For a city that once didn’t have much in the way of food possibilities, Phnom Penh is now a must on any gourmand’s travel list
by Dave Stamboulis
Phnom Penh has joined in the Southeast Asian frenzy of massive development, rushing headlong into the future. Some of it is pretty, some of it isn’t, but the city has firmly put its footprint on the must-visit list, with a rocking new foodie scene that some say rivals Bangkok. It has a whole host of truly lovely places to stay, and a handful of sights to see but there is enough to stay entertained, while resting up from an overdose of Angkor Wat.
Most visitors to Phnom Penh will want to check out the handful of attractions along the Tonle Sap River, which runs through the heart of town. Here you can find the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum, all built during the French period and stand as fine examples of traditional Khmer architecture. These days, the riverside area is lined with Chinese shop houses, art galleries, and plenty of sidewalk bistros and bars, with terraces overlooking the river and city life below. In addition to sitting and taking it all in, one can hire a traditional cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) to tour around in, or better yet, view the city from the river.
Several operators now run sunset cruises aboard comfortable catamarans, giving views of the palace and Wat Phnom Hill for which the city is named after. You can float down to the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong, where one can enjoy the last light of the day with a cocktail or cold Angkor beer in hand.
Yet even more interesting is a trip into the Khmer architectural past. After Cambodia’s independence, the country’s most renowned architect, Vann Molyvann, led a movement known as New Khmer Architecture. This combined local traditions with international styles, in particular French Brutalism, with lots of exposed concrete and steel meshing with attention to tropical monsoons and heat. Buildings like the Olympic Stadium, the 100 Year Housing Project, and some of the major university buildings all remain today, although many have been threatened with demolition in the massive new property boom that is sweeping Phnom Penh.
A small group of dedicated architects and grad students have set up an organization to show off these old treasures, in the hopes it will stop government plans to knock them down, and a half day tour with Khmer Architecture Tours (www.ka-tours.org) is a great way to get off the beaten track and see some of the real Phnom Penh.
Far more exciting than the local sights is the new foodie revolution that is bringing world gourmets to Phnom Penh. At The Lost Room (www.thelostroom.asia), a hidden away gem in a dark back lane of town, Australian restaurateur Wendy Lucas presides over an amazing tapas-style kitchen with a dazzling selection of ethnic fused eats from around the globe. Sharing plates of blue cheese and pear spring rolls, beetroot and hummus felafel, chorizo, and lentil stew, seared kangaroo fillets, or sea bass with goat cheese, this mouthwatering spot provides a Michelin-worthy experience at a fraction of the price one would pay in Bangkok, and is absolutely not to be missed.
Over in the historical central district, The Plantation (www.theplantation.asia) is not only one of the city’s loveliest boutique hotels, with several pools set in tranquil gardens in a restored colonial French house filled with artwork, but it is also home to the newly opened La Pergola (www.facebook.com/la.pergola.phnompenh), which serves elegant French and Khmer cuisine. Choose from succulent ceviche or millefeuille made with fresh mozzarella and sun dried tomatoes, and move on to a selection of lamb chops or beef, accompanied by a fine wine list (which comes written on a wine bottle). You can enjoy the view over the fountain, pool, and garden courtyard below, making for one of Phnom Penh’s more intimate evening settings.
For a further trip into an elegant past, splurge out for a stay at Raffles Hotel Le Royal (www.raffles.com/phnom-penh), which opened its doors in 1929, and features a marvelous blend of French colonial, Khmer, and Art Deco architecture and design. Even if you don’t stay here, head over to the elegant Le Royal haute Khmer and French restaurant, which does a knockout Saturday brunch with free-flow French champagne and a gastronomic feast of fine meats, fish, and a spread befitting a king.
For shopping, head over to the pulsing and hot Russian Market, and make sure to stop in at the Art Deco gem Psar Tmei Central Market, if only to gape at its amazing ceilings. For boutique handmade Khmer products, call in at the Artisans d’Angkor, the well-known organization that preserves traditional Khmer crafts while providing jobs for rural folks, which has its Phnom Penh branch in front of the old colonial post office building. Make sure to make at least one visit during your stay to bread baker extraordinaire Eric Kayser (http://maison-kayser-cambodia.asia/our-story-and-mission/), which now has four shops in the city, and bakes possibly the best bread and pastries you’ll find anywhere in Asia.
For a city that once didn’t have much in the way of food possibilities, Phnom Penh is now a must on any gourmand’s travel list.