Despite reports of the hospitality and construction industries suffering from the dire effects of COVID-19, one unlikely area of Phnom Penh is defying the odds and expanding into a small town of its own, somewhat like London’s Soho.
The Tonle Bassac area of Phnom Penh is home to the bustling Bassac Lane and Street 308. A rising number of high-end bars and restaurants in this area will soon be joined by large developments and yet more entertainment venues.
Just a few weeks ago, when bars were closed because of the pandemic, it was lights out in the diverse, multicultural area a few minutes from the Independence Monument in one direction and Aeon 1 shopping mall in another.
Now, particularly at weekends, the night air is filled with music and laughter as people return in their droves and tuktuks clog the lanes.
It’s a clear sign of economic optimism among the upper echelons of society in the capital, contrasting with the depressing restaurant and bar closures, pay cuts and redundancies elsewhere, with the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) this year expected to drop to its lowest since 1994 after years of being around a staggering 7 percent. Some cynics predict negative GDP for 2,000.
Bassac Lane itself is already full so attention is now being paid to its offshoot, Street 308, where hoardings hide the hive of activity going on.
Land prices within the Bassac lane area are reported to stand at around $4,000 to $5,000 per square metre (sq m) in comparison with BKK1, where land prices range from $6,000 to $12,000 a sq m.
Another attraction is that the prices of food and beverages are comparatively cheap. Shop around and you can find a bar selling classic cocktails at $3, glasses of draught beer at $1 and wholesome meals from $5. One even boasts a swimming pool, pool table and bar football. Some restaurants even boast “all you can eat buffets”. The owner of Bar 21 said: “We are always busy on a Monday, Thursday and Saturday because people love to come back and enjoy as much steak as they like from 5pm until 10pm for just $10.”
Brass Monkey promotes a “ladies night” on Tuesdays from 5pm to 8pm, when women can drink free. Unsurprisingly, the owner said: “We get very busy during these nights.”
Amid the general gaiety, there is a sense of optimism, despite the tight control of Cambodia’s borders keeping tourists at bay. Cambodia has yet to report a single death from Novel Coronavirus.
To add to this there are new shops and bars being built directly on even cheaper Street 308. The owner of a local development company, who declined to be named, said “Even though we are in the middle of this terrible affair, people still need to eat and drink. COVID-19 is not going to go away tomorrow. In fact, it may take another two years for things to go back to normal and life needs to go on.”
He explained that his project was to build small food stalls, bars and shops around a centre stage for live music for which he will hire a Filipino band to play every night. When asked how he financed this project, he said he owns a lot of land in the area and also has a real estate business. He said he is building this so that people who found themselves suddenly unemployed can get a job whether in construction or hospitality.
Pull back the hoardings surrounding obvious construction sites and you might see beer gardens in the initial stages of being built, the foundations of new apartments or the makings of a gastropub. The owner of one bar on Street 308 said: “This street sees more traffic and is known to be cheaper than Bassac Lane. Rents seem to be cheaper and this adds to our overall profit. There is more profit on street 308 compared with elsewhere.”
So amid the doom and gloom of traditional bar streets such as 136 and Pub Street, there are still bright lights to be found in this city of water known in some quarters as the Pearl of Asia.
- Tags: Bassac Lane, COVID-19 in Cambodia