Odd collections a draw at Museum Cafe

An interior view of the newly opened Museum Cafe in Phnom Penh.
An interior view of the newly opened Museum Cafe in Phnom Penh. Keo Ratana

“You can call me the crazy man of Cambodia,” laughs Lee Peng Heng, sitting among around 100 of his vintage coffee grinders, dozens of teapots and a phonograph from 1888, at a table fashioned from a recycled garment factory sewing machine. “That’s what they used to say when I would ride my bike around town.”

The bike in question is a jet-black penny-farthing – one large wheel, one small, with no modern additions like a break or chain – now mounted to a wall next to the sign for Peng Heng’s Museum Cafe, which opened last Friday.

Though displayed in just one modest-sized room, it would be easy to spend an hour or so looking through the different displays, from rows and rows of vintage cameras and oil-lit candles to instruments from around the world, grandfather clocks and typewriters. There are also details that might be overlooked at first glance – lights made by Peng Heng hanging from bicycle frames, the custom-made tables and an old water pump outside the front entrance. The penny-farthing is his favourite item, apparently dating from 1878.

The eclectic mix is the product of 20 years of collecting, which the 51-year-old Phnom Penh native says was motivated by a trip to Vietnam in the 1990s. At the time the manager of several small businesses, he was admiring a vintage Volkswagen when he says the owner scoffed and told him he would never be able to afford one himself. Since then, he’s been collecting with a chip on his shoulder. His wife, Meng Sokha, has supported his habits and inspired him to keep going. Meticulously cataloguing and budgeting every purchase, as his business improved the collection expanded.

He has since owned three Volkswagens. He declined to elaborate on the source of his funds, only insisting that it’s “not bad business”.

It was his wife’s idea to turn a museum they opened in 2015 called Vimean Sokha in Phnom Penh Thmey into a more centrally located coffeeshop in an effort to attract locals as well as tourists. “Khmer people like new things, not old, and before we would get only foreigners visiting,” Peng Heng explains.

Museum Cafe owners Meng Sokha (left) and Lee Peng Heng.
Museum Cafe owners Meng Sokha (left) and Lee Peng Heng. Keo Ratana

In fact what is on display makes up only 10 percent of their collection, with the rest stored in a warehouse and above the cafe. Once this venture is up and running, the couple plans to set up a another museum in Siem Reap, “where people want to visit museums, not like in Phnom Penh”, he says.

Peng Heng purchased the majority of items online, though he also travels around Asia picking up dozens of collectibles each trip – sometimes so many that he doesn’t leave enough money for his accommodation. He admits to being addicted to shopping and feels depressed if he can’t add to the collection. But he also emphasises that he wants Cambodians to enjoy browsing his oddities and sees it as a worthy contribution to the country’s cultural scene.

“Here there is no one else doing this, only me,” Peng Heng says of the concept of a privately run museum. On launch day last week, morning trade was busy with locals, and by the afternoon several students had settled in with their laptops.

The cafe element is nothing out of the ordinary, serving a standard selection of coffees and smoothies from $1 to $3, and as yet there is no food.

But with the chimes of grandfather clocks, and a vintage motorbike parked next to the bar, the piecemeal setting is truly one of a kind.

Museum Cafe is located in the middle of Street 124, near Russian Federation Blvd. Opening hours are currently 7am-9pm, subject to change. Tel: 085 711 979.