March 10, 2014

As a person who operates reasonably well in bars, I’m often asked what my favourite place to drink in Phnom Penh is. Well, here is the definitive answer. It’s on Street 51, and it’s called Led Zeppelin.

Now, you might think that that’s a no-brainer. If you know me, you know I’m besotted by Zeppelin – I want the Zep to be played at my funeral, and have spent far too many hours altogether trying to work out the intricacies of Jimmy Page’s guitar style. I used to live near Page, and always secretly harboured the fantasy that he would walk past my flat, hear me mangling his riffs, and knock on my front door to offer suggestions. One can but dream.

But Led Zeppelin, the bar, is a Phnom Penh institution. It’s owned by a middle-aged Taiwanese guy, who is, by any estimation, something of a legend, for his taciturnity. He sits at the back of the bar, scowling, behind a pair of decks, and plays early 70’s heavy metal, loudly. He almost always refuses to speak to punters, and just pulls albums, on vinyl, from his 4,000 strong collection, and subjects them on the drinkers, who seem to love it.

I’ve been going there for a while, and have managed to build up something of an uneasy rapport with him (although I don’t know his name, even now.) I don’t remember him ever deigning to speak to me; I have talked at him often.

But he does one thing that pleases me beyond measure. I once asked him, in a fit of showing-off-ness, if he had a particularly obscure track, by a particulaly obscure early 70s band. And, lo and behold, he did. And played it, loudly.

Now, every time I go in, he puts it on, and I get to soak up five minutes of Mountain playing Nantucket Sleighride, from an Japanese import album that I originally paid forty quid for in 1981. I always love it when he plays it. But every time I come in? Slight overkill, but I can’t complain.

But, somehow, this seems to encapsulate something about Phnom Penh. A foreigner is playing music that is foreign to him, in a capital city that is also foreign to him, and yet is widely loved, by other foreigners, waited on by kindly Khmers.

I’m sitting, writing this, in Led Zeppelin itself, and have heard lots of early Black Sabbath, UFO and Iron Maiden, all of which send me back to my teenage years, while sex-tourists poke their heads in looking for whatever they’re too feeble to get back home.

The owner of the bar is apparently an ardent Taiwanese nationalist, and gets together with the Taiwan diaspora in Phnom Penh on Chang Kai Shek’s birthday to wear military uniforms and denounce the mainland – he might have missed the boat on that one.

My brother the bar maven would be horrified by how little he’s taught me: there are no infusions of artisanal tequila drunk through bone luges; no selections of hand-curated Peruvian bitters. And the loos would make a pig blush in shame.

No, it’s beer, scotch or gin, nice people and great music. A bar that has cheap drinks and weapons-grade heavy metal, in Phnom Penh? What’s not to love?


3 Responses to “Barred”

  1. David Hayhurst said

    Do you know Taiwan, Rupert? I really enjoyed my 4 1/2 months in Taipei, teaching English until I was de facto deported to Hong Kong. (I’m sure I’ve inflicted the story on you before). Turned in by your boss for working illegally; how Asian Expat Experience is that? I’ve longed to go back to see how things have changed since 1991.

    Back then, they’d stand for the national anthem before the main feature at cinemas, before a still projected on the screen of a massively oversized Taiwan and the mainland, with the Taiwanese flag superimposed over both territories.

    I’ll bet things have chained a bit. The street market food stalls were usually great, but there were often packs of wild dogs wandering about.

    Be sure to take me to your personal B-list bars when next we come to Phnom Penh, because if I really like a place in Paris, it’s as good as gone. Just about every favourite café, bar and restaurant of mine either ends up closing or going through some grotesque, wanabee-more-upmarket makeover. RIP Baron Samedi home of “good whiskey, cheap blondes” (or so the painted-on sign in the window claimed.) I know you still exist, but you’re dead to me.

    Are you experiencing the same sad situation in Phnom Penh? A favourite haunt just up and disappears?

  2. You’re a lovely writer, Rupert. Though I’m tempted to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I’m sure you’ve heard it enough. Own two feet seem to work extremely well. keep it coming

  3. Richard Ellis said

    Well I have to say playing loud music by oneself is really good so doing it in your own bar is almost heaven!

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