Battambang Bars UpdateMay 16, 2009
If a stranger had told me three years ago that Battambang was ripe for a host of foreign owned drinking bars then I’d have immediately convened a psychiatric conference in Vienna to consider his possible treatment. Back then at night and in town, there was just the White Rose or the Smokin’ Pot (both Khmer owned) and by 9pm (Battambang’s equivalent of the wee small hours), when all the glue sniffing juveniles had come out to play, the area quickly became tired, downtrodden and just a touch unsafe and ghetto-ish.
These days, Battambang still doesn’t bustle, but those in need of ‘thirst aid’ can find a range of expat owned eating and drinking options all centrally located within a ten minute stroll around the nicest part of town.
Proving that size doesn’t matter and putting the B into bijou, Pulp sits surreptitiously about roughly half way down street ‘two and half’ (one of those French built streets of small, neat and identikit shophouses that shoot off horizontally from Psah Nat) and stepping inside, you’ll find yourself in a space about the size of the average living room.
Adorning the wall is a large framed mirror and that plus the three large comfy leather sofas lining the periphery of the room, soft lighting and a neutral color scheme make this bar into a charming, cozy hideaway. If you fetch half a dozen friends, you’ll fill the place. Bring a dozen and you might feel hemmed in.
The owner – an amiable young Kiwi – has a few cleverly thought out and ‘new to Battambang’ ideas such as placing an emphasis on vegetarian food (he does a veggy curry and other mains come in at around $3.50), together with playing and selling indie rock music MP3s and selling and trading books.
The only downside is that this bar doesn’t really shine as far as beer choice goes and on the night I pitched up, only Asahi cans (to my mind, a distinctly second rate fluid) were available albeit at a reasonable $1 a can. Nevertheless, if Pulp and Bustop were on either end of my road in Phnom Penh, I’d be quite content.
You can’t miss the French owned Madison Corner with its brash upbeat exterior complete with garish, bright lights and an elderly scooter perched precariously over the entrance. By contrast, the spartan strip lit interior with its shiny plastic tables with the staff seeming to be possessed with whatever the opposite of manic energy is (lacklustreness?), it took quite a while for us (the only customers in the bar) to be noticed and served.
We whiled away this time watching a CTN concert that the bar were projecting onto the yellow washed wall of an adjacent colonial building and Chhay Vet – being quite a fan of Prum Manh – looked set for the night.
When it eventually arrived, the menu was a Khmer/Western mix with plenty of backpacker budget short order options such as the ubiquitous beef luk lak or noodle/rice and meat combos for just $2. Anchor Beer was priced at 2,500 riel a glass or 9,000 for a pitcher which should be sufficiently competitive for the bar to attract a backpacker alfresco eating and drinking crowd.
Located slap bang in the middle of town a short stroll from Psah Nat, Scoop is located in one of those stylish and curvaceous Khmer corner buildings that look lovely from the street and gives this bar a welcoming edge. Once inside, space is a little limited (just a couple of tables) and without any customers apart from Chhay Vet and myself, the friendly staff were lined up behind the bar staring wistfully into the middle distance as if they were waiting eagerly for a favourite relative to return from a lengthy journey. Sadly, Scoop was yet another bar to suffer from Khmer Over-bright Strip Lighting Syndrome.
On the other hand, you might be glad to know that Scoop is Battambang’s first and so far only cocktail bar. ‘What next? Battambang’s first gastropub? Battambang’s first loft conversion private members club?’ you could well ask. If this seems incongruous then the cocktails are certainly competitively priced with a Strawberry Daiquiri to be had for $3.50, a Vodka Martini going for $2.80, Margaritas are priced at $3, Singapore Slings at $3.50, Mint Juleps at $2.80 etc. The complimentary home-made taro and potato chips were good too.
If we add to the list the French owned bistro Apple of Love/Pomme d’Amour then that makes five new venues started by expats who have drifted in town over the last couple of years. Starting your business in the eye of an economic storm that has caused tourist numbers to plummet drastically over the last few months requires a degree of bravery and bars that are empty night after night can seem strange and purposeless. It’s therefore likely that one or two of the less established and already tottering new venues will have gone on a one-way journey past the U-bend by this time next year.
Still, commercial rents in Battambang are far more realistic than Phnom Penh so there is an outside chance that they might all stay the course. It’s to be hoped so, because when I escape for a long weekend away from the noise and the dust and the clatter and the shriek of the building site known as Phnom Penh, it’s good to have a few more choices in my favourite provincial bolthole.