Best Phnom Penh Bars for Creative Cocktails and Local Craft Brews
The best Phnom Penh bars range from an historic watering hole in a grand old hotel to a not-so-secret speakeasy on a backstreet alley. You’ll find everything from classic cocktails stirred from premium spirits to exotic Southeast Asian concoctions mixed from Cambodian ingredients.
Less than a decade ago, a bar in Cambodia‘s capital Phnom Penh was a dimly-lit dive with neon lights, pool tables and a bad cover band or a sleazy girlie bar where over-friendly, skimpily-dressed ‘waitresses’ sat on stools out front to lure customers in for cheap beer and a good time.
Now, the rapidly changing city boasts an increasingly sophisticated drinking scene with bars offering everything from custom-made, handcrafted beverages mixed from premium boutique spirits to small-batch bottled cocktails and barrel-aged infusions.
The best Phnom Penh bars are helmed by renowned mixologists who moved to the city for a change of pace and the ease with which they could open a drinking establishment – or they’re drinking spots that have had their cocktail lists created and staff trained by travelling consultants who parachute in to share the latest techniques and trends.
Here’s our guide to the very best Phnom Penh bars – by no means a comprehensive list, it’s simply the bars in the capital that we think warrant your time.
The Best Phnom Penh Bars – Our Very Selective Guide
It’s not a hip new spot by any means, but if you only have time for one drink in Cambodia’s capital, it has to be at the handsome Elephant Bar, which oozes history despite remodelling in recent years. Easily one of the best Phnom Penh bars, the Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal is a must for its history alone. The iconic bar of Phnom Penh’s oldest luxury hotel – ‘Le Royal’ opened in 1929 – the Elephant Bar was the city’s first proper cocktail bar. In its heyday customers included W. Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin, André Malraux, and Jacqueline Kennedy (AKA Jackie Onassis). Maugham favoured the Million Dollar Cocktail, which featured in his short story The Letter, while Jackie O, who was in Cambodia in 1967 to visit Angkor Wat, was said to have sipped a Femme Fatale while listening to the jazz of King Norodom Sihanouk, played on the bar’s piano. Her glass, still bearing her lipstick print, is on display. Before taking a sip of the chilled cocktail of champagne, brandy and strawberry liqueur, take a moment to toast to the lives lost during the early days of the Pol Pot era. After the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, what was largely left of the city’s expat population sought refuge at the hotel, including foreign ambassadors and journalists such as Sydney Schanberg and Jon Swain. Cambodia’s royals, embassy staff and reporters who were forced to leave in those early days didn’t survive. The Happy Hour extends from 4-9pm.
Elephant Bar, Raffles Hotel Le Royal, #92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh.
Bassac Lane Bars
If you’re only in the capital for one night, make a beeline to tiny Bassac Lane, off Street 308, the location of a cluster of some of the best Phnom Penh bars. Conceived by two New Zealand-born brothers, William and George Norbert-Munns, who were responsible for the birth of Phnom Penh’s micro bar scene, the once gritty alleys are now home to stylish little watering holes, each with their own identity, vibe, and focus when it comes to drinks. The Library (above), a small breezy space with big picture windows and bookshelves lining the walls, specialises in daiquiris and mojitos. Cicada is the spot for classic cocktails: margaritas, whiskey sours, dirty martinis. The more masculine Hangar 44, co-owned with Patrick Uong, is the place for downing craft beers, throwing back tequila shots, or savouring Samai Distillery’s locally produced rums while you mull over whether it’s time to order a custom motorcycle (it’s also a showroom for Moto Cambodge). Intimate Seibur is an aperitif bar, Meat and Drink is a burger-driven gastro pub, while Harry’s Bar has antiques for sale downstairs and a martini bar upstairs. These laidback bars tend to lure expats and locals here for conversation with friends as much as for the cocktails. Things get boisterous on Saturdays when punters spill out onto the lane and there’s live music – anything from rockabilly to blues. Otherwise, it’s a mellow scene. Most bars have a 5-7pm happy hour.
Bassac Lane, off Street 308, Phnom Penh. Open daily 5pm-midnight or so.
It would be impossible to go to Bassac Lane and not pop in for a cocktail or two at nearby Le Boutier, in a sleek, three-storey space with a minimalist white interior on leafy Street 308. Arguably the best of the best Phnom Penh bars, Le Boutier was launched in early 2016 by David Chhay, a Paris-raised French-Cambodian brand ambassador for cognac maker Rémy Martin and co-owner of New York bar Pouring Ribbons, and mixologist Anne-Marie Sagoi, formerly Chicago-based. After a project they’d travelled to Cambodia to consult on didn’t come to fruition, they launched Le Boutier. The bar honours Chhay’s parents You Nay and Marie Chhay (née Boutier), who lived on Street 308 before the Khmer Rouge came to power and they went into exile to France. It’s also an homage to the Golden Age of the 1960s and early ’70s, when Cambodian rock’n’roll ruled. Of the short list of ten cocktails – made with everything from sticky rice syrup to fish sauce – a handful tip a hat to the greatest singers and songs of the period, or current bands inspired by them. Order the Sinn Sisamouth, named after Cambodia’s most legendary crooner, made with Bourbon, Averna, honey, coffee, and a cinnamon tincture, followed by the Cambodian Space Cocktail, made from rye, Yellow Chartreuse, Mancino Rosso, Angostura bitters, and a Kampot pepper tincture, which tips a hat to the groovy band, Cambodian Space Project, which in turn tips a hat to the swinging sounds of the Sixties. Hungry? Order Chhay’s mum’s Saraman Curry.
Le Boutier, #32 Street 308, near Bassac Lane, Phnom Penh. Mon-Sat 6pm-late.
Tiny Bar Sito, secreted behind a closed timber door in a nondescript, cobalt blue painted building on a crooked alleyway off Street 204 called 240½, was the Cambodian capital’s first speakeasy and remains one of the best Phnom Penh bars. Owned by Kiwi brothers, William and George (see above), who were responsible for the reinvention of Phnom Penh’s bar scene and development of Bassac Lane, and Venezuelan co-owner Antonio Lopez De Haro of Samai Distillery, petite Bar Sito is one of the city’s most sophisticated spots. With bare brick walls, cobalt blue wall panels, white wooden beams, leather banquettes, and low retro coffee tables, it would have a gentlemen’s club feel to it if it weren’t for the illuminated bar and striking lighting. This is a spot where you can order a perfect Negroni and find signature cocktails such as the Pineapple Julep (Bourbon, mint, fresh pineapple, palm sugar) or Suzie Wong’s Sister (Gin, fresh watermelon juice, pineapple juice, lime). Like all good speakeasies, there’s a Champagne bar hidden behind a bookshelf where you’ll discover a tight selection of bubblies (Champagne, Cava and Prosecco) and classic sparkling cocktails, such as the Kir Royal and Bellini. Beyond that is the Club Room, inspired by a pre-Prohibition Era saloon and serving cocktails from the 1920s (such as a Martini, Hemingway The Last Word, Old Fashioned, and Sazerac), some made with rare liquors.
Bar Sito, #32EO Street 240, BKK1, Phnom Penh. Tues-Sat 8pm-2am.
Long After Dark
Just a few hundred metres down the road from Phnom Penh’s dimly lit Russian Market in the largely residential neighbourhood of Toul Tom Pong, Long After Dark’s lights are also low. With no sign out the front of the remodelled Chinese shophouse, you’ll recognise the relaxed watering hole from the warm glow from within, polished concrete exterior, and once inside, a long timber bar, exposed wood beam ceiling, and spiral staircase at the back. Opened in early 2016 by expat Australian mates Brendan McCarthy and Nathan Headlam, who met at a Melbourne bar, Long After Dark is a craft beer, cocktail and whiskey joint with great food. There’s a selection of some 75 whiskies crammed on the wooden shelves, including around 45 Scottish single malts, as well as Irish and Japanese whiskeys and bourbons. If you’re a novice, there’s a ‘whiskey bible’ with profiles and tasting notes. The cocktail list features classics with a twist and the craft beer selection, includes ciders, IPAs and lagers, as well as draughts on tap including the local Kingdom Pilsner. When you’re hungry, there’s an impressive menu of snacks and mains that keep regulars happy, including twice-cooked sticky BBQ pork ribs, vegetarian empanadas filled with sweet potato, spinach and chickpeas, deep-fried mozzarella mac ’n’ cheese balls with a spicy sauce, and a pulled pork toasted sandwich with caramelised onions and mozzarella. On ‘Cheese and Whisky Wednesdays’ you can drop in for “a knight of chess, whisky and blues” to the “tranquil sounds of Muddy Waters and friends”. Chess boards are available but you’re welcome to bring your own.
Long After Dark, #86 Street 450, Russian Market, Phnom Penh. Sun-Thur 12pm-12am; Fri & Sat 12pm-2am.
Depending on what dictionary you use (or what kind of Italian friends you have), ‘Che Culo’ – with the ‘che’, which means ‘what’, pronounced by Italians as ‘kay’ (rather than the Spanish ‘chay’ as in Che Guevara) and ‘culo’, pronounced as ‘kulo’, meaning ‘ass’ – can be translated as Northern Italian slang for “What luck!”, “Lucky guy!”, “Lucky ass!” or “Lucky bastard!”. As Che Culo is another Australian-owned watering hole, I’m going with ‘lucky bastard’, seeing the Aussie operators are responsible for what quickly became one of the best Phnom Penh bars after launching in late 2014. Opened by hospitality veterans Nick Hattingh and Locky Paech (who worked together on award-winning drinking spots Ginger, Eau de Vie, Sticky Bar, Norfolk Hotel, and The Forresters) and architect-builder Daniel Jury, Che Culo is a laidback bar with a relaxed vibe by day and an upbeat mood after dark. The beer and wine lists are tight – just five imported brews (including Terence’s fave, Leffe Blonde) and a handful of vinos (and daily specials) – with the focus on the cocktails and food. In keeping with the Aussie-Med theme, you should start with a Venetian Spritz (Aperol, prosecco, soda, fresh orange) – our post-market shopping pick-me-up when we rent apartments in Venice – before sampling one of the house specials, such as the One Night in Milano (gin, Aperol, passionfruit puree, and citrus) or Cubano in Cambodge (rum, caramel, fresh pineapple, and mint on crushed ice). Fancy learning how to make one of these exotic concoctions? Hattingh offers cocktail making classes that teach as much about the history, techniques and ingredients of great drinks, as how to craft a perfect cocktail.
Che Culo!, #6B, Street 302, BKK1, Phnom Penh. Mon-Sat 11am-late.
Located opposite the port at the far end of Sisowath Quay, Chinese House was the Cambodian capital’s most stylish drinking spot when it first opened. It’s been through many incarnations and owners since, but easily remains one of the best Phnom Penh bars and its most atmospheric. The city’s last original Chinese house (not a Chinese shophouse, of which there are countless), the handsome building was constructed in 1904 by Tan Bunpa, a successful Hokkein trader, according to historian Jean-Michel Filippi in his book Strolling Around Phnom Penh. Redecorated in late 2015, it has a striking vintage interior featuring French colonial floor tiles, exposed hardwood beams, and bare walls that have been further distressed to create an even more antique appearance than it had before its recent ‘renewal’. There’s a restaurant upstairs serving contemporary pan-Asian cuisine (helmed by South African chef, Amy Baard, formerly of Bangkok’s Sofitel So), but we’re including Chinese House here for its downstairs bar. Expect Phnom Penh brewed boutique beers by Craft 5, (try the Honey Pale Ale with aromas of honeysuckle and Cambodian honey), classic cocktails, and signature drinks, such as the refreshing Red Sun (vodka, lime, ginger, basil, watermelon, and ginger ale). Adventurous? Sample the ‘coconut curry in a glass’ that is their China White (different to the China White at Siem Reap’s Miss Wong bar), concocted from gin, kaffir lime cordial, coconut milk, and tonic. When you’re peckish, order a bowl of fried crickets and pepper lime dip with chilli sugar salt, or a sharing platter of duck croquettes, muc rang muoi (chilli and lime salted squid with Chinese five spice), vetkoek (South African fried bread with Malay-spiced beef mince, turmeric cream cheese and biltong), biltong (dried cured meats), pork liver paté, kimchi, and fresh bread.
Chinese House, #45 Sisowath Quay, corner Street 84, Phnom Penh. Daily 11am-midnight.
Bouchon Wine Bar
When Bouchon wine bar launched in late 2011 with its beautiful polished wooden bar, red leather booths and 40 French wines by the glass, including outstanding drops from Bordeaux, the best Phnom Penh bars could be counted on one hand. In early 2017, the French wine bar moved to a renovated 1920s colonial-era mansion with chequerboard tiling, exposed brick walls and pillars, and a revamped food menu, ensuring Bouchon remained one of the best Phnom Penh bars for sipping wine, despite the increasing competition in the Phnom Penh bar scene. Of course, no bar can match owner Cédric Gertgen’s selection and Bouchon’s new home has a basement cellar to hold his collection of some five thousand bottles. While most come for the wine, there’s a solid cocktail list (of which the martinis are the standout) and live jazz and blues a couple of times a week.
Bouchon Wine Bar, #82 Street 174, Daun Penh district, Phnom Penh. Daily 11am-midnight.