In the Cambodian jungle, just off the alabaster sandy stretches of Otres Beach, there is a place like Neverland, where there are no rules nor regulations and people are partying. Hard.
On Saturday evenings during the dry season, the dirt road in Otres Village, Sihanoukville, becomes a flurry of activity as the night market springs into action. Otres Market is a festival environment of live music, high-quality craft cocktails, and a parade of international cooking skills.
The village is a mixture of locals and wayward foreigners that have come to set up camp and live far from the constraints of Western society, many of whom seem to have stepped right out of a Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson novel. There are no building codes or food safety supervisors here, giving people the freedom to create and cook whatever they feel like. People are reinventing themselves, getting as shitfaced as they want, and serving up incredibly delicious food. It's where all the black sheep come to live and party from dusk until daylight.
At the heart of Otres Market are Aussie mates Dave Allen and Andy "Salty" Mann, along with Salty's Cambodian fiancée, Sothea Cheun, and her family. I sat down and chatted with Allen, Salty, and Cheun to hear about how Otres Market came to fruition.
Cheun grew up around food; her father was a farmer and a cook who catered large events. As a child, Cheun learned about ingredients for traditional Cambodian cuisine; and as a young teen, she moved to Phnom Penh to live with her sister and assist at the Italian restaurant where her sister was a chef.
"My whole life, I [have been] around people [who are] passionate about food. Watching, learning," Cheun said. She smiled confidently and laughed, "Now, I season as I go along. I can just smell!"
Cheun's menu at Otres Market focuses on Cambodian cuisine, but changes daily or weekly depending upon what's been requested, what's in season, or what she feels like cooking. "If people have [a] request for frog or snake, I can do that," Cheun said. Everything is sourced as locally as possible. A rooster crowed 20 feet away as Cheun pointed across the swampy pond and said, "That's where we get our eggs." The rice comes from her family's farm in Pursat, a few hours away.
Cheun always wanted to run her own restaurant. When she and Salty began dating four years ago, setting up a business together seemed like a natural step.
Originally from Melbourne, Salty first came to Cambodia in 2008, eventually settling here. He met Allen in 2011 at his old bar in Otres Beach, where Salty wound up living and helping out with renovations. Soon enough, they went looking for land for a new project, and they came across a beautiful pond-side plot that would later become Otres Market.
Allen's arrival in Cambodia is a little more convoluted. He first came here about six years ago, but then bummed around Europe and eventually wound up in the Zaandam Detention Center in the Netherlands—a consequence of being picked up by the cops after drunkenly falling off his bike, made worse by the fact that he had lost his passport. "I couldn't keep my mind off Cambodia," Allen told me of his time in the detention center, where he studied up on the country. Eventually, he was deported back to Australia, where he worked as a hospitality teacher for about six months.
As soon as Allen had enough savings, he headed to Cambodia, where everything quickly came together in a series of happy coincidences. "Basically, the idea for Otres Market came from when we rented a piece of land and we didn't really know what to do with it."
Now in its fourth season, Otres Market is wildly popular—but Allen and Salty aren't in it for the cash. "We don't judge our success [by] how much money we make," Allen said. "If we wanted to become millionaires, we probably wouldn't be running a business in Cambodia." Instead, they just want people to have a good time.
With a background in art, Salty painted murals around the market and built the handsome wooden stage with his fiancée's brothers. The whole place feels like some deranged Noah's ark.
Salty also loves Cambodian music, especially the resurgence of psychedelic rock—a genre that was obliterated during Pol Pot's genocidal regime. "It's a very young culture, because the culture was just decimated."
The food stalls are inhabited by a wide variety of incredible home chefs serving an eclectic mix of dishes: Russians cooking Indian food or barbecue; a Turkish gal frying up scrumptious eggrolls; a guy from Dubai who makes amazing baba ganoush and hummus; a nonprofit called Starfish that produces stupendous baked goods; and a pizza stall that's run by a 23-year-old Cambodian woman. There are craft cocktails at the bars and a locally distilled, organic absinthe served with flaming sugar by a guy named Johan.
In previous years, the market sold cannabis edibles, but they were a little too potent to maintain the party atmosphere. "People would just be, like, zonked out," Salty said. "It's not necessarily legal, either. It's traditionally used as a garnish in cooking here. It's often used in a soup … A decade ago you could go to the market in Phnom Penh and buy it, just where you'd be buying your other herbs and stuff."
Allen added, "If people want to consume marijuana by eating it, they can do it somewhere else. There's Happy Pizza places in town where people accommodate that. We don't want to have people falling over and passing out in the middle of the place."
The Otres Market gang doesn't promote drug use, but with its festival atmosphere, you can often find anything you want—from free love in the thatched roof bungalows of the village lodges to any other illicit behavior that might take your fancy.
A word of warning, though: Don't get "Cambodia-fied." Many of the people here sport scars and bandages from drunken scooter accidents and mishaps with misshapen wooden stairs. In the jungle, wounds get infected easily.
At one point, I was feeling slightly guilty for the overindulgent bender I had participated in during my time at Otres. That quickly disappeared, however, when I met a German woman who was selling borderline-sinful chocolate cake at the market. She told me with a mischievous smile: "Decadence in Cambodia—if you can get it, go for it!"