Cafe Brings A Taste of Japan to Siem Reap

After losing the family income during the pandemic, former tour guide Soeun Kinal has pumped his passion for Japan into creating a street-side cafe in the style of a kissaten - a Japanese-style tearoom.
Soeun Kinal and his wife survived the pandemic by starting a kissaten in Siem Reap. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Soeun Kinal and his wife survived the pandemic by starting a kissaten in Siem Reap. Kiripost/Siv Channa

SIEM REAP – On a misty morning in Wat Bo village, coffee aficionados gather at a street-side cafe that opened last month to experience a taste of Japanese coffee culture.

Instagrammable kissaten in Siem Reap

កាំមឹ កាហ្វេ #かんむ in Siem Reap. Kiripost/Siv Channa
កាំមឹ កាហ្វេ #かんむ in Siem Reap. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Once a tour guide, Soeun Kinal, who is in his mid-30s, decided to start a kissaten - a Japanese "tea-drinking shop" that doubles up as a coffee shop - as the country’s hardest-hit town recovers from the pandemic.

At first, Kinal wanted to set up a mobile stall near Siem Reap River, close to the popular Night Market area. However, he chose not to operate his coffee shop from a rented spot. Instead, he figured out how to build the business on a small area at the front of his mother’s plot of land, which can be expanded as his coffee business grows.

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At his Japanese-style cafe, the Cambodian barista, who built the shop himself, said people who run the town’s major coffee shops have sampled Kamu’s drinks.

“People from Brown Coffee, Temple Coffee n Bakery, and Noi Café have already visited my coffee shop,” Kinal boasted.

At Kamu, Kinal serves coffee made with beans from Laos, Chiang Rai, Ethiopia, Columbia, and Kenya. One bean he is yet to use is Cambodia’s Mondulkiri. The coffee shop owner and barista said he has not found the best way to use beans from Cambodia’s mountainous province.

What sets this cafe apart is its Japanese setting. Kinal was inspired after living in the East Asian island nation.

Kinal spent several years working in Japan. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Kinal spent several years working in Japan. Kiripost/Siv Channa

How he started កាំមឹ cafe

Like most Cambodians in the tourism sector in Siem Reap, Kinal’s job as a guide taking Japanese tourists to see the ancient temples of Angkor earned him a good living. His wife, who speaks fluent Chinese and Vietnamese, had the same job, guiding visitors around tourist spots.

However, the two-year pandemic disrupted their main income. No tourists meant no jobs.

Early last month, Kinal and his wife opened Kamu, near Bamboo Street in Wat Bo village, which was recently crowned the world's third coolest neighborhood by Time Out magazine. The Japanese-style classic cafe adds to the chic collection of boutique stores, bars, restaurants and hotels in the area.

During the country’s lockdown, they spent more time looking after their kids at home, which is decorated in the style of Japan. Kinal worked in Japan for more than three years as a laborer sealing perfume bottles before returning home to work as a tour guide. In Cambodia, he has mirrored the calmness of Japan’s small coffee shops and teahouses, and their decor and interior design.

Kamu kissaten in Siem Reap's Wat Bo village. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Kamu kissaten in Siem Reap's Wat Bo village. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Kinal said he always hand-makes coffee for friends when they visit his home. So, they would often urge him to start a coffee shop. These days, his small Kamu cafe welcomes local and foreign customers.

San Kimhong, a business owner of retro and vintage collectibles in Siem Reap, visits the cafe daily for his ritual morning iced coffee latte with beans from Laos.

“Not all coffee shop owners with deep pockets can have interior design with a purpose. Some cafes are just soulless,” said Kimhong.

Parked in front of the kissaten is a 53-year-old Honda Super Cub, which Kinal’s wife said she cares about more than her new motorcycle.

Kinal said if there is anything the couple have learned as the pandemic ends, it is the strength to start a new income stream from his hobby and love of all things Japanese.

“Even before our official opening, we had customers filling the seats every day. Word-of-mouth and Instagram photos traveled round and round,” said the Kamu owner.