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Things to do Phnom Penh – Understand
Phnom Penh is the version of Bangkok your parents might have visited in the southeast Asian capital 30 to 40 years ago. Remember the times when Khao San Road was trendy and cool in Bangkok? Well that’s exactly how Phnom Penh feels. It’s simple tourism that hasn’t been taken over by busloads of tourists or seedy red light businesses.
Cambodia is a shockingly poor country, particularly given the success of its neighbors that are now middle income countries. There is a rich elite in Phnom Penh and the amount of Land Cruisers will make many African despots jealous. There is very little ‘middle class’ and Cambodians and foreigners don’t really mix.
Phnom Penh isn’t THAT cheap. Yes, you can get a massage for $6, but food, coffee and hotels are more expensive than in most places in Asia. It’s almost on a Hong Kong level. The missing middle class keeps prices high, as most places are custom-built for tourists.
Cambodia with its French history of design has worked out very well. Cafes, restaurants and hotels come with beautiful and original design ideas that are above and beyond. It’s quite amazing and resembles some of the things you see in Bali with its surprisingly strong design culture.
The level of English here is very basic, so expect less than 10 words of English to be understood. I’m not sure I met a single fluent speaker including at the hotel front desks and more expensive restaurants.
Things to do Phnom Penh – Safety
As Asian cities go, Phnom Penh is on a lower scale of safety, but that does not mean it is unsafe. Some parts of the city are not well-lit and become dark holes after sundown. However, most parts of the city are safe during both day and night and violent crime is especially rare.
Things to do Phnom Penh – Get Around
The state of the roads in this country and its capital is rather desperate. India’s New Delhi even has better roads that this southeast Asian city. There is a lot of traffic and you can expect pedestrians, motorcycles, trucks and cars all to share one-lane roads. Drivers usually watch out for each other and there is no real road rage, but small accidents happen all the time.
There is a public bus network as well as minibuses and locals rely on their motorcycles to cross the road. There are precious few taxis as well and no Uber, so you will be stuck with the tuk tuks and rickshas. The trouble is that you are exposed to the elements, noise and exhausts during your ride. For a short ride around town it’s fun, but the airport rides are not my favorite.
The tuk tuk mafia also charge high prices, so getting a tuk tuk for a low price involved 10 to 15 minutes of haggling, lots of swearing when I did not accept a high offer and me walking away and doing it all over again. So much drama just to go a few blocks! A ride from the InterContinental Phnom Penh to the riverfront would be $3, which is more than you’d pay for a lovely UberSUV with air conditioning in Surabaya or Bandung.
Another issue is that the locals don’t walk so there is no need for a sidewalk. The side of the road is used for homeless tents, car park lots or just trash, which makes walking treacherous.
Things to do Phnom Penh – Sights
The Foursquare comments for the Royal Palace almost discourage you from going there. Don’t make that mistake and DO go there. The entrance fee is rather moderate at $6 and you can easily spend 2 hours here. There are a number of magnificent buildings within the compound and its golden roofs are just a photographer’s dream.
Ideally go early on a sunny day to have the best light and the least crowds. It gets rather crowded with big groups at 11AM.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside the royal ceremony room but there are plenty of other places to photograph. Keep in mind that there is precious little shade so bring water, sunscreen and a hat!
Right next door is the National Museum of Cambodia. It’s another $5 of fees for a rather small museum. However the courtyard itself is so pretty that it is easily worth the entrance fee.
The museum exhibitions are in rather terrible shape and there are precious little explanations. It’s more akin to a big storage room than a museum – especially not a national museum.
A few blocks away is Wat Phnom. It’s on a steep hill and after all the sweating you will not be happy about it, but you should not miss out on Wat Phnom. It’s just $1 in entrance fees and the view is pretty. The temple itself has lots of gold and a pretty stupa and the gardens in the back are a good way to forget about all those motorbikes and tuk tuks that hassle you the rest of the day.
While pretty dilapidated, the Phnom Penh riverfront is a great place to go for a stroll at dusk. This is one of the few places in the whole country that locals and foreigners seem to agree on. The Mekong River is rather muddy and not a pretty sight but the many bars will please you and the kids playing soccer will warm your heart.
This is a major architectural landmark near the Bassac riverfront from the ‘modernization’ of Cambodia in the 1960s. It’s now in terrible shape and has been entirely taken over by squatters. It’s still known as the ‘White Building’ even if there is very little white left.
This area comes alive after sundown. It’s small but has a number of beautifully restored old houses that are now tiny restaurants and bars. Don’t miss this place.
This huge open market has it all, from groceries to all kinds of plastic wonders. I couldn’t find anything that really stood out but I’m not exactly an expert shopper.
This is a small monument in the middle of a roundabout – yes, we have seen those before. But there’s a bunch of green areas spreading from it that are worth exploring on a cooler day.
Cambodia was home to the Khmer Rouge – a band of communist inspired terrorists who reigned with mass killings. This former elementary school became home to their main prison and concentration camp. It’s a terribly sad part of Cambodia’s history and I could not shake the feeling that the country is still reeling from it and the dark memories.
Things to do Phnom Penh – Eat, Drink & Work
When you think of Phnom Penh you expect Thai-style hawker stalls everywhere – but those don’t really exist here. Or you expect Khao San Road style eateries that saw their best days 40 years ago – nope. So what can you expect? Surprisingly, there is a very vivid food, coffee and drinks scene in Phnom Penh that rivals many Asian capitals. It’s not driven by local cuisine but in part by local entrepreneurs who cater to the many well-off locals and expats (and tourists to an extent) in the city.
Also, the amount of seats in coffee shops in this town is staggering. There are many places vying for customers, but since Cambodians barely use them, it’s all up to you and a few fellow tourists. Internet connections tend to be slow but not atrociously so.
This ramen bar is rather hidden in a not so popular area of the city. That should not deter you; it has a small but awesome patio, yummy food and local IPAs on tap. The staff are friendly too and prices are moderate (though not cheap).
Cambodia is still one of the top destinations for the uber-eco and this coffee shop/eatery caters to this clientele. It could easily be in Berkeley in terms of design and sophistication. It also charges almost as much. On a cool day, it’s a pure delight, though (there is little inside seating).
This spin-off of Farm to Table has the same exact same menu. It’s in a small alley that is easy to miss, but it’s been beautifully restored. This place wins with perfect atmosphere, decent coffee and healthy food.
This is one of the few places in a hip area that caters to locals; they seem to love this place for cheap, sugary drinks and the huge amount of seats to spend an afternoon sheltered from the sun with air conditioning.
Someone described Ma Ma Thai as the best Thai food ever. Period. That’s an exaggeration, isn’t it? It’s not super-sophisticated, but the portions are huge and the ingredients are very fresh. The atmosphere is top-notch as well and the WiFi (if you desire it) is uber-fast. I’d say it was on par with the fantastic Thai I had in Las Vegas earlier this year – and surprise surprise, it also charges as much.
If you’ve read my guides you’ll have noticed that I have had a love affair with Eric Kayser ever since I had that first almond croissant in Dakar in Senegal. The chain is surprisingly global and not every outlet is a delight. The local Phnom Penh shop has great baked items and a nice, cooled down spot at a busy intersection. Come here for breakfast – you’ll love it.
Brown is a local coffee chain and it beats almost any chain I have seen anywhere. Superb interior design, friendly staff, great coffee, decent WiFi, awesome pastries and moderate prices make this place a delight. There are a number of Browns in the city (they even have a second location right across the street). It’s that good that I went back 3 times!
Malis is the place to try Khmer (read Cambodian) food in a fine dining atmosphere. Entrees are around $10 and dessert around $5. It’s equivalent to what we pay at home but NOT in a fine dining experience. Khmer food isn’t an easy one (fish head curry anyone?) but the restaurant tries hard to present it well with a menu full of pictures. I liked the place but wasn’t wowed.
This is as good a pizza as you can get in Phnom Penh. It’s a solid Italian atmosphere and decent pizza oven, but the result is a salty, uninspiring lump of bland tomato sauce and dough. Not what I’d call a good pizza!
Pho is what you’re gonna eat here. This place gets really busy and the staff aren’t exactly very caring. However, you get a decent portion of pho for $3 – not bad. It took a long time to get anyone’s attention and I was still hungry afterwards though.
What… a micro brewery in Phnom Penh? Oh yes, this place will quench your IPA thirst. It’s part of the Himawari Hotel and while the patio opens towards the river it has the vibe of a hospital waiting room. The beers are also expensive at $6 for a small one ($7 for 450 ml), but it’s good beer and there isn’t exactly a lot of competition in town.
This French bakery/cafe is decidedly upmarket and would be competitive anywhere on the planet. The atmosphere is relaxed, the WiFi is fast, the coffee is excellent and the desserts are yummy, plus there’s tons of juices and smoothies on offer. However, it gets really hot here in the afternoon and there is no air conditioning. I also got a bunch of mosquito bites despite spraying myself with DEET mosquito repellent.
I expected awesome little mochi, but you can’t get that here. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of creative ice cream creations here that are moderately cheap. When I visited on a Sunday afternoon it was deserted, though; that isn’t a great sign, is it?
Hands down some of the best coffee I’ve ever had – anywhere. I’m not sure what the secret of this place is. It’s located between a bunch of hostels, looks unassuming, the service is grumpy and there are just a few inside seats with ‘beautiful’ neon lighting. But the coffee was that good that it makes up for it all. The ‘piccholo’ would find customers even in Addis Ababa (one of the world’s most competitive coffee markets in terms of price and quality). Incredible.
Hummus House has a full menu of Lebanese delicacies for very moderate prices. Not all the items are great, but the hummus is solid (though too salty, like the tabouleh) and the chicken shawarma is good too. The service is friendly and it’s frankly just good Lebanese food in Phnom Penh – seriously. This one is worth checking out.
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About the author: Torsten is a serial entrepreneur who started almost a dozen ventures on four continents. Torsten's love for travel has brought him to 130+ countries and travel with most of the world's airlines. You can reach Torsten at [email protected]
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