Phnom Penh may be a couple of decades late to the bubble tea game, but the sugary-sweet craze that began in Taiwan during the 1980s has officially caught on.
In a scene replicated throughout the city, a group of students were sitting outside a Gong Cha cafe this week, leaning on each other’s shoulders as they scrolled on their smartphones and sipped pint-sized cups of milky tea with little black balls at the bottom.
“I like the taste of the bubble tea here because it’s not so sweet like other shops, and it is near my school,” said Tep Sophanith, a 22-year-old university student who has been coming regularly to the cafe since it opened last year.
Spending $2.50 per tea-infused drink, Mr. Sophanith said he spends about an hour per visit relaxing with classmates.
“I come here with several friends for a chat at lunch or after class,” he said.
When Taiwan-based chain Gong Cha opened in mid-2013, there were about five cafes serving bubble tea in the city, according to Thay Chheangmeng, marketing executive for Gong Cha, whose local franchising rights are owned by Brown Coffee.
Since then the number has soared to more than 40, he said.
The rapid growth has been driven by a teen market looking for an alternative to coffee, he said, with most shops popping up near schools, universities and malls.
As Gong Cha has grown, so too have its main rivals, Taiwanese brand Chatime and Cambodian-owned PopTea. Chatime now has 20 outlets across the city, according to Hak Techsieng, a supervisor at the Boeng Keng Kang III outlet. He said that sales at one shop amount to about $500 a day.
Answering the phone at one of PopTea’s many new outlets in the city, an employee said that she couldn’t comment due to the cutthroat nature of the bubble tea market these days.
“I can’t give you information about the shop because my boss is afraid you might be a competitor,” the employee said.
Proh, an information technology worker, said he often spends about $30 per bubble-tea cafe visit, as he buys drinks for his whole family, adding on extra ingredients including red beans, aloe vera and grass jelly.
“There are a lot of flavors which are delicious and fun,” he said. “My family can enjoy something different each time.”
In Taiwan, the bubble tea industry turned sour for a short time in 2013, when authorities seized hundreds of tons of food starch—often used in the sweet tea—that had been contaminated with maleic acid, a cheap food additive that can cause kidney problems if consumed in large amounts.
Although Cambodia has had no such problem during its bubble tea boom, Phnom Penh health officials said that consumers should drink the sugary tea in moderation.
“It is better not to drink it every day,” said Ngy Meanheng, the executive director of Phnom Penh municipal health department. “The World Health Organization said that full-grown people should not drink more than a can of sweet juice that contains a sweet taste per day.”
If bubble tea in Cambodia were found to be contaminated, Ministry of Health secretary of state Heng Taykry said the government would not hesitate to shut them down.
“If [bubble teas] are poisoned, they will be closed,” he said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he saw no problem with the shops opening up across the city, noting that there are worse things to do than sip sugary drinks.
“If [we] see young people are chatting [at the shops], it is better than betting on a football game,” he said.
With each new shop that opens, competition heats up, and for some tea shops, the bubble has burst.
For Boba Taiwan Bubble Tea, which has three branches in Phnom Penh, the cafe boom has put a squeeze on manager Yeun Channa’s business. When Boba opened just over a year ago, each shop was selling about 300 to 400 cups per day.
Now it’s down to about 200 a day.
“My sales have decreased because there are many competitors now…and some of my customers go to other shops,” she said.
However, Ong Singly, a senior at Mekong University who drinks bubble tea about once a week, said that the bubble tea industry should have plenty of room for expansion, as students simply prefer the sweet drink to the obvious alternative.
“I like bubble tea because it is different from coffee,” he said. “When I drink coffee, it gives me a fever.”