Interview of Hong Kry Mao, from the Soul Train Bar

Hong, a nightlife artist

The Tuk Tuk Bar, the Soul Train, the Peace and Love bar… Every Siem Reap night bird knows these legendary places and has seen the sun rise in the morning through one of their buckets of gin and tonic. Their founder is as famous as them for setting parties on fire with his enthusiasm, his friendliness and a bit of bottle flaring at the same time. His name is Hong. We wanted to know more about this unusual man, so we met him and asked him a few questions.
 
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Bugs Cafe: Hi Mr. Hong! First, please tell me more about yourself: where and when were you born, what was your childhood like…
Hong: Oh please, just call me Hong! Well I’m 32 years old; I was born near the Thai border, in a refugee camp. My childhood was difficult as you can imagine. The only thing we had to eat was the rice American soldiers gave to us. When I was 6 or 7, I fought against Thai kids in organized fights. People in the camp placed bets on us, just like for cock fighting, and I earned 20 bahts (around 60 cents) for every fight. It enabled me to buy morning glory to put with my rice. But it finally made me disgusted with any form of violence.
After that, my parents sent me to live in a pagoda with monks because they had no money, and this is the only instruction I ever got. Then I moved to South of Thailand to do all kinds of jobs, like harvesting rubber from rubber trees.
 
BC: What brought you to Siem Reap after that?
Hong: I wanted to go back to Cambodia, and Siem Reap was expanding very fast at that time so it was easy to find a job there. I started as a security guard in 2001, after what I was hired as a waiter in the Island bar in 2003. I then became a bartender there, and this is when I started meeting people from all around the world and speaking English. It made me familiar with the western way of thinking and living, which was a great opportunity for me! This is also when I began learning bottle flaring.
Later I met the general manager of Naga World (a famous 5 stars hotel in Phnom Penh, editor’s note) and worked for him from 2005 until 2007.
 
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BC: When did you open your first business?
Hong: After learning so much from Naga World’s GM, I came back to Siem Reap and opened the Tuk Tuk Bar with only 300$! It was the first bar in Siem Reap that remained open 24/7. This was also my own university of life. While working there, I met many fantastic people but also drug addicts, prostitutes, the real street set. I then opened the Soul Train Bar in a very small street, where there were only two other small restaurants. Once again, we sold cheap drinks and opened until very late, but this time we also made DJs come regularly, and it was a big success! I named the bar after the famous 70s TV show (if you don’t know it, just look for it on youtube, it’s totally worth it! Oh whatever, just click here - Editor’s note), because I wanted this place to be funky, and I wanted everybody to feel like they’re the same color. No blacks, yellows or whites in my place, everybody’s just human. Recently, I opened the Peace and Love Bar in the Angkor Night Market. The recipe is still the same, small prices and much fun, and we have live bands 3 days a week.
 
BC: You always spend a very little money when you open a business. Is it just because you don’t have any? Or are you a cheapskate, Hong?
Hong: Ahah no I’m not a cheapskate, but I’m not rich either! I’ve never spent more than 1000$ to open a business, and I’m proud of that. I use ideas rather than money. My art of life is to always upgrade, I never look for perfection but for improvement. So I prefer to start small and upgrade continually. 
I definitely don’t want to think only about money anyway. Someone who has a million dollars and keeps everything for him is much poorer that someone who has only one dollar and gives it to someone who’s hungry. I met an artist when I was in Phnom Penh. This guy was the poorest guy in town, but his art was fantastic. This is when I understood that the most important thing is how you do things, and then how profitable they are, not the contrary. When you only see money everywhere, you’re not friendly anymore.
 
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BC: What’s next for you? What would you like your future to be?
Hong: Oh, nothing exceptional… What I want to have for the end is just happiness, no big money. Something quiet, a small restaurant and bar, a family bar, somewhere where people feel at home.
Whatever happens to me, I want to stick to my roots. If you don’t have strong roots, your top is more fragile. So I will never grow up without being sure I don’t forget the philosophy that made me who I am. 
 
BC: To conclude, what's the craziest thing you saw in your bars? We want names of course.
Hong: You'll be disappointed I'm afraid. Let me tell you: old khmer people never go to the bar, and that’s the thing that I find is the craziest, because I don’t want to be like this later. It’s because of buddhist religion, they have to go to the pagoda. They have to clean themselves from bad stuff and the closer they are from dying, the more urgent it is to do so. I don’t want to live like that, it’s different all around the world so why should we have to do like that?