From Khmer dances to herbal body wraps, here’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, Cambodia’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)—whose famous guests have included Jacqueline Kennedy and Somerset Maugham —and join an excursion with Khmer Architecture Tours. Many of the highlights are buildings dating from the 1950s and ’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, there’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 Will’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 café 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, you’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 240’s other boutiques and galleries. Don’t overlook the small alleyway called Street 240½, which is home to number of recent openings including vegan-friendly ARTillery Café (855-78/985-530) and Paperdolls (855-16/620-908), which stocks edgy clothing and accessories from regional designers. If you’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 city’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 the December 2013/January 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Penh Ultimate”)