Once known for little more than colonial style pubs and seedy girlie bars, the Phnom Penh bar scene now boasts an array of interesting drinking spots including a handful of stylish small bars. Here’s a local guide to the Phnom Penh bar scene from the guys responsible for reviving the drinking scene in Cambodia‘s capital.
The owners of some of our favourite bars in Phnom Penh are two New Zealand-born brothers, William and George Norbert-Munns. William, who has lived in Phnom Penh for nearly a decade, tended bar at one of Sydney’s earliest lounge bars in the late 1990s, Chicane in Surry Hills, before running the bars at Guillaume at Bennelong and Icebergs.
William later worked in London and on yachts around Europe before moving to Phnom Penh. A former Melbourne-based advertising, marketing, and design guy working across a number of different fields, George initially came to Cambodia on holidays before deciding to join his brother a few years later and settle here.
Since they opened their first little drinking den three years ago, the speakeasy Bar.sito, hidden on a doglegged alley off Street 204 called 240½, they have launched seven more cool spots (seven at this point in time – more are on the way), including Public House, a tavernacross from Bar.sito which serves the food their mum made (fantastic fish and chips) and a handful of cute bars on Bassac Lane, off Street 308. I love the light and airy, The Library.
We asked the guys to share their local knowledge and these are George’s tips on getting the most out of the Phnom Penh bar scene.
Q. What makes the Phnom Penh bar scene special?
A. Because Phnom Penh is a fairly small city the staff at bars will most likely know your name and what you like to drink. They might make a joke if you order something different to your usual drink on a particular day. As a customer it’s rather amusing when a waitress at a bar you frequent asks if you’d like a gin martini at 2pm in the afternoon.
A. I guess dress code depends on the venue. At some bars anything goes but at some such as Nova, shorts will see you stopped the door. Protocol is fairly relaxed but having respect for everyone around you will ensure you – and everyone around you – have a good time.
Q. Best time to hit Phnom Penh’s bars?
A. Happy hours usually kick off at 5pm and run to 7pm and can be as good as two drinks for the price of one. After work drinks are always enjoyable for office workers. People generally then go for dinner and return to a bar for a drink around 9pm and most bars are open till 11pm or 2am. After bars close people generally go home or head to a club.
Q. Your favourite Phnom Penh bar?
A. I have to say my favourite is Bar.sito, but of course I am biased, but I just feel like you could be there and be anywhere in the world.
Q. Best bar for classic cocktails?
A. Biased again: Seibur mixes a great Old-Fashioned and Bar.sito makes a classic Negroni.
Q. Best bar for more contemporary or creative cocktails?
A. I have to say that our own Hangar 44 has some fantastic cocktails and we serve them in huge stainless mugs. Try an El Diablo, Hangar Cooler or the Mojito 44. I also had a great Gin Martini at Le Moon the other day, which is certainly a good benchmark for me.
Q. Best bar if you also want to eat?
A. Meat & Drink being a bar and grill is the perfect place to have a few drinks and a bite to eat. There are five options available in either a wrap, burger or salad. Try the Oceanic, Aussie or the Japanese – they are filling good value for money. Drinks are delicious: try the Asian Infusion or the M&D Margarita.
Q. Best bar for a solo traveller who wants to sit at the bar and chat to the bartender or read a book?
A. I used to sit at Metro Hassakan on the riverside for hours when I first came here as a traveller. The food and drinks are fantastic and the service and venue are both spot on.
Q. Best drinking spot for sundowners?
A. It used to be Snow’s Bar (AKA Maxine’s)* and The Bungalows, but unfortunately they were both forcibly closed and there is sadly nothing like them at the moment.
Q. Best rooftop bar?
A. Eclipse Sky Bar on the top on Phnom Penh Tower has the best views in town that I have experienced. I have not been to Sokha yet and the Vattanac Tower Sky Bar has not opened yet, but they might rival it for views.
Q. Best bar for live music?
A. I used to like The Groove, which has since shut down, but hopefully it can get some sort of a revival some time, as it was great for live music.
Q. Does Phnom Penh have a quintessential must-try drink?
A. An Espresso Martini on Street 240½ or Bassac Lane.
Q. Best Phnom Penh souvenir for a barfly?
A. If you can get your hands on one and get it out the door… a copper cup from Cicada is a much desired item for light fingers.
*The legendary ‘Snow’s Bar’, officially called Maxine’s, was owned and ran by an Australian character called Ian ‘Snowy’ Woodford, who passed away in 2014. Named after his daughter Maxine, the bar was forced to close to make way for the development of the Sokha Hotel. A friend of Woodford’s bought the atmospheric building before it was torn down and transported it to his Kampot River guesthouse, where it lives on as The Green House.