Cambodia is one of those Southeast Asian countries that I have been wanting to visit for a long time and last year I got to go there twice. I rarely mention my work in my blog but my international development career often takes me to various places around the world. For two years I was overseeing a big initiative in Asia and Cambodia, thankfully, was one of the countries in my portfolio.
Cambodia is a beautiful combination of spirituality and soulfulness, and is still less touristy and commercialized than neighboring Thailand. But it has lots to offer to international vagabonds such as myself. If you don’t have much free time like me (I was in the meetings most of my time in Cambodia), I suggest this simple yet very efficient and exciting way to explore Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and legendary Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.
Day 1 – Phnom Penh
After a very long flight from London and a layover in Bangkok, I was finally in Phnom Penh, greeted by its crazy traffic and March heat of over 30 degrees Celsius. Fresh off the plane, I had no time to waste as it was my only weekend to explore the capital.
My journey began with one of Phnom Penh’s main attractions – the Royal Palace, a huge Khmer-style compound set on the river front. It has been the official residence of the royal family since 1863. Portraits of King Norodom Sihamoni can be seen all around and inside the Palace.
From opulent pagodas and pavilions to immaculately groomed gardens and lawns, it is an impressive and vast complex that will take you a couple of hours to explore (especially if you get an audio guide). Each building plays an individual role in the royal protocol or serves as a memorial to various members of the royal family. And it’s not all of it, a lot of the Palace grounds are closed to public.
In the evenings and weekend, the Palace lights up and the lawns outside become a popular spot for the locals who come here for a picnic and spend some time with their families and friends. Various vendors selling sweets, balloons and small toys flock here and overall atmosphere is fun, festive and relaxed.
From the Royal Palace head to nearby street 13, where you will find a National Museum of Cambodia.
Build in traditional Khmer architectural style and opened in 1920, the National Museum of Cambodia is both an island of tranquillity and one of the main centres of Khmer culture revealing artefacts of historical, cultural and religious importance. It houses some of the most impressive collections of Khmer sculptures made out of wood, metal, stone and ceramics. Some of the religious sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu gods are so old and holy that many locals treat them as objects of worship and daily lay garlands of fragrant jasmine.
Museum’s four pavilions take you through various stages of Cambodian history of pre and post-Khmer Empire that covered territories of modern Thailand, Cambodia and even Vietnam. I particularly enjoyed videos on Khmer civilization that recreates and narrates its history, some of which I was able to see in Angkor Wat with my own eyes the next day. A beautiful courtyard provides a great place for rest and reflection…I really enjoyed the museum as it was pretty quiet and intimate, a great place for a cultural inspiration in the middle of capital’s hassle.
When you come out of the museum, continue on Street 178, which is full of great small boutiques, art salons, cafes and gift shops.
My favorite shop there is Senteurs D’Angkor that sells natural skincare and home products. They have a great selection of skin and body care products, traditional balms, candles in beautiful traditional holders, incenses, natural oils as well as spices and homemade jams. Be prepared to immerse yourself in intoxicating aromas of mango, vanilla, jasmine, lotus and many more.
From there, continue on towards the river waterfront and Sisowath Quay. Not only this is a popular area for tourists and locals, but it’s full of cafes and restaurants, as well as shops, beauty salons and street-side markets.
There are few places you should definitely check out. One is Wat Phnom (Big Pagoda), a Buddhist temple that sits on the top of the hill and dates back to 14th century. At 27 meters, it is one of the tallest religious buildings in the capital.
This is a functioning temple with hundreds of people stopping by every day to pray for their loved ones and to thank for the granted wishes by offering Gods garlands of jasmine and food. The area around it looks like a mini market with vendors selling everything you may need – from water and snacks to small birds for release (which have been trained to come back to their sellers!).
As you walk back along the river, one of the popular spots among the expats is the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) housed in an old colonial building. I know, I know! You are probably thinking ‘Why should I go to an expat hangout when I can be exploring local dives?’ But FCC is not just a great spot for a nice drink (I loved their non-alcoholic cocktails) and appetizers as you watch the sunset over the river, but it’s also filled with history. Through the posters and newspaper clippings on the walls you soon realize that this was a central hangout in the 1990s for international media journalists, photographers, aid workers, politicians and diplomats to discuss latest political developments in Cambodia’s vibrant recent history.
Another great way to see Phnom Penh is by river cruise. If you head to the Himawari Hotel and go through its lobby to the waterfront, you will find one of the Kanika Cruise Boats. For about $20, you will get a 2-2.5 cruise with a 3-course meal. It’s such a relaxing way to spend an evening and see the city all lit up at night, while sipping cocktails and enjoying traditional coconut fish amok served in banana leaves.
Last thing I would definitely suggest seeing in Phnom Penh if you have time is the Genocide Museum (based in the building formerly known as Security Prison 21) and/or Killing Fields. Both places are reminders of the darkest days in Cambodia’s recent history (1975-79) when paranoia of Pol Pot’s regime turned into a mass genocide with estimated 1.7 people or one fifth of Cambodia’s population killed.
Overall, the best part about central Phnom Penh is ability to walk everywhere and explore things at your own pace, get lost in side streets and discover its hidden gems.
For example, I walked into a quiet temple complex that had no tourists and only young monks were going around their daily chores. Temple keeper, seeing me and my colleague, rushed to greet us and unlocked a praying room that had a sitting Buddha with neon lights as a halo.
It felt both disco and spiritual at the same time (strange combo, I know) but he blessed us and read some prayers. It was a somewhat surreal experience but much needed ahead of a busy week!
Where to stay
I suggest Anise Hotel, a small cosy hotel much loved by the tourists. It’s very reasonably priced with rooms starting at $40-50 a night. Its standard rooms are simple but very clean and have everything you need (they also recently opened a more businessy sister hotel which is listed on their website). The restaurant is actually really good with a lovely terrace and tasty dishes (think Pad Thai at $4.75!!!) and breakfast had a number of healthy options. What’s even better is its central location and close proximity to all major sites. If you stay there, across the street there is a great massage place, which offers massages at $10/hour, souvenir places and my favorite Khmer Surin restaurant (see below).
Where to eat
Here are just few places I would recommend but feel free to explore the city that offers plenty of choices for Khmer and international cuisine:
- Khmer Surin: for great traditional Khmer dishes, while sitting on comfy cushions (House #9, Street 57, Sangkat Boeung Keng Kang I, Khan Chamkarmon)
- Eclipse Sky Bar: for best sky-high views of Phnom Pehn and swanky cocktails (Phnom Penh Tower, 23rd Floor, 443A Preah Monivong Boulevard)
- Foreign Correspondents Club: for great story and atmosphere and superb non-alcoholic cocktails and entrees (363 Sisowath Quay)
- Friends: for tasty tapas and important social cause (215 St 1)
- Malis: for best authentic Khmer cusine served paired with Feng Shui (No. 136 Norodom Blvd)
- Best Iced Coffee: for best iced coffee in town (Russian market)!
Where to shop
While I have already mentioned few places for souvenir and natural products shopping, markets are the best places to haggle for a good deal and experience city’s daily trading. The top three are the Central Market (Kampuchea Krom, St 128, ), Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Pong, Street 155) and the Night Market (106 Preah Moha Ksatreiyani Kossamak Ave), where you can find literally everything. Cheap electronics, souvenirs and ethical crafts, clothes and shoes, accessories, DVDs, beauty, jewelry and local food, you name it.
Walking through endless maze of market stalls, don’t be afraid to strike the conversation with vendors and ask them questions. Market vendors are usually very friendly and will tell you everything about their products without being pushy or agressive. My favorite market is the Russian market (surprise, surprise being half Russian!), where I bought some beautiful coconut bowls for $1-2 each and selection of local spices.
I hope you enjoyed this mini journey around Phnom Penh. Next stop is Angkor Wat in Siem Reap (Part II).