Business, Economics and Jobs

As Cambodia clamors to develop, a favorite bar is left in the dust



Lauren Crothers

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Two decades ago Ian “Snow” Woodford, an Australian, came to Cambodia on a whim and has been watching the country recover from isolated madness ever since. He’s gotten an eyeful.

He saw firefights on the streets in late 1990s as political factions battled for power, while Cambodia was gasping for air after the Khmer Rouge's murderous reign. Later he saw the destruction of French colonial buildings, and the mass evictions of locals to make room for one new modern development after another.

Now, as developers continue to clamor for space in Phnom Penh, Snow has witnessed the end of another era. His business, Maxine's Bar on the River, more often called Snow's, has seen its final days, at least for now.

Tucked into a quiet, remote location across the river from the bustle of the capital, it was the only expat-run bar on the east bank of the Tonle Sap, and hence the favored spot for unwinding with a Beer Lao and watching the sun set over the city. The New York Times touted its authentic feel and National Geographic and the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain used it as a backdrop.

But as construction recovers from a recession, his bar in its original location, like many local institutions in Cambodia's fast-changing capital, came to an end late last month. A "beautification project," as the government calls it, has demolished Snow's and more than 100 homes that line that road leading to an unfinished hotel project.

"Nothing lasts forever. I did know that because this place is on the river, it would come. But it's a little too quick," said Snow, a thin and tanned former miner with a toothy smile and a crew cut. "This will never be the same. You'll never recreate this. The view on the river. The breeze." 

It is one of the latest in a series of evictions as investment dollars change the cityscape to make room for the new.

City Hall has already evicted about 3,000 residents near Boeng Kak lake, as a ruling-party aligned company continues to fill in most of the 133-hectare water body for a controversial development project that has uprooted lives and businesses of Cambodians and foreigners.

There are also plans for a $3 billion project, dubbed “Chruy Changva, City of the Future,” just north of Snow’s that would create a stadium, residential areas and hotels, displacing an undetermined amount of people.

Across the Tonle Sap river from the more developed side of the riverfront Snow's was a sleepy oasis away from the capital's hazardous traffic, dust and diesel fumes and oppressive heat.

Its relaxed country feel attracted everyone from senior bank officials and private equity fund managers to aid workers, directors, journalists, tourists and English teachers.

Housed in a traditional Khmer wooden home, the bar was a long and bumpy ride from the city center. Down a winding dark road, visited by cattle, the bar wasn't even known by its actual name. You'd never find it on your own.

Hundreds of bells, hanging from the rafters, chimed and red paper lanterns swung in the wind. Silver painted vases and Buddha statuettes sparkled with the setting sun. Snow's own paintings shined in yellow, red and orange.

“It had no pretensions. It didn’t try to be what it wasn’t,” said John Brinsden, vice president of Acleda Bank and a regular Snow’s customer. “You can’t say it was an art gallery. You can’t say it was museum, you can’t say it was art shop or bar, it was something quite different.”

That uniqueness, the comfort of the breeze, the view of sunset, Snow’s taste in old school rock and a friendly, low-key atmosphere made Snow’s popular and memorable, he said.

Snow's wasn't just a destination for those within the confines of the capital.

Television crews for National Geographic and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain filmed episodes at the clay-tiled, stilted structure last year. The U.S. rock group Dengue Fever — the lead singer of which is a Cambodian woman — played an impromptu concert there in 2005.

For Snow, who draws his nickname from the Snowy Mountains in Australia where he once worked as a miner, life in Cambodia has been eventful — the photos on the wall of Snow's and few albums he kept behind the bar told his story.

One photo captures Snow on a golf course in 2001 standing next to Prime Minister Hun Sen in a chance meeting, both beaming. Another shows the filming of the movie "City of Ghosts," starring Matt Dillon, in which Snow had a cameo.

When Snow arrived in Cambodia, as Ian Woodford in 1993 after a painful divorce, he found a country in flux.

All it took was a helicopter ride shortly after his arrival, and he was hooked. "That was my introduction to Cambodia. I saw it all by air and I loved it. So I was in," he said.

The international community had just paid $1.5 billion to set up elections under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which hired the company that in turn employed Snow.

As part of his contract, he helped move hundreds of U.N. SUVs that were quickly being stolen and sold on the black market by impoverished Cambodians employed by the UNTAC. 

In one of his first missions, he hired Khmer Rouge soldiers to transport the vehicles between Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, where they were loaded onto barges and shipped to Thailand. UNTAC soldiers had refused to do the job because of the Khmer Rouge presence that still posed a threat though its reign was officially over. 

In the quiet days that followed UNTAC, Snow was one of the few foreigners to stay in the country, at first doing nothing, later teaching and doing logistics work. "I just hung around because I wanted to see what would happen to this place ... it couldn't get any worse," he said.

In 1997 battles in Phnom Penh erupted and firefights cleared the streets. But Snow stayed, even when it took days for him to cross the city due to unrest.

During some of the heaviest fighting, he watched soldiers march down Sihanouk Boulevard, a main thoroughfare leading to Independence Monument. "You could hear gunfire and it was madness," he said in his clipped Aussie accent. "You didn't know what was going to happen next."

Expats left in droves, businesses pulled out, embassies cut staff, but Snow stayed at a time when it was still common for soldiers to get drunk and fire off AK-47s at beer gardens.

By 2001, things had cooled down a bit. He auditioned for the role of an angry brothel customer in the film "City of Ghosts" and got the part. In his role he screams that he must take a prostitute to Battambang province for beauty school, a performance that still gets him recognized.

At the time of the filming, he was working at a school, painting art in an Aboriginal style he witnessed back in Australia that involves using small dots to create images. He used that technique to depict traditional Khmer images, and ultimately decided to open Snow's to sell more of his art and support his daughter for whom the bar was officially named. Maxine's mother and his partner, Sreyny, passed away in 2003.

While Snow said he appreciated the changes in Phnom Penh since his arrival — the reduction of violence, more restaurants — he acknowledged that the same trends had cost him his bar.

He has a temporary location in mind, but it's much smaller concrete building and the view is partly blocked by a giant-size billboard that advertises for a Russian-owned mobile phone company.

"It's the total Cambodia experience, you have these experiences in Cambodia, and usually the final one is when you lose your business to someone else. You know?" Snow said.

"It's a kick in the head, you know what I mean? It happens to a lot of people in Cambodia."