business

Coffee Shops Promote Reading and Art in Cambodia

Home-grown coffee shops are serving drinks alongside literature and Khmer art in a bid to encourage youth to appreciate reading and culture in comfort.
Swarng Café serves as a place where youths spend time reading novels, motivational books, and do their school assignments. Picture: supplied
Swarng Café serves as a place where youths spend time reading novels, motivational books, and do their school assignments. Picture: supplied

Coffee shops with books on their shelves have become popular throughout Cambodia in recent years with the aim of encouraging people to read and build a business at the same time.

Swarng Café and Bookstore, situated near the Royal Palace, serves as the place where high school and university youths spend time reading novels, motivational books, and do their school assignments.

One of the co-founders of Swarng Café and Bookstore on Street 184 in Phnom Penh, Sok Chanphal, 37, said he wanted to create a coffee shop like a home with quiet space for reading, life discussions, and self-reflection.

[ Siem Reap’s Top Coffee Shops for Digital Nomads ]

[ Caffeine, Culture and Cambodianess ]

[ Cuisine Wat Damnak: Award-winning Restaurant Sets Its Eyes on the Local Market ]

As the author of several Khmer novels and winner of the SEA Write Award in 2013, Chanphal said before he owned the coffee shop in late-2020, he liked to visit coffee shops. However, he found there were sometimes elements missing that Cambodian youth needed. Moving from this myth, he got together with friends to talk about starting a small business.

“We want to promote reading culture by building a small coffee shop containing hundreds of books. We believe that opening this space would help youth to engage in reading culture in a place for them to drink and read,” Chanphal said.

“We do not just want to build business, we want to do something that impacts society and encourages youth to read books to develop their reading culture and literacy skills.”

Chanphal is a former songwriter for Hang Meas music and video production company, where he wrote more than 500 songs. In 2019, he resigned. With the coffee business, Chanphal said he faced financial challenges and has been thinking about quitting.

Sok Chanphal, co-founders of Swarng Café and Bookstore
Sok Chanphal, co-founders of Swarng Café and Bookstore

He said he is not a good businessperson, he is just a writer who loves to be independent. He added that doing business with a team is like being married, it is a big issue that is not easy to deal with. However, because he still has the aim to promote reading culture and help reduce the burden of society, he continues his business.

“We want readers to think of our place first when they want to find a coffee shop with books,” he added.

As the winner of the Nou Hach Literacy third prize award for his 10-page short story “Kaboub Luy” or “Wallet” in 2008, Sophal continued, “At Swarng coffee, we also try to reduce plastic use. We try to use iron glasses, or mirror glasses instead of plastic to promote a clean environment for drinkers at shops, but we still use plastic for ordering somehow.”

Kim Leang, 18, a second year student from Norton University of Cambodia told Kiripost that she usually drinks coffee at Swarng two or three times a month because it feels like home. She continued that the difference between Swarng and other coffee shops is that Swarng is more naturally designed and has attractive decoration.

“I feel like Swarng is my home. When I come here I always sit on Khmer mats. I feel like I miss my hometown where I sat with my family and enjoyed my home,” Leang said.

Swarng Coffee promotes reading culture by building a place containing hundreds of books. Picture: supplied
Swarng Coffee promotes reading culture by building a place containing hundreds of books. Picture: supplied

Sharing similar ideas, Sothea Ridh, The Ero Café founder and co-owner, said Ero coffee started in late December 2021 after he stopped working for a Japanese company he spent one year with.

Ridh added he dreamed of building a coffee shop since he was studying for a Master’s degree in Japan where he saw a lot of coffee shops that were decorated with arts and cultures.

Moving from that, he dreamed of starting up a small business where Khmer students or workers can have space to learn Khmer arts and understand more about Cambodian culture.

The Ero Café provides a space to learn Khmer arts and understand more about Cambodian culture. Picture: The Ero Café Facebook page
The Ero Café provides a space to learn Khmer arts and understand more about Cambodian culture. Picture: The Ero Café Facebook page

He continued that the aim is also to support young artist graduates, or those who want to sell their painting collections, thus The Ero Café is the place where they can sell out and connect with other artists.

“I dreamed of building a big art gallery in Cambodia with a coffee shop where there is a space that artists can provide and support painting teaching, or other types of art teachings, to those students who want to study painting,” Ridh said.

A graduate in anthropology from the University of Paris and Master’s degree in anthropology from Japan, Ridh added that The Ero Café will play an important role as a place for Khmers and foreigners to learn and share more about the history of Khmer culture and arts to each other.

“What is important is that, every month we provide one or two sessions where customers can study and understand Khmer arts, such as painting, colour putting, types of paintings, drawing, how to make paper flowers etc,” he said. The Ero Café also invites artists to give speeches to inspire the next generation to not give up.

Ridh added most of the customers are youths from universities and some workers who need silent space to focus on their work, or to learn and understand Khmer arts. Ridh said when launching the business, he faced several challenges including location, finances, and how to make costumers enjoyable with art paintings.

Tan Vatey, a visual and interdisciplinary artist, told Kiripost that The Ero Café is a creative, calm, cozy drink space that provides more accessible to see artworks and a different vibe of paintings.

What is important, Vatey continued, is they also use glasses to serve drinks instead of plastic cups, which is a toxic culture and not environmentally friendly.

“Sometimes, I meet the artists and also make new friends there. It ‘s a sweet community by just being there together,” Vatey said.

There is no official data available on the number of coffee shops in Cambodia, especially Phnom Penh, however, according to a Phnom Penh Post article published in 2018, sector insiders estimate there are more than 300 such outlets. Thai brand Café Amazon alone counts 104 stores.