Phnom Penh is a lovely, laid-back old city. Once the jewel of French Indochina, it still has a particular crumbling grace and beauty not found in other Asian capitals. It is divided up by a few major thoroughfares—Monivong and Norodom Boulevards going north-south and Pochentong and Sihounouk boulevards going east-west. These, along with major wats, markets and monuments, form the skeleton of Phnom Penh from which the city grows. Whether you are off to explore cultural highlights, take in the nightlife, eat a hearty meal, or just find a place to sit and watch the bustle of the city, most places can be found if you know the nearest landmark.
North and Wat Phnom At the end of Norodom Boulevard in the northern part of town, Wat Phnom , at 27 meters above sea level, is the Cambodian capital's highest point. It was around this wat that the city is supposed to have been centered, and it is after the woman who built this structure-a lady named Penh-that the city is named. Locals still come here to pray for luck. This is also the place to ride Sam Bo the Elephant or sit and drink fresh coconut juice in the shade of ancient trees.
Behind Wat Phnom a cluster of restaurants, including Le Deauville and Anthony's Pizza, offer more up-market dining. To the east is the French Quarter, boasting some of town's most impressive surviving colonial architecture. Not far from here, Hotel Le Royal once housed the world's most famous war correspondents. Now it offers five-star accommodations in colonial opulence.
Also in this area is Boeng Kak Lake . Its surrounds, making up the most densely populated area in town, are home to a rabbit warren of cheap guest houses and budget bars and restaurants along with the Royal School of Fine Arts, which regularly stages Khmer classical dance performances.
Central Phnom Penh and Psar Thmei Psah Thmai actually means new market in Khmer, but most foreigners know this imposing art-deco dome as the Central Market. It is the largest market in the city. Everything from miniskirts to monkeys is offered here. Around the outside of the market cheap electrical shops pile their wares high on the southern side of the market and gold shops sit to the southeast.
There are also several bars around the market, including Kim's Kiwi Bar and Sharky Bar . On the Monivong Boulevard side, a cluster of small, affordable Chinese restaurants including Peking Canteen constitute somewhat of a Chinatown.
East – the River and Beyond The cool breeze off the Tonle Sap makes it an ideal place for open-air restaurants and bars. A two-kilometer strip beginning at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda and ending just east of Wat Phnom is thickly dotted with some of the best eateries in town. Sit high in the Foreign Correspondents' Club , or enjoy British hospitality and pub grub at the The Rising Sun around the corner. German, Thai, Khmer and French foods are some of the other cuisines available here.
This area is not wanting for cultural landmarks either. Squarely in the middle of this strip, the imposing pagoda is called Wat Ounalom , one of the oldest and probably the most influential in Phnom Penh. And at dusk, huge flocks of bats billow from the National Museum behind the Foreign Correspondents' Club. Street 178, beside the museum is the artist district of town, and nearly every shop here is a mini-art gallery.
Cross the river, using the impressive Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, and you enter two of Phnom Penh's outlying districts. Prek Leap begins on the other side of the river in a flurry of signs for Khmer-style restaurants. This restaurant strip is very popular with more affluent Khmers. Chinese and Khmer food are the staples but the chief attraction is the entertainment. Karaoke, stage shows, comedy acts and more are available for the amusement of diners. Just before Prek Leap, a turnoff to the right will take you to Chruoy Changvar, the peninsula that can be seen across the water from the riverside in Phnom Penh. This area is almost rural, with cattle and goats wandering about and banana and mango trees lining the dirt roads.
South – Independence and Baccarat The southern area of town is anchored by the massive Hotel Cambodiana Phnom Penh and Independence Monument . Next to the Cambodiana floats the Naga Casino providing 24 hours of gambling every day. This area features Topaz , which many regard as Phnom Penh's premier French restaurant. A cluster of restaurants that have sprung up around it offers a dish for most budgets and tastes. Food stalls just south of the monument offer late-night diners Khmer and Chinese dishes until the early hours of the morning. The area further south is known to many expatriates as “NGO land,” and many non-government agency offices are located here.
West – Shopping, Shooting and History West of Monivong Boulevard, the most famous landmark is one of the most tragic reminders of Cambodia's turbulent history. Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) , a former high school turned torture center by the Khmer Rouge is open for visitors to view the gruesome torture techniques employed by the regime between 1975 and 1979. Thousands were processed here, and those who did not die were shipped to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields , 11 kilometers southwest of town, where they were bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves. For a lighter day out, the southwest of town is where to go for souvenirs, cheap clothes and silk at Psah Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market). A little further out is the Military Shooting Range, where tourists can try their hands at shooting an AK-47 or B-40 rocket.
Phnom Penh in a small space offers a lot to see and do. Every section of the city can provide you with good restaurants, good shopping, and interesting sights. It is easy to navigate especially with the help of the friendly Khmer people, who are reason to come to the city.
Cambodia has always taken ingredients from other cultures to blend with its own, and food is no exception. When it comes to dining out, Phnom Penh is cosmopolitan, and almost every cuisine in the world is represented in a restaurant somewhere in this town.
Khmer food is, of course, the most abundant and qualities range from street-side to luxurious. Local street food is everywhere, but it might not always be compatible with foreign tastes. Grilled silkworms, roasted sparrows and bong dia cohen (duck embryos), all local delicacies, might only be for the adventurous traveler, but for a few thousand riel (less than USD1) for any item, the adventure costs very little.
More mainstream Khmer food is available in several restaurants around town. Amok (fish or meat steamed in leaves with coconut milk) and lok lak (grilled cubes of beef) are classic Khmer dishes that usually leave foreign diners wanting more. On the riverfront, Pon Lok is one of the most famous restaurants specializing in these dishes. The Hotel Cambodiana offers a Khmer buffet so diners can taste the full range of this unique cuisine with an accompanying performance of Khmer classical dance.
Once part of French Indochina, the Gallic influence still runs deep in Cambodia. French bread is sold at the markets by the basket load, and baguettes with pâte are a popular snack. For up-market dining, though, there are French restaurants to match the finest anywhere. Topaz , on Sotheros Boulevard, is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in town. Less expensive but very atmospheric is Le Louisiane, with outdoor seating and attentive service. La Croisette is also an affordable but very appealing alternative.
The Tonle Sap, the river Phnom Penh is built along, is a center for international dining in the city. From near the Royal Palace , a succession of restaurants serving food from all over the world to accommodate every budget stretch for about two kilometers along the water front. Bali Cafe is, as the name suggests, primarily an Indonesian restaurant, but set on the first floor, the balcony makes it an ideal place to sit with a drink and watch the world go by even if you are not hungry. Almost next door is the Foreign Correspondents' Club , or FCC. Unlike FCC's in other countries, you do not have to be a journalist to come and enjoy the view from this stately French colonial building. Though, if there is a famous journalist, photographer or actor in town, you can bet on seeing them here sipping a happy-hour beer or snacking on international food including stuffed damper, pumpkin soup and Caesar salad at some point during their stay. Around the corner, real British hospitality, right down to the Scotch eggs and toad-in-the-hole, awaits you at the The Rising Sun .
Of course, the cuisines of neighboring nations feature prominently anywhere you go. In the restaurant strip on Sotheros Boulevard, Vietnam is represented with An Nam and Thailand is almost next-door at Chiang Mai . Up-market Chinese food can be found at the Intercontinental Hotel's Xiang Palace , which specializes in dim sum but offers a full range of Cantonese delicacies. The road to Central Market , as well, is paved with Chinese restaurants in what has become a regular diner's Chinatown. Indian food is available for all, too-from the USD2 Chi Cha Hotel to the Singaporean-owned East India Curry Restaurant to the stately Shiva Shakti, overlooking Independence Monument, where you might even find yourself dining with members of the Cambodian royal family! All three of these offer extensive vegetarian options and halal food.
There has been an explosion of international restaurants in Phnom Penh during recent years, so there are very few types of food one can't find here: Mexican food is offered at The Mex , Greek food at Athena Greek Bar and Restaurant , and even Mediterranean and Moroccan food at Riverhouse.
Whatever your predilections, little Phnom Penh can surely satisfy them with at least one option and usually a few, whatever your budget, however adventurous you are and wherever your home might be. So enjoy your meal or, as they say in Cambodia, Som Anh-cheunh pee-sa oy ch'ngang. The hardest part might be choosing what, exactly, that meal may be.
There are no more than a handful of real tourist attractions in Phnom Penh and with a bit of dedication these can all be seen in course of one or two days. Those who stay in Phnom Penh for longer do so to soak up the anarchic energy of a city on the fast track from devastation to who knows where.
At less than five kilometers from end to end, Phnom Penh is not a large city. Independent travelers can easily reach the sights within the city limits by one of the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis that swarm around the tourist hot spots. Guided tours in air-conditioned mini-buses or taxis are available from Capitol . Alternatively, take one of the newly refurbished red and black pedicabs (cyclos) and enjoy the commentary from one of the English-speaking drivers as you cruise through the city traffic by pedal power.
Phnom Penh Highlights A full day's sightseeing in Phnom Penh might start with a typical Khmer breakfast of fried noodles at one of the busy street stalls which line Sothearos Boulevard just north of the Royal Palace . From here you can watch the sunrise over the Tonle Sap River (if you get up early enough) and enjoy the sight of hundreds of Phnom Penhoise doing their morning tai chi together on the riverfront . The Royal Palace opens its door to the public at 7am, and it is best to get in early, thus avoiding the crowds and catching the opportunity to photograph the Silver Pagoda in the warm soft light of morning.
Exiting the Palace grounds you will find yourself on Street 240 facing south. Heading through the park on the other side of the street you come to Wat Botum , a typical example of a Cambodian Buddhist temple full of friendly young monks who will eagerly show you around, if only to practice their English.
For souvenir and handcraft shopping the Russian Market is your best bet. Some distance to the south of the city you will need to catch a motor cycle taxi or pedicab, which will cost around USD0.50 from the Palace. Whichever way your driver takes you to the market, you will definitely have to pass by the huge red sandstone Independence Monument commemorating Cambodia's independence from France in 1953. Those in search of culinary adventures might enjoy a lunch of fried spring rolls or a bowl of noodle soup from one of the market stalls. If you want to eat in a restaurant, though, you will need to head back north to the center of town for lunch.
The National Museum , with its shady internal courtyard and large breezy rooms, is a great place to muse over artifacts from Cambodia's history while sheltering from the afternoon heat. Of course, no visit to Phnom Penh is complete without climbing the steps to the top of Wat Phnom , the temple which is the symbol of Phnom Penh. After a long day's sight-seeing, you probably deserve a drink, and in the north of town there is no finer place than the Elephant Bar at the five-star Hotel Le Royal . While there are plenty of moto-taxis that will drive you the 500 meters along Street 92 to the hotel, why not go in style-on the back of Sam Bo, a friendly elephant who hangs out at the bottom of Wat Phnom offering rides to tourists.
Remembering the Horrors of History No one should visit Cambodia without taking at least one moment to consider the horrors of the country's recent past. Embroiled in civil war for more than a quarter of a century, Phnom Penh is only just beginning to adjust to the idea of a lasting peace. Though there is a veneer of normality in the city, you do not have to look far to see reminders of a more violent past-the abandoned check points on the streets; the burnt out houses; or the heavily armed security forces.
Unfortunately for those interested in finding out more about Cambodia's recent past, there is no museum of modern history in Phnom Penh, but there are a number of relevant sites which are worth visiting. The major memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge is at the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek -a former concentration camp just outside Phnom Penh, where tens of thousands of dissidents and undesirables where put to their deaths from 1975 to 1979. In Phnom Penh itself is the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum , a former high school, which was converted by the Khmer Rouge into prison and torture center. Today it stands as a memorial and a research center dedicated to documenting the atrocities of the Pol Pot era.
Other relevant sites of interest include the French Embassy and the Hotel Le Royal , both of which feature in the film, The Killing Fields, as enclaves for foreigners and terrified Cambodians during the last days before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975. Commemorating the demise of the Khmer Rouge is the Vietnamese-Cambodian Soldiers Monument which stands in honor of the liberation of Phnom Penh by a Vietnamese-backed force in 1979.
Though the war is over and the process of disarmament has begun, access to military hardware in Cambodia is still incredibly liberal, even by third world standards. Light arms are bought and sold in the markets and security forces carry assault rifles, which are often left lackadaisically on a bench or by the roadside while their owner enjoys a midday nap. An ironic flip side to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge is that tourists can test fire military weaponry at a shooting range near Phnom Penh where under-paid soldiers have converted their deadly past into a lucrative tourist attraction.
Together these two tours give those new to the city a glimpse of the glory and violence of Phnom Penh's history, as well as the struggles and beauty of its present.