We spent six days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (March 3 – 9, 2017). I was told before we went that six days was too long to spend in this city and was warned that it was sketchy and quite dirty. However, when we travel we really want to get a feel of the place so we didn’t mind seeing things at a slower pace. We flew to Phnom Penh from Krabi with a layover in Bangkok. When we arrived we found a taxi quite easily and began our journey into the city. I was first struck by the style of the buildings, of which most were three storeys tall and had huge balconies (maybe the colonial influence of the French?). The streets were very busy and the driving erratic (due to a lack of traffic lights and a general disregard for them), some streets were especially hard to drive on because it was wedding season and there were huge tents on the street that would block a side of the road. Since I had heard so much negative feedback about Phnom Penh, I decided it was best we stay at a nicer hotel. I chose the King Grand Boutique Hotel because there was free breakfast and a pool.The hotel mostly lived up to my expectations, the view from the rooftop bar/pool was beautiful and the breakfast was pretty good, but our room was very tiny. The first night we wanted to grab dinner close by so we went across the street to an Indian restaurant called the Sher-e Punjab. The beer was only 75 cents and the cheese naan was delicious, but the rest of the food was pretty horrible. My boyfriend and I ordered very different dishes but for some reason they tasted the exact same and were extremely bland, which is a crime if you’re eating Indian food. I won’t go into what we did everyday in Phnom Penh since my boyfriend got sick one day and another day we did not do much but I’ll talk about the top sights and mention some restaurants to try and not try.
Important Note: When travelling around Cambodia you have to be very mindful of its recent history and remember that it is a country still coming to terms with the genocide that occurred there in the 1970’s. Many of the victims and perpetrators of the genocide are still alive. While the country is developing at a rapid pace, it is still very poor – there are tiny children, elderly and disabled (by the genocide or by the land mines) begging everywhere, the streets can be extremely dirty, the food sketchy and the sewage systems dodgy. Even some tourist sights are not up to “Western standards” with many artifacts not labelled and barely any descriptions of what you are looking at. However, Phnom Penh is a place that is young, vibrant, and culturally and historically rich with lots of amazingly kind people.
Places to Visit
Tour the Killing Fields
Very somber but important place to visit. Definitely get the audio guide and listen to every single pointer, since it teaches you a lot about the history of the genocide. It is a living museum, so you are walking around the grounds where the genocide actually took place. We were told that every year after the rainy season, new bodies continue to be discovered.
Visit the S-21 Prison
I found this place extremely depressing but very powerful. It was a school that was converted into a prison when the Khmer came into power, inmates here were tortured to death for a variety of reasons including being educated and having glasses. The most horrifying and powerful part of the museum, for me, were the rooms of victims headshots, since it made them very real. This experience should be paired with the killing fields tour in order to fully understand what you are looking at.
Walk Around the Parks and Riverside
The architecture of the downtown core of Phnom Penh was strongly influenced by the French, so you will see wide boulevards and pretty fountains. Every night of the week, you can witness locals doing dance classes, kids running around and young and old people hanging out both at Wat Botum Park and on the Riverside. The street food at is a tad sketchy though, so I would not recommend trying it. We felt perfectly safe walking around, but obviously use your common sense and avoid flashing money or valuables.
Visit the Grande Palace
It’s no Bangkok Grande Palace by any means (if you’re interested in the Grande Palace or want to know more about touring Bangkok, check on my earlier blog), but the grounds are quite nice and worth strolling around. The only downfall is nothing except the plants and trees is labelled, so you’re never quite sure what you are looking at and why.
A very nice park for a stroll in the evening and a very pretty temple from the outside. Since it is only $1, I would definitely suggest visiting it.
The National Museum
Probably, my favourite place that we visited in Phnom Penh. The garden is absolutely lovely with its beautiful Buddha statue and blooming lotus flowers in the small ponds. This museum is important for understanding the pre-genocide history of Cambodia. However, while there are some explanations for what you are looking at, there are a lot of items that are left unlabelled.
Places to Eat
The culinary scene in Phnom Penh is evolving and you can find pretty much any type of food of any quality from vegan to German to Khmer. As mentioned earlier, use common sense when finding places to eat. We stayed away from Khmer street food because of the way it looked but also because it mainly consisted of hot dogs, faux crab, chicken’s feet, fish balls, squid balls. Here are a couple of places we tried.
Munich Beer Restaurant: we came here because of the sweet deal on beer (buy 1 litre, get a free pint). However, we found out that the beer was very light with barely any alcohol whatsoever in it, which was disappointing. I ordered the tom yum soup and my boyfriend had frog legs, the food was good but the portions were unreasonably large. You basically ate 1/4 of your dish and were done. So, if you go here just buy one dish and share.
Special Pho: both times we went they had run out of their most popular dishes but we had no problem finding other things we wanted to eat. I went for the vegetarian pho, since I was a little bit of a chicken about trying the meat pho but my boyfriend had the raw beef and loved it. With your order of pho you get a plate of sprouts, basil, lime, chilli’s and a liquorice flavoured plant. You can also add as much hot sauce or chilli as you want. I really appreciated the opportunity to customize my soup (nothing ever comes spicy enough for me 😦 ). I really loved this place, it was cheap and delicious.
Backyard Cafe: this is a very trendy cafe that offers a variety of organic and vegetarian/vegan friendly bowls, sandwiches and salads. The first time we went I had the “Power Door Stop Sandwich” with roasted herbed chicken, pesto, tzatziki, tomato, sprouts, seeded bread, pickles and salad; salt and pepper are on the side so you can season it how you’d like. The second time we went I had the “Arabic Bowl”, which consisted of hummus, roasted pepper and other veggies. It was also really good. Overall, I really liked this place, a little more expensive but perfect for when you had too many beers the night before and are craving something healthy.
If you have any questions about visiting Phnom Penh, please ask.