by or even rubbed out.
On the basis that every successful establishment needs a selling point, something that sets it apart, the Walkabout has the Joker Draw, world famous in Phnom Penh. It sees the bar packed every Friday night with all manner of expats and Khmers, many of whom wouldn’t be seen dead in the place at any other time.
Tickets for the Joker Draw are US$1. If you buy three you get a free beer. Tickets are drawn at 10.30pm every Friday. You have to be present if your ticket is drawn. The cards, a full deck face down, are displayed in a locked cabinet by the main entrance.
If your ticket is drawn you get to turn one card over. If that card is the joker you win the jackpot. Previous jackpots have ranged from a few hundred dollars to over US$24,000, the record. Other prizes are available. Selecting an ace nets you US$1,000, any king $250. Other lesser prizes include bar tabs, with no takeaways and there’s a tight timeline on consumption. The house, as they say, always wins.
There’s some intrigue as to how the winner would safely collect the Joker jackpot.The Walkabout only pays out in cash and getting the money out of the premises could be tricky. Carrying large amounts of cash about equating to several years’ salary for locals is asking for trouble. Given the active Khmer grapevine, keeping your identity and movements secret could be a mission impossible.
Aside from the Joker Draw, the Walkabout has food, pool, booze, music, sport (on TV) accommodation, and lots of freelance prostitutes, the “taxi girls”. Some will tell you the term “taxi girl” in Phnom Penh stems from the ladies getting taxis everywhere, or rather motos or tuk-tuks. Most operating out of the Walkabout live locally in the many back alleys and terraced houses crammed with multiple tenancies and labyrinth of rooms, shared to keep costs down.
The term “Taxi Girl” was heard of in Singapore, where women could be hired as dance companions by customers purchasing a chit. Serving British servicemen complained, ironically, that you couldn’t get the girls into a taxi in order to take them home. Their services were strictly for the ballroom only. That doesn’t apply in Cambodia. The Walkabout, like other late night bars in Phnom Penh, is a preferred hangout for dozens of the city's methamphetamine-ravaged prostitutes. While they’re freelance, self-employed, and not all may be dope heads, most, it must be said, look pretty rough.
One of the things about Phnom Penh is the range of characters you can meet. The Walkabout is no exception and all types of expats do go in there and not just for the Joker Draw. Hugh was from Canada but hadn’t been back for years. He was staying in one of the Walkabout’s hotel rooms upstairs. He hadn’t paid his bill for weeks. “I’m terrified every time I come into the bar for something to eat,” he told me, as he expected any minute to be asked to settle his tab, which by now had run into several hundred dollars and he hadn’t the means to pay. In order to remedy this unfortunate situation, he was trying to sell his much-loved Canon digital camera which was worth considerably more than his debts but there were no takers. His wife and child would be staying longer in Thailand. In the meanwhile, he was surviving and honing his pool skills at the Walkabout against the taxi-girls. I’d met Hugh previously at Number 9 Sister guesthouse where he’d been a long-term resident. He was creative, an artist, photographer and pianist. He was also I think, bipolar, though I doubt he’d ever been properly diagnosed.
Greg was a mini-cab driver from London. He was an amateur photographer and seasoned traveller having made numerous visits to Cambodia. “I’ve been to 50 countries in the world and this is the most fascinating, interesting and beautiful place I’ve been to.” During the day he wandered the streets of Phnom Penh carrying his old Minolta camera in a plastic shopping bag. He said in Cambodia you see things you don’t see elsewhere. Because Cambodia has largely been bypassed in terms of economic development much of its old charm remains. “Poverty” as one author observed “preserves cities”.
I’ve never stayed at the Walkabout Hotel. Access to the hotel is from the bar. I’ve seen this door ajar from time to time, a security concern, given anyone can then go upstairs. Rumour had it to ensure the windows in your room are nailed shut and I’ve heard it recommended once in bed not opening your door at night.
The area is one of the “strips” in Phnom Penh for late night entertainment. Once upon a time, the central police station was a block down but this site is now a food and beer court. On Street 51 is Howie’s Bar, Zeppelin Bar, and Oscar’s boasting the “best damn music”. Nearby are the dance clubs Heart of Darkness, Pontoon, and St. Tropez. Many of the taxi girls wind up there later from the Walkabout, looking for business.
The Walkabout is located on the corner of Street 174 and Rue Pasteur. Across Street 174 used to be a school. It’s now a hotel and run, according to some reports, by a cantankerous Frenchman. On the opposite corner was a biker bar, run by a grizzled German in leathers, Klaus, now deceased. After dark some of the local Vietnamese set up sidewalk cafes.The food is good and the coffee cheap at 500 riels a cup, or about 12 cents.
So if you like your coffee cheap and strong, your bars dark and dingy, and fancy a flutter, the Walkabout Bar in Phnom Penh is the place for you. The beer and food goes all night, and you never know who you might meet. Just be careful who you eyeball.