Upon arrival in Cambodia, most tourists flock to Siem Reap for the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat, skipping over one of Southeast Asia’s most charming capital cities. Yet Phnom Penh remains one of the better preserved French relics in the region and has much more to offer tourists than first meets the eye.
As legend has it, an old woman named Penh established the city in the 14th century when she built a home on a hill (phnom in Khmer) – and thus Penh’s Hill, or Phnom Penh, was born. Positioned snugly at the crossroads of the Bassac, Tonle, and Mekong Rivers, Phnom Penh was little more than a sleepy village until it was made into the permanent capital of Cambodia in the late 19th century.
On April 17, 1864 King Norodo I agreed to make Cambodia a French protectorate, quickly jumpstarting the construction of the central Phnom Penh we see today. In 1884, Cambodia officially become part of French Indochina and, by the 1920s, Phnom Penh was considered to be one of the most beautifully built and designed cities in Southeast Asia, earning it the nickname ‘The Pearl of Asia’.
However, the decades that followed Phnom Penh’s height of optimism were soon overshadowed by a brutal civil war that would last from the early 1960s into the 1980s. By the time the Khmer Rouge officially came to power in 1975, the once beautiful city had become a ghost town. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1993 when UN-sponsored democratic elections took place that the city began to take steps to rebuild itself, a delay in time that has placed a permanent mark of French-architectural decay on the city. However, in the last few decades, as the money has rolled in, so have the people, and today’s Phnom Penh is a mix of ambitious development, old-world charm, and innovating cafes, restaurants and bars. Despite its destructive past, Phnom Penh is far more than the site of its infamous genocide and war museums, so don’t make the mistake of skipping it over.
As a capital city, Phnom Penh has a relatively small central area of interest to the majority of visitors. As a result, much of the main sights can be found within easy walking distance of each other. However, it’s important to remember that Cambodia is very much a tropical city – the locals don’t walk and will find it odd if you try to see it all on foot. The best way to see the city is via tuk-tuk, the region’s popular open-air moto-pulled taxi.
Understand the Past
Phnom Penh may be a lot more than the shadow of its horrific past, but it would be a disservice to its people to ignore the facts. The best way to get an idea of what Cambodians have been through is to visit the place where it all began. Just nine miles from town via tuk-tuk are the Choeng Ek killing fields (website, admission $2, open daily), the infamous site of many of the Khmer Rouge killings. Afterwards, ask your tuk-tuk driver to take you directly to S21, or Tuol Sleng (website, admission $3, daily), the torture site turned genocide museum back in town.
After the heavy realities of Cambodia’s more recent past have set in, it might be a good time to get a taste of the ancient beauty that was the Khmer regime. The Royal Palace (website, admission $3, open daily), located just at the beginning of the Riverside walk, is best viewed in the morning, before it gets too hot to enjoy the perfectly manicured gardens and intricately decorated ancient walls. Next door, the National Museum (website, admission $3, open daily) is particularly interesting if you don’t have time to take in the sights of Angkor Wat in the north of the country. Both can be done in just a few hours, leaving the perfect amount of time to enjoy a late lunch.
As the day winds down, Wat Phnom (admission $1, daily) is the perfect place to stop en route to view the sunset via the Riverside. Built in 1373, Wat Phnom is both the tallest and oldest pagoda in the city and remains the center of Cambodia’s highest religious holidays each year. After a quick tour, a late afternoon walk along the river is the best way to set your sights on the perfect place to enjoy a rooftop cocktail, catch an early meal, or secure a river cruise.
It’s impossible to visit any city in Southeast Asia without taking at least a quick peek at her markets. Phnom Penh has many, but most tourists flock to one of the city’s two largest. Located just a few minutes outside the central streets, the Russian Market has become famous for its crowded, serpentine alleys of bargain clothing, jewelry and knickknacks. If you need a bit more order, Central Market, or as the locals call it, the ‘Old Market’ (psahthmeyin Khmer), is a refreshingly organized space, particularly noted for its standout Art Deco design. Whichever choice you make, remember that bargaining is the name of the game when it comes to market shopping.
Eat and Drink
Phnom Penh might not be the most modern metropolis in Southeast Asia, but tourists are often pleasantly surprised by the wide range of top-quality eats and drinks the city has to offer. While typical tourist traps still dominate the riverside, it’s worth the extra few dollars to grab a drink on the rooftop of the FCC (website) or Le Moon (website) for the best view of the setting sun. If quality is more what you’re after, try one of the following top expat haunts.
The best happy hour in town is still found at Phnom Penh’s oldest colonial hotel, Raffles (website). Located in the north of the city, just opposite Wat Phnom and the American Embassy, Raffle’s Elephant Bar offers half price cocktails daily from 4pm to 9pm. And, if you’ve had a big lunch, the bar snacks make for a great light meal.
Bar Sito and Public House – Located on street 240 ½, this gem can be hard to find but is well worth the hunt. Bar Sito is Phnom Penh’s newest and coolest speakeasy and its sister restaurant, the Public House, is just opposite, serving up top-quality gourmet pub fare for bargain prices between $6 and $8. Head in early, both places fill up pretty quick.
For solace and a bite to eat with a conscience, head to Friends (website) on Street 13, just north of the Royal Palace. The restaurant operates completely under the service of rehabilitated street children and its tapas-style entrees ($3 to $4 a piece) are famous among those in the know in Phnom Penh.
It would be a mistake to visit Phnom Penh and skip a quiet afternoon lunch in one of the many villa-style restaurants in town. Located on Street 240, the hub of Phnom Penh’s fashion district, The Shop is renowned among Phnom Penh expats for its homemade bread, fresh salads, perfect cups of coffee and artistic ambiance.
Before heading out of town, don’t forget to sample some Khmer food! Although it can be daunting (deep fried tarantulas anyone?), BBQ is also a big deal in the Kingdom. Sovanna I and II, both located on Street 21, just off Sihanouk Boulevard, are both local favorites for grabbing a plastic curbside seat to enjoy $2.50 pitchers of ice cold beer and heaping plates of $3 grilled squid or steak to share.
Where to Stay
The Plantation (28 Street 184, website)
If you want to go all out, but can’t afford to cough up the dough for a colonial room at one of Phnom Penh’s upscale hotels, check out one of the city’s high quality budget boutique hotels. The Plantation is arguably Phnom Penh’s best and even has an outdoor pool.
Villa Langka (14 Street 282, website)
Located in the heart of BKK1 – expat central – Villa Langka was one of the first boutique hotels to open in Phnom Penh. It’s remained a favorite with excellent service and a relaxing poolside restaurant, perfect for winding down after one of Cambodia’s infamously hot afternoons.
The Kabiki (22 Street 264, website)
Within walking distance of the Royal Palace, National Museum and the Riverside, the Kabiki is a perfect oasis of calm, right in the center of the city. As one of the city’s newer spots, it’s quickly becoming a favorite for its flash-packer prices and high quality.
Getting There and Around: Phnom Penh International Airport may be small, but its airline services are growing. Flying in from the United States will typically involve at least one stop-over, but flights can get as low as $1,200 if you look in advance. Today, it’s fairly simple to grab a direct flight from any of the region’s capital cities.
To get into the city, both taxis ($10) and tuk-tuks ($7) are available upon arrival. However, most hotels and boutique guesthouses offer complimentary airport pickup.
Weather: Cambodia, like the rest of the region, follows a monsoon-dominated seasonal pattern that’s comprised of a ‘wet’ season (May-October) and a ‘dry’ season (November-April). Although the peak tourist season tends to be the sunny and dry months of December and January, many expats would actually insist that they prefer the wet season, when the streets cool off after every afternoon shower and the countryside turns a brilliant shade of bright green.
Language: The official language of the Kingdom of Cambodia is Khmer. However, nearly everyone will speak at least some English within the capital city. In fact, American influence is so apparent, most prices will be quoted to you in US dollars and ATMs exclusively distribute American currency.
Safety: Like any major city, theft can be a problem. Women in particular should take extra care to watch their belongings. Across-the-shoulder bags are recommended. At night, tourists should take tuk-tuks to avoid traffic problems, as most streets remain improperly lit.
Tipping and Culture: Tipping is not required, but always welcomed. In Cambodia, it’s important to remember that most people still live on around $1 a day – be prepared to see some beggars and street children. Although most will offer to sell you something in return, it’s always a good idea to keep in mind that the money might not be going to where you think.
Visas: Currently, tourist visas are easily processed upon arrival. For Americans, the current price is $20. Bring a photo.