As Russian Market, or Toul Tom Poung, welcomes more businesses and residents into its burgeoning pocket of Phnom Penh, Marissa Carruthers and Jessica Tana hit the area to see what’s bubbling behind the scenes. Photography by Enric Català.

“We moved into one of the tallest buildings in the area, and it was six or seven storeys high,” recalls Corbett Hix of when he moved into an apartment in Toul Tom Poung in 2012. “In terms of restaurants, there was Café Yeji, Coffee Corner and Jars of Clay; that was about it.”

Fast forward five years, and that same apartment building sits in the shadow of its 12-floor neighbour, with even taller offerings cropping up at a steady pace. The restaurant scene is exploding, new residents are opting to relocate to the area, amenities are increasing, and prices, for now, remain low.

For the last few years, Toul Tom Poung – home to Russian Market – has been on the radar of expats, locals and businesses looking for the capital’s next hot spot. As rental prices spiral out of control in popular BKK1 and affordable, available space runs out, cheaper, quirkier alternatives are being sought, and Toul Tom Poung stands out from the crowd.

However, up until recently, while rental costs were less than other areas, the area’s lack of amenities and evening activities were a sticking point for many. Safety after dark was also an issue with the area home to a network of badly lit back alleys; trying to get transport after hours was tough.

But the last two years have seen the area come to life as more independent restaurants, hip cafés, boutiques and trendy bars open their doors, condos and other modern accommodation mushroom and a staggering number of foreigners choose to live in the area that was once deemed “too far out” for many.

“People used to live here because of cheap rents but there was nothing to do,” says resident and Phnom Climb manager Carlos Estevez. “That has changed. Now people are choosing to live here because it has so much going on and a sense of community you can’t find elsewhere.”

Home Sweet Home

“It felt so welcoming,” Roxanne Cusick says, over coffee served in a ceramic goblet at one of the trendy cafés. She is recalling her first days living in the area, back in early 2015. “There was this vibrant young community and a good combination of expats and locals, which is why we decided to live here.”

Like many newcomers to Phnom Penh, Cusick was drawn to Toul Tom Poung by its neighbourhood feel. It had all the amenities but without the hustle of riverside, and lay outside the expat bubble of BKK1.

Russian Market“There is definitely a community feeling,” agrees The Flick’s Community Theatre owner Ramon Stoppelenburg. “Everything is so convenient in Toul Tom Poung, and because of all these things opening up, from cocktail bars to eateries, it’s easy to meet up with people.”

Toul Tom Poung boasts affordable living, along with a variety of restaurants, cafés, bars, supermarkets, organic greengrocers, gyms and, of course, Russian Market. So, it’s not difficult to see why it’s fast becoming Phnom Penh’s hippest suburb. However, it wasn’t always this way.

Stoppelenburg, who has lived in Phnom Penh since 2010, moved to the neighbourhood for the price, snagging a four-bedroom villa with a huge balcony for $550 a month. “It was near a market, so I thought, ‘I’ll take it for that price and start my fabulous life in Phnom Penh’,” he says.

He soon discovered the area’s flip side, with it pretty much shutting down after dark. “There was nothing,” he says, his smile waning. “It was dead. The market stopped at 6pm and that was it. If you wanted to go out or have a beer, you had to leave the neighbourhood.”

Toul Tom Poung resident of two years Peter Ford agrees. “A year and a half ago, there were only four restaurants and one bar. Just tourists and a KFC,” he says. “Now you can get what you need without having to leave the area.”

However, Darren Gall, who lived there in 2013, says it was this quiet, local charm that initially attracted him.

“It was a slice of the Burbs, Khmer style,” he says. “Nice friendly neighbours, not too much traffic, plenty of cheap Khmer eats and street food but not much to sate a westerner’s culinary pangs for home. Condos were relatively rare and there was still a sense of “village”. Cafés opened later, bars closed earlier, and people lived life out on the streets in front of you. Of course, this is an integral part of the charm and engagement with people and a place when living there.”

While condos are flying up and new ventures open, residents claim the area, for now, is managing to retain its charm, and affordable prices – two of the main traits drawing fresh faces there.

“Now it’s my favourite place,” Stoppelenburg says. “It seems to be continually growing in in character.”

Business is Booming

“The community is very different there,” says Eleven One Kitchen owner Srun Soklim, referring to the location of her second restaurant, BKK1. Earlier this year, Srun bucked the trend by opening in BKK1 after enjoying three years at her flagship Toul Tom Poung eatery.

After scouring the area for an affordable spot, she started operations on Street 334 and has been struggling to get off the ground ever since.

“There is not the same sense of community there,” she says. “My customers also say the area has a much different atmosphere.”

Higher rental rates in BKK1 have also forced Srun to whack an extra 25 to 50 cents on dishes to cover costs. “We will get there, but it will be much more work and headache,” she says.

Over at Russian Market, however, many businesses have united to form Toul Tom Poung East Small Business Association (TTPEast), which was launched late last year. Influenced by Siem Reap’s Kandal Village – a downtrodden area of Temple Town that has been revamped and filled with quirky stores, injecting an artsy edge – several SMEs united to preserve the quirks that give the area its identity, provide support, and rebrand the neighbourhood. 

“There’s a lot of creative-minded businesses here, and we wanted to support each other and promote this,” says Tania Unsworth, co-owner of Tipico Tapas and Roots & Burgers, adding the small business element is another attractive side of Toul Tom Poung. “You don’t have all of the international chains you see now in BKK1.”

The association is promoting the suburb’s compact, convenient size and walkability through a walking map, highlighting businesses and other notable destinations within the area. TTPEast members have also signed up to GOGREEN’s clean-up campaign, which sees all recyclable goods separated at a designated spot and given to waste collectors. Monthly litter picks also started in March.

“This is a really appealing element for businesses in the area,” says Brendan McCarthy, who opened Long After Dark two years ago with business partner, Nathan Headlam. The hip bar wouldn’t look out of place in their hometown of Melbourne, and is one of the evening attractions luring punters from far flung areas of the capital.

Recognising Tuol Tom Poung’s potential, Street 450, near Russian Market, stood out from the rest.

“We looked at riverside but it was too touristy and we didn’t want to be close to some of the bars there,” says McCarthy. “We looked at BKK1 but it feels a little bit tired now. It felt like there was much more of a community in Toul Tom Poung, so it was the only place really.”

During their time there, the owners have noted a rise in new faces – both expats and middle-class Khmers keen to sample drinking away from the traditional KTVs and beer gardens. And they are so convinced by Tuol Tom Poung’s future that this month they will open their latest venture, Sundown Social Club, a rooftop bar overlooking Russian Market.

“The atmosphere is quieter and more unique than other areas; it has a nice feel,” adds Carlos Estevez, manager of Phnom Penh Climb.

Property Game

“It’s a lot more Cambodian down there,” IPS country manager Grant Fitzgerald says, referring to the large Khmer population in Toul Tom Poung. “It would take a long time for them to be pushed out and the area turned into BKK1.”

As costs in popular BKK1 have spiralled out of control, both businesses and residents have found themselves pushed out of the area. And the smattering of colonial villas and traditional houses that gave the area its charm were quickly replaced by luxury and modern condos found across the globe.

“A lot of bars and small restaurants have disappeared over the last three years because they were set up five years ago and their rent was $1,500. When they’ve gone to renew, it’s now $5,000,” says Fitzgerald. “A lot of those places have gone to Russian Market.”

While some fear, the rapid rise in the southern suburb’s popularity will create a similar situation in Tuol Tom Poung, Fitzgerald believes it will retain its authentic charm – at least for the next 10 years.

Is BKK1’s loss Toul Tom Poung’s gain?

Those independent bars and restaurants lost from BKK1 now line the streets below Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and beyond. “It’s more bang for your buck,” Fitzgerald says.

This is evident in the large influx of Asian and Western migrants storming the area without prices increasing too much.

“At the moment, there hasn’t been a huge correction in general prices,” adds Fitzgerald. “I say that for buildings that have been there for two or three years, they’re still listed at about the same price. Maybe even a 10 percent drop, just because there are so many new buildings that have come up.”

The Future

With the sense of community strong, Cambodian charm available by the bucket load and low prices continuing to attract more business, fears have been raised that Tuol Tom Poung’s rise may eventually lead to its demise.

While Fitzgerald is convinced it will take at least a decade for the Toul Tom Poung fad to fade, other issues that are endemic to Phnom Penh threaten its existence.

The increasing volume of traffic is of concern, as is the lack of parking space. “As this problem continues to grow, it will affect the neighbourhood quality,” says Hix, comparing the area’s relatively quiet streets to BKK1’s often gridlocked roads. “If we start to have the traffic problems of BKK1 then the charm is lost.”

The lack of green space across the city is also felt in this neighbourhood, with proposals currently being created for a community park on land slated for development in two years.

The area’s make-over has also benefitted local communities, who are cashing in on the increased foot flow and spending. Small local businesses are springing up off the back of many of these new ventures, such as the family-run coffee shop opposite Phnom Penh Climb, and an increasing number of roadside stalls that are catering to the growing number of people.

According to Sorn Sopheak, business has never been better at his stall selling refreshments and cigarettes on Street 450. “I have many more customers these days. I can feed my family better,” he says. And tuk tuk drivers are welcoming business after dark. “We are much more busy now, it is good,” says one of them, Tek Chanda.

Ai Bounnareth, who has operated Best Iced Coffee from inside Russian Market since 1980, adds, “I see many more customer here now. It is much busier. I hope more will come in the future.”

While more change is undoubtedly on the horizon, it’s unknown whether it will be for the better or worse. However, one thing that is for sure is that, for now, Toul Tom Poung is on the up.

“It’s easy to long for the charm of a disappearing world but in reality with new buildings, new businesses and new people coming into the area there is probably more wealth, more opportunity and a happier local community,” says Gall. “To me, that’s what is important, and that’s what I hope for Toul Tom Poung.”