On first sight the bar is just about as plain as plain can be. On second sight too.
A shoebox of a place, deep and narrow. Simple wooden bar, aluminum stools, some boothish tables with padded wooden benches. A basic selection of beers and spirits - Lao, Tiger, Angkor and the like. Another glance around reveals a bit more trimming - a few rock & roll posters - Kiss, Led Zeppelin and ELP - the Stars and Bars emblazoned with a Lynyrd Skynyrd skull & crossbones tacked high, some splats and stars adorning the walls. Still nothing to write home about, at least quite yet. Elbow up to the bar or stretch back into one of the booths and the service is right there, often with limited English, but earnest and ready to please, hinting at the homey space this is.
Zeppelin Bar has been well more than a decade in Phnom Penh, a truly well-hidden gem. Until a few months ago blessedly unknown, lost in little corners of the city until its recent move to bar-busy Street 51, but for years frequented by only a few - those who could find it, those who knew the secret and selfishly (but understandably) tried to keep it that way.
This is a music bar. Let me repeat, a music bar. Specifically, a rock & roll bar. You won't find any taxi girls or hostesses in Zeppelin. Or any bobbing headed Xters. Or sex tourists or single malts or the snooty wine & spa crowd. Or any pretension whatsoever beyond what it is. This is a music bar, a rock & roll bar. No trance, no techno or house or nu rave or any other sort of electronic drivel. Nothing post-80s. Such 'music' shouldn't even be mentioned in this place.
Zeppelin is Mr. Jun's, a crusty old Taiwanese rocker that been in the Land of the Khmer since the days of UNTAC. Back in the 90s he brought his teenage collection of 2000+ pristine R&R vinyls to Cambodia and made a bar of them here in Phnom Penh. Much more a rock&roller than a barman he sits quietly, almost invisibly, tucked in the corner at the back of the bar, surrounded by his albums, drinking Chinese tea from a thermos, chain smoking cigs and playing 60s, 70s and 80s rock & roll like he's in his living room. One of those guys I remember from my youth - the kind that always handled records edge only, carefully dusting them before needle touched vinyl, lecturing about piling albums versus standing them. The kind that never played anything from AM radio. A connoisseur. A man that knows his shit, and knows no playlist. A tutorious aficionado of a severe musical genre, spinning choice B-sides and whole albums, the rare and obscure, stuff before-they-were-anybody, and even a few classics so you don't get lost, all with the subtle crackle and hiss and wonderful tonal depth only vinyl can offer.
He leafs and pulls one from the shelf, scans the jacket counting tracks and places album gingerly to turntable. "Ahh, listen to this one," he mutters.
Make a musical request, an appropriate request, not some electro-lint but rock & roll, preferably something heavy. He's got it in there somewhere. Make it a difficult - first album Kansas, the 17-minute version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida - and you may get a smile, but he's still got it in there somewhere.
Unlike the shallow commercial overcrowded Heart of Darkness up the street, this really is a place with heart, the bar is filled with it - the sparse sincere decor, the attentive staff, the blue air and musty smell of beer, the lovingly selected music wafting across the room - this is somebody's home, a rock&roller's home.
Many will miss the whole thing, the ambiance lost on them. They'll see a non-distinctive little watering hole with no air-con, no dancing and old-man music. They'll last for a drink and leave. Their loss. But for those with ears, let them hear. Zeppelin Bar is a rock lover's must. A place to sip your drink and smoke your smoke and lose your soul in rock and roll. The best damn bar in Southeast Asia as far as I am concerned.
(Zeppelin Bar is located at #109C Street 51 next to the Walkabout Hotel. It opens at 5PM in the afternoon and doesn't close till very very late, often after 4AM. Drinks are very reasonably priced and munchies are available including some pretty good Chinese dumplings, boiled or fried.)