Nathan Thompson examines the customer demographic at Brown Coffee in Phnom Penh.
I’m a coffee shop w*nker. I’m that guy sitting at his laptop rolling his eyes as you enter with your girlfriends trailing your excitable sprogs behind you. Even as I write this I am glaring at a Chinese family who has decided to hold some kind of Dionysian celebration at 8:28am.
I enjoy working in Brown. It’s air conditioned, the staff are friendly and remember my regular order. Naturally, I resist the urge to ask for “the usual” like some lonely drunk, but like an alcoholic, I can only truly function when I’ve had my coffee. Brown’s is a great venue – well located and with wifi that can handle hefty downloads.
But the music….Jesus. Being someone who is acutely aware of the pointlessness of human existence my temperament does not easily lend itself to songs where the main refrain is “I wanna make love right na na na na”. And it’s not just the song selection, it’s the volume. What can really drive you mad is when the intolerable warblings of Justin Bieber still manage to filter through the Boards of Canada album you have playing in your earphones.
Despite playing music, as Orwell said, “published for the benefit of the proles,” Brown’s attracts an interesting slice of Phnom Penh society. Take, for example, the teenage children of the South Korean factory owners. For some reason, these Korean girls go to great lengths to look as much like creepy mannequins as possible. They bleach their skin corpse-white, straighten their hair until you can cut cheese with it and do something to their eyes to make them big and glassy. They fill me with a mixture of fascination and lust until I don’t know whether to date them or put them up for sale on EBay in their original packaging.
While the Korean girls sip Green Tea frappes and take incessant selfies, the barang males enter to have a meeting. Barangs love meetings. You can spot the NGO guys from their earnest expressions and love of PowerPoint action plans. And you can spot the business guys the moment they sit down and whip out their dicks to measure-up while talking about “maximising mutual synergy” (an actual quote). As I glare at them all from behind my shoddy laptop I am reminded of a quote by noted lifehacker Tim Ferriss, “meetings are something organisations habitually engage in because they cannot actually masturbate”.
Of course barang males are an obvious target because of their belief in their own importance but at least they treat the staff with some degree of humanity which is more than can be said of the rich Khmers who receive their orders without the slightest nod to the staff who juggle their coffee shop job with full-time studies while living, like my friend, in a shed round the back of a government building. The rich Khmers come with two props: smartphones and obese children both of which they cannot help perpetually stroking.
The barang women are a rarer site but when they do sail in wearing summer dresses and trailing flaxen-haired sprogs they turn out to be are the best behaved of the lot. Their children still retain something of childhood innocence as, unlike rich Khmer kids, they don’t emerge from the birth canal posting photos on instagram while being placed on a strict diet of cakes.
Despite having to deal with all this nonsense the staff at Brown remain courteous. And can we talk about the frappes? I know I might be going out on a limb here but I think Brown Frappes are better than Starbucks who invented the drink that, in the words of Howard Moon, “has all the benefits of a cold drink but with a caffeine boost”.
As for the management, well, anyone who can start up a coffee chain in today’s market and have it be successful deserves props. The architecture hits that sweet spot – half office, half front room, with plenty of natural light and blinds ready for when the sun gets harsh. Far better than Costa’s street 51 goldfish bowl that can make you feel like an ant beneath the magnifying glass of a sadistic 10 year-old.
Brown do their bit to make our ant-like existence on this planet more acceptable. Take their loyalty card. Usually loyalty cards just collect in my pocket and expire like suffocated fairies, the promise of free coffee dying with them. Not so with Brown’s. I made an effort, collected the blue stamps, and it was with no small amount of gusto that I handed over my completed card to receive free coffee. That was a day when life was worth living.
Us Brown regulars are a diverse lot. The rich Cambodians, despite their homicidal operation of over-sized 4x4s, do tend to hang out in a becoming and civilized manner. The barangs despite having an inflated sense of their own importance often have their hearts in the right place. And spare a thought for us coffee shop wankers; think about what terrible tragedy led us to sit behind our laptops typing snarky blog articles glaring with no small degree of jealousy at your perfect lives.