Weekend in Phnom Penh
For most travellers to Cambodia, the colourful, cosmopolitan capital Phnom Penh is little more than a stopover at the beginning or end of a trip. While there’s enough to do to fill a week, a weekend in Phnom Penh is enough for first-timers to get a great taste of the gritty little city.
Here are our tips for a weekend in Phnom Penh aimed at experiencing the best of the Cambodian capital.
Maison d’Ambre is the most stylish accommodation in town – a chic boutique hotel by one of Cambodia’s finest fashion designers, Romyda Keth of Ambre. The Plantation is an urban resort with a stunning swimming pool. Raffles offers history, grandeur and another gorgeous pool. Rambutan is sleek and chic. There’s also a handful of retro vintage sleeps in renovated modernist villas including The Sangkum, Villa Langka and Circa 51. See our Where to Stay in Phnom Penh – from Colonial to Contemporary guide and our recent post on Phnom Penh’s best boutique hotels.
Enjoy sundowners at the airy Foreign Correspondents Club, a local institution that’s as popular with expats as tourists for its cooling breezes and Tonlé Sap and Mekong River views. Dine on delicious Cambodian food in the courtyard of the lovely colonial-style building that is home to training restaurant Romdeng (Street 174). Sip a post-dinner cocktail at the bar at Chinese House before heading around the corner to check out Doors for some live music, best when there’s a jazz band or swing dancing scheduled.
Climb into an endearingly old-fashioned cyclo for the 3-hour Khmer Architecture Tours ‘Central Phnom Penh by Cyclo’ tour led by an architecture student, to appreciate the array of architectural styles in the city, from charming shophouses and hidden Chinese temples to grand French colonial-era edifices and enigmatic modernist originals.
The cyclo tour conveniently finishes outside our favourite lunchtime spot, Noodle House (#32 Street 130), where dumplings are handmade and noodles pulled to order. It’s not fashionable, nor fast, but it’s fantastic. A short stroll away, the splendid yellow-painted Art Deco Psar Thmey (Central Market) is a fine alternative if you prefer to sample Cambodian soups, stir-fries or curries.
Take a tuk tuk to the splendid National Museum of Cambodia (Cnr Streets 178 and 13) to admire impressive archaeological relics, including the world’s finest collection of Khmer Empire sculptures, and enjoy the quiet of the leafy courtyard. Mosey along Street 178 to browse beautiful shops, such as Garden of Desire, Senteurs d’Angkor and Daughters of Cambodia, and, if you’re up for more, nearby Street 240, an easy ten-minute stroll away, for even more lovely stores, including Waterlily, Bliss, Mekong Quilts, and Elsewhere. See our Phnom Penh shopping itinerary.
Come 5pm, have a tuk tuk take you to tiny Bassac Lane, off Street 308, to experience Phnom Penh’s liveliest bar scene. Hop between the half dozen drinking spots, including The Library, Meat and Drink, Seibur, Cicada, and Hangar 44. When you’re peckish, trundle back to Street 240 to the narrow alley Street 240½ and gastro-pub The Public House (order the fish and chips). Alternatively, the modern classics at Deco in an Art Deco villa are delicious (we love the Scotch quail eggs and Deco classic cheese burger), as is the East-meets-West food at buzzy Fox Wine Bistro (try the beef carpaccio with Asian herbs). Wherever you dine, return to Street 240½ and slip into sexy speakeasy Bar.sito for the city’s best negronis.
Make your way to the hilltop pagoda, Wat Phnom, and climb the staircase guarded by mythical naga serpents to have your fortune read and see the statue of Madame Penh. Legend has it that after discovering four Buddha statues washed up by the Mekong, she built a temple to house them on the knoll that would become Phnom Penh or Mount Penh. After, take a tuk tuk to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (Street 113), a former school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into Security Prison 21 or S-21, where they tortured over 17,000 before sending them to the Killing Fields.
From the museum it’s a short ride to atmospheric Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Pong), where you can do a spot of souvenir shopping. The retro Cambodian music and movie posters and art work at the Vintage Shop of Channthy, lead singer from Cambodian Space Project make fab mementoes. You could slurp a soup or tuck into some pork and rice at one of the busy stalls or stroll to nearby Tex-Mex joint Alma Café (#43A Street 123) for huevos rancheros or Sesame Noodle Bar (#9 Street 460) for the house-made noodles.
Return to the lively waterfront of Sisowath Quay for an afternoon amble along the promenade and brilliant people watching. It’s particularly busy on a Sunday afternoon. Expect to see anything from balloon-sellers dwarfed by bunches of helium-filled animals to saffron-robed monks taking selfies and locals doing dancercise classes. (Watch out for pickpockets; don’t walk near the curb and leave your valuables at the hotel). Stroll to the glittering 19th-century Royal Palace, to explore the complex of majestic buildings, including the Silver Pagoda with its diamond-encrusted Buddha, magnificent mural of the Reamker (the Hindu epic Ramayana), and 5,000 silver tiles.
Soak up some of Phnom Penh’s arts and culture. Cambodian Living Arts puts on impressive hour-long shows of traditional drama, opera, and Apsara and folk dancing at the National Museum, while Sovanna Phum does a delightful one-hour shadow puppet show accompanied by a spirited live Khmer orchestra. Meta House hosts art exhibitions, screenings of Cambodian films or films about Cambodia, and live performances and DJs.
Depending upon what else you do this evening, book either an early or late dinner at Chef Luu Meng’s Malis for some of Phnom Penh’s finest Cambodian food, including a long list of dishes you won’t see on other menus. The chef is continually travelling around the country seeking out new recipes. The prahok k’tis is one of the most deliciously authentic we have tried and the spicy Saramann curry one of the richest and most complex we’ve ever sampled.
UPDATED: December 2015