With a growing number of businesses, Phnom Penh’s Bassac Lane has moved from an up-and-coming hotspot to one of the city’s mainstays. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
On a recent Saturday night, down a nondescript turnoff in the capital, an energetic rockabilly band – set up in the middle of an alley, under fairy lights strung across the small stretch of space – entertain a smattering of expat and Khmer imbibers, as well as dancing neighbourhood kids. Residents ease their motorbikes through the crowd to access their homes, and patrons move seamlessly with their drinks between chic microbars specialising in gin, daiquiris and craft beer.
While perhaps seeming a bit surreal, this small, charming passageway – now known as Bassac Lane – has become a very real and integral part of the Phnom Pehn’s nightlife.
This transition has happened over a short time period. Less than three years ago, the tight maze of paths was lined with nondescript homes and shop fronts. And nearby Street 308 had just started to have the beginnings of foot traffic with the opening of pizzeria Piccola Italia, followed by Mama Wong’s and Red Bar.
The alleyway’s makeover was the brainchild of New Zealand brothers George and William Norbert-Munns, founding developers of Bassac Lane. Starting with the opening of Seibur – the tiniest of the microbars – in October 2013, the duo rolled out five bars and one eatery in just a year-and-a-half.
“After Meat and Drink opened (in February 2014), there was a real vision to create a street and a destination,” says George. “That’s something we’ve always seen as lacking in Phnom Penh – somewhere with lots of bars people can be entertained in.”
With these businesses, the rundown passageway was transformed into a pristine locale. Though all the microenterprises have a common je ne sais quoi about them, they each offer varied décor and beverages, from motorcycle-themed drinking hole Hangar 44 to vintage antique-accented Harry’s bar. “Each place was built to give different types of customers what they want,” says George.
This is not the brothers’ first experience working in laneways. In 2012, they opened Bar Sito in alleyway 240 ½, followed six months later by Public House restaurant. However, due to difficulties with neighbours, the pair set their sights elsewhere, keeping a keen eye on Tonlé Bassac for some time before building Seibur. “It was quite sleepy; rent wasn’t as expensive as neighbouring Boeung Keng Kang 1,” says George. “We saw real promise and potential for the area.”
With consistent crowds each weekend, the lane’s success is hard to deny. And a growing number of players joining the passageway promises to expand and prolong this boon. The area now boasts a treasure trove of small new shops, including a tannery, clothing store, Malaysian restaurant – seating just 15 people – and hair salon. “They all sort of complement each other,” says Dollhouse salon owner Ryan Drew Taylor of the lane’s tiny offerings. “Bassac Lane needs a variety of businesses to flourish,” adds Luke Ding, who co-owns Malaysian restaurant Double D with Taylor. “It’s all the service industry at the end of the day.”
Businesses say the lane culture is taking over in many parts of the world, as customers move away from larger, chain-style enterprises. So it is no surprise Cambodia has followed suit. “After all the mega-sized bars and clubs in this city, people have been wanting a well-curated space to savour their cold tipples and share a laugh,” says Patrick Uong, co-founder and co-owner of Hangar 44, a joint operation with Moto Cambodge.
The microenterprises provide for a more personalised experience and allow groups of friends to feel bars are their own. Adds Uong. “It’s a friendly outdoor meetinghouse made up of six bars. How rad it that?”
The passageway has also become a destination for live music, with bar owners hosting bands every six weeks, featuring everything from brass groups and DJs to punk and acoustic. In the future, owners also hope to collaborate on street parties. “We’re trying to promote Bassac Lane as a whole. It’s good for me; it’s good for everyone else,” says Ding.
“We’re not competing against each other. We collaborate,” adds Uong. “But we do try to raise the bar – no pun intended – to grow the industry.”
Despite rapid changes in the capital, business owners feel the lane will be popular for the long haul, in part because of the variety it offers. “It puts Phnom Penh on the map, that Phnom Penh has something to offer apart from the riverside, casino and museums,” says Ding. “It’s starting to move away from traditional tourism-based activities to a more bar-type culture.” He adds that an advantage of small businesses is that they can remain flexible and responsive to the changing needs of the market.
So far, the lane has mostly attracted expats and tourists, but with the opening of a locally owned bar, this may start to change. Uong, too, hopes to attract more of a Khmer crowd.
“That’s my 2016 mission,” he says. As opposed to Street 240½, the area also has potential to expand further geographically into the back-alley neighbourhood, according to Taylor. “We just need somebody to try,” he says.
Considering Bassac Lane’s founding developers seem to have a knack for risk taking, this doesn’t seem far off. “It hasn’t gone to its peak yet,” says Ding. “It’s nowhere near it.”