A city guide to Phnom Penh

The Cambodian capital is reinventing itself after a turbulent century — emerging as a dynamic modern city with a creative culinary scene and stellar architecture. Saturday, 23 November 2019

By Lee Cobaj
Photographs By Lauryn Ishak

They sent me here seven years ago,” says Buck. With his big smile and backwards baseball cap, he comes across as a real-life Joey Tribbiani from the TV show Friends. But Buck isn’t an American, he’s one of around 800 Cambodians who’ve been deported from America in recent decades. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to parents who’d fled the Khmer Rouge genocide, as a baby he was taken to live, illegally, in the US. Buck couldn’t be more American if he was wearing the star-spangled banner and eating apple pie. With him is his friend Jimmy, who has a similar tale to tell. His new life in the US began at the age of six, when his family fled the Cambodian Civil War. Nearly 40 years later, he too was sent back to Cambodia, a country he’d never visited in the intervening years. 

Buck and Jimmy tell me stories of other deportees; some who couldn’t speak Khmer when they arrived; men who were forced to leave pregnant girlfriends, wives, children and elderly parents behind; a marine who served in Afghanistan. Their distressing accounts are a subplot to the Good Luck City Tour I’m taking with Zin Adventures, which was set up in 2018 by some of the first deportees as a way to help new deportees adjust to their new, unwanted lives. It’s a tour with a narrative that twists and turns like a thriller on its 90-minute ride through the city.

Every city is built on its stories but few have a back catalogue quite like Phnom Penh’s. Located on the confluence of two of Asia’s most important waterways (the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers), Phnom Penh was founded as a Buddhist temple village in the 14th century. For much of the next century it was the nation’s capital, a status it regained in 1866, and retained during a 111-year chapter as part of French Indochina, along with Laos and Vietnam. During the early decades of the 20th century, Phnom Penh was hailed as the ‘Pearl of Asia’. The Second World War ushered in a Japanese invasion and occupation, followed by the first Indochina War, a brief hopeful window of independence and a slow descent into a genocide so catastrophic it would empty the city of almost all its inhabitant. 

Four decades on, this enigmatic city is once again in flux. People and money have flowed back in and construction is its soundtrack. Cranes litter the skyline, while its streets are a snarl of congested, gritty, glam, hipster, industrial, historic and riverside life. It’s not the prettiest but it’s definitely one of Southeast Asia’s edgiest, most exciting cities. 

SEE AND DO

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Formerly known as Security Prison 21 (S-21), Tuol Sleng is the most infamous of the hundreds of detention and interrogation centres operated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79. Torture devices and skulls in cabinets bear testament to the brutal events that occurred here.   

National Olympic Stadium: Completed in 1964, this stadium is the most dazzling example of ‘New Khmer’ architecture, designed by Cambodian maverick Vann Molyvann, an acolyte of Le Corbusier. A masterwork of light and shadow, its curves and perforated columns are best viewed (and photographed) around sunset.

City Walking Tour: Run by Cambodian refugees deported from America, this 90-minute walking tour, which swerves through the back alleys and underbelly of the former French quarter, offers an eye-opening alternative to the usual government-run temple-and-landmark tours.  

Cambodian Living Arts: Restore your faith in humanity with a traditional dance show at an open-air theatre in the grounds of the National Museum of Cambodia. 

Free the Bears: Cambodia is still playing catch-up when it comes to animal welfare, which makes a visit to this nonprofit sanctuary, a 90-minute drive from Phnom Penh, all the more warm and fuzzy. It’s home to over 500 rare sun bears and even rarer moon bears, rescued from poachers, circuses and the pet trade.    

Choeng Ek Genocidal Centre: The site of one of the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields, over 17,000 S-21 prisoners were sent to Choeng Ek to be brutally murdered by hand (bullets were in short supply), their bodies then cast into mass graves. Today, the site is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa.

Koh Otnyahdei: A breath of fresh air, green fields and sunny sandbanks, this petite island, a 10-minute ferry ride from the outskirts of Phnom Penh, was made for two wheels. Arrange a cycling tour and set off through taro, corn and ginger fields, passing stilted teak houses and pretty silk farms.       

Sunset Mekong cruise: A seat on deck, a glorious sunset, a Jimi Hendrix soundtrack and unlimited beers and cocktails are all included in the £14 price of this 80-minute sunset cruise along the Mekong River with Kanika Cruises. There’s no better way to witness the rapidly changing Phnom Penh skyline than by gawping at its cranes and half-built skyscrapers from the water. 

BUY

Estampe: Don’t miss this little French-owned store stocked with voguish vintage finds — blocks of black opium soap, vintage travel posters, printed cushion covers, pretty notebooks, plus collectibles such as colonial-era maps, magazines and postcards. 

Un été à Kep-sur-Mer: Rice field-green mini dresses, geometric-print playsuits, silk shell tops, classic cotton tees — this tiny boutique, set up by two Cambodian-French sisters, sells chic locally produced women’s fashion with a playful 1960s twist. 

Central Market: This tourist hotspot is the place to pick up souvenirs — bronze ornaments, wooden kitchenware, silk lanterns and silver jewellery. But it’s the building itself that’s the real draw. When it opened in 1937, it was reputed to be the biggest market in Asia — a marvellous, lemon-coloured art deco dome crisscrossed by four large passageways, with Y-shaped slots providing natural light and ventilation. 

LIKE A LOCAL

Phone home: Don’t bother with the free SIM cards handed out at the airport — they’re expensive to top-up. Instead, go to a branch of Smart (they’re on almost every city-centre corner) and get a local SIM with 10G of data for just $3 (£2.40). You’ll need to register with your passport. 

Get a massage: Like its neighbour, Thailand, massage has been embedded in Cambodian culture for centuries. Khmer techniques are similarly rigorous, with lots of strong stretching, deep pressure and satisfying cracking. For the best rub-down in town, visit the Zen-like Bodia Spa on the riverfront (60-minute massages from £20).  

Breakfast bowl: For a proper Cambodian breakfast, tuck into some nom banh chok, silky rice noodles topped with a red or green fish curry and heaps of bean sprouts, banana flower and crunchy greens. There are stalls on almost every corner, but the roadside options at Russian Market are a favourite with locals.

SLEEP

Plantation: Verdant gardens, colourful lotus ponds and an aquamarine swimming pool, a stone’s throw from the Royal Palace and buzzy Street 240, give this hotel the feel of a true urban escape. Try the moreish grilled duck with pineapple and curry sauce at lovely La Pergola restaurant.

Raffles hotel Le Royal: This glorious grande dame originally opened in 1929 and has a guest list that includes Jackie Kennedy, Angelina Jolie and Barack Obama. Even if you can’t stay, soak up the sublime atmosphere at the enigmatic Elephant Bar.

Rosewood Phnom Penh: Being housed at the top of the 39-storey Vattanac Capital tower, the tallest building in Cambodia, grants this new five-star stupendous city views. Rooms are Khmer-cool, with sliding lacquer doors, batik panels and gold-flecked bathrooms. The rooftop bar is one of the top spots for sunset views. 

EAT

Romdeng: The fare at Romdeng ranges from the homely (baked fish amok, chargrilled aubergine with pork and coriander, smoked duck laap) to the far-out (black pepper and lime tarantulas, crunchy crickets, beef and red tree ants). 

Nesat Seafood House: Kampot pepper crab, barbecue squid, jumbo shrimp, flame-grilled vegetables and tom yum soup with white clams are all piled into Nesat’s must-have seafood medley. Everything on the menu is delicious, though — save space for a zingy mango and raspberry sorbet for dessert.  

Kinin: You can while away a whole evening at this hip tropical garden hangout, flitting from late-afternoon happy-hour cocktails at the bar (the £2 hibiscus margaritas are to die for) to a long, leisurely dinner of zesty fish salads, caramelised pork belly baguettes and deep-fried avocado bombs filled with gooey egg. 

AFTER HOURS  

Battbong: The name translates as ‘my lost friend’, and this speakeasy lives up to its name, with potent drinks and a tricky-to-find location, hidden behind a vintage Coca-Cola machine door in a back street near Wat Langka. 

Long After Dark: Located in Toul Tom Poung (aka Russian Market, Phnom Penh’s most fashionable neighbourhood), this slick, amber-hued hideaway, with a wide range of whiskies, craft beers and cocktails and a pretty upstairs terrace, where you can watch tuk-tuks putter past. 

Bouchon wine bar: Housed in a splendid 1920s colonial-era mansion, this is a place for grown-up gatherings. Inside, there are checkerboard floors, exposed brick walls and a horseshoe-shaped bar, while outside there’s a pretty, banyan-shaded courtyard featuring live jazz, blues and Motown music twice a week. 

Getting there & around

Thai Airways flies from London to Phnom Penh via Bangkok; Cathay Pacific from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester via Hong Kong.  

Average flight time: 16h.

Phnom Penh has a number of good walking neighbourhoods, particularly the French Quarter, the riverfront and Royal Palace Park. The Grab taxi app (Southast Asia’s Uber), guarantees fixed fares, otherwise be prepared to haggle with taxi and tuk-tuk drivers.

When to go
Phnom Penh has three seasons; hot, hotter and wet. The best time to visit is from late November-early February, during the cooler, dry season. April-May is excruciatingly hot, with temperatures rarely falling below 26C. July-September is slightly cooler, although it’s not unusual for it to rain every day.  

More info 

UK travellers require a tourist visa, which can be bought online or on arrival for $36 (£29). 

The Rough Guide to Cambodia. RRP: £15.99

How to do it

Inside Asia has a 10-day tour of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Kep from £1,695 per person, staying in four-star accommodation and including flights with Thai Airways, private transfers and a number of tours and excursions.     

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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