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What It's Like to Bartend at a Cambodian Hostel

Zanny Merullo

I believe in fostering communities of travellers. Here's how I do it. 

Siem Reap is a hub of markets, street carts, massage venues, restaurants and bars that cater both to tourists and locals. The streets are alive at all times of the day, with tuk tuks, bikes and scooters forming an intricate pattern of wild traffic. In the late afternoon, the local schools release their children, adding hordes of motorbikes (with three or four helmet-less children strung comfortably across the back) into the mess.

Across the river from the tangle of the city centre lies the Tipsy Turtles Hostel. Started a year and a half ago by expats, it's a relaxed backpackers' hostel. It's here that I have spent the last 10 days working behind the bar pouring drinks, checking guests in and attempting to foster the tight-knit hostel community that I have found in so many pockets of the globe.

The responsibility of fostering a welcoming environment is a large one, since I'm familiar with what it's like to be a solo traveller. I know what it's like to desperately search for connection with hopes of feeling at home again. 

Working at a hostel has injected new purpose into bartending for me. The responsibility of fostering a welcoming environment is a large one, since I've been one of the solo travellers who now graces our table. I am well acquainted with the feeling of being on the other side of the world from all that is familiar, and I know what it’s like to desperately search for connection with fellow human beings in the hopes of feeling at home again.

Here are some keys to creating that hostel community I so crave while travelling:

• Common space

Every hostel I have ever stayed at has a designated common area comprised of a row of couches and a TV set or a few tables and board games.

Here at the Tipsy Turtles, we have a large common area sheltered from the hot sun by a high tin roof that covers the whole place. There are hammocks set up under fans, collections of small tables and chairs, and a bar with seating. At all hours of the day, you can find hostel residents, bar regulars and staff seated here eating, drinking, talking or going about their own business. Every social interaction begins here.

• Games

Nothing brings people together quite like competition! At Tipsy Turtles, we have a full beer pong table, Jenga, cards, and our own game of “Tipsy Toss.” The point of Tipsy toss is to swing a round piece of metal on a string onto a board against a pole that has a hook on it. If you can hook the piece of metal on the pole three times in 10 tries, you are rewarded with a free beer. Periodically throughout the day, when social interactions have lulled we’ll pick back up with a game of Tipsy Toss until everyone is involved.

• Greeting guests

Several times a day, new guests appear at the front of the gate, soaked in sweat and laden with backpacks. Greeting our guests and offering them a free welcome beer so they can put their things down and take a moment’s rest, allows for people to be introduced into the community right away.

After I have poured the beer, collected the guests’ information and given them their keys, I like to start a conversation: “Where are you coming from today?” “Long day of travelling?” “How long are you in Siem Reap for?”

Often travellers are excited to talk about places they’ve been and are eager to share advice and recommendations. I warn them that crumpled bills are not accepted here; that it’s polite to hand things to local people with two hands; and that you should pay no more than $1 to $3 for a tuk tuk anywhere in the city. I often find guests stay for a beer or two more before heading to their beds to put their things away.

• Drinks

While working behind the bar, I have seen the power of getting people to come over and try our signature cocktails. We’re known for our Caesars (actually the unofficial national drink of Canada). It's essentially a Bloody Mary with clamato juice that we tout as a hangover cure to our late rising guests.

The Tipsy Turtles also has a machine that keeps shot glasses freezing cold and ready to be filled with Jagermeister. Several times a night, the owner will propose a round of Jager shots. We have espresso martinis, fruity cocktails like Bahama Yo Mama (rum, fruit juices, and grenadine) and I do my best to keep people happy and drinking.

My job at the Tipsy Turtles in Siem Reap is keeping me busy and happy to be living like a local. More on life as a bartender in Cambodia later!

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Alexandra Merullo

Alexandra (known by friends as Zanny) Merullo is a 22-year-old former expat in Cambodia who now lives in the mountains of the US. She is a bartender, writer, and avid explorer looking for her next adventures.

Website: zantakestheworld.wordpress.com

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