Many people seem to skip the Cambodian capital and head straight for Siem Reap, fearing Phnom Penh to be a dangerous and uninteresting city. However, on a recent trip to Southeast Asia’s “unpopular capital”, Meera Dattani discovered all that the city has to offer and has concluded that, while its underrated and understated, Phnom Penh certainly deserves a few days at least. Here are our favourite things to do in Phnom Penh.
“Do you think it’ll just be full of old pottery?” my friend asked as we set off for the National Museum, our first stop in the Cambodian capital. Now I won’t lie to those averse to aged ceramics, there is pottery. But there is also a sublime collection of Khmer sculptures and art, which, had the Khmer Rouge had their way, would not have survived to this day. It’s one of the most absorbing national museums I’ve visited, just large enough to be comprehensive yet compact enough to see it all in a couple of hours, and bizarrely, a simple map illustrating the former domination of the Khmer Empire draws the largest crowds, united in astonishment upon realising just how far and wide it once ruled.
Phnom Penh is all about this surprise factor. On a walk along Sisowath Quay, the city’s pedestrianised riverfront, you’re likely to witness an aerobics class, local boys skateboarding or the serene sight of monks strolling, clad in orange robes. At the weekend, you’ll probably end up at the Phsar Reatrey night market where chocolate waffles, cold beer, kebabs and fried insects are all abundantly available.
More traditional sights are on the menu too, though, as colourful wats and pagodas (temples) are scattered around the city, and for those who have visited Bangkok’s Grand Palace, the architecture of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace and glittering Silver Pagoda will ring a bell. Its murals, wats and gardens, and Baccarat crystal Buddha, are reminiscent of those found in the Thai capital.
The colour and pomp of the Royal Palace is in stark contrast to another much-visited spot – the S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s one of the more sobering things to do in Phnom Penh, but essential for anyone who wants to understand what happened between 1975 and 1979 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge created an atmosphere of suspicion and terror. This former high school was one of about 150 security prisons from those dark days, now home to harrowing exhibits, information panels, a video room and prisoner photographs. The history lesson continues half an hour outside Phnom Penh at Choeung Ek (better known as the Killing Fields) where an audio tour does a fine job of sensitively guiding you through these now-tranquil woods and fields, where over 20,000 mass graves lie, and to the Buddhist stupa (spherical mound-like structure) containing some 8,985 human skulls. It’s not easy listening, but it is done very well.
There’s plenty of light relief in the city too. Luckily, Phnom Penh is widely (and quite rightly) considered to be the best place to shop in Cambodia. Under the striking yellow dome of Central Market (Phsar Thmey) you can pick up anything from cheap electronics to clothes and souvenirs. Also worth a visit are the mazes inside the Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Pong) where not only will you find ethical crafts and Khmer trinkets, you only need to delve deeper to discover all manner of stalls, selling obscure car parts and surreal-looking local fruits.
By night, Phnom Penh takes on another aura. The riverfront’s rooftop bars buzz with the clinking of glasses as sunset-seekers settle down, cocktails in hand, to watch the glowing red ball settle on the Mekong River. The legendary Foreign Correspondents’ Club remains a popular choice, where under the hum of the ceiling fans, a cold beer and the nightly sunset keep everyone happy.
Along with shopping, the capital is the best place in Cambodia for food, too – both international and Khmer, which is slowly developing its own identity with dishes like amok (coconut fish steamed in banana leaves), sticky rice with mango and Kampot pepper crab. Along with Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is also pioneering the concept of ethical eating with an ever-increasing number of restaurants and cafes training formerly disadvantaged people in all things culinary. This concept is at the heart of the Friends International brand with places such as Friends the Restaurant, Romdeng and Le Café Mith Samlanh. Other recommendations include Cafe Yejj near the Russian Market, and Sugar 'n Spice Café at Daughters.
Tuk-tuks are the best way to get around this relatively compact capital, but if you enjoy walking, the French Quarter is probably the city’s only intact historic neighbourhood with wide boulevards and colonial architecture. Look out for Raffles Hotel, Manolis Hotel and the former Banque de l’Indochine before heading river-wards to the 27-metre-high hill of Wat Phnom, after which Phnom Penh was named. It’s the highest point in this low-rise city so the views are not half-bad. Not-for-profit group KA Tours also run an architecture tour around the city from the comfort of a pedal-powered cyclo.
You can explore more of Phnom Penh and surrounding areas with the Rough Guide to Cambodia.