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Between coffee and coffins

By: Gabi Yetter Posted: April-11-2011 in
Jim Heston and the staff at the California2
Gabi Yetter

You never know when a chance meeting might change your life forever. For Jim Heston, it was the day he met the owner of the California 2 Guesthouse in Phnom Penh in 1999.

He was on holiday from Thailand (where he was visiting from the U.S.), staying in the riverfront hotel and, over time, became friends with his landlady, Christine. One day, she asked if he could bring her a sugar shaker from the U.S. since he was living in San Diego at the time and she told him where he could buy one. Surprised that she knew the region so well, Jim asked how she knew of the store and discovered that she was, in fact, from Long Beach, California and had moved back to her native Cambodia a number of years earlier.

They struck up a conversation, planned to meet later that year in California and ended up striking a deal over the hotel. She wanted to spend more time in Long Beach; he wanted to be in Cambodia. It was a perfect match. So, in 2001, Jim Heston became the new proprietor of the California 2 Guesthouse on Sisowath Quay.

That was also the year when Lonely Planet warned people about visiting Cambodia, saying it was not safe. However, in 2002, they changed their tune, declared it was a good place to visit and the floodgates opened. In a manner of speaking, that is, since Phnom Penh was still a quiet, sleepy town where Jim found himself part of a small wave of expats moving to this country.

Having grown up in a military family, Jim had spent many years travelling. But, once he landed in Phnom Penh, he felt he was here to stay.

“I love the abundance of cool things to see in such a small radius,” he said. “Temples, beaches, hill tribes, rivers, farming, fishing…the list goes on. I also like the fact that you can go to the countryside and take a step back in time… and there’s no party better than one set up in a village! ”

However, his new venture wasn’t without obstacles. Once the Lonely Planet gave Cambodia its endorsement, another complication arose – the Thai riots of 2003, when Cambodia was essentially cut off to visitors. Then there was the SARS epidemic, which instilled fear among tourists travelling to Southeast Asia. So he launched a marketing scheme entitled “Surf Cambodia”, advertised 75 cent beer and started to attract visitors to his bar (the 75 cent beer promotion, by the way, continued until 2007).

Another of his marketing signatures was his fish taco. Having spent time in California and somewhat of a connoisseur of Mexican food, Jim decided to introduce the taco using Cambodian snakefish. The trend caught on and he still serves fish tacos in his present location. In fact, he threw a Cinquo de Mayo party on the day he closed the old California 2 before moving to their present location further north on the Quay and has become known around town for his May 5 gatherings.

The move happened in 2009 when the original building was sold and Jim took over the Woolly Rhino guesthouse to open what would become the new California 2 – sandwiched between a coffin shop and the Symphonies Café and open around the clock.

Being an avid motorcyclist, he took advantage of the renovation time to head into the countryside on his bike and spent time traversing the backroads and beaches of Cambodia.

“I remember the days when there weren’t many roads in place around Cambodia,” he said. “There was no bridge going to Koh Kong and you had to change your clothes three times a day because everything was so dusty.

“Now, dirt paths have been replaced by paved roads and traffic continues to increase every year. We have to provide wifi and people are more sophisticated travellers. Instead of using the Lonely Planet, they travel with their iPads”.

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