For the last six years, foreigners have traveled over the Japanese Friendship Bridge to Chroy Changva five nights a week for two reasons: to see the sun set over the Tonle Sap River, and to see the sunset at Maxine’s bar.
As one of only a few watering holes where you can see that view in Phnom Penh, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect before a first visit to the bar, often referred to as Snow’s.
The narrow road leading to Maxine’s looks like it could be in any provincial town, lined by small shops, houses, and concrete walls. In the distance you can see cattle wandering.
From the outside, the wide-open doorway of Maxine’s frames a clear, bright view of the river and city accented by silhouettes of customers and the sound of hundreds of silver bells.
Inside is a gallery not just of paintings, but of Chinese lanterns, statues, brightly colored bottles, a table made from welded AK-47s, and photos that tell stories about the owner, Ian “Snow” Woodford, a 53-year-old Australian who left the mining industry to come to Cambodia in 1993.
One photo captures Mr Woodford on a golf course in 2001 standing next to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Both have wide smiles. Another shows the filming of the movie City of Ghosts, which Mr Woodford appeared in. Other photos show the music group Dengue Fever playing inside the bar and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visiting after filming an episode of a television show.
In a city where most bars are located in shophouses, the timeless relaxed feel of Maxine’s has helped make it a favorite of everyone from senior bank officials to NGO directors, journalists, tourists, and English teachers.
But by Khmer New Year, Maxine’s will disappear due to a beautification project that will demolish more than 100 homes that line that road to an unfinished Sokha Hotel project.
“Nothing lasts forever. I did know that. Because this place is on the river, it would come. But it’s a little too quick,” said Mr Woodford, who is considering reopening his bar in Siem Reap province. “This will never be the same. You’ll never recreate this. The view on the river. The breeze.” Though the bar is officially named after his 11-year-old daughter, it’s most often referred to by his own nickname.
Mr Woodford’s first came to Cambodia in 1993 as an Untac contractor, hired to move assets in the hectic, uncertain days after the elections, when a lot of Untac property was stolen.
After a helicopter ride shortly after his arrival, he was hooked.
“That was my introduction to Cambodia. I saw it all by air and I loved it. So I was in,” he said.
In one of his first missions, he hired Khmer Rouge soldiers to move SUVs between Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, where they were loaded onto barges and shipped to Thailand. Untac soldiers had refused because of the Khmer Rouge presence.
In the quiet days that followed Untac, he was also one of the few foreigners to stay in the country, at first doing nothing, later teaching and doing logistics work.
“I just hung around because I wanted to see what would happen to this place because it couldn’t get any worse,” he said.
While many foreigners left the country during the 1997 battles in Phnom Penh, he stayed.
It took days for him to cross the city in the beginning. During some of the heaviest fighting, he watched soldiers march down Sihanouk Boulevard while CNN broadcast reports on a television behind him.
“You could hear gunfire and it was madness,” he said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
By 2000, there were still few foreigners in Cambodia and he was invited to a CPP New Year’s party.
“It was a beauty: Tea Banh, Chea Sim, all the boys were there,” he said. “There was no one else there, we were out and about.”
And in 2001, he also auditioned for a role of screaming angry brothel customer in the film City of Ghosts and got the part. Mr Woodford said he still gets recognized as the man who screams that he must take a prostitute to Battambang province for beauty school.
At the time, he was still working at a school, painting art in a style he witnessed in Australia mine town where Aborigines used small dots to create images.
“They had these didgeridoos and they were doing all these designs with dots and all this great paint, colors. Beautiful. So I go and watch the guys and that’s what inspired me,” he said. He used that technique to paint traditional Khmer images, and decided to open Snow’s to sell more of his art and support his daughter, who was born in 1999. Maxine’s mother and his partner, Sreyne passed away in 2003.
While Mr Woodford said he appreciated the changes in Phnom Penh since his arrival, he acknowledged that they also played a role in his own bar losing its place.
Snow isn’t sure where or when he’ll reopen but he is determined to do it at some point.
“I have always liked bars, I always wanted to have a bar and I will have another one,” he said.
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