The eye-catching glass building surrounded by greenery at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district is more than just another coffee shop where you can while away a few hours.
UrHobby House cafe is filled with robots and characters from Gundam, a Japanese science fiction franchise where robots piloted by genetically enhanced humans battle in space.
Owner Meurn Srey Net says the robots take centre stage at her cafe, giving it a unique feel.
“UrHobby House would be no different than an ordinary cafe if we didn’t have these Gundam robots on display,” the 29-year-old says.
As she sits in her cafe, which opened in July, Srey Net tells The Post that many people in Cambodia might see the plastic models and think they’re just for kids.
“They actually aren’t. Gundam has been popular in Japan for years regardless of age. People really root for it,” she says.
Srey Net’s husband is one of the countless Gundam enthusiasts. He’s been collecting the plastic models for years and his treasure trove includes characters from Marvel, Transformers, and various other anime and manga characters. His hobby motivated Srey Net to open UrHobby House.
“The idea started with my husband’s hobby of collecting Gundam [models] until his room was piled up with the plastic kits,” Srey Net says.
Art of the build
Putting together the models is no walk in the park. In order to finish one, they need to be patient and painstakingly detailed. Without truly committing to the project, it’s easy to give up.
“Seeing hundreds of Gundam robots displayed in our cafe, people would think it’s easy and maybe it’s just a kind of fun puzzle. However, it can take hours, days, months and even years to build one depending on its size,” Srey Net says.
“The better you become, the longer it takes to build one because you want to achieve perfection. And by doing so, it requires your time.
“The journey has taught my husband in many ways. He has become more efficient, creative, patient and well-organised. After building his collection up, I witnessed him organise his things so tidily, and not only his stuff, the whole house has been prepared. His patience is also noticeable. It’s not simply just a game. It reduces stress,” she says.
When the kits arrive in their boxes, it’s just a mishmash of small plastic pieces. Builders carefully clip the pieces from their base with a special cutter before planning the build of their character.
The separated parts then need to be polished to ensure they smoothly stick to each other. Perfectionists use spray paint and stickers to create the robot’s finished look.
“Each step is seriously intense in a way that if you are not patient enough, you can never pass to the next step,” Srey Net says.
All of the materials are imported from Japan. The giant, intricate robots on display in the cafe were built by her husband and his team of builders.
Besides serving coffee and food, the cafe sells the plastic Gundam models for anyone interested in trying their hand at the tedious yet gratifying task.
“We also sell ready-made Gundam models. But some of them aren’t for sale because my husband cherishes them and wants to keep them in the cafe. We urge customers to buy the plastics rather than a ready-made one because, along the way, they can learn a lot,” Srey Net says.
“For beginners, we will teach them how to start building one.”
The price of the Gundam models varies depending on size but the smallest ones start at $10. The larger ones can cost thousands of dollars.
Customers can also pre-order the latest Gundam models from around the world from Srey Net.
Eat while you work
To accompany their assembling journey, customers can enjoy drinks and food at reasonable prices. The menu includes sandwiches, pasta and fried rice.
Srey Net says she has received a lot of good feedback from customers on her staff’s warm service and tasty drinks.
“I give the customers a unique taste because I chose the coffee beans myself with advice from domestic and overseas experts. The final formula is my own creative concoction,” she says.
The cafe’s ambience makes it an easy place to relax – or build models – for long stretches of time. It has wide-open spaces, high ceilings and two floors.
Trees surround the cafe and plants have been set inside to complement the otherwise plastic decorations.
Three VIP rooms and a conference room which can fit up to 30 people provide even more options at the cafe. The rooms are equipped with projectors and are walled with transparent glass to provide a view outside.
A diorama competition has been planned in which competitors are tasked with using Gundam models to create unique scenes. The deadline for submissions is mid-November and participants will be able to have their works displayed in the cafe.
Expert builders and some of the cafe’s customers will serve as judges of the competition and prizes will be awarded to the top three contestants.
“On weekdays we have about 200 to 300 customers per day. On the weekends, UrHobby House is full. Sometimes we don’t have enough space for customers to sit.”
Srey Net says her customers are mostly locals, but foreigners of all ages have stopped in for a peek at the uncommon cafe as well.
A side project, UrHobby Station, is under construction behind the cafe. UrHobby Station will be modelled after Gundam bases in other countries and will become a place for enthusiasts to build, receive the latest Gundam updates and tinker with new materials.
“All of these materials are quite expensive but if you come to build here, we only charge a small amount. We hope to finish UrHobby Station in the next two months,” Srey Net says.
The young cafe owner says she’s always on the lookout for new ideas to keep her customers satisfied.
Next year, Srey Net hopes to franchise her cafe and open three more branches because customers have requested additional locations.
An avid recycler, Srey Net gives a 10 per cent discount to anyone who brings their own cups to the cafe.
She says coffee pairs perfectly with an afternoon of meticulous robot-building and points to the cafe’s slogan as proof: “Behind every hobby, there’s always a cup of coffee.”
UrHobby House is open from 7am to 9pm all week. It’s located at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002, Teuk Thla commune, Sen Sok district, Phnom Penh. Contact: 077 577 727.