With so many destinations in the WHL Group‘s ever-expanding network, we have an incredible wealth of local travel information at our fingertips. Through the Inside Word, our local partners – all travel experts – share their top tips on what to do, what to eat, where to party and where to shop in their necks of the woods. This month, we hear from Cindy Fan, a travel writer working with Teamworkz, the whl.travel and Green Path Transfers local connection in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Phnom Penh demands your attention from the moment you arrive. Vibrant, exciting and utterly unpredictable are just a few words to describe Cambodia’s capital. It’s a city of stark contrasts: slick SUVs share the road with old-world cyclos; visitors can relax in a posh cafe and think they are in Paris, or join the locals at a pop-up stall selling fried noodles; the memorial at the Killing Fields is heart wrenching, while the Temple of the Emerald Buddha will lift the spirit.
Just when you thought you’ve got the hang of the city, though, it’ll surprise you with glimpse of something fascinating and unexpected. One wrong turn on a walk and you may find yourself a guest of honour in a Khmer wedding!
Yet if the stimuli ever become too much (and it will happen), simply head to Sisowath Quay, the grand boulevard along the river. The Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, which merge at Phnom Penh, are intrinsic to life and livelihood in Cambodia, so naturally activity in Phnom Penh gravitates to their banks. From your spot in a riverside cafe, bar or restaurant, unwind and watch as the city hustles on by.
A trip to Phnom Penh wouldn’t be complete without a boat ride on the Mekong River at sunset. Slipping away from the shore, one is blessed with the quiet that eludes the city’s relentlessly busy streets. Watch fishermen haul in a catch and maybe visit a village of silk weavers to learn about the fascinating process.
A trip to the Killing Fields, now known as the Cheoung Ek Memorial, is an important, eye-opening lesson on the Cambodian Genocide and Phnom Penh’s past. From 1975 to 1979, 1.7 million people perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. A Buddhist stupa containing the bones and skulls uncovered from mass graves is a place to reflect on Cambodia’s sorrowful history.
A less sobering alternative is to dine, shop and get pampered for a good cause. Daughters of Cambodia is a nongovernmental organization that trains, employs and empowers victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia. Their Sugar ’n Spice cafe serves lunch (salads, sandwiches), as well as tasty baked goods. The centre is also a spa and a shop selling handmade products.
If you’re on the hunt for designer and brand-name clothes at bargain prices, the Russian Market is the place to shop in Phnom Penh. Since there are numerous garment factories in Cambodia, if an item doesn’t meet quality standards or a designer’s specifications, it somehow ends up here. The Russian Market also teems with other items ranging from tasteful to wondrously tacky. This is the best place to pick up good quality, inexpensive silk.
Handmade, high-quality products can be found at boutique stores such as Artisans Angkor and Couleurs D’Asie, while Bodia Nature sells 100-percent-natural bath and aromatherapy products made using locally grown ingredients. The herbal ginger balm is good on sore muscles after a long day of sightseeing. There is a shop riverside at #10, St. 178 and a small stand within the Russian Market.
Mekong Quilts is a non-profit group that provides sustainable employment to women from poor rural regions of Cambodia. The hand-sewn quilts and other handicrafts, from laptop covers to yoga bags, are beautifully made and inexpensive. Shop employees are pros at packaging up large quilts tightly but if you still don’t have room in your luggage, international shipping is available at #49, St. 240.
The eating in Phnom Penh is outstanding. The thriving expat community in the capital city means there’s every sort of international cuisine available, with prices ranging from a worrisome “Why is this so cheap?” to a jaw-dropping “Why is this so expensive?” Generally speaking though, there is good value for meals.
You can test your stomach’s mettle with street eats: Hot woks dish up stir-fried noodles (mee cha), noodle-soup stands dot every corner, meat kebabs sizzle on grills and whole pigs slow-roast over red-hot coals.
Rice, fish and coconut milk are staples in Cambodian cuisine and Amok trey, the signature dish of Cambodia, uses all three ingredients. Fish coated with coconut milk is steamed or baked in banana leaves, then served with rice. It is delicious, light and fragrant. Try your own hand at Khmer cuisine with a Phnom Penh cooking class.
Cafes and restaurants line Sisowath Quay (riverside) but travellers should make an effort to explore the excellent eateries throughout the city.
Local Angkor beer is everywhere – fortunately it’s also good and cheap.
The Seeing Hands Massage Centre is a great place to get a no-nonsense massage. Opened in 1995, it now employs 22 blind massage therapists with professional training. In a country with no social assistance, this centre gives those with a disability a sustainable livelihood and skills they can pass on to others. For US$7 you get a one-hour shiatsu massage and you’re contributing to a good business; it’s win-win. The centre can be found at 12E St. #13, across from the large post office near Wat Phnom.
Instead of walking or taking a tuk-tuk to get around, why not hire a cyclo? Slow down and see Phnom Penh in a whole different way.
A night out in Phnom Penh starts early, with generous happy hours kicking things off – sometimes at an unsavoury hour. In the sultry afternoon heat, begin on the patio of one of the many riverside bars, cooling off with a cold drink and, if you’re lucky, a breeze off the water.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) is one such riverside spot. The FCC is located on the second floor of a colonial-era building, away from the street-level hustle of touts and tuk-tuks. It was once a popular watering hole for diplomats and journalists. While there aren’t many shady deals and intrigue going on these days, the FCC still retains the historic charm of its past. The nibbles on the menu are also a treat.
Once upon a time, the nightclub Heart of Darkness would have capped a wild night out. Unfortunately, it now has an unsavoury reputation, with security and crime an issue. Today, expats favour Pontoon.