Burwell family business voted backpackers' best

HALF-way round the world in Sihanoukville, members of two Burwell families have established a business that has earned a worldwide reputation as the best backpackers' stop-off in Cambodia's premier seaside resort.

Monkey Republic, a bar and restaurant with 26 bright blue bungalows set around two banana-shaded courtyards has won praise in a New York Times travel guide to the Greater Mekong and is an "editor's pick" in the Lonely Planet Guide to the region.

It is owned by Lee Verlander (37), his brother Stuart (34), Duncan Garner (34), Scott McKenzie-Lee (38) and Clare Garner, Duncan's 36-year-old sister who has been Scott's partner for 18 years.

The Verlanders and the Duncans were all raised on the same estate in Burwell – Stuart and Duncan were in the same class at the village primary school. They all regard each other as "family" and Monkey Republic as the family business.

But what possessed this Burwell brotherhood, without any experience of the hospitality industry – unless you count a 17-year-old Stuart's brief stint in the kitchens of the YMCA in Cambridge – to set up in business half way around the world?

Lee had holidayed in Cambodia in 2001 and in 2003 searched the internet for a bar to buy. At the time there were only two for sale in Cambodia, one in Angkor near the World Heritage site, and the other was the Red Snapper in Sihanoukville, on offer at 15,000 dollars.

Stuart and Duncan threw in their lot with Lee "on a whim, we just thought, why not," said Stuart.

But on their August opening night in the middle of the rainy season there wasn't a customer in sight – perhaps not surprising because the Red Snapper was down a side track well away from the beach.

"We had to work hard on our marketing," said Lee. But within a couple of years they had managed to build up the business and find a buyer before taking a calculated gamble on a prime site on the road to the miles of golden sand that is Sihanoukville's Serendipity Beach. Monkey Republic opened on 15 August 2005.

The three-storey bar and restaurant and bungalows were built in 14 weeks with 42 people working on the site.

They took out a 15-year lease and the project involved moving their landlord's wooden house.

"They just cut off the base and moved the whole thing next door," said Lee.

Meanwhile they all worked at other bars and guesthouses to earn wages and pick up ideas.

"Money was so tight that for a while Duncan came back home to work and sent money out to Cambodia to keep their dream alive.

"We realised we had to step up our game if we were to make a success of Monkey. And we worked like dogs.

"We lived in at first, slept above the bar, and we allowed ourselves 50 dollars a month," said Lee.

They leafleted the bus station where most backpacking visitors arrive; they offered free bikes, free internet and plenty of advice. They'd started out with a cook, a cleaner and a handyman and now employ 28 people.

Now these Cambridgeshire entrepreneurs have become unofficial advisers to others wanting to open businesses in Sihanoukville.

Their own interests have diversified into a variety of businesses in the city, including another bar, dive shop, an internet caf, a massage and beauty parlour and Lee has a share in a beachside bungalow resort on Bamboo Island (Koh Ru), an hour by boat from Sihanoukville.

They do everything they can to run an eco-friendly business. Monkey Republic's waste food goes to the pig farmer and the kitchen staff sell used cooking oil for bio-fuel.

The main building is wooden with a palm leaf roof. To help reduce the tide of plastic that litters the whole of the region they've started offering anyone who drops by 1.5 litre water bottle refills for 25 cents.

They support a number of charitable organisations in Sihanoukville including M'Lop Tapang, a charity for which Clare works on income generation.

"It helps street or at-risk children, youths and their families by providing counselling, education, food and medical help to as many as 300 people on a daily basis. See www.mloptapang.org

Does Duncan, the motor mechanic turned designer of Monkey Republic's bungalows, ever regret giving up his job at St Peter's Garage in Ely?

"Not for a minute", although they all agree they miss family – as well as, in no particular order, corned beef, salad cream, sausages, cheeses, Tescos, live bands and good quality bottled squash.

"As a trip home can take two or three days, even in an emergency, "that can be tough", conceded Duncan.

Lee used to be manager of Burwell Swifts and Stuart was club secretary. Lee follows Ipswich Town and his brother is a fanatical Cambridge United supporter who has flown home – a 20,000-mile return trip - on two occasions to watch his team in the Conference League play-offs.

The U's lost both times.

"It's great to go home but what I don't miss is sitting in the pub on a gloomy February evening, and seeing people sitting in the same place, moaning about the same things they've always moaned about," said Stuart.

They appreciate that their mums – Lee and Stuart's mum runs Burwell Early Learners and Duncan's mum has a hairdressers in Exning – would prefer their lads were closer to home.

But sorry Gwen and Wendy – your boys won't be settling back in Burwell any time soon.