When the gleaming Soriya Shopping Center first opened in 2003, the idea of a shopping mall in Phnom Penh was still an incongruous idea. For example, it wasn't the Nordic air-conditioning or the five floors of stores that got Cambodians talking, it was the escalators.
The moving stairs provided an endless source of humor and trepidation for locals more accustomed to the Byzantine walkways of nearby Psar Thmey. Many took one look at the motorized risers and then dashed for the stairs. Others would stretch out a nervous toe before freezing and opting out. Scrums gathered as people waited on the undecided. Soon enough, Soriya hired attendants to help visitors on and off the Kingdom's only escalators.
Five years later, with the lessons of the past in hand, The Cambodian Overseas Investment Corporation, the company behind Soriya, has opened its second retail mall venture, the Sovanna Shopping Center.
Similar to Soriya in its exterior, inside Sovanna takes a quantum leap towards that great American consumer-culture icon -- the modern mall.
The atrium, a defining characteristic of the American mall, is absent in Soriya, leaving it dependant on artificial light. Sovanna, conversely, is built around three atria - one main and two secondary -- which allow natural light to filter through to the tiers below.
The floor plan is also markedly different. At Sovanna the majority of the shops are situated around a large, circular walkway, which, along with the abundant natural light, gives the mall a spacious, airy feel. The central atrium boasts the country's first two glass elevators.
Taken together, the features create a shopping mall that looks and feels like, well, a shopping mall. It has none of Soriya's cluttered, "department store" ambience, and easily rivals shopping centers found in Bangkok or other cosmopolitan Asian capitals.
While the architecture is sure to impress, the diversity of goods at Sovanna has yet to match the ambition of the mall's design.
Still, the shelves are hardly bare. Sovanna houses the largest selection of footwear in the county -- but the variety of goods is still better at Soriya. This will likely change in time. Sovanna is, after all, just four months old.
Like many Asian markets, the first floor of Sovanna is dominated by glitzy luxury goods -- jewelry stores and watch shops, and places selling gold, precious and semi-precious stones.
Anchored by CityMart, the same flash sporting goods store in Soriya, the second floor at Sovanna is dedicated to fashion. More than three dozen shops sell the latest in men's and women's clothing and accessories.
The third floor is home to the dizzying array of shoes and nearly as many handbags.
The fourth floor is about fun and entertainment. Anchored by a coin-operated video arcade, shops on the fourth floor sell CDs and DVDs, handheld electronics and toys. There's even a drawing room where children can paint. The arcade includes a jungle gym similar to those found at Pencil and Paragon.
The fifth and top floor is largely empty, but will occasionally be used as an exhibition space or conference hall.
In addition to the retail space, Sovanna serves an awesome amount of food. Every fast-food chain in the country has a presence except Kentucky Fried Chicken, which just opened its second location across the street. (The result of dueling business interests, apparently.)
Lucky Market Group makes a splash throughout. The prime ground-floor retail spot is occupied by Lucky's flagship brand, Lucky Burger, and there's a Lucky Bakery next door. There is a Suki Sushi Buffet (complete with conveyor belt), Swensen's Ice Cream, and Café Sentiment coffee shop on the first floor as well.
Second-floor concessions go Cambodia's most successful home-grown fast-food franchise, BB World. Along with the burger outlet, there's a Pizza World and T&C Coffee, with free Wifi.
It's Lucky again on the third floor, with Lucky Seven fast food and Lucky Gelato. Construction has begun on a Master Grill Chicken next door and a Master Suki Soup upstairs.
As if that wasn't enough deep-fried deliciousness, more than two dozen food stalls serve a wide range of delicacies in the third-floor food court, bringing the total number of food outlets at Sovanna to more than three dozen.
And just like Soriya, the place is packed every weekend.