Cambodian cafes

This post is dedicated to Dr. Marc Vachon.

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There are two types of Cambodian cafes: Western and local.  This post is about both of them, with a little bit of restaurant thrown in for good measure.

The cafe in which I’m currently sitting and writing, Xotique Coffee, is my usual jam on weekends when I want to get some blogging or travel planning done.  It’s close to home but not far enough so I can still get my sweat on whether walking or riding my bike over.  It’s no Starbucks (thankfully) but there’s something about it that instantly struck me as comfortable and made me want to come back.

As you can probably tell by the picture, this isn’t a typical Cambodian place.  It’s big, air conditioned, the staff speak very good English and, right now, it’s decorated with a Christmas tree…and the staff are being forced to wear Santa hats.  I don’t even have to lock up my bike!  They have a little parking lot WITH SECURITY.  I get a little ticket and they watch my bike for hours while I’m busy soaking up the free wifi and feeding my coffee addiction.  Plus, they have toilet paper in the washroom!

Despite the fact that I can get a large hazelnut latte (my go-to drink) with soy milk for a mere $3.30 whereas, in Canada, that would cost me about $6, this is very much a Western-style place. 

It’s pretty rare to see locals in here and, when there are, you can tell they have money.  While $3.30 doesn’t seem like much to us in Canada, it’s a lot to locals, who usually pay 40 cents to 60 cents for an ice coffee in Khmer style cafes (more on this later!).  The usual clientele include: tourists, since the Russian market–a major tourist spot in the city–is just a few blocks away; some local students–if they have the money to go to university, they have the money to drink expensive coffee; and expats, as Xotique is conveniently located within a few blocks of the major expat area in the city.

I know what you’re thinking–why would you bother spending so much money in a cafe that is exactly like those at home?  The answer is twofold: 1) in a city on the other side of the world that’s 13 hours ahead of The Peg, 70 degrees CELCIUS warmer than the Peg right now and whose road are (somehow) worse than The Peg’s in the spring, maybe I need a little bit of Western in my life and 2) they make really good drinks.  Like, seriously.

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This might look familiar...my first drink ever at Xotique!

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My latte took a selfie! #nofilter

While it feels Western and could certainly be written off as “placeless” (one of my favourite concepts in my Environmental Perception and Human Behaviour course), it has a different feel than cafes in North America that’s uniquely Cambodian.

For starters, the staff actually seem happy to see me when I come through the door, even though I’m positive they’re required to chime “Sok s’baai dte?” as soon as anyone comes through the door.  But, in a few short weeks, I’ve become a regular.  Hell, I became a regular at Rocket Bakery within a week when I was in St. John’s!  As I walked in today, a cheery server greeted me, took a second to recognize me and, when he did, the smile that is permanently on every Cambodian’s face grew larger.  Another sign that alerted me to the fact that I’ve become a regular was a few days ago, when I dragged my new volunteer friends TN and TM here.  We were in the middle of ordering and, as I was saying “large hot hazelnut latte…” the server finished my sentence and said, “…with soy milk?” Oh, how it feels to have a cafe of my own! 

Actually, on a bit of a tangent, I just realized that I don’t really have a cafe of my own back in the Peg.  Quelle dommage!  Although, I feel like, if The Fyxx on Dakota was still open, I’d probably hang there a lot.

Back to business!  I think the reason it feels so different here in comparison to Canadian cafes is that it’s more relaxed.  I know it sounds ridiculous because the whole point of cushy chairs and wifi is to have a place to work for a few hours or talk with friends while drinking overpriced coffee but, I always feel there’s a sense of urgency there.  It could be the people anxiously waiting at the end of the counter for their much-needed injection of caffeine.  It could be the conspicuously uncomfortable chairs that adorn the majority of the tables that leave your ass numb and begging to leave.  It could be the constant chatter of “I’ll have a venti, quadruple pump, caramel iced macchiato with snow, no ice, sugar free syrup, no whip, extra foam, sub one pump of caramel syrup with pumpkin spice syrup, no fat frappucino” but it feels urgent, rushed, sometimes frantic.

Here, things aren’t so rushed.  Things happen when they happen.  Despite the crazy traffic, with motos dodging in and out, cars honking for everyone to get out of their way, nobody is really in a hurry.  When I walk in, I go to a table–usually one in the back because the internet connection tends to be better–a server quickly brings me both food and drink menus and waits for me to order.  Although this was weird and I perceived it to be a little pushy at first, that’s just good customer service.  I order a latte and it’s safe to assume it’ll come within a five to ten minute window and most of the time it’s right, although, there have been times when a server will come over to me and tell me they accidentally made it with milk instead of soy milk.  Fortunately, those have been the times where I have had enough willpower to not pound it back like a tequila shot.  Surprisingly, they’re not overly apologetic about it, like I would expect, since they’re so friendly here.  Instead, they tell me what happened, apologize, take the dairy-laden drink away and bring me a new one…within five to ten minutes.

Also unlike North American cafes, people don’t gather around the end of the counter to wait for drinks.  If you’re staying, they bring it to you.  If you’re taking it to go, they bring it to you.  In both cases, they’ll bring it to you when they get around to it.  While at Peace Cafe in Siem Reap (aka Meggo’s Mecca), I had the pleasure of watching one of the staff members make a latte.  The steps are exactly the same as in Canada but just at half the pace.  There seems to be a lot of pausing in between steps, maybe just to make sure they execute it correctly.  It just doesn’t seem to occur to Cambodians to do things very quickly.  And it’s lovely.

It makes spending four to five hours a day here easy and doesn’t come with the tinge of guilt I usually start to feel when I spend an hour or two in Starbucks.  The staff bring around complimentary glasses of water periodically, rare in a country where you can only drink bottled or specially filtered water.  If they see you pick up a menu–even if you’re just curious about their extensive drink menu–a server will be standing next to you in no time, making sure you have everything you want.  Of course, there are also the servers that recognize me and come to chat when they’re free.

In summary, although it feels Western and even corporate in some ways, it’s also incredibly comfortable.

On the flip side, there are local cafes.  These are usually open-air establishments that have patio furniture for customers to sit, a make-shift kitchen and at least four TVs, all set to different channels.  Sometimes more than one of them will be emitting sound, which I imagine gets confusing since most of the TV shows are clearly dubbed in Khmer.  Although the sign usually says “cafe”, these places also function restaurants and entertainment centres with several rows of patio chairs lined up facing the TVs, like those in a movie theatre. 

While I’ve never ordered food at one of these local cafes (my Khmer is pretty terrible and they’re prone to eating fish heads) and it’s pretty difficult to understand what’s happening on the TVs, one will have Japanese subtitles and two will have English subtitles in a font too small to read from more than five feet away, I’ve ordered a decent amount of ice coffee.  And it’s magical.

Unlike Xotique, whoever happens to be around one of these haunts asks me what I would like very soon after I come in, possibly because I’m clearly a foreigner.  I’ve floated into a couple local places near work and home because they’re literally everywhere.  Usually, at least one staff member speaks enough English to understand “ice coffee” after I try my best to say it in Khmer (cafay day kah) and it comes to the table by the time I sit down. 

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I like my coffee strong.  Not necessarily bitter but having a good kick to it (think Starbucks’ Italian roast for all my fellow corporate coffee drinkers out there).  That being said, Cambodian coffee puts the coffee we drink in North America to shame.  It’s really strong, maybe a little bit weaker than espresso and they like it really sweet.  Serve it over ice and it’s the best afternoon refresher in the world. 

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My ice coffee got jealous of my latte and took a selfie. #toaster

These local dives also have Khmer-style coffee, which I think is fairly prevalent in Vietnam as well, where they drink their deliciously strong coffee with a lot of sugar and sweetened condensed milk–a remnant of French colonialism.  As much as I want to try it, milk isn’t going to happen (at least not purposely) so I’m already getting excited to make dairy-free condensed milk and add it to really strong coffee when I get back to The Peg.  Until then, I guess I’ll have to make do with delicious lattes and ice coffees.  Le sigh.

By now, you’re probably thinking that Western- and local-cafes are totally and completely different.  Perhaps you’re a little surprised that the Western-style places embody the relaxed nature of Cambodians and the Khmer-style places embody more of the urgency of North America.  Fortunately, that’s not the case.  As I said, the local places also tend to function as restaurants and, despite the fact that I’ve never ordered food from one of these places, the service is the same–the food comes out when it’s ready and they’ll get to it when they get to it.

This was pretty weird at first, especially having just quit my job working in a restaurant where my job was literally making sure all plates for one table went out correctly and at the same time.  But, that’s just how Cambodians roll.  I’ve gone to restaurants where my eating companion will get their food, finish it and then I’ll get my food.  In some ways, it’s kind of annoying but then I realized that it’s because they make so much of their food from scratch as it’s ordered.  Given the size of many of the kitchens that I’ve seen, they’re probably only able to work on one order at one time.  So, while waiting for the last person’s food to come out and yours is staring right at you, begging to be eaten, it’s usually worth the wait.

Since first writing the draft of this post, I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out in even more cafes and gotten to think about the function of cafes.  Habermas believed that cafes were an important catalyst in the development of the public sphere during the Renaissance because they were generally accessible to the entire population–meaning that they were generally not “clique-y”–they were a “safe place” for critical discussions about societal issues and allowed public opinions to be formed.  Of course, this was long before the corporate cafe days when the monotony of Starbucks and Tim Horton’s took over the local cafe experience. 

While I totally acknowledge that the rise of Western-style cafes has probably served to further separate foreigners and locals, the affluent from the less fortunate–at least in Cambodia–completely transforming the original function of cafes, it seems they still have a way of bringing people together. 

In the Western-style places, I’ve noticed that those who are clearly foreigners tend to catch each other’s eye that communicates our comradery.  It the sort of look that says “I know you’re like me and we’re in this strange country together.  I have your back if you need it”.  As I said before, Western-style places attract mostly foreigners and ex-pats who use these cafes in a very similar way as they would use them in North America, Europe or Australasia.  They sit as I am right now: alone at one of the smaller tables with ear phones in, drowning out the weird covers of popular North American songs, staring intently at their lap top screens.  Tourists usually don’t have as much technology with them and mostly chat with their travelling partners so it’s a good mix of chatter and the clicking of laptop keyboards.

The multi-functional purpose of Khmer-style cafes definitely attracts different behaviour, partially because of the usual clientele, partially because of the set up. 

First, I’ve mostly observed men dining in these cafes.  I’ve seen the odd woman sitting at tables together but I think they probably worked at the cafe and were just taking a break during a slow point in the day.  I should ask somebody why this is.  The explanations I’ve come up with include: cafes are a man-dominated territory for man-bonding like salons are for women; men generally have office jobs and get an actual lunch break whereas women tend to work at the markets, where they cannot leave their stalls for a break, lest they lose out on a sale.

Second, as I mentioned, Khmer cafes usually have some tables and chairs set up but they also have several rows of chairs set up facing TVs, redneck movie theatre-style.  From my unstructured and undocumented observation (I know, bad social science but I don’t want to be too creepy in a place where I stick out worse than a sore thumb as it is), customers usually only sit at a table if they’re ordering food or if they’re with a friend.  If someone just wants to enjoy a drink to refresh themselves before tackling the rest of the afternoon, they generally sit at one of the patio chairs facing the TVs.

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Given these facts, it’s not too surprising that there is little interaction amongst patrons–in one way or another, they’re in their own little worlds (what Margaret Kohn would call collective isolation, where many people are focused towards one central object and ignoring each other, as in a movie or sporting event).  I haven’t been brave enough to hang out at the cafes that have no tables at all and look like a movie theatre you’d find in a trailer park so I don’t know what types of shows they watch there.  If they play sports or something similar, I can imagine that there would be some hootin’ and hollerin’.  Judging from the glimpses I’ve stolen from the street, it still seems as if these cafes also encourage individualism in one way or another. 

Lap tops versus friends, TV versus spontaneous conversation–these two types of cafes both clearly serve people’s individualistic needs, bring certain groups of people together and drive apart other groups.  It’s interesting to me that, even though these places are so starkly different, people still flock to them for one reason or another.  For me (and I imagine other foreigners), it’s some semblance of where we come from and that’s one thing that evades compromise.  I imagine that most foreigners in the city have a particular cafe they prefer and I would think that locals probably tend to frequent certain cafes either close to home or work.  Oh how I wish I could make up a questionnaire and find out!  Does anyone know if there’s a lot of funding for cultural cafe research??

The laid-back style of the locals who work at these cafes give them a “sit-back-and-internet-for-hours” vibe at either Western- or Khmer-style cafes, especially during the two hour lunch break (yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds).  Plus, all the Khmer-style cafes have wifi that nobody ever uses…except me.  Refreshing coffee + a really good internet connection = a very happy Meggo.  In fact, the combination of the relaxed atmosphere and the caffeine led me to, amidst doing research for someone else’s future, digging into my own future.

That’s all about for now, Internets.  Go get some coffee*.
Meggo

*If you don’t like coffee, get out.  Now.

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