It’s just a three-hour flight away, so Phnom Penh makes the perfect quick getaway. Here’s what you need to do once you get there.
Have a drink at the Elephant Bar
Tucked into a corner of the historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal, this chic bar is one of the city’s coolest and most (in)famous watering holes, and its history is twined with that of Phnom Penh itself. The bar underwent a renovation in recent years, so it’s looking a little more modern and glamorous than before, but rest assured, there are still elephants aplenty. Afternoon tea is served here, and there’s a great happy hour in the evenings. Whatever you do, make sure you try the Femme Fatale. This appropriate sophisticated signature cocktail was created for Jacqueline Kennedy when she visited in 1967, and the glass she drank it from sits outside the bar, lipstick stains and all.
Locals are your best bet for discovering any city, and ABOUTAsia Travel is a Cambodia-based tour company specialising in exclusive insider tours. One of their most unique offerings in Phnom Penh is their architecture tour, where you’ll take a cyclo-taxi through the streets of the city and explore its fascinating architectural marvels with an architect by your side. You’ll get wonderful insight into the buildings and history of Phnom Penh as you visit places like the colonial-era post office, an abandoned hotel that’s been overtaken by squatters, a police headquarters that’s been left to rack and ruin, and a Chinese-inspired house that’s been turned into a cool bar and restaurant.
The Khmer Rouge was a blight on Cambodia’s history, and the regime’s brutality is horrifyingly evident at S21. Officially called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, this was a former school that was turned into a prison under the Khmer Rouge. Visitors walk though cells, some of which have blood stains and graphic photographs of bodies found here after the liberation; see the stricken faces of prisoners in a collection of photographs taken upon their entry; and learn about the atrocities that were committed at this prison. A visit here is confronting, chilling and uncomfortable, but it’s so important to see. Chum May was one of just 14 people who survived S21; he later testified against the prison administrators in the UN-backed war crimes tribunals. He survived because his skills as a mechanic were deemed necessary; now, he comes back to S21 every day to tell visitors his story in unflinching details. It’s important, he says, that people realize the horrors of what happened here, and ensure something like this can never happen again. As we leave, my ABOUTAsia Travel guide tells me his brother went to school here, and that he himself was forced to perform manual labor in the countryside; it’s a stark reminder that to this day, every Cambodian still bears the scars of this dark period of the country’s history.
Perched 37 floors above the city, Sora is the dynamic, stylish rooftop bar at the Rosewood Phnom Penh — and it’s definitely the best place to watch the sun go down. Along the way, sip on craft cocktails, rare whiskies, and choice beers, or perhaps sample a selection of the Japanese tapas on offer.
The Cambodian royals still live here, so there’s only a small part of the Royal Palace is open to the public. Even so, you’ll get to see the throne room, the pavilion which hosts state dinners, and a quirky little museum displaying all sorts of odds and ends, including apsara (dancer) costumes. On the grounds you’ll also find the Silver Pagoda, so called because of the 5,000 silver tiles that adorn the pagoda’s floor. There are also a huge number of Buddha statues, including the famous Emerald Buddha, and a life-size statue wearing nearly 10,000 diamonds and royal regalia.
Note: The author was hosted by ABOUTAsia Travel in Phnom Penh.
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