Phnom Penh is a cool cat kind of place, and is a fantastic spot to spend a relaxed couple of days. It definitely lacks the noise and congestion of most other Southeast Asian cities, but yet has the modern infrastructure and new roads to make getting around quite comfortable. The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh was once known as the “Pearl of Asia”, one of the loveliest cities built by the French in Indochine. The French legacy remains: colonial buildings dot the streets, and you can find fantastic restaurants and wine at very reasonable prices.
A dark past hangs over the city, however; during the Khmer Rouge ruling and between 1975-79, somewhere around 1.7 million or more Cambodians (~21% of the population) were killed, half from executions and the rest from starvation or disease. The majority of Phnom Penh’s residents, especially those who were wealthy and educated, were evacuated from the city to be forced labour on rural farms. Many of the executions took place in the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. Today Cambodia is still one of the region’s poorest countries but has shown one of the highest rates of economic growth, with tourism as its biggest industry.
What should I do here, you ask? It’s a great city for a lazy weekend since it’s small enough that you don’t have to go very far to see things. The city is laid out in a grid with all of the streets numbered so it’s super easy to navigate. Most things are concentrated in the old centre, and if you don’t want to walk, hop in a tuk tuk ($1-4 depending on how far and always negotiate beforehand!) Here are five suggestions for a lazy weekend in Phnom Penh:
Many NGOs have set up in Phnom Penh and have started shops and restaurants to give at risk women and children jobs and skills to pull them out of poverty. They also work to prevent workers in the garment industry from being exploited in sweatshops (remember the protests this past year by Cambodian garment workers demanding higher salaries – USD 177 per month to have a living wage).
Daughters of Cambodia and Tabitha Cambodia sell clothing, accessories and handicrafts that are locally made by workers at a fair wage. Friends and its sister restaurant Romdeng train former street children and marginalized youth in the restaurant industry; its teachers and students staff the restaurants as cooks and waiters, giving students tangible skills to be employed in Cambodia’s burgeoning hospitality sector. Best part – the food is tasty! They serve a fusion Cambodian – Western mix of small tapas-like dishes. Next door is their shop Friends n Stuff where you can buy souvenirs and get a foot massage or mani / pedi, also staffed by youths training for jobs in the spa industry. I got a fantastic foot massage for $4!
Wat Phnom, meaning “Mountain Pagoda”, is the largest religious structure in the city. Built in 1373, the Buddhist temple (wat) is perched on a small hill and is the central point of Phnom Penh. Don't miss the intricate painted interior. Wat Ounalom, located near the Royal Palace, is the most important wat in Phnom Penh and the centre of Cambodian Buddhism.
The Royal Palace is the official residence of the king of Cambodia. Built in 1860s, the palace is a huge complex of buildings featuring various pagodas, halls and pavilions. Don’t miss the Silver Pagoda, which houses national treasures such as gold and jeweled statues and has a floor inlaid with 5,000 silver tiles. Remember that the palace is closed between 11-2pm and you need to be dressed appropriately (no short skirts).
Like any proper Southeast Asian city, Phnom Penh has its share of markets, and as always, the main ones have become tourist magnets. Central Market, in the old town, is a huge, gorgeous art deco building opened in 1937. It still functions as market today selling veggies, food, antiques and household items in and amongst all of the T-shirt, electronic gadget and shoe stalls. The Russian Market, located more toward the South end of the city, is the place to go for an endless supply of low quality (but cheap cheap!) souvenir clothing, fake bags, DVDs and handicrafts. The name comes from the Russian expats that frequented the place in the 80’s. This Remember to bargain hard – start with at least 50% off asking price and have fun.
Street 240 is quiet haven in the city. A small, tree-shaded avenue next to the Royal Palace, the street is full of independent boutiques, cafes and small hotels. After a full morning of bargaining your little heart out, come for a coffee and poke around the numerous book, clothing and jewelry shops. Ready to be pampered? Book a massage at Bliss, which also has a cute adjoining clothing and home décor boutique.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum now stands where the Security Prison 21 (S-21) operated between 1975-79. Formerly a high school before the war, the prison held somewhere around 17,000 people who were later killed. Only twelve people survived, and only because they were skilled in a trade useful to the regime. The place has been left in the same state as when the Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979. The regime was meticulous in documenting every single prisoner that passed through the prison, and many of the photos and histories of prisoners are on display. There isn’t so much information available in the museum, so if you’re interested you should read up a bit beforehand.
Some guidebooks recommend a sunset cruise on the river but I’m not sure there’s really so much to see. The stretch along the Tonle Sap river is full of hotels, bars and restaurants bordered by a wide promenade that has no shade during the day (i.e. no protection from the searing sun) and is full of locals milling about in the evenings, which is quite entertaining to watch and join in. I’d recommend a drink at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a pretty three-story colonial style building that has a rooftop bar and a great view of the action below.
Where to stay: there are plenty of hotels in the old centre along the Tonle Sap river. However, I’d recommend staying a bit further out, either at one of the boutique hotels on Street 240 or in the leafy neighbourhoods south of the Independence monument (specifically Boeung Keng Kang 2 or BKK 2). These small hotels in colonial buildings are charming, quieter and sometimes have a pool. A $2 tuk tuk ride will get you to the centre in a snap.
Nom nom nom: Malis for an upscale Cambodian dinner in a pretty colonial villa and Open Wine for excellent French cuisine.
Hope you have a great relaxed weekend!
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