Happy hour on the Mekong

Julie Miller visits the club from where dictator Pol Pot's last stand was reported to the world.

It's happy hour at the FCC Phnom Penh and the hottest bar in town is also the coolest, the sultry evening air whipped by the propellers of overhead fans. On the rooftop terrace scantily dressed expats, Western tourists and well-heeled locals stand shoulder-to-shoulder, absorbing half-priced mango daiquiris and views across the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers; while downstairs, gin-sozzled barflies prop against the curved wooden bar or sink into deep leather armchairs, dreaming Rafflesque fantasies of a bygone era.

As one of South-East Asia's most legendary watering holes, the cream walls of the Foreign Correspondents Club speak volumes, its folklore embedded in bricks and mortar. Its history is palpable, the ghosts of war correspondents past lingering in the shadows, whispering of turmoil, coups and dictators, of breaking stories and deadlines.

But while this breezy, open space bears the countenance of a colonial dowager who has witnessed countless military campaigns, the FCC's secret is that it is, in fact, a mere teenager - albeit one that's lived turbulently.

Its story began just 18 years ago, when a South-East Asia-based British lawyer named Steve Hayward talked his way across the Vietnamese border on New Year's Day, 1992, hungover and in search of adventure. A tentative ceasefire had just been declared in Cambodia after years of genocide, civil war and invasion; tanks rumbled through the streets of Phnom Penh and a military curfew was imposed after 10pm, enforced by soldiers bearing AK-47s.

"It was desperately poor — the best you could get was a bloody banana — and there was a lot of unease with the withdrawal of the Vietnamese and the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) coming in," Hayward recalls. "But there was a real feel to the place, despite it being so off-bounds."

On his first day in Cambodia, Hayward met a couple of UN advance soldiers who told him there'd be 23,000 troops arriving in six months' time, each with $US100 allowance for a day. Sensing a business opportunity, Hayward went to Hong Kong and convinced a bunch of lawyer mates to invest $US5000 each. This was promptly transferred into gold and used to buy a building near the Phnom Penh Central Market called the Gecko Bar.

The first bar to open in Cambodia since 1967, from the start the Gecko became a hangout for UN officials, diplomats and of course, gin-swilling reporters; and before long it had become the de facto journalists' club. But Hayward wanted something bigger; and he found it on the riverfront at Sisowath Quay in 1993, then a no-go zone of "thieves, vagabonds and worse".

"The river was a place you'd never come at night — it was scary. In those days, there was nothing but warehouses and Chinese emporiums — big houses faced the palace out of respect and no one thought of the river as a great view. Only some goon from London."

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And so the FCC was born; five individual units were bashed into one and gradually expanded into what it is today, consisting of nine guest rooms, a restaurant, bar, terrace and cafe.

Expats flocked to the place; and as Pol Pot took his final stand in the jungle, so journalists filed breaking stories from the "F", including Nate Thayer, the correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, who famously scored the last interview with the elusive Khmer Rouge dictator.

Thayer, it is rumoured, had a penchant for randomly shooting automatic weapons from tall buildings — as did several other regulars at the FCC. According to Hayward, many a bullet was fired from the balustrade in those early days, fuelled by alcohol and the frontier spirit that permeated the city. This was the wild, wild east — but in a lawless city where kidnapping, assassinations, rapes and theft were rife, the "F" was a haven of relative sanity and probably the safest place to be.

"It's an oasis in Indochina," Hayward says. "People think the place has been here for years. I've read some brilliant stories of people saying they'd stood here watching American warplanes fly over — that certainly never happened. And some people say Ernest Hemingway came here, but that's impossible. I'm sure he would have if he could have, but he didn't because the bar wasn't even open then!"

TRIP NOTES

The FCC Phnom Penh is open 365 days a year, from 7am until whenever management chooses to close. Happy hour is from 5-7pm, when drinks are half price.

The restaurant serves awesome woodfired pizza and nine hotel rooms are available.

See fcccambodia.com

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