Friday, December 30, 2011

Street 51

Street 51, early evening, 1AM

New Year nears. A perfect excuse for talk of auld lang syne (times gone by,) and so I indulge. In the following I mean only to note some of the changes on Street 51 over the years, not imply (as would be cliche in expat reminiscences) that it was somehow better ‘way back when,’ (even though it was.)

Street 51 in Phnom Penh, at least the short section between Streets 154 and 174, is an ‘entertainment center’ as the nearby hotels like to say – a couple of blocks of bars, clubs, a few eateries and more bars - a 'bar street' reminiscent of a Sukhumvit soi. And the Heart of Darkness was the start of it all, the seed from which the Street 51 bar scene grew, planted in the early 90s and now in full blossom, though not exactly fragrant.

In the beginning (1993) the Heart of Darkness was the only bar on a dark block of Rue Pasteur (Street 51) - a small one-shop open-facade place next to a couple of brothels. The old French Colonial Police Headquarters sat opposite, but otherwise it was a quiet block of daytime shops and houses. Inside the Heart, the walls were flat black, Doors, Hendrix, Stones and the like on the CD player, cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, a betel box of ganja on the bar, beer from an esky and the same three guys behind the bar every night. There was a duct-tape patched pool table in a small back room that required a short stick for the near side. "No Dancing" was spray painted in large letters on the poolroom wall. And in fact there was no dancing at the Heart.

Back then during the monsoon season Street 51 would flood every time it rained. I have fond memories of plowing through shin-deep water after work, past the old police HQ and stopping at the Heart, which sat comparatively high and rarely flooded. I'd check in a couple times a week for a smoke and some chess with the bartenders. On weekend evenings it was the place to go (in fact one of the few places to go) in Phnom Penh - frequented by the embassy and NGO crowd, English teachers, journalists and the few tourists that happened to be in town. It had something of a 'notorious' reputation and was on more than one embassy no-go list, but for the life of me I could never figure out why.

Heart of Darkness, New Year Eve, 31/12/99
Heart of Darkness, New Year Eve, 31/12/99
Heart of Darkness, New Year, 1/1/00, Samnang

There were no soldiers, regular trouble makers or much in the way of dodgy dealings, at least by Cambodian standards. It wasn't that kind of crowd. There were a couple/few regular prostitutes, but that was it. Sure, there were people sitting around smoking pot but that was, for the most part, the hardest drug in the place, and back then it was de facto legal in Cambodia anyway. I used to imagine that the bar garnered its notorious reputation, not from anything that actually went on there, but from its dark name, the town it was in and the imagination of travel writers who were afraid to go anyplace truly notorious (like the Cambodian night clubs.)

The Heart slowly expanded over the years, growing two shops wide in 96 (absorbing the brothel) and eventually closing in the front and adding air-con. The brothels of 51 were all gone by the late 90s and the second bar I recall on the street, in 96 I believe, was the Duck Tub a couple of doors down from the Heart. They did semi-regular live rock - the only place in town at the time. After the owner was killed in a tragic traffic accident, the Duck Tub became the AK-47 briefly, then Huey's (if I recall correctly) and eventually Howie's which it still is today. Beginning in the late 90s other bars opened along that couple of blocks - some of the earliest being Club 51 which became Shanghai within a year, and the Walkabout, formerly the Pasteur Hotel.

By the early 00s the Heart started taking on a clubbier atmosphere, it expanded to three shops, changed its look, music and ultimately its clientele. The decor went from rattle-can basic to Khmer baroque, it became a dance club, no pot, no rock, more cocktails, drawing clubbers, travelers, young locals and Khmer bad boys. Around that same period, especially after the 2003 elections, more small bars, many of the hostess variety, opened along the same block, eventually filling out most of the street and stretching around the corner. The old colonial police station was finally torn down 4 or 5 years ago and replaced with the Golden Sorya Mall a couple of years later where Pontoon Club (Phnom Penh’s most popular foreigner disco of the moment) opened its doors last year like the proverbial cherry on the top of the Street 51 sundae.

The street was now officially booming.

Street 51 is a totally different place - a different crowd, a different look, a different atmosphere. Though the Heart isn’t my kind of place anymore, I’ve been generally pleased with ever growing choice of bars and clubs on 51. Yet these last couple of years the street seems to be taking a bit of a mean turn.

I have always felt safe on Street 51, or at least as safe as on any tourist street in town. And there have always been beggars and of course the occasional punch up, drunk drivers, trashed backpackers and such. It all goes with the bar business. But the other evening, for the first time ever, I felt unsafe on 51.

It was the end of the night, admittedly quite late - 4ish - when I left my last bar. I wanted to buy food at a burger stand 80 meters away. In that 80 meters, over the next 10 minutes, a couple of Middle Eastern guys tried to pick a fight with me, 2 drunken luxury cars weaving through the intersection at 60kph narrowly missed me, a tuk-tuk driver told me to ‘fuck off’ because I politely declined his offer of a ride or a prostitute, a parade of infant bearing beggar women and half a dozen glue sniffing children pawed and moaned for money, two people offered to sell me drugs, and when I finally got to the food stand a 6-year-old tried to pickpocket me while I ordered my dog and ribs. I sat with my back to the wall as I waited for the food. A tourist girl vomited in the middle of the street in front of me and a motorcycle crashed trying to avoid her. Down the street near the Heart a commotion began. Some sort of fight, drawing a crowd. I went for a look.

A barang and a Khmer guy were having at it. The barang was big. His friend was trying to stop it. A barang standing next to me in the crowd started taking photos with his phone. A Khmer girl ordered him to stop. “You cannot take photo. No photo of Khmer fight barang!” she barked. He didn’t respond so she repeated herself then continued, “I am Khmer! I tell you what to do. You not stop, I take camera. I am Khmer. I tell you, stop!” Inspired by her words, I took out my phone to film it too. This is what I got. That's her, in the pinkish clothes and light hair, bouncing in and out of the commotion. 

I’ve seen most all of these things on 51 before – fights, pickpockets, glue sniffing kids, aggressive drunks, moto crashes, rude tuk-tuks, the beggars, druggies, etc., etc. – but not all within 80 meters and 10 minutes of each other. That was a first for me. It gave me pause.

Street 51 really does seem a bit notorious these days.


  1. Man, you've got to change this white on black text arrangement - it's fkng with my eyes.

    Nice write-up btw

  2. I was there just before Christmas for a few weeks and visited St. 51 on occasion. I have to say I felt exactly the same as the author, and for the first time since I started visiting Phnom Penh over 7 years ago.

  3. "I am khmer, I tell you what to do"

    Yes, this sums up an attitude I've noticed rising dramatically recently.
    You could never tell khmers what to do (and expect them to actually listen), but now even the uneducated whores seem to think they are higher in the pecking order than foreigners.

  4. This is not complete Cambodia, there are a different Cambodia lives too. A beautiful Cambodia with sandy beaches, beautiful lakes, mountains. Travel in Cambodia is not unsafe if we choose a right and trusted tour operator.

  5. Good review, and something that definitely needs saying. I have noticed the same vibe this year. I try and avoid it and always groan when someone I know wants to meet up there. And that's only until perhaps midnight at most.

    <"I am khmer, I tell you what to do"

    Yes, this sums up an attitude I've noticed rising dramatically recently.>