- City Break, Foodie Trip
- Asia, Cambodia, Phnom Penh
Oft overlooked in favor of its northerly neighbor Siem Reap, Phnom Penh offers an authentic and low-key complement to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.
Phnom Penh may not have as many picture-perfect ruins but it does offer a thriving food scene and a whole lot of history should you pop over for a weekend.
Day 1: First Things First
A Sobering History Tour
Visiting Khmer Rouge sites such as the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S21) prison make for a difficult but necessary introduction to Cambodia’s recent history. The tragic sites are open to the public and travelers — a good sign for the country’s rehabilitation.
South of the city, the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek (Sangkat Cheung Aek, Phnom Penh) contain dozens of mass grave sites across a vast plot of land. During the Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975-1979, over 1 million people — and some experts estimate up to 3.5 million — were tortured and murdered across the collective 20,000 grave sites by the regime for “crimes” such as being educated or suspicion of treason.
At Choeung Ek, travelers will find an informative representation of what happened during this mass genocide in the form of videos, audio tours and explanatory signposts throughout the site.
On the way back to the city is another poignant site: Tuol Sleng Security Prison 21, aka S21 (Corner of Street 113 and 350 Street, Phnom Penh). Originally a high school, S21 was used during the Khmer Rouge regime as an interrogation center, torture chamber and prison.
Often those tortured at S21 were later moved to Choeung Ek to be executed; however, thousands died from starvation, disease or torture on site. Sadder still, this is just one of 150 such prisons across the country. Today, there’s a memorial and museum at the site, and after walking through the various chambers you can usually meet two of the survivors who return to share their stories with travelers.
Stop for Lunch
Take a break at Malis (136 Preah Norodom (at 41 Street), Phnom Penh, (+855) 23-221-022), an inviting open-air restaurant that serves upscale Cambodian cuisine. Malis nails the introductory experience, with every dish carefully explained in an elegant, photo-heavy menu that could easily double as a coffee table book.
For a tour de Khmer cuisine, try the royal mak mee (fried noodles with pork, lemongrass and coconut milk), fish amok (fish fillets marinated in a traditional curry paste and steamed in banana leaf) and prahok ktsi (fermented fish with minced pork, coconut milk, and fresh veggies).
Marvel at the Architecture
You can take your time and tackle the French Quarter on foot, but in the Phnom Penh heat you might think twice. An informative and efficient way to see the city’s incredible colonial-era architecture is on a tour with the Khmer Architecture Tours, conducted in partnership with the Manolis House heritage preservation nonprofit, which provides public Sunday tours and private tours ad hoc.
The “Central Phnom Penh by cyclo” tour (public tours from US$15 per person, private tours from US$50 person) takes you to a mix of well-preserved and completely dilapidated colonial buildings throughout the city central. The formerly majestic Hotel Manolis and Grand Hotel, now falling apart, will have you imagining a once regal city center that fell from grace.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour is the chaotic way most Cambodians live today, as a result of the post-Khmer period where people were invited to move back into the city to claim land on a first-come, first-serve basis. As you walk through what was once a cathedral, identifiable by a facade peeking out from above the tin rooftops, you can see that people have constructed homes — one on top of the other — using various materials such as wood, aluminum, tin and sheet metal.
Sit Down for Sunset Drinks
Holding court on top of one of Phnom Penh’s few skyscrapers (for now, at least), Eclipse Sky Bar is the go-to place for cocktails, sunset and city views. Don’t expect great food but do expect awesome prices on standard cocktails, beers and the like — about US$3 (HK$23) for a beer and US$4 (HK$31) for a cocktail. Yep, cheers to that… and this view!
Linger over Dinner
Sister restaurant to Malis (we were tipped off by the similarly photogenic menu), Topaz (162 Preah Norodom Blvd, Phnom Penh, (+855) 23-221-622) is among the city’s best fine dines. The address pays homage to Cambodia’s French history with a focus on steaks, lamb, lobster and wine. So yeah, you could say Topaz has its priorities straight.
It’s an intimate atmosphere — picture dark wood floors, big glass windows and starched white tablecloths — that makes you feel like you should be celebrating something. You may consider skipping dessert though since Topaz does a pretty sad crème brûlée.
Day 2: Dig In Deeper
Get Outta Town
You will likely have to hire a driver or a guide to go see Oudong, the capital of Cambodia until 1866. We recommend the personable and encyclopedic guides from AboutAsia Travel (from US$150 per day for three-day itinerary, includes accommodation), a social enterprise that sends all profits to its social arm AboutAsia Schools to be spent on school supplies, a Teacher Training Academy, English classes, and community learning centers.
Once you have a car or guide sorted, you can head out for the hour-long drive to Oudong. It doesn’t look that far on the map, but you’ll be lucky if you don’t hit a wall of traffic. It’s worth the trip, though: The once opulent kingdom still has several majestic stupas crowning the mountaintop. You’ll be rewarded with beautiful view across the countryside once you climb the 400 stairs to the top.
On the way back to Phnom Penh, stop by one of the silver-making towns, like Kampong Luong, where you can see families at work to create detailed pieces. Most of the silver and copper products here end up in hotels and restaurants around Asia, some with enormous custom-built pieces, but you can take home your own little elephant or goblet for around US$15-30 depending on the weight.
Break for Lunch
For a low-key and authentic lunch, head to Khmer Surin Restaurant (House 8, 57 Street, Phnom Penh, (+855) 12-887-320). Over 20 years old, the restaurant serves traditional Khmer and Thai food in a relaxed, alfresco environment complete with a koi pond, hanging plants, wooden furniture and vibrant red accents.
Set in a traditional wooden Khmer building, the restaurant stretches across three floors and manages to make many references to Cambodian culture without feeling touristy or kitschy. The fish amok is excellent, as are the mango salads, beef curry, whole fried fish, and refreshing pitchers of Angkor Beer.
Downtown and Around
Make your way around town — nothing is too far. Start at the bustling New Market (Neayok Souk, Phnom Penh), where the sun beats down on a sunny yellow dome, an art-deco creation dating back to 1935.
Each of the four wings has its own wares and knick-knacks, including everything from headphones and stereos to scarves, sarongs, flowers and even tailors. The food market is the most interesting of all, showcasing unidentifiable fish and colorful snacks.
From there, hop in a tuk tuk and breeze over to Wat Phnom (meaning “hill temple” in Khmer), which is appropriately located at the top of a small hill in the French Quarter. It’s believed that the founder of the city, Lady Penh, built the temple in 1372 and named the city after this hill. A roam around the gardens doesn’t take more than a half hour and can be a peaceful, quiet experience if you avoid national holidays.
The Royal Palace (Samdach Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh) is another highlight. The gleaming gold rooftops and manicured hedges are a world away from the busy, raw streets just outside the compound. That’s probably because it’s home to the royal family, and has been since 1866. Of the many shiny buildings inside, the most impressive is the Silver Pagoda, which has floors made literally of silver — 5,000 tiles, count ’em!
Likewise, the nearby National Museum Preah Ang Eng, Phnom Penh (+855) 23-217-643) has quite the collection of relics. Even if you can’t make it to Angkor Wat, you can see some 5,000 pieces of Angkor-era ceramics, sculptures and Buddha statues under this roof.
Finish off your sightseeing with a stroll down boutique-lined Street 240 and a stroll by the riverside where Tonle Sap and the might Mekong rivers converge.
Happy Hour Like Royalty
You might not be able to afford the drinks at the Elephant Bar (92 Rukhak Vithei at Preah Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh, (+855) 23-981-888) most of the time, but during happy hour (4-9pm) signature drinks and classic cocktails are half off. That means that the world’s smoothest, 3-month barrel-aged negroni is a somewhat more manageable US$11 instead of a whopping US$22. Most of the other cocktails come to about US$7 during happy hour, instead of the usual US$14. Where are we, Singapore?
In the early evening the outdoor seating makes for a pleasant respite, but if you want to sit inside just prepare for an incongruous mish-mash of old colonial interiors and awkward modern enhancements. But no matter: the drinks here are so expertly created that they put most Hong Kong bars to shame.
Make a Dinner Date
Sovanna (1019 Street and 162 Hanoi Street, Phnom Penh, (<+855) 12-840-055) or Romdeng (74 Street, Phnom Penh, (+855) 92-219-565). Choices, choices! For your last dinner, you can experience Cambodian cuisine in two very different ways.
Sovanna is known for its grilled meats and fish, lively streetside atmosphere, and cheap beers. It’s a quintessential Phnom Penh beer garden, which typically sees large, boisterous groups and seemingly free-flow Angkor Beers shared over BBQ. Specialties include charcoal-grilled whole fish, beef, eel, and pork — all with a delicious smoky flavor and paired with tangy sauces.
Meanwhile Romdeng, a nonprofit training restaurant for street children, is a different kind of traditional. The main seating area is set inside an old colonial house with handmade wooden furniture, while more tables leak out into the intimate garden. The menu features some Cambodian staples including several insects — look for fried ants and tarantulas, alongside Kampot pepper crab, fish amok and beef curry.
Stay Here: Raffles Le Royal
Opened in 1929, this old dame is the most prestigious hotel in Phnom Penh, counting the likes of US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, US actor Charlie Chaplin, French writer André Malraux and US President Barack Obama among its guests. But thankfully Raffles Le Royal hasn’t turned all pretentious on us regular folks.
The 170 rooms and suites have a French feel with a touch of Cambodian accent in the furniture and textiles, while a peaceful outdoor pool is shaded by century-old trees. From the French gueridon set menu at the signature Le Royal restaurant (from US$50 per person) to the daily happy hour at the Elephant bar, the hotel offers great value for such high standards. Just be careful about the add-ons, as services like breakfast cost US$25 a pop. Ouch.
From US$180 (HK$1,396). Monivong Boulevard near Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, (+855) 23-981-888.
Getting There and Around
If you’re planning a trip to Phnom Penh, there are a few things you should know before you take off. First of all: It’s insanely easy to get there. Flights on Cathay Dragon take less than three hours and usually cost somewhere in the HK$2,000 range.
Before you go, take out US dollars and register for an e-visa. Unless of course you really want that colorful visa in your passport, in which case you can stand in line for visa on arrival. Just budget in an extra half hour or so.
Taxis are easy to hail, and cheap, as are ubiquitous tuk tuks. If you’re riding in a tuk tuk, which seems to be the most efficient means of travel, expect to pay about US$3-5 per ride, depending on how far you’re going. Oftentimes, a driver will offer to wait for you to secure the ride back as well.
While it’s easy enough to get around, Cambodia’s history and current political climate is best explained by someone who has lived through it. To better understand what the country has faced, and how it’s healing, consider hiring a local guide for a couple of outings to both support local workers and enrich your own experience.
Good to Know
You will see dozens of child beggars as you make your way through the city and countryside. While it’s tempting to hand over cash, keep in mind that these children are usually taken out of school by their parents to beg, or will have to pass money to a mobster boss at the end of the day. Either way, it’s a short-term solution that’s not going to get these street kids into school the next day.
If you really want to donate money, consider researching nonprofits and charities such as Friend’s International, which supports at-risk kids and families to get children off the streets and into schools.