With restaurants and condos on the rise, the Toul Tom Poung area is attracting a new expat market. Joanna Mayhew reports on its growing popularity, with photographs by Conor Wall.
As recently as 2010, Cambodia’s Lonely Planet guide relegated discussion of the Russian Market area to three cafés and one restaurant. But the neighbourhood has seen an explosion of growth since, and is earning its place as an up-and-coming destination in the city.
Toul Tom Poung’s tree-lined streets, replete with food stalls and tucked-away family-run shops, are abuzz with new activity — and, for the first time, it doesn’t all revolve around tourists.
In every direction increasingly taller buildings are being constructed, with high-end apartment blocks being filled with residents in as little as four weeks. Corner shops like Angkor Mart are expanding both in space and selection, and even the Russian Market appears to be undergoing a facelift. Glass-enclosed and air-conditioned shops have replaced some traditional stalls.
“Toul Tom Poung is not just about beer gardens anymore,” says David Murphy, managing director of Independent Property Services (IPS). “It’s about funky little restaurants.”
Eateries and cafés, many of them fist-time ventures, are leading the charge, and are being rewarded with a steady stream of business. Mexican eatery Alma Café, opened earlier this year, reports approximately 100 patrons on an average Saturday or Sunday.
Clientele has evolved from passing tour groups to expat residents, says So Pilot, a co-owner of the Jars of Clay café. Opened in 1998, it was one of the Russian Market’s original landmarks. Now it has to vie with increasing numbers of coffee shops.
Yet despite growing competition, business owners remain enthusiastic about the wave of establishments choosing Toul Tom Poung.
“My philosophy is that a rising tide raises all ships. It’s an old saying, but I hold it dear,” says Jay Miller, owner of the newly opened restaurant Brooklyn Pizza and Bistro. “And I welcome as many restaurants as possible. Like, please, come. Make this the destination area for different levels of dining.”
Two primary drivers of growth are demand and affordability, according to property experts. Boeung Keng Kang 1 (BKK1) is becoming progressively more built up and expensive. A spillover effect is taking place, with Toul Tom Poung on the receiving end. “Toul Tom Poung is definitely on the move, and is moving very fast,” says Murphy.
The cost of renting and leasing property around Russian market is typically two-thirds that of BKK1, with developers able to build serviced residences — such as 29-apartment Sovann Lotus — and still market them at lower rates.
Beyond price, business owners are choosing the area out of preference. Many mention the benefits of less congestion and more of a community feel. “You just get that feeling that, you know, this is my restaurant, this is my neighbourhood,” says Miller. “It’s just more chill.”
Restaurants are also springing up on lesser-known side streets rather than the main thoroughfares surrounding the market, as owners aim for long-term, repeat customers. Co-owner Keiko Fujita says of her Sesame Noodle Bar restaurant: “You need to sort of look for it. But that’s also the point.”
Non-profit organisations, too, are finding reason to set up shop. Skateistan, which connects youth and education through skateboarding, moved to the area last year and considers affordability a factor.
“By being here, we can still do what we want to do and what we need to do without having to sacrifice a lot of money for rent and other unnecessary costs,” says operations director Brandon Gomez. “It can go into the programme instead.”
Toul Tom Poung is also appealing to younger expats, with new arrivals often aged 25 to 40 years and single, as opposed to the families that have historically made up the neighbourhood, says Murphy.
“It’s not BKK, but that’s the appeal of it,” states 28-year-old Niles Lashway, who relocated to the area in October. As Alma co-owner Aaron Hassenboehler puts it, the neighbourhood has “a lot of conveniences, but not too many conveniences.”
Although Toul Tom Poung has been in the past been seen as the “other side of the tracks,” according to Murphy, newcomers to the city view it differently. IPS’s clients are interested in the area not only due to its new offerings but also because it feels more distinctively Cambodian than BKK1. Residents say it is easier to feel a part of the local community.
“Russian Market has a real soul about it,” says Murphy. “It’s one of those few places where you can have a really nice meal at a Western-style restaurant, and then go around the next corner and you’re walking into a Cambodian family who are sitting outside their house and happy to see you.”
This may not always be the case, though. As new businesses spring up, more Khmer families may move out of the area, simply because purchase offers are too high to pass up. “It’s a function of progress,” states Murphy.
Business owners acknowledge that Toul Tom Poung may not be immune to the problems any other Phnom Penh neighbourhood has faced, such as increasing traffic, but for now they are grateful for the momentum. “We have breathing room to enjoy the ride,” says Miller.
The significant growth over the last year shows no signs of slowing. Underutilised blocks remain in Toul Tom Poung, and development is slated to continue, with IPS predicting it “kicking hard” in the next two years.
Prices may be on the rise —a trend seen across Phnom Penh — but rentals should remain affordable due to supply. This means, for now, city dwellers can continue to anticipate ever more treats popping up on the south side. “Right now it feels sustainable and it feels right,” says Murphy. “But I think you’re a fool if you forecast any further than a year or two in property in Cambodia.”