New Bird, Love Story, Soda and Slippery Sam. If the names of these bars sound unfamiliar, it is most likely because all of them have opened during the past few months in Phnom Penh.
According to the new edition of the “Phnom Penh Pocket Guide,” the number of bars competing for attention from the city’s expatriate residents and tourists has topped 100.
Tim Gibbons, co-owner of the free brochure, said that on average one new bar opens each week and that between 100 and 110 bars are currently in operation. “In a city as small as Phnom Penh that is a lot,” he said.
Although Cambodians manage some of the bars, many are run by expatriates, Gibbons said, adding that most foreigners who open a bar in Phnom Penh tend to make the decision fast rather than laying out a solid business plan.
“There is quite a common syndrome here. People go here on holiday and end up buying a bar. Then they find out that there are no customers and they go back to Europe or the States,” Gibbons said, adding that many bars have nothing to distinguish them from the competition.
“There are an incredible amount of bars opening that look like the one next door,” he said.
At Shanghai bar located on street 51, one of Phnom Penh’s most popular bar streets, British manager and chef Chris Davies said a friendly atmosphere keeps the customers coming back.
“It’s all about customer service. When people come in here I greet them and make them feel welcome and the girls look after them. That’s what it is all about,” he said.
Among other things, Davies emphasized that live sports, beautiful girls and “Cambodia’s best Sunday roast” are the main reasons why the bar—that claims to be “Phnom Penh’s premium singles bar”—is doing well.
British national Tony Byrne, 54, opened Tony’s bar near Phsar Thmei in April, just two months after visiting Cambodia for the first time.
“I liked the place and always fancied opening a bar,” he said, though he added that even though Tony’s earned him enough to get by, the competition among Phnom Penh’s bars is tough.
“I would say that out of 100 bars, 30 to 40 are running a good business,” but of the others, he said: “You just have to walk past them. There is no one in them.”
Leafing through the bar section in The Pocket Guide, Rory Barry, the Irish owner of Rory’s Pub, pointed out some of the new bars in Phnom Penh.
“The Butterfly Bar is new, owned by a Swedish guy. Barbados is new too, he’s an Italian. The Red Rooster I don’t think has opened yet. There is a good 20 bars opening in the last year,” he said.
After traveling around Asia for a couple of months, Barry arrived in Phnom Penh in 2003 and opened his Irish pub, restaurant and guesthouse in November 2004.
According to Barry, most bars do a lot better during the tourist season from mid-October till mid-March when European and US tourists arrive in large numbers.
“For some [bars] it’s their sole income and they will struggle through the low season,” the 32-year-old former accountant said.
“You’ll hear this quote all the time: ‘I just have to make enough money to pay the bills,’” he said.
“But the problem is that often the bars don’t make that money. It takes quite a lot of work,” he added.