Like Manila, once known as “The Pearl of the Orient,” Phnom Penh’s wide boulevards, shaded by tamarind and jacaranda trees, now play host to upscale coffee shops, luxurious boutique hotels and cutting-edge clubs, restaurants and bars. Here are some guides for you when travelling Phnom Penh.
On its romantic riverside, where the mighty Mekong meets the Tonlé Sap and Bassac rivers, there’s an irrepressible energy in this city of 1.5 million, due in no small part to the charm, enthusiasm and joie de vivre of the Khmer people. Away from the river, shady villas and little temples nestle together under the palm trees — thoroughly Indochinese in manner.
Elsewhere, shoppers will find plenty to exercise their imagination (and wallets) in the Central and Russian markets. Compact, low-slung and seemingly sleepy in the Cambodian heat, Phnom Penh is, in fact, fired with excitement and optimism: this is a city that feels destined for great things.
Raffles Le Royal
The doyenne of Phnom Penh’s hotels, this has been here, in one form or another, since the 1920s. Its pride in its history is evident. From the cool tiled halls to the gorgeous swimming pools in the central courtyard, the hotel oozes class and sophistication. The rooms are divine, service is world-class, the restaurants superb and having a drink in Elephant Bar is like stepping back to another era.
Formerly a collection of government offices, The Plantation was recently re-imagined, and opened as a luxurious and competitively priced boutique hotel in 2012. It immediately began winning international awards and accolades, and it’s not hard to see why.
Tree-lined passageways lead between pools, ponds and bars, all tucked away behind a high perimeter wall. Lovely rooms, great food and attentive service make this an exceptional hotel in the heart of the city.
Close to the Independence Monument — on a street heaving with fruit and vegetable stalls and barbecue stands — passing through Hotel Nine’s gateway is like entering a different world.
There’s a little jewel of a pool, nicely thought-out and appointed rooms and an exceptional level of care and attention from the dedicated staff; all of which make this a real treasure of Phnom Penh. The restaurant is very good, but staff will be happy to point out the best things to try on the street outside if you want to be more adventurous.
In a beautiful colonial building in the heart of town, the Kambuja Inn is a delight. Vast wooden shuttered rooms are cool and shady, and little grassy courtyards with trees and quiet pools make this a sensibly priced oasis.
Staff at the family-run Kambuja will go well out of their way to make sure you have everything you need, and an associated travel agency over the (quiet) road can cater to your travel arrangements. Exceptional.
Cambodian food isn’t nearly as well known as that of its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, but the owner of Malis, celebrity chef Luu Meng, is trying to change that. He’s doing a first-class job. On one of Phnom Penh’s grand boulevards, the restaurant is wonderfully atmospheric, with stone Buddhas and reflecting pools.
Most of the ingredients are sourced in Cambodia, and there’s a palpable sense of pride in the food. Dishes such as prohok ktis (fermented river fish, pork and coconut milk) and samlor korko (pumpkin soup with pork ribs) are wonderful, and the extensive wine list is impressive.
Run by an NGO that trains street kids as restaurant staff thereby giving them a trade, Romdeng is the best way to eat spectacular Cambodian food and help a worthy cause at the same time. In a lovely colonial building, with a lap pool to one side (if you feel the urge for a dip in the middle of dinner) the menu features Khmer classics like fish amok and beef loklak, as well as some more unusual fare, like deep-fried tarantula, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. This is no charity case — the food is excellent. Absolutely worth a visit.
A vast, beautifully executed nightclub, Pontoon was originally on a boat moored on the Tonlé Sap river until it sank in 2008 because of the enthusiasm of the partying on board. Now firmly on dry land, the club provides everything you look for in terms of nightlife. Visiting international DJs, bands and comedians make for a varied lineup, and the attached restaurant stays open until the wee hours. Truly, they’ve thought of everything.
A newcomer to the Phnom nightlife scene, Mao’s has quickly gained a reputation as a top venue for a great night out. Hip without being intimidating, it welcomes regular bands as well as DJs, and attracts a cosmopolitan mix, all ready to party. The upper walkways are the cool place to hang out and watch the action on the dance floor below.
Not exactly a secret, but unmissable nonetheless, the National Museum is housed in an old Khmer building that avoided the malign attentions of the Khmer Rouge. The museum is a treasure house of Angkorian and pre-Angkorian artifacts, mainly stone statues of breathtaking beauty and craftsmanship. Built around a lovely, tranquil courtyard, you can spend hours getting lost marveling at the sublime statuary and wondering at Cambodia’s astonishing history.
A dozen kilometers and a US$20 taxi ride north of Phnom Penh, Silk Island, or Koh Dach, is home to several little villages where the main source of livelihood is silk weaving. The super-friendly weavers are more than happy to show you their traditional techniques, as they create quite stunning cloth, which you can buy at extremely reasonable prices. Other handicrafts are available, as is swimming in the mighty river, but the main attraction is spending time in the company of such unassuming and delightful people, and to witness a way of life that may not last too much longer, due to the relentless pressures of modernity.
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