There’s style to spare along the Cambodian capital’s buzziest stretch of pavement.
By Robert Turnbull
Photographs by Christopher Wise
A decade ago, Phnom Penh’s street 240—specifically that section of it running east from Norodom Boulevard toward the Royal Palace—comprised a quiet row of unremarkable colonial-era villas and 1960s shophouses. At one end, overworked journalists at the Cambodia Daily toiled round the clock, while at the other, a French-owned Mediterranean restaurant and bar called The Tamarind served as the liveliest spot in the neighborhood. Revelers would teeter up its precarious iron staircase to the rooftop terrace, Angkor beers firmly in hand, to gaze at the pagoda spires gracing the capital’s low-slung skyline.
I lived there myself for the better part of the aughties, and watched Street 240 emerge as Phnom Penh’s hippest few hundred meters, if not the epicenter of Cambodian cool. Today, it’s the local answer to Bond Street or Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a place where upwardly mobile Cambodians and their Western counterparts dine, shop, posture, and palaver. Having hosted some legendary parties in my loft apartment at No. 37, I hope to have played a small part in this transformation. But the credit really goes to a handful of local and expat entrepreneurs for establishing a groundbreaking collection of boutiques, bars, and eateries, all within a stone’s throw of the palace grounds.
Where to Stay
There may be better-appointed hotels in Phnom Penh, but for value and location, the Boddhi Tree Aram (70, St. 244; 855-23/211-276; boddhitree.com; doubles from US$62) is hard to beat. Occupying a 1950s house near the eastern end of Street 240, down a little alley full of fruit vendors, this eight-room gem comes with modern, high-ceilinged guest quarters accented with period touches, like original floor tiles. And the surrounds couldn’t be more atmospheric: a quiet and charming corner of the capital behind Wat Botum, site of one of the city’s oldest pagodas.
Where to Eat and Drink
Unchanged and unpretentious, The Tamarind (No. 31; 855-12/830-139) still dishes up the best tagines and tapas in town, and hosts an early-evening happy hour that is second to none. For classic French fare, the long, narrow dining room at Le Comptoir de l’Escargot (No. 25; 855-17/936-177) offers well-executed plats du jour (honey-glazed duck, boeuf bourguignon) as well as a fulsome US$9 set menu. A few doors down, next to the Red Apron wine boutique and tasting room, is Rubies (Cnr. 240 and 19 streets; 855-17/372-381), which opened a few years back as Phnom Penh’s first wine bar. With its wood-paneled walls and long list of New World labels, Rubies provides a cozy alternative to the city’s hectic riverfront scene—though come the weekend, regulars overflow onto the sidewalk to a DJ-mixed soundtrack of soul and funk.
When Belgian Griet Lorre first arrived in Phnom Penh, she found herself in a city “bereft of unsweetened bread.” Lorre wasted little time in creating her own bakery, and to showcase the results—among them 27 different types of loaves, from ciabatta to multigrain—she founded The Shop (No. 39; 855-23/986-964). A cornucopia of sassy soups, quiches, and salads washed down with date smoothies or lychee-and-mint coolers have made this the place to be seen come lunchtime, so aim to get there early if you want a table: by noon on most weekdays, the café’s airy interior and outdoor terrace are chockablock with young Cambodian entrepreneurs hobnobbing with NGO types and the odd Khmer royal.
Lorre also owns the beautiful colonial house next door, which she has restored to perfection and repurposed as Chocolate by the Shop (No. 35; 855-23/998-638). Her truffles and pralines will satisfy any sweet tooth, as will slabs of dark chocolate encrusted with Kampot pepper.
On a street that takes food seriously, it’s no surprise to find one of the city’s most popular Cambodian restaurants. The traditional Khmer fare at Frizz (No. 67; 855-23/220-953) is simple and accessible, highlighted by banana-flower salad and amok (curried catfish steamed in banana leaves). Chef Heng also conducts cooking classes that involve trips to local markets.
Where to Shop
When Australian designer Cassandra Harper opened Bliss (No. 29; 855-23/215-754) more than a decade ago, she threw a pot of color at monochrome Phnom Penh with a vibrant array of one-off outfits and hand-stitched pillows and quilts. Crafted locally with fabrics from as far afield as Korea and India, Harper’s blousy, tropically inspired apparel matches her own sunny personality. So too does the spa that took over the back of the villa in 2004, where rose-petal-filled terrazzo baths and a pool shaded by frangipani trees channel a Bali-esque vibe.
For elegant, exquisitely tailored gowns and dresses in handwoven Cambodian silk, visit Jasmine (No. 73; 855-23/223-103), a label that Harper founded with her friend and compatriot Kellie Karatau. Shoppers looking for a responsible way to spend their money can support the local crafts industry at Mekong-Quilts (No. 49; 855-23/219-607), an NGO outlet that helps 17 women in Svay Rieng province produce enough quilts and cushions to make a significant difference to their livelihood. The Cambodian Craft Cooperation (No. 47; 855-23/986-239) is likewise part of a network that supports thousands of silk weavers in Takeo province; the scarves they produce are as light as gossamer.
Staff at Le Lézard Blue (No. 61; 855-23/986-978) are eager to help you ship the gallery’s high-quality furniture and artwork back home. Among the French-Khmer wardrobes and Art Deco mahogany chairs are meticulously framed colonial-era prints (including reproductions of Rodin’s erotic sketches of royal dancers) and faithfully reproduced busts of apsara dancers and Angkorian kings. For a more literary insight into Cambodia’s past, browse the shelves at Monument Books (111 Norodom Blvd.; 855-23/217-618), just up from the junction of Street 240 and Norodom Boulevard. Home to the country’s largest and most eclectic selection of English-language books, the store stocks everything from archeological accounts of Angkor Wat to scholarly analyses of the Pol Pot years.
Of all 240’s outlets, the most intriguing has to be Water Lily (No. 37; 855-12/812-469). Here, longtime Phnom Penh resident Christine Gauthier presents a range of jewelry and accessories conjured from her rich, eccentric imagination. The raw material for her creations includes anything from sewing-machine bobbins and old spoons to knickknacks from neglected corners of the world’s flea markets. If there was a Nobel Prize for micro-recycling, it should go to Gauthier. Whatever you buy, be assured there won’t be another like it.
Originally appeared in the April/May 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Street Smarts”)