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Phnom Penh – A First-Timer’s Guide to the Cambodian Capital

May 18, 2018
Entrance to Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

When we landed in Phnom Penh, we knew nothing more than the name of our hotel and a rough idea of how much the taxi would cost to get us there. Many of you will know that pre-trip planning and research is not our strong suit. This was the case before we decided to hit the road for months on end, but is even worse now that we’re constantly on the move. Cambodia also had the added misfortune of being the last country on our South East Asia adventure; we were a bit travel worn by the time we arrived and in no mood for extensive days of sightseeing yet we didn’t want to waste our short time in the country.

Much to our delight, Phnom Penh turned out to fit our requirements perfectly – this vibrant city has enough to keep you occupied, but its compact nature means it’s not at all overwhelming. Visiting in April also meant that it was suffocatingly hot. I thought I had acclimatised to the soaring temperatures of Asia but landing in Phnom Penh pulled me back to reality. And so our days took on a comfortable routine of action-packed mornings and lazy afternoons in the poolside cabanas at our hotel – it was bliss. For first time visitors, I think three days in the city is ideal to get around the main attractions, enjoy some of the fantastic restaurants, and still have some down time. Here’s what you should do on your first visit to Phnom Penh…

Market stall in Phnom Penh

Visit Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng (S-21 Prison)

I found our visits to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng both harrowing yet incredibly important in understanding more about the rule of the Khmer Rouge and the impact on Cambodia. For four years the country was under the control of a merciless dictator, millions of lives were lost, and millions more would continue to feel the impact of this rule, even to this day. Choeung Ek is one of the sites the Khmer Rouge used to execute and bury victims in mass graves, while Tuol Sleng which was once a high school became one of the many prisons. Make sure you get an audio guide at each as they really enhanced the experience; the information they provided was honest, gripping, and respectfully told. I won’t describe the sites as no words I have can meaningfully portray them, but I will say that both made me shed some tears, pause for thought, and consider our current political landscapes more critically.

Bracelets at Killing Fields in Phnom PenhEntry to a block in S-21 Prison

Marvel at all the Golden Touches at the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace dominates the landscape at one end of the city; the series of the buildings in the complex are grand in size and style, making them exceptionally hard to miss! As you can imagine, the structures are ornate and dripping in gold detailing – in the sunshine, the whole place truly glistens. Visitors can’t enter all the buildings but the main highlights are the Throne Hall and the Silver Pagoda, both of which are extravagant and highly detailed. 

Tuk tuk driving past Royal Palace complex

Shop for Bargains at Central Market

Phnom Penh’s Central Market is an attraction in itself; the striking art deco building took us a bit by surprise as it was certainly different to the other markets we’ve visited! The French-designed market has been in operation since 1937, though it’s had some damage and subsequent facelifts since then to return it to its former glory. You can go hunting for bargains in each of the four wings where stalls sell anything from clothing to glitzy jewellery (I was skeptical about the quality) to everyday household goods. Around the outside you’ll find the fresh food, and some stalls filled with locals who have stopped in for a quick bite to eat. If you’re still in the mood for markets, the Russian Market is also said to be very popular!

Art deco style entrance to Central Market

Create your own Khmer Lunch at a Cooking Class

Not satisfied with just eating at some of the city’s best Khmer restaurants, I wanted to learn how to make some of the dishes so booked us onto a cooking class with Chef Nara at Feel Good Cafe. We started the day at the local market, shuffling through the crowds and narrow lanes, and picking up the ingredients for our three course lunch. Then, laden with bags of fresh produce, we headed back to the private kitchen above Feel Good Cafe and were put to work. Over the next few hours, our merry party of four whipped up mango salads, banana blossom salads, fish amok, and a dessert of glutinous rice balls filled with sugar and topped with coconut – it was quite the feast! Chef Nara was full of interesting tidbits about the ingredients and local culture, and as the class sizes are always small, we could move at our own pace and ask questions freely. Confident cooks would probably find the classes a tad basic, but it was still a great way to spend the morning and learn about the local cuisine!

Fresh frogs for sale at local market in Phnom Penh Fish amok made during cooking class at Feel Good Cafe Glutinous rice ball desserts made at Feel Good Cafe

Dine on Khmer Cuisine at The Sugar Palm

Our first real introduction to Khmer cuisine was at The Sugar Palm by famed chef Kethana Dunnet, who has been known to teach celebrity chefs a thing or two about the local food culture. The Phnom Penh branch is probably not as atmospheric as the original in Siem Reap where Chef Kethana reportedly still cooks at, but the food was still utterly delicious. There was nothing fussy about our experience here; the dishes were homely and inviting, the kind of things you just want to dive into ferociously. The salad was a medley of zesty flavours and crunch, and the stir fried frogs were plump and juicy, but the star was their fish amok. This dish is like a cross between a classic, rich yellow curry with chunks of firm white fish, and a souffle – the texture took a few bites to get used to but by the end we were won over!

Stir fried frogs at the Sugar Palm Fish amok at the Sugar Palm

Eat Well & Support a Worthy Cause at Romdeng

Judging by the vast array of dishes flying out of the kitchen into the busy dining rooms, you would think that Romdeng was just another successful Khmer restaurant in Phnom Penh. It is, but it’s also so much more. Part of the Tree Alliance, Romdeng is one of their training restaurants where underprivileged young people are given support and the opportunity to develop skills in the hospitality industry. This model is one of many we encountered across South East Asia, and a cause we are more than happy to back with our bellies! Being a training restaurant doesn’t mean that the food standards are lower – our meal started with a selection of crunchy frogs and crickets, a hearty curry with noodles, crispy pork belly salad, and ended with a sweet treat!

Crispy frogs at Romdeng Burmese curry noodle at Romdeng

Where to Stay – Palace Gate Hotel

After much deliberation, we booked the Palace Gate Hotel because we liked the look of the spacious rooms, the excellent location, right by the Royal Palace as the name suggests, and the surprisingly affordable price tag! Because of the latter, we were expecting a decent but run of the mill experience, however Palace Gate exceeded our expectations on this first visit to Phnom Penh. The main communal areas are housed in a restored French colonial villa, and while the rooms in our wing could do with a slight refresh, they were comfortable and well equipped. The buffet breakfast at Mealea Restaurant was decent, though if dining there for lunch or dinner, I would avoid the French side of their menu… those dishes were a lot pricier than local options and only just passable. When we weren’t out and about, we spent a lot of time at the gorgeous pool – the poolside cabanas are the perfect spot to waste away the afternoon with a few swims to cool down and many rounds of cocktails at happy hour!

Poolside cabanas at Palace Gate Hotel

So Make a Move

  • Getting a visa: this was easily done on arrival and cost us US$30, which I think is the standard rate for most nationalities though it does pay to check online. There are some ATMs by the visa counters but it is advisable to have some US cash on hand, in case the ATMs are not working.
  • Currency in Cambodia: while the local currency is ‘riel’, we found that almost everything was listed in US dollars. There are plenty of ATMs in the city though some did not like our card so again, it pays to have some US cash on hand before you arrive.
  • Getting to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng: we hired a tuk tuk to take us to both which cost US$25, and entry to each site with an audio guide cost US$6. While the tuk tuk price seemed a tad higher than other reports, we thought it was fair given that Choeung Ek is quite far out of the city, we were out for almost 6 hours, and of course our driver waited for us.
  • Visiting the Royal Palace: entry costs US$10, make sure you are dressed appropriately (long sleeve tops and bottoms which cover knees are recommended) and avoid the lunch period of 11am – 230pm when the complex is closed.
  • Cooking Class with Chef Nara: the class cost US$29/pp, we were picked up by his tuk tuk at around 830am, and left the cafe after lunch at around 2pm. I simply booked by sending him a message via Facebook and we paid cash on the day.
  • The Sugar Palm: No 13, street 178, Phnom Penh 12000, dinner for two with drinks cost approximately US$40.
  • Romdeng: 74 Oknha Ket St. (174), Phnom Penh, dinner for two with drinks cost approximately US$40.
  • Palace Gate Hotel: #44, Sothearos Blvd (corner of street 240), Phnom Penh 12206, prices start from US$128/night.

Temple in Phnom Penh

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