Phnom Penh, Cambodia: I’m In Love

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

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There are places you travel to with a certain vision of what the experience will be like — sitting streetside in a Parisian cafe while an accordion plays; inhaling scents of saffron and sumac in a crowded Turkish spice market; being enveloped in the morning mist on an early hike to Machu Picchu — there are destinations that, for whatever reason, often stand out in our collective consciousness, and having that moment can become as much of a draw as the place itself.

Phnom Penh, perhaps, is not one of those places.

The capital of Cambodia is a bustling city with luxury high rises and incredible restaurants that also feels like a town on the far-flung frontier. The population is almost impossibly young (the median age in Cambodia is just 24), has emerged from their national tragedy seems to be rushing forward at a frenetic pace. There’s a new airport, the majority of the streets are recently repaved, and the monumental effort of restoring the urban water supply is starting to pay off.

The city thrums.

Yes, I know the government is still a corrupt trending-towards-authoritarian-if-not-already-there mess. And there are real problems with poverty, inequitable access to resources, foreign profits being prioritized over policies that might benefit the local population, and all the rest.

But at the same time Phnom Penh feels ready to meet those challenges; there’s a chomping-at-the-bit vibe throughout the city that’s palpable. I haven’t been anywhere like it.

At the same time, being on the cusp is synonymous with rough around the edges, so Phnom Penh may not be an ideal vacation spot for everyone. There are posh hotels, and an amazing and eclectic food scene, to be sure. But that has to be balanced against anecdotes like the time we were walking through a night market on our way to a trendy rooftop bar, and while I was trying to decide if the large rat in the middle of the laneway was alive or dead, a cockroach skittered across my foot.

After spending the previous week in complicated Luang Prabang and overrun Siem Reap, Phnom Penh felt gloriously real, and I fell instantly in love.

There’s of course a broad range of things to do in Phnom Penh, from fabulous markets, to historical sites, to riverfront bars, but I did want to share two things we did in Phnom Penh that really stood out.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

History is a complicated thing, and preserving and presenting a moment in time can be challenging, particularly when the event in question is traumatic.

Tuol Sleng handles this well, making it clear that the compound is first and foremost a memorial, then an educational vehicle, and only then a museum. The tone is somber and reflective, and I never felt like a spectacle was being made of tragedy.

The exhibits themselves have limited descriptions — there are a bunch of historical photographs, and of course you’re walking around the site itself. The audio guide, however, adds an incredible amount of detail (seriously, I’ve been to a lot of historical sites, and tried to decipher a lot of poor audio tours — this one is top-notch), and includes narration from both survivors and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge genocide. On the afternoon we visited, there were also several survivors sitting around the gardens with translators, which added a very personal element to the experience.

  • The S-21 museum is open every day from 8AM – 5PM
  • Adult admission is $5, or $3 for kids 10-18, and free for students
  • The audio guide is $1, and definitely worth it
    • I did see some folks recommending sharing an audio guide as a “travel hack”, as the devices have two headphone jacks, but 1) it’s a dollar and 2) this sorta feels like the kind of place where you want to go at your own pace
  • Respectful attire (shoulders and knees covered, at minimum) is required

I will also note, for the benefit of others who may also be particularly sensitive to feelings and places, that S-21 was a lot. We spent about 90 minutes there, which was at the upper bound of what I felt I could process. There were so many stories, with such rich detail, and it was just a lot of very intimate information. People who are less impacted by this sort of stuff could probably spend longer exploring more of the exhibits, but as it was I spent about half the time wandering in the gardens and listening to the audio guide.

Regardless, I think we all found our visit incredibly valuable, both in terms of filling in historical knowledge gaps, and having a greater understanding of what, exactly, modern Cambodians are recovering from. Highly recommended.

Lost Plate Food Tours

On a completely different note, we spent a chunk of our evening in Phnom Penh enjoying a fabulous food tour.

Extra-full disclosure here: the co-owner of this company and I were friends in college, and ironically worked together at our first travel-related jobs (a homestay network that was basically airbnb well before its time), which is how I know about the company. I booked and paid for our tour through the website without making any special notes, and to my knowledge no special accommodations were made. In fact, when our guide asked how we’d heard about the tour, Heather shared this background, and got a slightly flustered “Odd, I talked with him this morning and he didn’t mention anything about that” in response. But, just so you know.

Anyway, this was a great tour. It probably helps that our guide, Leanna, was insanely knowledgeable, and incredibly passionate about her hometown. Her enthusiasm for the progress the city has made was infectious, and probably a large part of what made us fall in love with the Phnom Penh.

Leanna did a stellar job of making her wealth of knowledge seem approachable, and relevant to the food. She took the approach of going through Cambodia’s history chronologically, and setting each dish into a moment in time.

So we started with a basic yellow curry that would have been prevalent before the rise of Angkor, then moved to the more sophisticated dishes made possible by the massive trading network of the Angkor Empire:

And then to the very basic foods with limited ingredients necessitated by Cambodia’s dark ages, then to the more modern cuisine being created today.

I also loved that we went to a variety of places. This is de rigueur for many food tours, but I liked that we went to a mix of food stalls, casual street food cafes, along with typical restaurants. At one point we even went to a BBQ place that is apparently usually only a drive-through, except Lost Plate has arranged for a table to be set up on the family’s patio a few nights a week for their tours.

It was a great experience, made even more fun by the fact that the other two people on the tour were also a mother-daughter pair, and everyone really hit it off. I think our moms are all now Facebook friends (they definitely tried to be, but moms + ipads + foreign wifi being what it is…), which was extra fun for them.

But even without that element, this was probably the best food tour I’ve been on since Madrid, and I would absolutely suggest making time for it while you’re in Phnom Penh, especially if you have Leanna as a guide.

Overall thoughts

I didn’t have many preconceptions about Phnom Penh prior to visiting, so I can’t say that I was “surprised” by anything, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to enjoy the city to the extent I did. The raw grittiness isn’t for everyone, but the sense of drive and excitement really resonated with me, and Phnom Penh definitely ranks as one of my top five favorite cities right now.

Anyone else love Phnom Penh? Anything you’d recommend to others?

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Comments
  1. Great to hear you loved the city. I’m planning a similar tour to yours this August and was uncertain about including it but it seems like a must.

    Where did you stay? Did you make it to the killing fields?

  2. To stay I’d recommend The Bale Just outside of Phnom Penh. It’s a beautiful calm refuge to relax after a day of sightseeing. We had the most amazing stay there.

  3. I live in NY and see plenty of rats and cockroaches. Then again, I often describe NYC as “rough around the edges” so fair point…

  4. Gah you’re killing me. I spent weeks agonizing over making my last stop on my honeymoon phnom or Hanoi. I went with Hanoi because I felt it would be more appropriate for a honeymoon but the backpacker in me wants Cambodia, even now!

  5. The traditional dance near the royal palace was pretty exceptional. The killing fields were really tough to visit, but an absolute must-do.

  6. We visited PP a few years ago as the last stop of our Cambodia tour. I wasn’t expecting much, but was very pleasantly surprised. The “rough around the edges” issue for us was less rats and roaches, but that the streets are so completely pedestrian-unfriendly. There were several very busy streets criss-crossing the neighborhood where we stayed, and it was almost impossible to cross them safely.

    For all that we loved the food and scenery, the people we met in Cambodia are what made our visit really special. Almost everyone we interacted with was warm and friendly, even in Siem Reap which is overrun with tourists. I would love to go back some day!

  7. Glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been there a couple of times and the building boom is really something. The last visit or two I found the traffic to be impossible. I wish I could have the same optimism for the country, but it is a full blown kleptocracy. The opposition had been eliminated by Hun Sen. Last time I was there my guide was quite hopeless about the future. It was sad.

  8. @ Raksiam — Yeah, I don’t disagree with the political situation, and honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see another revolution in the future. When you have that many young people who want better, and an aged and intractable regime, it rarely ends well.

  9. Luxury high rises? Wow, the city has drastically changed since I was there three years ago. I remember thinking how odd it was that there was only one really tall building, though a ton of development was apace. I really liked PP and would go again.

  10. Phnom Penh was one of the most disturbing and unpleasant places in Asia I have ever visited – and I have been pretty much all around. Certainly the worst capital city in South East Asia and second worst major city overall on my list after Davao.

  11. I have so very much loved this trip report and look forward to many more from you! Bravo!

  12. @Tiffany — Great post, great photos, and that sounds like a really worthwhile food tour.

    I’m curious whether you’ve ever done any of the Culinary Backstreets food tours. As a foodie, I’m aware that they’re supposed to be the gold standard, and the one I did in Istanbul blew me away.

  13. I’ll second what Christian said about the traditional dance performance near the Palace. It was terrific. I stayed at, and highly recommend the Patio Hotel. Very nice place and several food options very close by.

  14. Great article Tiffany, totally agree on PP!

    I love the frontier atmosphere, although I can’t believe how much the city has changed over the past few years… it reminds me of Saigon in the 90s, or maybe what Bangkok must have been like in the 70s… before those cities grew massive (and unwieldy). It’s exciting place to visit right now!

  15. Glad you like Phnom Penh. Along with the Tuol museum, the killing field site with the tall glass structure filled with human bones, is the other main site to see. I stayed at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal in 2001 – it was nice, felt very colonial Indochina’ish.
    Sorry to hear about your impressions of Siem Reap and Luang Prabang – when I was there in 2001, they did not feel overrun with tourists.

    Thanks for your articles – love reading them.

  16. Before going, find and view the movie, The Killing Fields.
    It will give you a great understanding of the country’s terrible history.

  17. I always spark up when I scroll through this sometimes tired site and see an article by Tiffany. An excellent writing style with content that is always interesting, advice and suggestions that are always useful and wonderful photography to further add to the pleasure.

  18. I have to agree and more. Phnom Penh isn’t just rough around the edges, it is rough all over, but it is one of the most charming cities I’ve ever been to. There are so many disturbing things from the Pol Pot era; the continued government corruption; the lack of consistent trash pickups leaving the streets strewn with rubbish, but there’s so many things to see, and the people are the warmest of any city of that size I’ve ever been to. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.

  19. Often, the “rougher around the edges” places are the most fascinating and enjoyable destinations. I was privileged to visit Yemen before the current Saudi-led atrocities against the country. Sana’a, Socotra, Aden, Mukalla were all amazing. Cockroaches were everywhere but they didn’t detract from the priceless experience of visiting such a wonderful nation of such incredibly kind gentle people and stunning natural beauty.

  20. Wow, I was there in 2007 and it looks like it’s completely different now! I’ve been meaning to go back for another visit for a while now, looks like I should make that happen soon 🙂

  21. PP is delightful ! Even with cochroaches and rats … Many years ago, I “rented” a car from a friend of a friend of the hotels recepcionist and had the chance to cover all the coutry on my own, at my pace. The car had some problems. I remember one particularly, because the motor was over-heating. Since I had no water (stupid me !) I opened very gently the water tank and then I pooured inside one bottle of the couple of Moet that I had in the trunk. It drove very nicely to Sihanoukville and then Kep am Kampot. And by all means, go take a walk on the Quay (the corniche road that follows the river) and enter 2 or 3 spaces for an Angkor or a cocktail. As for Hotels, the Raffles is a big mistake (I saw ratts the size of rabbits while having lunch at the pool bar) . So stick to the numerous new boutique hotels that will cost you 5 times less and have a very nice service. Oh ! And do go to the FCC for a beer 😉

  22. I assume you went to the Foreign Correspondents Club? We had a magnificent afternoon there years ago, sipping G&Ts in the heat and watching the traffic and the river go by below. It all felt very colonial!

  23. Thanks for the wonderful report. You’ve piqued my interest. Which home swap organization did you work for?

  24. Just want to add to the kudos of the quality of this article. It just feels like a real person’s trip experience and not another-blog-post. I especially appreciate you not ignoring – and explicitly acknowledging – some uncomfortable political truths about the place you visited.

  25. Modern society is interesting indeed: “falling in love” while taking in the sights of human remains packed into glass structures … Game of Thrones is probably just a show for the kids.

  26. Love Phnom Penh if you haven’t gone to the National Gallery GO! I hope you are staying at L’Royal and if you are not hightail yourself over to the Elephant bar and have a cocktail. They also have a spa which when I was last there charged les for people who were not guests in the hotel. It may seem like a bit of a cliche but the Foreign Correspondents Clubs a must! And when you get back home you have to watch: City of Ghosts! And of course the Russian Market you can’t miss. So much to do and see my favorite place went there for the first time in 2002? When I first went all those boulevards were mud and the only street that was paved was the on the Chinese Embassy was on because the Chinese paid for it.

  27. If one has no problem visiting China with the government in place there it should not be an issue for anyone wanting to visit Cambodia.

  28. “I’m in love” followed by an account of the Genocide Museum. Bonkers.
    PP is an interesting place. Strange there was no mention of its status as an international child prostitution hub and the China-backed kleptocracy.

  29. This has been a fabulous series. I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam war in the news every day, Vietnamese refugees subsequently being sponsored into my native land by churches and I have a Cambodian friend who survived Pol Pot and was also sponsored, along with the parents she had been separated from, via refugee camps, into the country. She now lives in the US, is a fabulous cook of food such as this, speaks all the regional languages and has taken her US husband to see Cambodia and Vietnam. She had already whetted my appetite for a visit and Tiffany has just stoked the fire.

  30. Hi Tiff,
    Thanks for your wonderful and honest assessment of Cambodia. I don’t want to bore your viewers with my story but I’ve visited Cambodia in 2017 for personal and soul searching reasons. Landed in PP with my backpack and sleeping bag, it was chaotic and beautiful at the same time. I was overwhelmed with emotions as I’ve been away for 37 years due to an unforeseen event that ripped my family apart. I don’t need any sympathy for my past but to inspire and encourage people to move on, live, travel, eat and love in spite of your current situation and country you are from. I met some very kind people in Cambodia and some not very honest. They laughed at broken Khmer b/c they thought it was cute. You just have to beware of your surrounding in any city. I loved the dirt roads to the remote villages, lust-green rice field, little kids tending their cow and water-buffalo herds and foods are absolutely amazing in the countryside. Next time, I’m bringing my touring bicycle with me.

    Cheers,
    Panya

  31. I love Phnom Penh. So many chic bars, and real urban energy. The newly opened Rosewood is also FABULOUS. (Then again anything Sonia Cheng touches is a masterpiece). A must. Fun cocktail bars like Le Boutier and Battabong, a speakeasy make this city such a gem right now. And well Siem Reap is quite overrun and touristy, stay at Phum Baitang and you’re a world away.

  32. Here are some of things I like about Phnom Penh. Local market is a must see excluding the central market. I found it exiting to roam around for clothi ng, statues,and of course foods. The river front is another place where you can relax and breath so fresh air. As you move out of the city on highway 1, you will find a resort with a small market where they mostly sell foods to tourists. Not too far from there, there is an island between the two river. Thats a pure local farming community. I visited this place during Vietnam war. Its a good place to meet local farmers. I mentioned nothing about palace, museum, S21 etc.. because i dont see my reasons to travel thousands of miles to horrific act or a sign of dictatiirism. I really want to see the beauty if nature and life if real people. As a person from the west where we have the standard of living is pretty. Yet the Cam bhai ofian people adapt themselves to their nature and enjoy life. Materials do not akwzys make people happy. Making it work for what they with nature is pure happiness.

  33. Americans posting here are naturally moved by the atrocities of the genocidal Pol Pot and his Khmers Rouges. Yet I have not heard mention of Nixon and Kissinger and their mutilation of that poor country, the carpet bombing, napalm, and all that. Heck, the nonagerian war criminal Dr. K is still going around regaling audiences of his ‘wisdom’ for thousands of $$$ a pop. So much for fairness and justice.

  34. You Americans who are so fantasised about this review really need to watch some youtube vlogs on SE Asian travel so that you can see that there is so much more out there in this world…..than simply America. What Tiffany did is something that millions of tourist do each year. They even backpack without even booking tours. Pick up a Lonely Planet book and watch some independent vlogs, its truly not rocket science what she has done, despite what this reader audience thinks! Try backpacking India for 6 months independently with no tour bookings whatsoever. Just saying…

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