From Khmer dances to herbal body wraps, hereâ€™s how to spend two perfect days in the Cambodian capital
By Christi Hang
There was a time when Phnom Penh, scarred by years of war and revolution, was a mere stopover for tourists en route to the temples of Angkor. Those days are long past. Today, Cambodiaâ€™s fast developing capital, whose broad boulevards and gridded streets preside over the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, is as cosmopolitan as one would expect from a city of two million people, yet with a laid-back vibe that, for all the new skyscrapers and sophistication, contributes to its small-town feel. Phnom Penh is also compact and easy to navigate, making it an ideal escape for a long weekend.
Leave your digs at the storied Raffles Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh; 855-23/981-888; doubles from US$260)â€”whose famous guests have included Jacqueline Kennedy and Somerset Maugham â€”and join an excursion with Khmer Architecture Tours. Many of the highlights are buildings dating from the 1950s and â€™60s, when Cambodian arts and culture flourished after independence from France. The organization runs weekend tours and can arrange private outings; for those who want to go it alone, thereâ€™s a map of self-guided walks on its website. The tours usually end by 10 a.m., which puts you right on time for the namesake meal at Willâ€™s Brunch (23 St. 294; 855-78/262-626), where classic French toast and Tunisian shakshuka (eggs and chorizo baked in a spicy tomato sauce) are among the standouts.
Sample Cambodian dishes such as fish amok curry and, for the adventurous, fried tarantula at Romdeng (74 St. 174; 855-92/219-565). Set inside an atmospheric colonial-era building, the restaurant is also a hospitality training ground for at-risk youths.
Skip the traditional shows touted in some restaurants: the real deal can be found Mondays through Saturdays at the National Museum, where Cambodian Living Arts (855-23/986-032) presents full dance and music productions based on Khmer legends and folktales. For a post-show meal, grab a table at Deco (46 St. 352; 855-17/577-327; ), where young British chef Caspar von Hofmannsthal (formerly of Japanese gastropub Yumi) serves modern European food in a revamped 1960s villa; be sure to try his Kampot crab cakes with sherry mayonnaise.
After breakfast at The Duck (49 Sothearos Blvd.; 855-89/823-704), a sharply designed cafĂ© that serves US$40 steaks by night and reasonably priced eggs Benedict by day, walk two doors down to Trunkh. (17ABEo St.294; 855-12/812-476), a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind items ranging from hand-painted street signs to silk scarves and retro printed canvas totes. From here, take a tuk-tuk across town to the lively Psar Toul Tom Poung, a.k.a. the Russian Market. In what seems like an endless labyrinth, youâ€™ll find a hodgepodge of items including all types of Khmer curios in varying degrees of authenticity and a lively food court with a superb selection of local dishes, from stir-fried noodles to soups to strong coffees sweetened with generous dollops of condensed milk.
For a midday respite, head to Bliss Spa (29 St. 240; 855-23/215-754) for an herbal wrap or honey-and-sesame-seed scrub. The shop out front sells resort clothing and home decor, and is the perfect preamble to exploring Street 240â€™s other boutiques and galleries. Donâ€™t overlook the small alleyway called Street 240Â˝, which is home to number of recent openings including vegan-friendly ARTillery CafĂ© (855-78/985-530) and Paperdolls (855-16/620-908), which stocks edgy clothing and accessories from regional designers. If youâ€™re in the alleyway at happy hour, duck into speakeasy-inspired Bar.sito (855-77/555-447) for a tropical cocktail (try the lychee caipiroska) and a break from the heat and glare of the afternoon.
Make the Common Tiger (20 St. 294; 855-23/212-917) your last impression of the cityâ€™s dining scene. In a relaxed dining room dominated by brick walls and big wooden tables, chef-owner Timothy Bruyns, late of Song Saa Private Island resort, offers a frequently changing menu of sophisticated yet unpretentious dishes made from exquisitely fresh local produce.
Get a change of view by heading over to The Boat House (855-92/553-743) on the other side of the Tonle Sap River, on the sleepy Chroy Changvar peninsula. Only open on the weekends from 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., this peaceful spot is the ideal location to take in a majestic sunset over the river.
This article originally appeared in theÂ December 2013/January 2014Â print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śPenh Ultimateâ€ť)