The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh makes for a very interesting destination. Although there is a lot of sadness in its recent history, there is now a positivity and buzz about the city in the way it has survived, and is beginning to thrive. We were inspired by the friendliness of the locals and the number of social enterprises present in the city, working together to focus on the future through education and skills for employability.
When visiting, I’d highly recommend seeking out some of the not-for-profit enterprises; whether its grabbing lunch or dinner at a socially responsible restaurant or shopping for Cambodian-made goods to take home as gifts.
See / Do
To get an understanding of the recent history of Cambodia, and the challenges its people have had to endure and overcome, start your time in the capital by visiting Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. It’s an incredibly sad and moving experience, but it is a very important part of visiting and understanding Phnom Penh and Cambodia.
You can visit both locations in one day. Ask your hotel to arrange a remork or airconditioned car to drive you there and back for a fixed price.
Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes is also known as Security Prison 21 (S-21): Previously a high school, this location was taken over by Pol Pot’s regime and turned into the largest detention centre in the country. Now a museum; you can walk through the site learning more about the regime, and what occurred inside the prison from information plaques and photographs. I would highly recommend asking for a guide just inside the entrance, as they can share more of the stories and insight into the events that took place within the prison.
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek: Make sure you grab an audio guide upon entry, which is included in the admission price. This is essential for the self-guided walking tour you will embark on, and provides information and personal recollections on the events that unfolded here. It is profoundly sad, there is no sugar coating it, but again it provides a eye-opening understanding of what the people of Cambodia have lived through.
Royal Palace: After the sadness of the previous locations, the Royal Palace is a beautiful and peaceful destination to visit. Make sure you dress respectfully (clothing to the knee and elbows) and take your time to stroll around the temples and beautiful gardens of the surrounding grounds. Bring your camera along to capture the intricate details of the Palace and Silver Pagoda.
National Museum of Cambodia: located one block over from the Royal Palace, is a worthy stop-off, even if its just to have a look at the impressive terracotta building itself. It is free to stroll around the outside of the building; the gardens are lovely and have some very intricate sculptures.
Eat / Drink
Friends Restaurant: this is a not-for-profit enterprise that operates as a training cafe for former street kids. After learning more about the history of Cambodia, it becomes even more apparent the need to be a socially conscious tourist by doing your bit to support local trade and social enterprises. It also helps that the food here is absolutely delicious! Stop by for lunch and get fresh juices and salads for a good cause.
There are several more restaurants around Phnom Penh that are running social programmes in Cambodia; you’ll find a really handy list in the Cambodia Lonely Planet Guide.
FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club): A bit of an institution, this is THE place to head to for pre dinner sundowners. Head up to the rooftop of this colonial building for riverside views of the city. Great atmosphere with a 2-for-1 happy hour on cocktails and draught beer; what’s not to love about this bar?!
Chinese House: If you are looking for a nice dinner location, then I’d highly recommend making a reservation at Chinese House. The menu is a fusion of asian cuisines and everything we ordered was delicious. There is also an epic wine and cocktail menu to complement. It’s located in a stunning colonial era building with great ambience.
Bassac Lane: If you feel like a night of bar hopping, then this is the place to be in Phnom Penh. This small alley is lined with a bunch of tiny and trendy bars, where you can hop from stop to stop, for drink to drink. Our remork driver dropped us off right in front of Red Bar, a small local bar just outside the Lane. A really buzzing bar with US$1 draught beers, this makes for a good place to start the night. For cocktails, then opt for Harry’s Bar in Bassac Lane.
Street 240: lined with boutique shops and cafes, this is a great place to find some gifts or keepsakes to take home with you. If you want to support local trade there are some really great not-for-profit or social enterprise stores supporting disadvantaged Cambodians. These socially responsible stores sell items such as handmade apparel, pouches and toiletry bags, homewares and bed linen, cards and calendars. A worthy way to get some retail therapy.
If your hotel is centrally located then you could opt to walk during the day. Alternatively you can get about by remork (aka Tuk Tuks) which are aplenty in Phnom Penh and very easy to flag down. You will need to barter on the price before you hop in, but by memory we generally paid around US$2 to get anywhere within a 10 minute radius.
Although we had no problems ourselves, there are many warnings that bag snatching is rife in Phnom Penh. If you consciously keep your personal items close to you and out of sight, you should be fine. Our hotel repeatedly reminded us to ensure our bags were not easy to reach for passers by when travelling on a remork. Also do not walk around with your camera hanging from your neck (it is best to keep it out of sight until you wish to use it).
We stayed at The Plantation Hotel, a beautiful sanctuary in the heart of the city. The hotel has great service, a gorgeous pool, central location and really tasty food options for all hours of the day. Breakfast was included in our room rate and it was a huge spread to choose from. I’d also recommend eating dinner at the hotel restaurant – La Pergola. We arrived quite late from the airport, but just in time for final orders at the restaurant. I ordered the Beef Lok Lak – local Khmer style beef with Kampot pepper sauce – and wow it was mouth-wateringly good. If you are a fan of pepper gravy or sauces like I am, then Kampot Pepper sauce will blow your mind!!
– – –