The Festive Hope – Portrait Sothy Keo

Siem Reap lays quiet on the morning of April 18th, the day after Khmer New Year comes to an end. The sun shines brightly on the newly constructed roads that are caked with layers of baby powder — the smokey evidence of the week-long Khmer New Year’s water fights that took hold over the city. Nestled on the riverbanks are two sister restaurants of Khéma and Malis, decorated lightly with multi-coloured stars and straw hats that represent the festive holiday.

Sothy Keo runs both restaurants in Siem Reap. Ever since she was promoted to Malis’ manager in 2016 and has been assisting Khema’s operations since it opened across the river. Now at 41 years old, Keo is ready for commerce to return with visitors again. She has prepared and cultivated a support team and organized a schedule to make sure there is at least one leader at each place for operations to run as smoothly as possible.

Born and raised in Siem Reap, Keo knows the local community and has worked her way up to managing both venues with pride. “It is not easy to run two restaurants at the same time, but I like to take on all the opportunities that someone gives me,” Keo explained. After struggling to keep her team together and in high spirits during a pandemic with little to no tourism, Keo knew she must try all that she can to help the business survive until customers return.

“The Siem Reap economy affected our restaurant and our hearts,” Keo remembered softly. “No jobs, no income, and everyone needed to find a way to leave far away from our home to find a job.” Thankful that domestic tourism and many loyal customers still enjoy the Khéma free flow on breakfast and lunch, Keo has deepened her concentration on local customers. “Before everyone just focused on tourism (in Siem Reap), but if we have no tourists, we have nothing.”

Rushing to prepare the service team in the wake of Malis’ reopening and the expected influx of travellers to the city for Khmer New Year, Keo was feeling cheerful. Hoping that the economy will be a bit more normalized this year, Keo can only praise her team for all their hard work during the holiday preparations. “For Khmer New Year, it was amazing to see the smiles from my people around me,” she remarked. Adding that the government organized this year’s festivities well. “The decorations, the vendors, and even the security were properly prepared,” Keo praised. “Normally after Khmer New Year, I always joined for rubbish collection, but this year was very clean. I appreciate my province.”

Keo recommends trying “Num Banh Chok” or Cambodian rice noodles for the new year. This iconic dish is mildly fermented rice noodles prepared with a broth of kroeung, prahok, freshwater fish, and coconut milk/coconut cream. This style of broth is often a spring green color which usually comes with a basket full of fresh vegetables and herbs that are grown along the biggest lake in Siem Reap, the Tonle Sap.

Written by: Sotheavy Nou


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