On a return visit to the Cambodian capital, a onetime resident finds its streets awash in new restaurants, bars, and upscale accommodation. Has the city once known as the Pearl of Asia finally got its luster back?
The first time I touched down in Cambodia was during the throes of its moody monsoon season. I can still recall the descent into Phnom Penh as the plane glided over the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Bassac rivers. From above, the whole country looked like it was underwater; a patchwork quilt of shimmering, chartreuse-colored rice paddies and great lakes.
It was a delicious visual entrée to a city where I ended up living a few years later. Of course, the Phnom Penh I first experienced in 2007 was a world away from the one I recently revisited: back then, I was a budget traveler on the so-called Banana Pancake Trail. As soon as I climbed into my first tuk-tuk and bounced toward the city center, it became clear that this “Pearl of Asia”—as it was known during its French colonial heyday—was a rough-and-tumble sort of place that still bore the scars of years of war and revolution.
But I fell hard for Cambodia’s resilient, warm people and dreamy golden-hour light and made it my mission to return. In 2012, I moved to Phnom Penh to work at a local newspaper. I also met my future husband, Thea, a proud Phnom Penhite who was disgusted by political corruption and the vast gap between rich and poor yet took comfort in watching the economy—and the living standards of fellow Cambodians—develop.
Thea and I have since moved on—first to Singapore, then Australia—and so too has Phnom Penh. Its skyline is now awash with cranes and condominiums, and with a population that has swollen to over 1.5 million, there’s now a prosperous consumer class hungry to shop for brand-name clothes and smartphones at the city’s shiny new shopping malls.
These days, the most striking landmark is a serpentine 38-floor skyscraper that glows in rainbow hues come dusk. Vattanac Capital Tower, in the city’s financial district, houses boutiques such as TWG and Hugo Boss (brands that are admittedly out of reach for the majority of Cambodians), and, opening any day now, the Rosewood Phnom Penh, which occupies the top 14 floors of the building. With 175 luxurious rooms and suites, it’s set to be one of the largest hotels in town, and no doubt the swankiest.
A sneak peek at the food and beverage lineup impresses me too: there’s Sora, a lounge bar hovering on a cantilevered terrace 37 stories above Monivong Boulevard; Iza, a sleek izakaya-inspired Japanese restaurant; and Brasserie Louis, with a menu promising French comfort food and regional Cambodian specialties.
The growing sophistication of the city’s lodging scene is also evident at The Balé Phnom Penh, which debuted quietly last November on the banks of the Mekong some 15 kilometers north of downtown. Run by Singapore-based boutique-hotel management company Lifestyle Retreats, the riverside estate oozes pared-down elegance, with 18 large suites arranged around a grassy courtyard or overlooking the water. Far from the hubbub of the city (especially during rush-hour traffic, when the drive out can take an hour or more), it’s a languid retreat of Angkor-inspired reflecting pools, pink terrazzo walkways, and Zen-like interiors.
On my recent stay there, I spent most of my time lolling in the saltwater swimming pool or working my way through the menu at Theato restaurant, where chef Anton Ventslav (an alum of Melbourne’s Attica) and his team whip up a creative take on Cambodian cuisine. Think: cardamom-spiced grilled baby okra served atop cauliflower gratin and bisque; crispy cubes of pork belly with a zesty salad of pomelo, coriander, chili, and palm sugar; and an amok curry jazzed up with Mekong lobsters.
But it’s back in town where the real buzz is. Take Samai, the country’s first and only rum distillery. Founded by a trio of South Americans, the warehouse-like operation sports lots of reclaimed wood and potted plants, with a beautiful copper alembic as its centerpiece. The complex, high-quality rums produced under the supervision of Samai’s head distiller, a young and tenacious Cambodian woman named Moang Darachampich, are made with ethically grown sugarcane from the southern region of Koh Kong. The city’s cool kids fill the space on Thursday nights when it transforms into a cocktail bar.
Like some of the other creative young entrepreneurs I met, French-Cambodian sisters Neary and Borany Mam grew up and studied abroad but chose to make their mark on Phnom Penh. Launched last year, their clothing brand Un été à Kep-sur-Mer features chic, Paris-inspired mini dresses and playsuits designed to look equally at home on the banks of the Seine or the Mekong.
“The designs recall that golden age of Cambodia, the ’50s and ’60s, which was such a creative time before being cut short [by the Khmer Rouge],” Neary told me at their laneway boutique off Street 51, not far from the gilded pagoda of Wat Langka. “They’re also an ode to our French mother and Cambodian father. I think the returning diaspora like us are unique in that we can respect the Khmer traditions our parents instilled in us, but bring a twist of modernity.”
The city’s culinary offerings have also expanded since my last visit. On the same nameless laneway as Un été à Kep-sur-Mer alone you can feast on delicious Mediterranean fusion—melt-in-the-mouth tuna tataki; a rich terrine de champagne—at Bistrot Langka; nibble on quirky Japanese tapas at Katanashi; and seek out hidden speakeasy-style restaurant and bar BattBong, a dimly lit haunt of leather sofas and concrete walls whose entrance is disguised as a Coca-Cola machine.
Back near the Vattanac tower there’s Labaab, a months-old restaurant dedicated to the cuisines found along the Mekong. It’s designed as an homage to the historic wooden houses of Battambang in northwest Cambodia, though glammed up with woodcarvings and more abstract art. “Labaab means ‘soil from the river.’ The Mekong is the most important source of our food and I want visitors to experience that,” said the restaurant’s owner, Rith Yoeun, who has returned to Phnom Penh after 10 years of study in the United States. We sampled the signature plate of prahok, a piquant fermented pork-and-fish dip served with vegetable crudités, as well as korkor, an herby, lemongrass-based fish soup.
Also well worth visiting is the Chinese House, a sublimely restored 1904-built mansion on Sisowath Quay. The place is not exactly new—its latest owners took over in 2015, adding a stylish cocktail bar and making over the upstairs restaurant with fin de siècle–Shanghai decor. But recently hired South African chef Inès Samaai has completely revamped the menu, and she now presents a changing five-course degustation that might include a poached Takeo river prawn bisque with fennel and cognac, all tossed in a squid-ink linguine.
It’s a new era for the city’s nightlife scene as well. Hip whiskey bar Long After Dark raised drinking standards in the Russian Market neighborhood when it opened in 2016, with around 45 Scottish single malts in its collection as well as top-tier Japanese labels. On the same street is Tini, a café, bar, and art gallery that has become a hub for Phnom Penh’s new wave of film directors. And on Bassac Lane, our old stomping ground when Thea and I lived in the increasingly trendy Tonle Bassac neighborhood, the lineup of microbars has been supplemented by a bunch of newcomers. Among them is Elbow Room, where we sat down to hip-hop tunes and a purple tipple dubbed the Aviation, made with gin, fresh lemon, maraschino liqueur, and a brandy-based crème de violette. These are the kind of drinks you’d pay $30 a pop for in a fancy Singapore cocktail bar, yet they set us back less than a third of that.
Even the storied Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal has been updated. We spent one early evening drinking gin and tonics at the same watering hole in which Jackie Onassis once sipped on a Femme Fatale, and where war correspondents clacked away on typewriters in the ’60s and ’70s. The Elephant was given a facelift a few years back; gone is the colonial-style furniture, replaced with plush leather chairs, suspension lamps, wood paneling, and a longer, more spectacular bar.
But today’s Phnom Penh doesn’t just manifest itself through food, fashion, and cocktails. There are fascinating architecture tours of the city’s ’60s modernist buildings, led by passionate students. A batch of exciting art galleries has popped up, a new wave of tech startups is attracting overseas investment, and digital studios are winning major projects.
Late last year, Phnom Penh International Airport finally wrapped up a US$126 million expansion to accommodate the seven million annual passengers expected to fly into the country by 2020. There’s also a lot more diversity on the streets: spend enough time here and you’ll hear a plethora of foreign tongues, from Korean and Chinese to Japanese, French, and Vietnamese.
All of this, Thea told me, is the new Phnom Penh. And despite the country’s uncertain political situation, as we walked along the air bridge and onto the plane, for the first time we both left the Pearl of Asia feeling a twang of excitement for what its future may hold.
Laneway off St. 51, opp. St. 288; 855/69-291-643.
132 Z13 St. 51; 855/70-727-233.
45 Sisowath Quay; 855/92-553-330.
35 St. 308; 855/89-921-166.
Laneway off St. 51, opp. St. 288; 855/96-397-3313.
855/99-335-666; 81 Monivong Blvd.
Long After Dark
86 St. 450; 855/95-940-923.
9b, Street 830, Tonle Bassac; 855-23/224-143.
57 St. 450; 855/17-555-450.
Un été à Kep-sur-Mer
Laneway off St. 51, opp. St. 288.
Where to Stay
The Balé Phnom Penh
National Road 6A; 855-23/900-425; doubles from US$275; special opening rates available through April.
Rosewood Phnom Penh
66 Monivong Blvd.; 855-23/936-888; doubles from US$260.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal
92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh; 855-23/981-888; doubles from US$240.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Phnom Penh, Again”).