With crumbs of a pastry and a drained coffee cup on the short table in front of her, 28-year-old Nique will spend another two hours or so in the cafe. Sometimes she reads or works by herself, but today, she’s with friends, languidly chatting into the early evening.
A few years back, she would never spend the $5 for a hot latte and pastry from American coffee shop Starbucks, which landed in Phnom Penh in 2015. But she’s earning a higher salary as a banker, and she’s willing to pay the price to have a place to hang out for a few hours.
“It’s not acceptable for some people [to pay that much], but some of us, we can pay for it,” she said.
With bigger paychecks in hand, many of Phnom Penh’s younger residents are spending some of those earnings on iced lattes and frappucinos, creating a culture of coffee shop hangouts.
Phnom Penh brims with coffee shops: chains like Brown Coffee, Cafe Amazon and American brand Starbucks nestle themselves into every neighborhood, and there’s a half dozen smaller chains or independent cafes rivaling each of the main chains.
Ella doesn’t get how this boom can last, she explains while wrapping up a meal at Brown Coffee on Norodom with her friend, Rath. There’s far more coffee shops that people who go to them, she reasons.
“It seems so popular that when people start a business, they just go for a coffee shop.”
Ella’s willing to spend around $5 on her favorite drink, a Starbucks green tea latte, because she likes the quality better than anywhere else.
Yanuth, Phal and Sreynich, three students of Royal University of Law and Economics chilling at Brown Coffee on a Tuesday afternoon, shelled out about $3 or $4 each for their drinks. They meet up for coffee about once a week, and they don’t really mind the price.
“It’s not expensive, but it’s not cheap,” Yanuth says.
“It’s normal,” Phal agrees.
They don’t love spending all their time in coffee shops, they explain between sips of sugary frappucinos. But it’s convenient place to meet, study and talk before going home for the night.
For Nara, coffee shops are an obsession.
He spends his Saturday talking at Starbucks with two visiting friends before they take the bus back to Siem Reap. But it’s no special treat to visit the international coffee chain.
“I spend almost every day in coffee shops,” he said. “I really like coffee.”
Midway through the conversation, he stops to take a selfie with his companions. A nice afternoon chat requires a Facebook post.
Nique spends all of her weekends in coffee shops. It’s partially her love of coffee that brings her back. But the quality is generally so much better than that of a coffee she can buy from a corner store for 2,000 riel.
That coffee is often too strong or too weak, and one time she found a cockroach in the cup after she finished her drink.
“Never again,” she said. With Starbucks, she knows what she will get.
Nique wishes she could spend some weekends jogging in the park or sitting under a tree with her friends, but Phnom Penh doesn’t have many parks large or covered enough for those kinds of activities, she said.
So she sits in Starbucks for hours, taking in the aircon and the second-floor view of BKK1.
“Otherwise there’s nowhere else to go,” Nique said. “Otherwise you have to go shopping. There’s not a lot to do here.”