If you’ve spent much time exploring any of Asia’s largest cities, or this website, there’s a decent chance that you’re intimately familiar with the concept of the animal café.
Cat cafés, where lattes often come served with accidental feline hair toppings and a side order of extreme cuteness, were popularized in Taiwan and are now found across the world. In Seoul meerkats and raccoons are as common in coffee shops as freelancers. In Tokyo sharing a cappuccino with an owl barely raises a feathery eyebrow anymore.
This selfie-driven industry has yet to become a big thing in Cambodia. The southeast Asian country’s café culture has rapidly grown in recent years, in line with the spending whack of its young middle class as the country’s economy improves. But almost all the venues comprising the scene in the capital city Phnom Penh are conventional caffeine stations—places like Starbucks, indie cafés such as Tini, and superb local chain Brown. Not a meerkat, owl, or scorpion to be found in any of them.
This helps Reptile Café, a small recently-opened space tucked down an alley in Phnom Penh’s rustic but increasingly trendy Russian Market area, feel unique—even before owner Chea Raty places an enormous tarantula on my saucer.
“This city has too many coffee shops,” says Chea, 32, as the furry ball of legs and venom slowly walks a lap of the saucer in front of me. “I wanted to do something different.”
In this sense, Chea has already been successful. Behind him, a woman with a red and orange corn snake wrapped around her hand like a bandage parades through the café. A journalist from the The Phnom Penh Post taps his laptop sitting opposite a huge red parrot perched on a chair. Another customer sucks a mango smoothie as a shiny hand-sized scorpion skitters across his table. “You see?” says Chea, picking up one of the tarantula’s front legs with his finger and thumb and doing a little ‘handshake’ with it. “Different”.
The idea for Reptile Café was laid around four years ago when Chea, originally from northwest Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province, became intrigued by iguanas on TV. He ordered a baby one from a dealer in Poi Pet on the Thai border, not far from where he grew up. Having grown to love his lizard, he wanted to introduce the species, which is not native to Cambodia, to the wider public, so opened the café as a side gig to his job in telecommunication.
Lizards are popular as pets in many countries, but in Cambodia they tend to be seen on walls in bars rather than inside tanks in homes. “People say, ‘Are you crazy? Why don’t you get dogs and cats?’” says Chea. “But I think iguanas are so lovely.”
Chea found that it was relatively easy to get more iguanas, snakes, and various other exotic animals sent down from his dealer in Poi Pet, who brought them into Cambodia from Thailand. The critter trickle soon became an avalanche. Rose hair tarantulas, African spurred tortoises, bearded dragon lizards, South American horned frogs, black forest scorpions, and more quickly filled the glass tanks that dominate one side of the café.
The menagerie was bolstered by a customer with pet macaw parrots, also imported from Thailand, housing them in the café. If Chea doesn’t plant one of these grand birds, or any of the venue’s other beasts, on your table when you arrive there you’re free to pick one up yourself. PETA probably won’t be endorsing the place, but recently a couple of monks visited, so if their moral compasses weren’t bent by stroking lizards there, who am I to judge?
Reptile Café has caused quite a stir in Phnom Penh, where previously animal presence in eateries was limited to cockroaches or the smattering of creatures at the nearby Zoo Café. Despite its somewhat motley selection of animals—it’s got a raccoon, monkeys and a small iguana—Zoo Café has a sheen of professionalism, with lush hanging plants and wall paintings. It also opened just this year, and if it’s successful maybe Phnom Penh will catch up with the likes of Seoul and Tokyo in the professionally-run animal café stakes.
Whether that happens or not, Reptile will continue to stand out. With its back-alley location, it is a rough and grimy passion project, more like the weird kid next door’s bedroom than a slick social spot.
Yet despite these modest beginnings, Chea has grand plans for his lizard empire. As I rise to leave he dips into the café’s back room, returning with a box containing two small pristine eggs, the shape of which suggests they were swiped from the set of Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom.
They’re gecko eggs. “I just want to promote reptiles to the Cambodian people,” says Chea. “I’m trying to breed iguanas—I’ve got a male and a female. It’s my ambition to open a lizard farm some time soon.”
Then he laughs as his scorpion attacks my camera lens.
Find Reptile Café in Phnom Penh by turning off Street 167, between Street 450 and Street 173. Contact the staff via the venue’s Facebook page .
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1