Kandal Village is Siem Reap’s secret shopping, eating and drinking destination, centred on and around hip Hup Guan Street in the increasingly cool little northern Cambodian city.
Hip Hup Guan Street in cool Kandal Village is where Siem Reap’s savvy expats are shopping, sipping and eating. Rapidly undergoing gentrification, the gritty little district, which also takes in surrounding streets and lanes, is home to some of Siem Reap’s most fashionable spots, and has emerged as one of the northern Cambodian city’s coolest destinations.
Here’s how it happened and what to expect. See our separate guide to where to shop, sip, eat, and spa in Kandal Village, Siem Reap’s hippest neighbourhood.
Hip Hup Guan Street and Kandal Village, Siem Reap
On a balmy afternoon on tiny Hup Guan Street, hidden behind busy Samdech Tep Vong Road (also known as ‘ANZ Bank Road’), a solo woman traveller sits in the shade outside Frangipani Spa, writing in her journal as she nurses a glass of lemongrass tea.
“It’s so peaceful here,” she observes, surveying the rows of modern shop-houses that stretch down the short street. Aside from two young Cambodian girls quietly cross-stitching opposite, there’s not a soul around.
“It’s a far cry from Old Market,” she says to me.“I’ve been here an hour and haven’t been hassled to take a tuk tuk or buy anything once!”
Down the street, the Little Red Fox Espresso café and hair salon upstairs hums with the chatter of conversation. An early hip-hop vinyl spins on the record player beneath an enormous portrait of Amy Winehouse, who appears to watch over the packed room of expats and tourists sipping what has quickly become regarded as Siem Reap’s best coffee.
Several tuk tuks are parked outside the hip concept store Trunkh. Inside, their affluent occupants, sent here by the in-the-know concierge of a nearby five-star hotel, browse the eclectic range of products: retro hand-painted Cambodian signs, carved wooden cows, kitsch tea-towels illustrated with Angkor attractions, and other curios.
At nearby Louise Loubatieres’ chic home-wares shop, a young British holidaying couple – newspaper editors from London – are deciding which handmade ceramic dish to buy. They ultimately opt for both. The couple has spent a few hours on the street, shopping and having coffee.
“It’s a bit like Hackney,” he comments, referring to the East London neighbourhood that’s home to interesting independent shops, vintage clothes stalls and hipster markets.
“Columbia Road,” Loubatieres, a former Londoner, suggests, referencing the engaging shopping street near buzzy Spitalfields and Brick Lane that’s home to scores of fascinating shops, galleries, cafés, delis, antique stores, and a famous flower market. “My brother has a shop there.”
Boasting just a dozen small businesses, including a few cafés, an Italian trattoria, a silk textile shop, spa, and a handful of boutiques and concept stores, Kandal Village is not yet Hackney, nor is Hup Guan Street Columbia Road yet.
Tucked in between the trendy businesses are travel agencies, ticket offices, a pharmacy, and residences with motorbikes parked out front.
“It’s getting there,” says Loubatieres, a young London-born designer with Cambodian, Vietnamese, French and Spanish heritage, who moved to Siem Reap in 2013 to work with local artisans, weavers and craftspeople to develop original collections.
“When I opened, there was only Common Grounds (an American-style NGO café), Frangipani Spa and a few travel agencies,” Loubatieres says. “But in the last year, we’ve had lovely businesses like Trunkh, The Little Red Fox Espresso, and just recently, Sirivan (an atelier, opposite) open.”
“People really enjoy Kandal Village and comment on how nice it is to stroll without being hassled,” Loubatieres says. “They can easily spend an afternoon here because there’s quite a few shops and they can stop for lunch, go for coffee, and at the end of the day have a spa.”
While Kandal Village has developed organically, according to Loic and Sirivan Chak Dumas it took a collaborative effort on the part of the business owners to get people there. Not yet in any English language guidebooks, Hup Guan Street still remains something of a secret, even amongst Cambodians and expats.
Located between bustling Old Market and the leafy French Quarter, tourists don’t exactly stumble upon it. In fact, they’ll bypass it, either walking or cycling along the riverside road or taking a tuk tuk along Sivutha Boulevard to move between the areas.
In the absence of an official tourism marketing body or active city council, the pro-active business owners decided to take the initiative and invest their own time and money into place branding.
Douglas Gordon, who with business partner Marianne Waller established their first Trunkh store in Phnom Penh, discovered Hup Guan Street in February 2014 and opened a Siem Reap branch in late May that year.
“I had a very strong feeling in my gut. I could taste it,” reveals Gordon, who was drawn by the intimacy, charm, central locale, and ambience of the street. He knew, however, they had to name it so people could find. He also wanted to include the two adjacent streets that were home to Village Cafe (formerly Armand’s), The Hive café-bar, and Blossom (now closed).
“Marianne came up with a long list of possible names and I did some rough brochures and sample mock-ups,” Gordon explains. “All of us in the area then had a meeting and agreed it was a good idea and decided to vote on a name.”
Being American, neighbourhoods like ‘Greenwich Village’, ‘East Village’ and ‘SoHo’ (South of Houston) immediately came to mind, with their strong identities as vibrant shopping, eating and drinking destinations. Gordon and Waller’s list of suggestions included some twenty names, with everything from SoCo (south of the colonial area) and NoMa (north of old market) to NoMa Village and Hup Guan Village.
“We chose Kandal Village because almost all the tuk tuk drivers were familiar with the name (which means ‘middle village’), plus we are located behind the old Phsar Kandal,” Gordon explains. “We all also liked the word ‘village’”.
Rather than a website, blog or app, which would be the first step for most place-branders, the Kandal Village group chose an endearingly old-fashioned tool of persuasion to promote the emerging new district – a petite paper brochure featuring all the businesses, which they distributed around Siem Reap.
When I visit to do these interviews, every tourist I spot in the shops and on the street is carrying the Kandal Village brochure or has it tucked into a pocket. Once the word was out, however, Australian barista Adam Rodwell, who owns the Little Red Fox Espresso with hair stylist David Stirling, says social media put Kandal Village on the digital map.
“Trip Advisor has helped,” admits Rodwell, whose café is currently number one on the site’s Siem Reap restaurant list. “The other day we had a group of Hong Kong tourists in here. And I love the Singaporeans, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong-ers… they take six million selfies and hash tag the place to no end.”
The Kandal Village business owners say they’ll employ Twitter pages, Instagram feeds and blogs next to get the word out – along with more old-fashioned tools, like tuk tuk advertising.
“It will still take some time to be in the mind of everyone,” admits Loic Dumas. “But we are all original, we have a strong story behind our products and the businesses, and we’re happy collaborating together. Our common perspective and cooperation will speed things up.”
Across the road, Simone Santolini, the Italian owner of Mamma Shop restaurant, which focuses on slow food and fresh-daily pasta handmade with local organic produce, would love to see other businesses opening late (most close early evening), a wine bar, and a regular night market with live music.
“If we get the road fixed and can get better lighting and make it even more pedestrian friendly, I think it will be fantastic,” says Loubatieres, who knows of more businesses opening soon in Kandal Village. “We’re getting there.”
“I would love to see a few more eateries and, of course, more shops… and a more cohesive feel and look,” Gordon admits.
“Everyone involved has created very unique businesses with love and creativity and a passion for Cambodia. I hope that can continue… It still needs to grow, however, at the moment it’s the diverse collection of spirit and style that makes it special.”
Published: 8 April 2015