It’s rich with history, loaded with atmosphere and jammed with great restaurants and shops, but Phnom Penh is often overlooked by travellers in favour of Siem Reap, the launching point for Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat. A weekend trip to the capital however, is easily done from Bangkok and yields rich rewards.
Phnom Penh offers accommodation ranging from US$1 a night backpacker dorms on the lake to the salubrious restored Le Royal where the best rooms go for hundreds. Our out-of-the-way pick is the quaint wooden-floored Del Gusto’s on Street 95, where rooms are US$9-15. Its cousin the Boddhi Tree also offers stylish but budget mid-range rooms, US$7-18. Both have attached restaurants with great food.
Friday night sees many package tourists kick off with sunset drinks at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club overlooking the Mekong or the excellent happy hour at Le Royal’s Elephant Bar, both worth checking out. Ruby’s tucked away on Street 240 however offers a slick alternative for an affordable glass of wine and a mingle with local expats. Elsewhere on nearby Street 51, where a swimming pool also beckons, is another fine choice.
You can order food at both bars, or hop along to Sugar Palm, a few doors from Ruby’s, which offers great Khmer food _ try their lush marinated fish salad _ with plenty of furniture and knick-knacks to snap up as souvenirs.
If Phnom Penh’s French colonial feel awakens a desire for French food and film, begin the night with a free movie at the French Cultural Centre, which screens them in their cute cinema from Fridays to Mondays at 6:30pm. Then head directly to the no-fuss Sary Rega’s on Street 75. Popular with French diplomats and backpackers alike, you can indulge in a three-course meal _ think prawn cocktail, sting ray in butter, chocolate mousse _ for around US$6.
Saturday morning, head to Tuol Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge interrogation centre known as S-21. It’s a sobering and moving experience: at this site some 17,000 people were tortured before being killed. It’s now a genocide museum and grim reminder of the horror that led to some two million people dying under the 1975-79 regime.
For lunch, head to Friends, a cheerful restaurant where street children receive vocational training as they restart their lives. Don’t miss their blueberry cake, and walk it off by ambling down to the Silver Pagoda, next to the royal palace, where admission and a guide will cost US$8. Khmer boxing fans might instead like to watch a live bout of the sport Cambodians claim Thailand stole. The matches take place at several TV studios from around 2pm Saturdays and the entry fee is usually around US$1.
For sunset, hire a boat that will cruise along the river (US$15 for two hours) so you can catch a glimpse of Cambodian rural life.
Back on land, the riverfront is packed with restaurants to sample for dinner. Check out local specialties at Frizz or head a little further north to Tok Thom, a little French restaurant with one communal table. After dinner try drinks at Teukei, a funky little hole in the wall, on Street 111.
Sunday morning head early to the Russian Market where you can fortify yourself for the day ahead with a noodle soup and thick Cambodian coffee.
The market is a great place to pick up rainbow-coloured Cambodian organza _ the market seamstresses will sew them into curtains or anything else for you (allow several days). It’s also a good spot for silks, silver jewellery and some antiques.
Haven’t shopped enough? Try Ambre on Street 178, where a Khmer-French designer sells gorgeous women’s clothes. Then Street 143, where Beautiful Shoes can whip up superb handmade leather shoes.
Grab some Chinese noodles for lunch at Peking Canteen on Street 93, just near the Central Market, where you can marvel at the art deco architecture.
And don’t forget to squeeze in some relaxation time. Bliss Spa, fronted by another lovely clothes shop filled with unique designs, is set in a stunningly restored old building on Street 240. Book in advance on 023-215-754.
Our favourite way to see Phnom Penh is by cyclo or pedicab. Hire one through the Cyclo Centre (speak to Sarany on 012-826-810) for about US$8 per day. A portion goes to the centre which offers much-needed services to drivers.