PHNOM PENH IN 3 WORDS
Phnom Penh is chaotic, cosmopolitan, multifaceted
MY TIME IN PHNOM PENH
I didn’t expect to be so enamoured by Phnom Penh. I had been to Cambodia on one other occasion, a brief stopover in Siem Reap to visit the Angkor Temples, but I hadn’t bothered with the capital city. This time around, another reason brought me back: family. My brother had relocated to Phnom Penh for work so there was no better reason to visit.
The killing fields and the S-21 prison have come to define Phnom Penh, a reminder of the country’s recent dark past where over a quarter of the country’s population perished under the Pol Pot regime. One would expect the recent atrocities to produce a bleak and grim atmosphere, but instead, as in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is a city full of smiles, and the tenacity of the locals shines through in their determination to remove the bloody stains of the past left by the Khmer Rouge.
Phnom Penh is not a ‘pretty’ city by any means and it is easy to overlook it on the tourist trail, particularly when it is overshadowed by its sister city Siem Reap with Angkor’s impressive sprawling temple complexes. However, underneath Phnom Penh’s rough and gritty exterior, there lies a vibrant cosmopolitan scene, in large part due to the city’s sizeable expat community, and what isn’t often talked is the huge variety of food on offer and the abundance of bars and cafes that has emerged in the city. Phnom Penh is a place where research or getting in touch with a local will go a long, long way in showing you the real heartbeat of the city.
THINGS TO DO IN PHNOM PENH
It’s extremely easy to do Phnom Penh in a day or two, saving a day for the killing fields and S-21 and another day for venturing around the town and riverside.
Killing Fields The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is one of the many killing fields that were established across Cambodia during the reign of terror under the Khmer Rouge, and it is the biggest in terms of deaths, with over 17,000 people executed here. It is surprisingly peaceful despite all of the horrors that unfolded here a mere 40 years ago. A self-guided audio tour takes you around the site and past the mass grave pits from which human bone fragments are still surfacing. The Memorial Stupa houses shelves of skulls of some of the victims and is a graphic reminder of the Cambodians who fell victim to a tyrannical and senseless regime.
S-21 The S-21 prison, or Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is often done in conjunction with a visit to the Killing Fields, and to be honest, I was glad to do all of the emotionally draining sites in one day. Dark tourism is essentially that—dark. Formally a high school, S-21 was turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge and housed over 17,000 prisoners before they were transported to the nearby killing fields. There are only 7 known survivors from S-21.
Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda The Royal Palace, and home to the King of Cambodia, is located riverside and parts of the expansive grounds are open to the public. I went in the late afternoon, which was a great time in terms of the light, with the shimmering flecks of gold of the gilded rooftops glinting in the afternoon sun and bouncing off the deep orange robes of the monks. Be sure to cover up and dress ‘modestly’, otherwise you’ll need to rent more appropriate clothing before entering the palace grounds.
National Museum of Cambodia The National Museum of Cambodia is dedicated to collecting important Khmer artefacts and cultural materials, and traditional Cambodian performances are held in the garden on Friday and Saturday evenings at 7 pm.
Wat Phnom Translating to ‘Mountain Pagoda’, Wat Phnom is a Buddhist temple situated atop a hill, and is a popular place where locals come to pray for good luck in exams and business affairs.
Russian Market At first glance, it may seem just like every other South-East Asian market selling knock-offs of every brand you can possibly imagine; however, if you venture into the labyrinth that is the Russian Market, then you’ll soon figure out why people say that you can pretty much get virtually anything here. I particularly like the motorbike parts aisle and the strip of tailors beavering away on their sewing machines. There’s also a food court area inside the market.
Other markets There are plenty of other markets to check out in Phnom Penh, including the art deco Central Market and the alfresco Phnom Penh Night Market in Riverside – both markets have food court areas that are popular with locals, if you’re keen to sample some traditional cuisine.
Phnom Penh’s thriving eating and drinking scene caught me by surprise, and I could have easily spent more time in the city exploring more of the city’s hidden gems.
EATING IN PHNOM PENH
Traditional Cambodian cuisine: If you’re curious to try local Cambodian fare, head to the food courts at the Russian Market, Central Market or the Night Market, or try traditional Khmer BBQ at Sovanna 2. Although Chinese Noodle Restaurant doesn’t serve traditional Cambodian cuisine, head here if you want to dine with the locals.
Japanese: There is no shortage of Japanese restaurants in Phnom Penh, as there is a lot of foreign Japanese investment in the city. Katanashi Japanese tapas bar combines great Japanese food with fun games. Chiyoda offers handmade soba and udon noodles in an intimate izakaya setting—it’s pricey by Cambodian standards but definitely worth it. Sesame Noodle Bar down in Russian Market offers fusion fare and is well worth a visit.
COFFEE IN PHNOM PENH
Tini My favourite coffee nook down in the Russian Market area.
Feel Good (Feel good (Street 136); Feel Good 2 (Street 29)) A favourite among coffee fiends.
Brown Coffee (various locations) A popular coffee chain.
DRINKING IN PHNOM PENH
Bassac Lane This alleyway is a popular expat drinking spot peppered with bars and restaurants to keep you well entertained into the night.
Jet’s Container Night Market Based on a cargo container concept popular in Thailand, there are more than 200 stalls to keep you entertained.
Samai Distillery Cambodia’s first (and only) rum distillery is only opened on Thursday nights between 6 to 11.30 pm. Try the Kampot Pepper Rum.
BattBong The entrance to this intimate speakeasy is hidden behind a coke dispenser door.
Tuk-tuk bar Phnom Penh’s only tuk-tuk bar is located along Street 51, opposite the intersection of Street 288, and is open from 11 pm – 3 am every day.
Show Box The ultimate dive bar.
Street 278 This street is popular among the backpacker crowd. Head to Zeppelin Cafe, a rockin’ bar with cheap-as-chips beers.
Chinese House Check out the hipster-colonial interior and ambience of this flashy riverside haunt.
MASSAGES IN PHNOM PENH
Spas: I love a luxurious massage and don’t mind spending a bit more for the fine trimmings. My favourite massage place is Amara Spa, where a massage costs roughly USD$25. The beautifully fitted-out Bodia Spa is probably the most popular massage place for foreigners, but steeper in price at approximately USD$35.
Seeing Hands Massage: For a massage with a difference, head to Seeing Hands Massage where you are given a massage by a blind Cambodian masseuse.
WHERE TO STAY IN PHNOM PENH
Most visitors tend to stay/congregate around or near the river for convenience’s sake, but I love the Boeung Keng Kang 1 (BKK1) and Russian Market areas. You can find a breakdown of Phnom Penh areas here.
The Pavilion: A beautiful boutique hotel housed in restored colonial buildings. French colonial glamour at its best.
The Plantation: A green oasis in the heart of Phnom Penh and the bigger sister of the Pavilion.
Aquarius Hotel & Urban Resort: The ultimate in chic comfortability and style.
House Boutique Eco Hotel: A ‘Khmer-owned social enterprise hotel that works with local businesses to procure materials, designs and products from sustainable sources’.
Taking a tuk tuk is the best way to travel around Phnom Penh—and the most fun! Within the city limits, it shouldn’t cost more than US$3 to get around, although it may cost more if there are a few people catching a ride. Negotiate prices with the driver beforehand so that there won’t be any surprises later on. Be firm as drivers will tend to try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of you if they can. Catch a tuk tuk that has side netting and keep your bag close to you while travelling between places. You can also rent a driver for the day as they will happily wait around for you while you see the sights.
In terms of addresses, you’ll need to let the driver know the street number. Bear in mind that street numbers are not always sequential. Unless it is a well-known place you’re headed to, you’ll most likely need to direct the driver to go left (bawt ch’weng) or right (bawt s’dum), even if the driver may tell you that they know where they’re going. Pre-load your destination on Google maps before heading out—it will be your saviour.
If you want to save yourself a headache from bargaining with tuk tuk drivers and you have access to data on your phone, download PassApp, which is essentially the Uber of the tuk tuk world. You’ll still need to pay in cash, but you’ll pay more than half the price than if you were to haggle with a regular tuk tuk driver. Uber and Grab have also recently entered the market.
Cost of trip from Phnom Penh to airport: Approx. US$8 for a tuk tuk, and $12 for a taxi (although some drivers are now charging $15)
Cost of return trip to the Killing Fields: Approx. US$12 for a tuk tuk
There is talk of rising crime in the city and, like anywhere, Phnom Penh requires tourists to exercise caution. Don’t flash money and jewellery around and be careful to hang on to your bag when walking along the side of the road as bag snatchings are common.
- The official currency is Cambodian Riel but US dollars are widely accepted, and you may be given change in a combination of riel and USD. ATMs in Cambodia dispense both US dollars and Cambodian riel. The common conversion is 4000 riel to the dollar. Be careful with your American dollars as notes with any tears won’t be accepted anywhere!
- Carry lots of $1 bills with you for tuk tuks, cheap meals and drinks, and tipping at some places (i.e. massages).
- Negotiate your tuk tuk fare with the driver beforehand.
- Weather-wise, the hottest months are from February to April and it is cooler to visit November to January. The rainy season runs from May to October, with July to September being the wettest months.
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