Phnom Penh’s first escape room has proved a popular addition to the capital. Editor Marissa Carruthers and photographer Lucas Veuve put their detective hats on.

Panic ensues as a screen in the corner of the room reminds us we have 32 minutes left to find out what’s happened to our colleague – an investigator who has mysteriously disappeared – before he remains off the map forever. Nothing has been left unturned in the dimly lit room we’re stuck in, which wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Sherlock Homes. However, the clock is ticking and we’ve got many more clues to solve before there’s any hope of swooping to the rescue of our workmate.

It may come as no surprise to learn that we haven’t actually lost a colleague and we’re not actually trapped in a dark room in a house near Russian Market. This is in fact one of two scenarios created by the brains behind Escape60, the capital’s first escape room. Although the rules vary slightly depending on where you play, the premise is simple. Players are locked in a themed room and have a set time to escape by solving a series of hidden clues and puzzles.

Since the first escape room opened in Japan in 2006 – Real Escape Game was developed by Takao Kato at the age of 35 – the phenomenon has swept across the globe, with groups of friends, relatives and workmates pitting their brains against the clock. However, it was its growing popularity in Spain that planted the seed for Escape60.

“We went back to Spain for Christmas 2015 and everybody was talking about escape rooms,” says co-founder Rebceca Murillo, who set up Escape60 with her husband Sergio Bakali and their pal, William Eastwood. “We tried it and loved it; it can be so addictive. Then we started to think about how we could do something like this in Phnom Penh.”

The Spanish expats had no trouble finding a location – a Khmer house in Toul Tom Poung – or coming up with the themes – a classic detective mystery and a jail break. However, they hit a brick wall when it came to sourcing the décor to kit out the two rooms.

“In Cambodia, it was difficult to find what we needed,” says Eastwood. “So we thought it’s better to do it ourselves.”

The trio scoured the city and beyond for rubbish they could use to transform the room into their desired settings. Every small detail and prop, from the fireplace made from recycled wood and scraps thrown out at a temple, to the dimly lit lamps, books that line the bookshelf and cell bars, were carefully crafted by Eastwood – all in 45 days, while battling against the humid climate that took its toll on some of the craftwork.

The games were then tested on friends from different nationalities and of varying ages, before it was launched in December.

The result is The Shelter, which is set in 19th Century London in a private detective’s office, and the harder option, Night City Prison, where players have to solve the mystery behind a series of strange disappearances to escape from a cell in one of the most dangerous prisons.

“We have paid a lot of attention to detail. We want the rooms and the experience to be authentic so that was really important for us. From start to finish, it’s a journey,” says Bakali referring to the classic London streetscape they have created at the venture’s entrance.

To date, Escape60 has proved a success, attracting people from all walks of life, from friends wanting to pit their wit against the clues and the clock while also escaping the humdrum of the city outside for an hour, to groups of pupils pushing their problem-solving skills. “They actually broke out the quickest,” adds Murillo.

Plans are also in the pipeline to create an additional two rooms geared towards Khmers, with the owners also realising the limited shelf life of their products. “Once you’ve done it, you’re not going to want to do it two, three, four times,” says Murillo. “So we need to create more adventures in the future.”

With about 50 percent of people successfully setting themselves free, and the average breakout time sitting at 57 minutes, can you crack the code?

Escape60, 9C Street 147, costs $20 per person for 60 minutes, with a maximum of four to five people in each room. It is open daily from 9am to 9pm. For more information, or to book online, visit escape60pp.com.