Escape To: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

By 2018-12-20 23:26:08

Where to go, what to do and what to eat.

At the intersection of two of Southeast Asia’s most important rivers, the Cambodian capital is rapidly developing and back on the tourist map; this time not just for the backpacker contingent as Ryan Edward Kalb discovers.

Historical sights

Delving into Cambodia’s rich and complicated history, sites like Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek serve an important place in the country’s cultural memory. Both the former high school and the area otherwise known as “The Killing Fields,” stand as a memorial for the lives lost to violence and war. You can get there via taxi and both provide excellent audio guide tours for USD 6 (¥41) to help educate visitors and tell the story of the Khmer people. While sobering, these historical sights are a testament to the Cambodian people’s ability to embrace their brighter future, a lesson that holds weight for us all.

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Even in the winter, daily temperatures in Phnom Penh hover in the 30s. It’s no surprise then that the areas around the National Palace and Wat Phnom come alive in the evenings. From local vendors hawking food to the colorful markets pumping music, here they sell everything from cotton candy to balloons. For a more relaxing atmosphere, several different Mekong River Cruise companies offer river tours and, depending on your personal preference, you can select from a range of basic to high-end excursions, many of which include dinner and drinks at sunset for around USD 30 (¥207) per person. The Russian Market and Central Market are two shopping opportunities not to miss, the art-deco architecture another beautiful feature of this evolving city.

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Cambodian food is in the midst of a culinary renaissance, thanks to a number of hip restaurants that are reinterpreting Khmer classics. One to keep an eye out for is Fish Amok, a fish curry cooked in coconut cream and served in a banana leaf. Both set in reconverted villas, the Malis and Romdeng restaurants boast ample outdoor seating, making either the perfect place to catch the last hours of daylight and enjoy a meal with your family. Malis serves a “Discovery Set” tasting menu for USD 30 (¥207), while the latter delivers inventive new takes on traditional delicacies including crickets, silk worms, and even spiders! For more Western fare, as a former French colony Cambodia has a number of restaurants that reflect this gastronomic influence; two standouts being Khéma and Van’s Restaurant. In true European fashion, for USD 15 (¥104) you can take advantage of Van’s business lunch, an affordable, upscale dining experience that serves as a change of pace from the streets of Phnom Penh.

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Phnom Penh has a plethora of watering holes and local craft pints from Angkor and Khmer come cheap at nearly all of them. Stroll along the famous Sisowath Quay riverside, where you can stop at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) to people-watch and enjoy their rooftop patio. Another absolute must is the Elephant Bar, housed within the aforementioned Raffles Hotel. Try the Femme Fatale, an intoxicating mixture of crème de fraise de bois, Cognac and sparkling wine, developed specifically for Jackie Onassis Kennedy by the bartender of the Cambodian royal household. Order one between 5 and 9pm to take advantage of their happy hour and kick off your evening in style.

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If there is one place to overnight in Phnom Penh, it’s the Raffles Hotel. Think old-world, colonial sophistication meets modern amenities. Every detail is carefully considered, from their welcome cocktails and fastidious service to the lemon grass scented hallways. This architectural throwback to the 1920s previously housed foreign dignitaries and now serves as a tranquil oasis in the middle of the motorbike madness. Another tasteful, more boutique option is the Amanjaya Suites Hotel, situated in the heart of the city. Well-appointed suites here are furnished with traditional Cambodian design accents and most have a balcony, so you can enjoy your breakfast with a river and street view that is truly unparalleled.

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