By CL Seng
A guide to the bustling, fast-growing Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and its many attractions.
I can still remember my first glimpses of Cambodia in 2007, snatched from 35,000 feet up in the air through an Airbus window as we descended into Phnom Penh’s Pochentong International Airport. The plane made its graceful arc around the mighty Mekong River before gliding over the famous confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap and Bassac waterways and into the cacophony of the fast-developing, gritty capital city.
The vast gap between the elite ‘Khmer riche’ and the struggling poor majority was devastatingly obvious – Porches and Cadillacs would often be parked recklessly on the road as dilapidated rickshaws and street kids peddling fake sunglasses maneuvered around them.
But I was mesmerized by Cambodia’s strong and kind people and striking landscape and returned, time and time again. Phnom Penh has changed tremendously since that first trip. After struggling through a civil war that lasted decades, the city’s skyline is now awash with cranes and half-built condominiums swathed in green safety nets; a total of $8.5 billion worth of construction projects was approved by the government in 2016 alone. With an annual GDP growth of 7%, investment continues to pour into Cambodia, and a growing middle class is emerging.
For travellers, this transformation into a bigger, busier capital also means there is a growing number of spiffy new bars and restaurants, luxury ‘urban resorts’ and design-driven ateliers and art studios to enjoy. Thanks to having such a diverse population – spend enough time here and you’ll hear a plethora of languages, from Khmer to Korean and Chinese, Japanese, French, German, English and Vietnamese – Phnom Penh is an excellent destination for foodies.
For sublime Cambodian cuisine, check out Malis, a swish fine dining restaurant on the fringes of the city’s trendy BKK1 district. Here, Cambodian celebrity chef Luu Meng has created an exquisite menu of classical dishes – a highlight is the Kep crab with a Kampot pepper sauce.
Part of a new wave of modern Cambodian restaurants is the year-old Labaab, where you can find a modern twist on authentic countryside breakfasts, lunches and dinners. You’ll find prahok, a piquant fermented pork and fish dip that’s served out of almost all Cambodian home hearths (here it’s plated prettily with vegetable crudités and edible flowers) and korkor, a herby, lemongrass-based fish soup. The design is modelled after a traditional stilted wooden home but is jazzed up with abstract art.
Keen to pick up some local artisanal products to take home? Check out the new Phnom Penh General Store, a boutique-cum-café-cum bar on buzzy Street 19. There are craft beers on tap from local brewer Cerevisia (great to sip while browsing), specialty coffee from Woodstamp, beauty and health products from ethical label Dai Khmer, homemade cakes from Crumbs, and handmade wooden furniture from Alchemy Designs.
Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace is striking in the evening, when a web of lights strewn around it begins to illuminate the city sky. But it’s also worth spending a few hours to visit during the day. Built in the 1860s, the classic Khmer architecture – soaring gold spires, carvings and shimmering tile roofs – is spectacular, surrounded by manicured gardens. The striking Silver Pagoda should not be missed – its floor is made up of over 4000 shiny silver tiles.
Adjacent to the palace is the rose-hued, Khmer-style sandstone National Museum, with over 5000 artifacts dating back to the 12th century. Its lofty rooms are home to ancient geometric vessels and jars and breathtaking Angkorian shrines and statues.
An important, although heart-breaking site to visit is Choeung Ek, or the Killing Fields, 16 kilometres south-west of Phnom Penh. This was the biggest of the regime’s 343 ‘execution centres’, and now remains as a sombre memorial and museum.
A worthwhile daytrip from Phnom Penh is to Phnom Tamao, a 2,300ha wildlife sanctuary and zoo, located about one hour south of Phnom Penh. The centre cares for endangered animals such as Malayan sun bears, gibbons, elephants and tigers that have been rescued from poaching and deforestation.