Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Vietnamese Cafe Street 51 Phnom Penh - 31 January 2015

The sidewalk Vietnamese coffee shop on Street 51 in Phnom Penh can be a great place to spend an evening watching life go by and can also serve to catch up on the latest developments. If you’re lucky you can meet some interesting characters worth the effort and some others you rather had just passed on by.

Cambodia's small ethnic Vietnamese community exist side-by-side with the native Khmers, a relationship history will tell you has been anything but amicable. Present day government relations between the two appear friendly enough with official bilateral talk of development, peace and cooperation. But the past has witnessed massacres, cross-border spats, invasion, territorial land claims, and racial hatred. Over time the two groups have inter-mixed, and for Cambodians southern Vietnam is always Kampuchea Krom, that part which was once theirs.


Here in the heart of Phnom Penh is a microcosm of the present day ethnic dynamic. The Cambodian hair salon rents the pavement space to Vietnamese for their coffee shop and restaurant stall for US$300 per month, the two each paying half the monthly rent. The Vietnamese put up shop from about 6pm, and stay until the wee small hours.


The stall consists of two hand carts and some trestle tables with small plastic chairs for seating. To set up they wheel it in and when finished simply wheel it all away. The hand carts are heavy and will arrive with much of the food accompaniments already prepared. Wheeling them up from the road over the curbs takes some effort. Once set up they are highly efficient.


I was introduced to the Vietnamese café by a friend, Ratana, a half-Vietnamese half-Cambodian. She is fluent in both languages usually in the same sentence. When she talks to her friends I hear my name and when I look up they usually look that enigmatic look at me.


The café is a family run affair with and relatives roped in to help out. The teenage daughter stays up as late as she can helping out on the tables. Early in the morning before school, she’s off to the markets to buy produce for the evening’s customers.


Then she comes to work often in her coloured pyjamas. Later in the evening she gets increasingly grumpy, a sign of tiredness, and soon disappears off home to emerge the next day and repeat it all.


It’s a favourite hang-out for locals; Khmers and Vietnamese, some expats, curious passers-by and the girls from the Walkabout Bar, just across the street. Sometimes the Walkabout girls bring their latest favourite punter with them. One lady was in the company of a thirty-something English guy buying her Vietnamese soup. She was pencil thin and missing her front teeth. After she had finished spitting out her unwanted food on the ground next to me, I watched them wander off arm-in-arm her precariously balanced on high heels. There’s no accounting for taste as they say.

Any food that finds its way on to the ground is the prey of the café cats. With their bony frames and tails ritualistically broken at birth, the feline floor sweepers pick the pavement clean. When bored and not eating they chase each other about under the tables and chairs and between the spokes of parked motorbikes.

The food is very good value for money. There’s fish, charcoaled on small coke burners. And there’s soup, lots of soup, a Vietnamese favourite served with noodles and pasta as an option, and rice, pork beef and seafood, and lots of fresh vegetables. The sauces are great. The tables come with the usual fish sauce and bottles of chilli and racks of glasses filled with whole chillies, garlic and other condiments. Most locals and a few visitors drink iced coffee served in tall glasses with crushed ice. I take my coffee hot which they serve with condensed milk, which can be sickly sweet in high doses.

The food is good and cheap, but the beggars can be expensive. There’s an endless stream of the maimed, elderly, the sick and the destitute; young and old. Being the barang (foreigner, actually French foreigner, baranteh is other foreigners) on the end of the table, they beat a bee-line for me. I was told to only give to the elderly, “the young can work” someone said. Soon my supply of 100 and 500 riel notes was exhausted; this in a country where the lack of small change is a perennial problem.

Michael was a chemistry professor from Sweden. Every year for ten years he’s been coming to Cambodia for three months to teach at Phnom Penh University. He looked like a cross between Alberts Einstein and Schweitzer. Over his iced coffee he told me of recent developments amongst the faculties. This included the recent depoliticising of the university, largely since the 2013 election, which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party almost lost. “The election result really put a fire under the government’s arse,” he explained.

He said the university authorities were even starting to tackle the issue of ghost employees at the university. He told me of the professor of biochemistry who had been denied academic advancement and pay rises for years on account of being a member of the political opposition. Eventually he was dismissed and his entire faculty closed down for political reasons despite it offering the only courses of its kind in the country. Michael told me that the professor had now got his job back and a pay rise. This has come about since the appointment of the university’s new rector, ironically an appointment made by the country’s prime minister.

He had been working overseas since 1977; first in Malawi, Kenya and in Ethiopia before making the annual pilgrimage to Phnom Penh. His university in Stockholm paid his wages. He explained his colleagues back home were all jealous, “Every year the Cambodians ask me to come back,” he said.

When in Phnom Penh he stayed in the same hotel, Flamingos, on Street 172 a short walk away from the Vietnamese cafe. He said he still stayed there despite the recent change of ownership. “I get a good deal with the room. They all know me there, the staff and all the tuk-tuk drivers.” A Cambodian friend had told me the hotel was haunted. I asked if he had seen any evidence of this. “The only ghost I see is the one staring at me in the mirror every morning,” he said with a laugh. The hotel has certainly seen better days but he still considered it value for money. Personally, I consider most hotels I’ve stayed in in Cambodia to be good value for money but there are always exceptions.

As an aside a friend of mine from Bangkok, a Brit, nearly always stayed at the same hotel, but had cancelled his booking for his most recent visit on account of reading reports of thefts from room safes on TripAdvisor. He emailed Flamingos to advise them, as thefts of that nature are usually perpetrated by staff or former staff with access.

As Michael and I have been regularly travelling to Cambodia for about the same number of years I asked what changes he had noticed in that time. “Well, the traffic of course has gotten a lot worse.” Once upon a time there were hardly any vehicles in Phnom Penh, now it’s bursting at the seams with SUVs. The emergence of a small middle class was another observation. Cambodia is still largely rural and impoverished. About 85 percent live in the countryside. Another 10-12 percent is urban and struggling and then there’s the merchant and professional class with the symbols of status; SUVs, usually black, property and gold often conspicuously displayed. At the top are the ruling elite their families and cabal, rich by any measure anywhere.

Though some things do not change he explained, “The government doesn’t give a shit about the people.” He said a village he often visited in Preah Vihear Province in the country’s north near the border with Thailand had gotten electricity. “That’s a change” he said, though he pointed out it was only two years ago.

As we talked I watched the drummer from Oscar’s on Street 51 pull up on an enduro motorbike. Oscar’s claims the “Best Damn Music” usually live and the “same same but different” to their sister bar on Street 104 where I had first seen the drummer. The bar on 104 is so small the bass player has to turn sideways to allow customers access to the toilet. The keyboard player texts while playing and the drummer knocks back steady shots while never missing a beat and doing vocals.

Comfortable on a motorcycle he had a guitar delicately balanced vertically on the seat between rider and petrol tank. After dismounting guitar in hand, the security guard performed the motorcycle turn, a pirouette, where the bike is spun using the kick stand as a pivot. An action I’ve also seen performed by women, so it’s largely technique and timing required, not strength.

Street 51 has a string on food stalls that spring up after dark. On the opposite side of the street, there is another I’m told is noted for the quality of the crabs it serves. They all do a brisk business for foreigners and locals alike, but mainly the locals.

Sitting at the Vietnamese café affords a great view of Phnom Penh’s street life, which I never grow tired and better than any television or movie, an endless sense of wonder. Spoiled by groups of tourists, guide books in hand and with mobile phones set to record who wander up and down the street filming all in view. One such group a man with a video camera was making accentuated dramatic sweeps with the camera drawing attention to himself in an unflattering manner. Someone mentioned that may be he would get it stolen to “teach him a lesson.”

The street kids tormented the owner of the pharmacy next to the Walkabout Bar. They’d pretend to drop a rock on his SUV. Thinking his vehicle was damaged he’d chase them to the nearest lamp post where the kids would go one way and then the other, leading him a merry dance. I didn’t know glue-sniffing street kids could move that fast.

Tour buses creep past before disappearing up Street 174. Endless streams of vehicles and motorbikes moving just slow enough for each to present a cameo of driver and passengers.

In the morning the Vietnamese café becomes the Cambodian café. I sit in the morning light with the owner and tuk-tuk drivers as they talk and I watch Phnom Penh roll by. I’m offered breakfast of pork and rice and vegetables.

Michael asked what I thought had changed. I agreed that the traffic was one of the most noticeable and least agreeable changes. I mentioned that the children no longer engaged with foreigners the way they had. Before they’d rush out to say hello, now you’re just another foreigner, the novelty has worn off, at least in much of the capital.


Infrastructure has improved. The inter-provincial road are now all paved and rivers bridged, albeit with foreign funds. Curiously parts of Phnom Penh seemed to becoming unsealed, regressing. Earlier I had watched a crew paint road  markings on the intersection of Street 51 and 154. They had done this in the maelstrom of Phnom Penh traffic. Ten minutes after they’d completed the task and packed up, the markings looked like they’d be there for years.

The city is changing. One day the country I fell in love with may be gone. But as Michael, the Swedish chemist aptly said, “This is Cambodia, so you can never be sure of anything.”

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