It’s difficult to leave behind Southeast Asia once you’ve had a taste of its magic. Ask any tourist who has visited the region and they’ll tell you about how hard it was to leave behind this corner of the world when their vacations drew to a close. For some, getting on a homebound plane seems nearly impossible, so instead they decide to scrap the return ticket all together.
For Australian sisters Lauren and Cassie, that was the case. The two aspiring hairdressers were in Cambodia for what was supposed to be a short three day trip that then became a three month stay. During their extended stay, the sisters volunteered to teach English at a rural school a couple miles from the city. So taken were they by the people and their culture that the two decided to drop their hairdressing careers all together and settle down in Siem Reap.
Melbourne natives, the Lauren and Cassie sought to bring a piece of home with them and soon opened a café that they named Sister Srey. An old shophouse on Pokambor Avenue, Sister Srey has a touch of the old with a breath of the new. On the ground level, the floor is lined in beautiful turmeric-hued French tiles that the shop’s simple décor and furniture enhanced. Upstairs was a bright and airy seating area with windows that overlooked the river and a bookshelf stocked full of reading material. The second floor was also home to a local clothing and accessories boutique whose clothes, bracelets and necklaces further brightened up the space. Breezy and cool, I could only imagine the number of people who had nodded off in one of the room’s comfy beanbags.
As soon as you sit down, you are greeted by the café’s warm staff and presented with a menu full of healthy yet sumptuous dishes such as smoothie bowls, sandwiches, and guilt-free vegan desserts. Along with the menu, you also get a set of old children’s books to read while you wait for your order because hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little Sesame Street to kick start the day.
Breakfast was a bright magenta dragon fruit smoothie bowl, a slice of raw vegan chocolate tart, an Americano, and a latte. Delicious as the food is,the café certainly does not take its coffee lightly. Using 100 percent organic Arabica coffee from Laos and Vietnam, Sister Srey has long been known as one of the best places to get a cuppa in Siem Reap. You can rest assured knowing that you’re in good hands; the café’s barista will represent Cambodia in an upcoming barista competition in Singapore.
You may be wondering, what does “Srey” mean? The name has its roots in the Cambodians family titles that are used to refer to other people. Older men and women are uncles and aunts, and people within the same age group are brothers and sisters; Srey is Khmer for the latter. While the shop’s name obviously refers to the two sisters who founded it, the name has a much deeper meaning.
Giving back to the community was something that Lauren and Cassie have always sought to do and they’ve managed to do just that with their cafe. Not only does the café help the environment by recycling and composting all its waste, it gives back to the people of Siem Reap by creating jobs and training youngsters.
Most of the café’s staff are young university students who are given flexible shifts to accommodate their study hours, and the café even goes a step further by paying for part of their staff’s university tuition fee. Besides helping their staff by giving them great work hours and with financial matters, the shop also holds workshops on English, hospitality, health and hygiene and banking as part of their personal development program.
Not only does Sister Srey take good care of its staff, it also takes good care of the people outside the shop. 20 percent of the shop’s proceeds go to towards the Hearts to Harmony, an NGO that the sisters founded together that aims to help Khmer youth through scholarships, health workshops, and food packages for families throughout Siem Reap.
So what does the word “Srey” really mean? For the sisters, it reflects the role they play to the people around them: kindly older sisters who are always ready with advice and a gentle nudge in the right direction. When you visit Sister Srey, you get so much more than a healthy breakfast and fantastic cup of coffee, you help build a future for the community. Now that’s one way to start your day.
Many thanks to Lauren who kindly took the time to talk to me about Sister Srey Cafe. The world is ade better by people like you and your sister.