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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Asia’s most underrated capital

By Jonathan Evans 27 November 2021

First impressions of Phnom Penh (ភ្នំពេញ) might appear familiar to anyone who’s travelled to the buzzing capital cities of Bangkok or Hanoi: a blur of dizzying streetscapes full of traffic and bustle, tuk-tuks, cyclos, and coffee shops, interspersed with street-food stalls and imposing commercial buildings lining the roadside. It is a busy place, no doubt, but the key differences soon become clear. For a start, the highly walkable Cambodian capital covers a significantly smaller area and has a population of just 1.5 million. It’s also blessed with plentiful public space, with its pristine public plazas and green lungs—among which the religious sanctuary Wat Phnom, from which the city takes its name, is the best known.

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Phnom Penh’s key monuments can all be visited on foot from Sisowath Quay (see below). The gleaming Royal Palace complex—an incredibIe, sprawling complex of golden roofs and gleaming pavilions—is studded with gardens, stupas, and statues. Renowned architect Vann Molyvann’s 37-metre-tall Independence Monument on Norodom Boulevard stands in front of the memorial to the more recent Norodom Sihanouk Memorial, a personal tribute to the king who won Cambodia’s independence from the French colonisers in 1953. From this location, it’s a short stroll to the city-centre streets that define today’s ever-gentrifying capital, and the resulting mélange of architectural styles and landmarks that are bringing this place of triumph and tragedy squarely into the twenty-first century.

Boeung Keng Kang (BKK1)

Since the 1980s, this area south of the Independence Monument has been known as the foreigners’ quarter, partly due to the high number of nationalities represented here, but also because it houses many villa-residences, foreign embassies, and international schools. BKK1, as it’s commonly known, has long been home to NGOs, as well as businesses catering to expats and tourists, and is undergoing a renaissance with a new wave of restaurants and cafés.

In this area, which caters to both highbrow and middlebrow tastes, hotels cover boutique upscale and mid-range options. At the north end of BKK1, along Streets 278 and 282, are a plethora of bars, while the clubs on the night owl’s haunt of Street 51—some of which stay open until sunrise—include the glitzy, long-running Heart of Darkness.

One particular area of note is the laneway running off Street 51 and busy Pasteur Street which—with its late-night izakayas (try craft-beer specialists Embargo) and chi-chi tapas bars—betrays a distinctly Japanese influence. But it also hosts a short row of cocktail bars including Groovy Room and BattBong, a speakeasy hidden behind a Coke machine mural, interspersed by the exquisite French-fusion bistro Le Langka

On Street 278 (“Golden Street”), meanwhile—a more hedonistic area—Duplex and Zeppelin feature among the nightspots that liven up this hard-partying neighbourhood. The micro-bar enclave of Bassac Lane, also in BKK1, has morphed over the last decade into one of the region’s best-known party streets. 

The big difference is the length of the bohemian strip (by comparison, minuscule) and the size of its bars (mostly tiny), but beyond the novelty factor, the genuine originality of the drinks and décor shines through: at opposite ends of the taste spectrum are the industrial warehouse vibe of Hangar 44 and eccentric throwback White Rabbit, where Euro-retro design touches and a well-concealed toilet are all part of the intrigue.

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Riverside

The architecture around Sisowath Quay—the bustling riverside promenade overlooking the intersecting the Bassac and Mekong rivers, where passenger ferries operate cruises into Vietnam—is a real hotchpotch of high and low culture all rolled into one. On and around Preah Sisowath Quay, you’ll spot everything from the Royal Palace complex to a red-light district, while the area also comprises plush hotels, riverside cafés, bars, and elegantly faded residential buildings with balconies looking out over Diamond Island, a former wasteland which has in recent years been developed into a residential area with French influence. 

Two key buildings in this area are Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), the long-standing bar, hotel, and restaurant which once housed reporters during wartime, and the avant-garde Sra’Art Gallery, also an event space, which champions the contemporary art scene in Phnom Penh and beyond.

BKK2 and BKK3

These smaller residential areas have sprung up over the last few years, offering more affordable rents to a diverse range of inhabitants (young professionals as well as locals) in a less frenetic environment than BKK1—not unlike the difference between District 2 in Ho Chi Minh City, as opposed to District 1. There is still a wide array of outlets available, from coffee shops and banks to fashion stores, but nightlife is in shorter supply. In Street 95, The Flicks Community Movie Theater is an art-house cinema known for independent film releases.

One major draw in this area is the thriving Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung)—nicknamed not for its selection of produce from Moscow, but for its profusion of Russian customers in the 1980s, who comprised a large part of what was then the expat population. In recent years, this has become one of Phnom Penh’s most colourful and eclectic areas, with businesses ranging from pan-cultural restaurants, bars, and cafés to boutiques and jewellers. 

The cosy, sofa-strewn Sundown Social Club makes a convivial sundowner spot with its view directly over the market, while speakeasy bar Long After Dark injected new vitality to the area, serving craft beers and cocktails.

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Train station area

One of the most striking buildings in Phnom Penh is its railway station, not just for the 1932 art-deco building itself, which remains pristine and imperious despite the passage of time, but for its prominent location on Street 108, at the end of a public plaza set back from the busy Monivong Boulevard. Indoors, the station is distinguished by a large Tissot clock and an arched, pristine waiting area, but the one thing you’ll rarely spot is another customer. 

The only services leaving here nowadays are the airport shuttle service and the Royal Railway service to southwestern destinations including Kampot and Sihanoukville. Nearby, Vattanac Capital Tower is unmissable as Cambodia’s tallest building since it was completed in 2014. A luxury mall occupies its ground floor, and since 2018 its upper floors have housed the five-star Rosewood Phnom Penh hotel, where top-grade amenities include Sora Skybar with its fabulous view over city icons including Central Market.

Street 240

This elegant thoroughfare running from Norodom Boulevard to the Royal Palace, a once-uneventful back road, has transformed entirely over the course of the last decade. For some time it was the home of Bar.Sito, without question Phnom Penh’s coolest cocktail bar; and in the early- to mid-2010s, this area of smart townhouses became synonymous with charity, with social enterprises such as Mekong Quilts and The Cambodian Craft Cooperation setting up bases here for their sumptuous fabrics to find a wider audience. 

Now, while some survivors of the Street 240 boom remain—such as Monument Books, Cambodia’s largest English-language bookshop—the area’s complexion has shifted once again. Penh House & Jungle Addition is one of the city’s most sought-after boutique double-hotels: Penh House’s lobby alone holds a fantastic display of contemporary art, while its rooftop pool makes a sublime refuge from the afternoon sun; Jungle Addition occupies a secluded heritage villa on a quiet back street. The area also houses some of the city’s most inviting bistros and cafés, set in gorgeous period housing with inner staircases and leafy atriums, including veggie favourite ARTillery.

Open spaces 

The mixed-use, street art-daubed hipster playground Factory is fast becoming one of the city’s most exciting hotspots, where a legion of artists and makers, IT whizz-kids, art students, and Instagram op-hungry millennials roam around the spacious galleries and offices. There’s a busy events program to back up all the artistic endeavour, exhibitions on display, a retail street, and a clutch of eateries such as the superb Malaysian café Soo Kitchen that allow you to spend all day here. 

Odom Garden is an even newer attraction in the heart of the city: a “temporary green space” set back off Norodom Boulevard in an area awaiting reconstruction that’s been converted into a community garden, with play and dog-walking areas flanked by tropical trees, and a health food café. For diners feeling space-poor in this often congested city, Farm to Table is an ideal Sunday brunch spot—an outdoor community space where fresh, locally sourced and inventive fusion cuisine is served while farmers’ markets take place at weekends.

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Historical spots

While the city is fast undergoing expansion and renewal, memories of Cambodia’s tormented past are never far away in Phnom Penh. At the major memorial site in the village of Choeung Ek, the best known of the country’s “Killing Fields” where hundreds of thousands of people died from 1975 to 1979, stands a Buddhist monument and a park built around the mass graves of the victims, including Khmer Rouge themselves killed during purges. 

Many who were persecuted during the reign of terror were interrogated and tortured at Tuol Sleng (S-21), a former school-turned-prison camp, which today marks the site of the harrowing Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in BKK3. Next door in BKK2, the Khmer Artisanry handicraft centre aims to preserve the art of Khmer natural dyeing—along with traditional weaving, one of the art forms which was almost extinguished by the Khmer Rouge—which aims to preserve this precious cultural legacy and give employment to workers from poor communities.

Relics of the pre-Civil War era are found in abundance across the city, too: landmark buildings by Cambodia’s most famous architect Vann Molyvann (1926–2017) include the National Olympic Stadium (which despite its name never hosted an Olympic Games) and the highly distinctive Chaktomuk Theatre from 1961. It’s impossible, too, to miss the uniquely beautiful design of the French-built Central Market (Psar Thmei), an art-deco classic from 1937 which even today is a thriving commercial venue, hosting hundreds of stalls under its enormous yellow dome. 

But the granddaddy of all heritage buildings in Phnom Penh is Raffles Hotel Le Royal (1929), whose stately exterior in Daun Penh district belies an alternately glamorous and turbulent history—including a period when it became a temporary home for journalists covering the Khmer Rouge atrocities, a war hospital, and a refugee camp.

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Jonathan Evans

Contributor

Jonathan is a British national but has lived and worked in four other countries: Italy, Singapore, Indonesia, and Cambodia, where he is currently resident. Having spent 13 years in Asia, he has shuttled across the region countless times, especially over the last four years when he was researched numerous stories as a freelance travel writer. In his spare time, he can often be found hiking, cycling, and dreaming up his next story, while regularly documenting his travels on Instagram. In Cambodia, he travels widely across the country and continues to marvel at its cuisine, culture, coffee, and cheerful spirit. 

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