Most people would rather not visit Phnom Penh. Most would rather not visit the Killing Fields and face the dark side of humanity. Most would prefer to head straight for the sunrise at Angkor Wat & Siem Reap. To see the beautiful temples, the ancient history and the stunning architectural feats. Which is no doubt a must-see in Cambodia. But I seem to come back time and again to Phnom Penh, for the wonder that is the resilience of the Cambodian people and their stories.
One cannot get a full understanding of the history of this beautiful country without visiting the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, and facing the tragic past of the Cambodian people and seeing just how far they’ve come in such a short time. The wounds still healing, but positivity and graciousness abound.
For a well rounded few days in Phnom Penh, take a look at my highlights below.
The White Mansion – My favourite boutique hotel. Aside from the gorgeous colonial architecture, wonderfully helpful staff and beautifully appointed rooms there is also a resident cat and a lovely French cafe next door.
Friends the Restaurant – Best for a lunch with a purpose. Friends the Restaurant is run by Mith Samlanh, who is working to build the futures of former street children and marginalized young people in Phnom Penh. This social enterprise takes these children and provides them with the skills they’ll need to become a part of the thriving hospitality scene in Cambodia. Great food too!
French Correspondent’s Club – Best for a G&T overlooking the Mekong River. The FCC is an iconic landmark in Phnom Penh. After the Paris Peace Agreements were signed in 1991, Phnom Penh saw an influx of foreign journalists including Mark Dodd of Reuters and AFP photographer Stefan Ellis. Along with Leo Dobbs, these three setup the FCC in 1993 with an aim to be “a place where we can offer friendship between Cambodians and the rest of the world”. Full history can be found here
Wat Phnom – Best for watching the locals and their mastery of Saiee (Hacky Sack). Built in 1372, Wat Phnom is the central point of Phnom Penh. Inside there is a central altar complex with a large Buddha surrounded by items of devotion and worship. The walls are covered with beautiful murals, all sitting high above the city noise and crowds. Grab a bench at the base of the main stairway, and watch kids and adults alike play Saiee.
Grand Palace – Best for architecture & people watching. The Grand Palace serves as the royal residence of the King of Cambodia. Admire the stunning Khmer architecture with a slight French touch. Equally as stunning is the people watching to be had nearby – including locals of all ages and usually a few monks roaming around.
Central Market – Best for shopping. Housed in a 1937 art deco building, this market has everything you need. Go early to avoid the heat & be sure to make it to the central dome structure.
National Museum of Cambodia – Best for arts, culture & history. An amazing collection of Khmer art & sculpture at the National Museum of Cambodia. Housed in a beautiful, traditional terracotta structure with an inviting courtyard in the middle – this was on of my favourite places we visited on our trip. On our visit we were met with a huge thunderstorm, which created such an atmospheric moment since the entire museum is open to the elements.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center – Best for a history lesson on the Khmer Rouge. A harrowing visit, but one that must be done to fully understand the history of the Khmer Rouge. Choeung Ek is one of many Killing fields that serve as a mass grave of victims killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Today it is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa holding 5,000 human skulls. Take your time wandering around the grounds, and taking in the significance of where you are. Don’t rush.
Elephant Bar @ Raffles Hotel – Best for afternoon tea. An old world, colonial charm – the Elephant Bar @ Raffles Hotel is like a trip back in time. Head there for afternoon tea, or Happy Hour from 4-9pm to try out one of the many well designed and presented cocktails on offer. The height of sophistication in Phnom Penh.
BattBong Bar & Restaurant – Best for cocktails, and hidden entranceways. For a completely different vibe, head to BattBong Bar to be transported to a scene from the Great Gatsby – a swanky speakeasy with design taken from the 1920’s – a copper bar, leather seats, exposed brick and distressed art. The only way to reach it is through a Coca Cola machine doubling as a front door. An escape from the real world.
Bistrot Langka – Best for authentic French cuisine. Rounding out the highlights list is Bistrot Langka, right above BattBong Bar. With a small menu to ensure only the freshest and best ingredients, Bistrot Langka combines authentic French cuisine with a hint of Mediterranean and a touch of Asia. A simple, elegant and intimate setting – booking in advance is recommended.
Have you been to Phnom Penh? What has been your experience?