Three days in Phnom Penh

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Three days in Phnom Penh

Laurence Labadens

30 January 2018

“Why would I want to spend three days in Phnom Penh?” some might say. But now’s a great time to open your eyes! The Cambodian capital is much more than a short stopover on the road to the temples of Angkor and greatly deserves spending at least 72 hours there.

First of all, you should choose a good hotel, preferably one with a pool so you can cool down from the outdoor temperatures. Although 5-star luxury accommodations are guaranteed at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, the Sofitel Phokeethra and the Rosewood, many charming boutique hotels offer some of the most comfortable options and more.

If you want greenery, there’s the Pavillion, the Villa Langka, Iroha Garden, the Plantation, Villa Samsara, and the Kabiki, one of the favorites of our Latitudes journalists. In any case, there’s no shortage of choices. Once that’s settled, it’s time for a few tips on how to spend your time.

The Past as a Present

In order to understand and appreciate Phnom Penh, you need to know a bit about its history, because the city has a lot of it. While it’s working today on settling into the 21st century, it only started taking its fate into his own hands during the 1990s.

A must-do for your first day is the Phnom Penh Heritage Tour, which is an excellent introduction. The 2-hour tuk-tuk tour with a virtual guide on a tablet makes a remarkable link between the present and the past. While the trip will show you the excitement of the city today, the 19 stops will teach you about its history through pictures and with commentaries in the language of your choice at 22 emblematic sites. Beyond being richly documented and very educational, this outing is a superb source of inspiration that will let you discover and select the places you may want to spend more time at.

There’s no doubt either that this tour through history will help you get a more indulgent overview of the capital city in full development. Sure, it’s still sorely lacking in infrastructure and is cluttered with construction cranes raising even more buildings even though numerous still-dilapidated sidewalks are littered with heaps of waste. Through its insane traffic, which fortunately still runs much slower than in Bangkok and Saigon, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and large sedans weave together in an anarchic ballet where only the locals seem to know how to get around safely.

From Classic Outings to Exclusivity

Whether or not you were inspired by the Phnom Penh Heritage Tour, there are some visits you shouldn’t miss. In particular, there’s the National Museum, a temple to all periods of Khmer art, not to mention the gorgeous building, or you could stroll through the manicured gardens of the Royal Palace and marvel at its beautiful structures such as the Silver Pagoda and the Throne Hall. And if you can handle it, you could dive into the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime in the old S21 Prison transformed into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (don’t miss the audio-tour they offer – it’s incredible).

Returning to the present time, and focusing on local life, enjoy a pretty walk with Christine “Waterlily” Gauthier (+855 12 812 469). Living in Cambodia since 1996, this French woman, who speaks English and Khmer as well, is first and foremost a fashion and accessory designer, but she’s like no other tour guide and will introduce you to various local communities by showing you secret spots not mentioned in any guidebook, hidden architectural treasures, truly typical markets, and small, nearly forgotten shops.

If you want a workout, feel free to ask her to take you to the Olympic Stadium to run the tracks alongside the Athletic Federation of Cambodia, or join a public aerobics session. This is a perfect time to discover a little bit about “New Khmer Architecture” that started off the city’s development in the 1960s under the leadership of the great architect Vann Molyvan.

Crossing Paths

Like many neighboring Asian cities, Phnom Penh isn’t easy to get around on foot because of its sidewalks cluttered with small shops (plus cars!). Luckily, there are streets that are easy to walk down with lots of nice surprises as testimony to the vibe of a city where the youth are showing their style more and more.

As a former backpacker hotspot, the Boeung Kak Lake district has been largely forgotten since an enormous real estate program drained the lake. However, anyone passing through Phnom Penh who loves street art will enjoy winding down the quiet Street 93, the walls of which have been colored by many talented local and international painters and graffiti artists.

Urban art has also transformed a pleasant alleyway joining Streets 240 and 244, known as Alley 240 1⁄2. Small shops full of character contribute to its charm, such as Wang Dang Doodle, which sells a jumble of paintings and old records, Cambodian Creations, which abounds with pretty ethically produced crafts, the ARTillery Café, serving vegetarian fare, and there’s also Bee, which specializes in vintage clothing and features Bong Bong Bong Bar where you can quench your thirst.

The even narrower alleyway leading from Street 240 takes you to the very exclusive Wednesday Bar. It’s available only by request (+855 93 983 654), and this friendly spot belonging to a handful or fashion designer and stylist friends is, as its name suggests, only open on Wednesdays. They’re all collectors of discount garments by the biggest names in international haute couture, and are happy to exhibit their treasures, and are sometimes even willing to sell a few of them.

Hidden between Streets 288 and 294, leading to Street 51, another discreet passageway deserves a visit. Ladies will have a hard time resisting the elegant delicate models created by Neary and Borany, two Cambodian sisters, in their pretty shop, Un Eté à Kep-sur-Mer. Here, you can also find Bistro Langka, which is one of the most highly esteemed eateries in Phnom Penh. The owners have only one motto: Generously serving French cuisine full of creativity and freshness. And honestly, they really do! (reservations recommended: +855 70 727 233). One last tip is to peek behind the large Coca-Cola machine, where you’ll actually find the entryway to BattBong, a speakeasy bar with a wonderful atmosphere, where their mixed beverages will set everything right again.

Hop & Shop

Phnom Penh is seductive in its character, and you’ll surely want to spend a few dollars. There’s no shortage of shops where you can find head-to-toe apparel, from the very chic couture of Eric Raisina (Raffles Hotel Le Royal), to the pure shapes of Don Protasio creations (Off street 240), plus the unique accessories and clothing of Waterlily at the same address as the real Tropéziennes shoes at Le Boudoir (37 street 240) and the Cambodian-made espadrilles at Amboh (45 street 21).

Princess Sita Norodom, the ambassador of the Raffles, told us of her favorite place: “Every time I’m asked about what I wear, the person I speak about with great pride is my very dear stylist friend Romyda Keth. You can find her creations at Khmer Attitude at the Raffles, or in her own shop, Ambre (37 street 178). She’s a Cambodian from France, like me. She mostly uses Cambodian or Asian fabrics and works a lot with embroidery. You always hear about foreign designers and stylists, but we also have a few gems right here.”

If you’re looking for enormous, ultramodern shopping centers, you’ll love Aeon Mall 1 and Aeon Mall Sok San City, but if you want to score loads of small gifts to take back home, you should head to the large markets (Central Market, Russian Market, O’Russey). Finally, Street 178 is where you’ll find quite a few artisanal shops, but for high-end crafts, try Artisans d’Angkor on Street 13.

Twilight Zone

Like Cannes, Phnom Penh also has its own “Croisette.” Bordered with palm trees, the landscaped walkway along Sisowath Quay is most pleasant in the late afternoon. Joggers and walkers cross paths since it’s mercifully completely flat for several kilometers. Those who enjoy dacau and tot sey (types of Cambodian badminton) take up their rackets and families gather here and there to enjoy the river’s atmosphere and the last rays of the setting sun.

A cruise aboard the Kanika is a truly special occasion to admire the flamboyant colors of the sky while you take in another viewpoint onto the city. This beautiful catamaran will take you down the Mekong and the Tonle Sap, where you’ll enjoy not only a breathtaking view of the Phnom Penh’s skyline, but they also offer a wide selection of quality food and drinks, all fanned by a welcome breeze. As the sun sets and the first lights start to sparkle, you’ll also love the Sora. The capital’s latest sky bar is located in the Rosewood Hotel, and its terrace seems to be hanging from the 37th floor of the Vattanac Tower. It goes without saying that the panorama is breathtaking! (just like its very stylish menu of malted beverages, which includes a few rare picks).

A Multitude of Tables

While we agree that Bangkok is the champion in all categories of street food, Phnom Penh still offers a lot in this field. We have no specific recommendations other than to pay attention to how the food is made (in terms of hygiene and freshness). However, you’ll be amazed by the number of restaurants serving world cuisine.

Of course, in the Kingdom of Cambodia, you’ll have to try Khmer cuisine. At the Malis (136 Norodom Boulevard), the famous Chef Luu Meng uses all his talent to create authentic specialties. On an enchanting patio decorated with ponds, famous “fish amok” is at its best. Other less fancy restaurants, such as Labaab (upstairs at 93 Monivong Boulevard), Sugar Palm (13 Street 18), Romdeng (74 Street 174), and Friends (215 Street 13) are just as tasty both in terms of their setting and what’s on their plates.

As for foreign restaurants, there are so many of them we can only give you a few of our favorites: La Terrazza (1 Street 282) is a worthy ambassador of Italy, from their antipasti to the desserts, the Aroma (188 Street 13), which boasts Mediterranean cuisine focusing mostly on Lebanese mezze, and just across the street at No. 233, Pépé Bistro serves wonderful, old-fashioned French food with a lot of creativity. Finally, in a superb colonial mansion from the 1920s, Le Bouchon (82 Street 174) offers fabulous grilled meats and a French menu including a very nice selection of beverages from the cellar.

Out All Night

Phnom Penh is perfect for night owls. Oskar Bistro (159 Sisowath Dock) has earned a solid reputation as a party hotspot with its themed evenings, DJ sets, original drinks, and delicious food on offer until 2am.

As for small yet surprising streets, Bassac Lane is one that comes alive at night. Lined with a tightly packed row of small bars drowning in music, this alleyway leading from Street 308 is a mainstay for nighttime revelry in Phnom Penh. Finally, at the Pontoon (Street 172), which has been open for a long time, since Western and Khmer culture came together, you can still find a room with good electronic music, and along with the Vito (Street 208), you’ll be sure to find a fun night out until dawn.

In the end, three days is probably not enough time to follow all our recommendations, so you’ll surely want to come back!

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