Crazy, Capitvating, And Criminally Overlooked: 48 Hours in Phnom Penh
The Cambodian capital’s allure lies in its grittiness.
Phnom Penh is often overshadowed by the majestic temples of its sister city to the north and the idyllic island beaches to the west, so it’s no wonder that the Cambodian capital city barely gets a look-in from most visitors.
It’s understandable: the main attractions of Phnom Penh – the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng – are more bleak than breathtaking, and the city is on the dirty side of dazzling. But Phnom Penh’s allure lies in its grittiness and lawlessness, combined with the buzz of a cosmopolitan dining scene and vibrant nightlife.
There is a sense that anything goes in Phnom Penh, and it won’t take long for you to surrender to the energy of this criminally underrated capital city.
In typical South-East Asian fashion, heat and humidity are the norm in Phnom Penh. Slip, slop, slap and start the day early to avoid the searing heat of the midday sun.
For breakfast, make like the locals and grab a bite to eat at one of the many markets – try buzzing Boeung Keng Kang (BKK1) Market or the impressive art-deco Psar Thmei (Central Market).
The Riverside area is undoubtedly the most touristy area of Phnom Penh, and the Royal Palace, National Museum of Cambodia, promenade and Wat Phnom are all in close proximity, making it easy to flit between landmarks at your leisure.
Check out the local street art on Street 93 in the old Beoung Kak Lake neighbourhood, which was once a bohemian’s haven and now home to various pieces of street art, including works by Thai street artist Alex Face.
Later in the day, make time to get acquainted with Cambodia’s dark history. Catch a tuktuk (if you have access to data, save yourself the haggling headache by download PassApp, which is essentially Uber for tuktuks) to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which is approximately 25 minutes from the city. An insightful audio guide will teach you about the atrocities that took place in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge only 40 years ago.
Afterwards, fill in the knowledge gaps with a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison).
By now, your stomach will be rumbling. Engage in some feel-good dining at one of the socially-minded businesses supporting the reintegration of Cambodian children and youth in Phnom Penh. The most well-known (and with good reason) are Friends and Romdeng (try fish amok, a classic Khmer dish).
Later, head over to the lively Bassac Lane, a narrow alley crammed with tiny expat bars and eateries. Chill out over a book and delicious daiquiri at The Library, indulge in some cocktail boudoir at the Elbow Room, or down a smoky cocktail at The Den.
If drinking with the locals is more your style, make your way over to the always-pumping Jet’s Container Bar, which has more than 200 food, drink and clothing stalls in cargo containers to keep you entertained well into the night.
After the previous night’s revelries, you’ve earned yourself a sleep-in. Slowly meander over to Street 240 for brunch at Enso. This street is also filled with cute clothing and knick-knack stores, so now would be a perfect time to pick up some locally made souvenirs and trinkets for loved ones back home or for yourself.
If you’re struggling to shake off the cobwebs, treat yourself to a massage at the luxurious Amara Spa or ever-popular Bodia Spa, both in Riverside. Alternatively, help a great social cause and get a massage from a blind Cambodian masseuse at Seeing Hands Massage.
Next, catch a tuktuk down to the Russian Market. Although it may seem like any other South-Asian market at first glance, tackling the Russian Market is akin to navigating a labyrinth. Wander through the narrow aisles and haggle ’til your heart’s content: they say that you can find anything in the Russian market and it may very well be true.
Nearby, you can drop by vegan cafe Vibe for a smoothie, or, if you’re after a pick-me-up, head to Lot 369 or cute and compact Tini where they have a fantastic happy hour with 2-for-1 cocktails between 5pm and 7pm.
Make your way back towards the Russian Market and check out the alfresco night market. There, you’ll find the hidden Sundown Social Club to get the best view overlooking the market with cocktail in hand. Fuel up if you’re craving local fare; otherwise, head a couple of blocks over to Nesat Seafood House or Sesame Noodle Bar for dinner.
Catch a tuktuk back to Street 278, a street teeming with boisterous backpacker bars, or head to nearby BattBong, a speakeasy located behind a door posing as a Coke vending machine. A street tuktuk bar, the only one in Phnom Penh, can also be found on Street 51, opposite the intersection of Street 288, from 11 pm.
From there, who knows where the night will take you? It’s Phnom Penh and anything goes in this crazy and captivating city.
(Lead image: Marcus Löfvenberg)