Phnom Penh once slept in darkness.
The streets lay vacant
abandoned, looted, demolished
art and culture and expression abolished.
City dwellers perished in work camps in the country
overworked, traumatized, and hungry.
But when I arrived in Phnom Penh decades later
I did not feel the weight of sadness and death
I felt the lift of energy and life.
In a city that no longer sleeps day or night.
Noodle shops spill onto the sidewalk greeting passersby for breakfast.
Egg custards steam in bowls over open flames.
Men sit in the street playing card games.
Motorcycles perfume the city with jet black smoke
tuk tuk and rickshaw drivers shout their service to foreign blokes.
Vendors own the streets selling steamed dumplings, boiled peanuts, guava, coconuts
markets boast stalls of balloons, buddhist offerings, bracelets, used auto parts.
The gilded palace overlooks the river
where elderly women twist and fling
scammers scan for fresh foreign meat
monks and prostitutes ponder the lives they lead.
Silk draped foreigners tuck into air conditioned spas and cafes
elegant shophouses shelter designer threads or boutique beds.
Nightlife explodes with art shows and funky bars
all night clubs with superstars.
This city knows no subtlety.
Vibrant and uplifting
dark and depressing.
Dingy and unsanitary
gleaming and luxury.
Authentic and local
constructed and global.
Phnom Penh may not be free of flaws
Phnom Penh may still bear scars of the devastation that was
Phnom Penh may not know what it will become
but damn, today Phnom Penh most definitely lives on.
Where to Sleep in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has a huge selection of hotels for every budget, from super budget hostels to luxury hotels. If you’re looking for a midrange place, it’s worth checking out Agoda for flash deals, as I’ve seen high end places discounted by more than 50%. No, they didn’t pay me to say that. 😉
Street 184 near the Royal Palace
$6-$10 for a dorm
At the end of a quiet alley in my favorite neighborhood, Me Mate’s Villa is my super budget sanctuary in Phnom Penh. It’s just a block away from the Royal Palace and the riverside on a quiet street. The rooms are clean, the shower is scalding hot with strong pressure, the lockers can fit your entire bag, and the beds are massive and very comfortable. They even make your bed every day. What I particularly love about this hostel is the kind, attentive staff. Charlie who works at reception has the biggest, most genuine smile and infectious laugh and plays the best reggae mixes. If you’re traveling on a budget and looking for a hostel where you can meet other travelers but still get a good night’s sleep, this place is perfect.
Street 123 near Tuol Sleng
$80 for a standard room ($25 Flash Deal on Agoda)
This chic hotel near the Russian Market makes the list for its sky bar and rooftop swimming pool. With an onsite spa, two swimming pools, and two gardens, it’s a peaceful place to escape the heat and stimulation in Phnom Penh. Bright, airy rooms range from standard to suites, most with balconies, and all include breakfast.
Street 19 near the Royal Palace
$50 for garden room, $100 for room with private pool
A stone’s throw from the Royal Palace, this hotel has classic Khmer and French architecture and allegedly was built by King Sihanouk’s mother in the 1920s. The rooms include luxuries like a mini bar, a seating area, and even a computer and a full breakfast in the morning. Some rooms even have their own private jacuzzi or pool. All rooms have access to the main swimming pool, gym, and adjoining spa. They strive to operate sustainably, using solar water heating, employing locals, and operating with a no tolerance policy for prostitution. I also recommend their sister hotels in Phnom Penh which you can find here.
Street 71 in BKK1
$50 for standard rooms, $110 for the penthouse
A sister hotel to the Golden Banana in Siem Reap, Rambutan is a chic and tranquil hideaway in the city with a lovely saltwater pool with a waterfall, restaurant, and spa in a tropical garden. Like the Golden Banana it’s well known for being a gay friendly, progressive establishment. The style is modern meets Indochina with handmade local furnishings and textiles. Rooms have garden and pool views, private gardens, mini fridges, flat screens, and all come with breakfast in the morning.
On the Tonle Sap River
Contact for price
Ecotourism is rare in Southeast Asia, especially in big cities, but the company behind The Pavilion Hotel is setting out to bring sustainable lodging to Phnom Penh. These beautiful bungalows floating on the river across from the Royal Palace use an advanced ecologically sound cooling systems along with solar panels for electricity. Their goal is to create a dwelling without a carbon footprint, that could be easily removed with no environmental impact. You can also visit the onsite bar open at sunset on Saturdays and Sundays.
Where to Eat and Drink in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has an incredible selection of cuisine from all over the world from steaming bowls of street noodles to organic green smootheis to Spanish tapas. These are some of my favorites.
Cambodia is not my favorite country for street food, I far prefer the selection and offerings in Thailand, but you can still get some tasty and very cheap food on the street even if you’re a vegetarian. Young coconuts are often pushed in wheelbarrows on busy streets, fresh fruit is abundant in all of the markets (buy at least a kilo if you want to pay the local price), and you can find yummy banana sticky rice treats wrapped in banana leaves everywhere. My favorite street food snacks include chive cakes (called num kachay) made from rice flour, chives, and sometimes spinach, pan fried and served with spicy sauce and sweet cakes made from banana, sweet potato, and coconut.
Street 19 off Sihanouk Blvd.
$1.50-3 for entrees
This is my favorite all around restaurant in Phnom Penh. The menu consists mainly of healthy Khmer food without sugar or MSG and is made with brown rice, a rare treat in Southeast Asia. It’s also considerably cheaper than the other healthy vegetarian restaurants I tried in Phnom Penh. My favorite dish is the Khmer curry with brown rice and the fresh spring rolls are the perfect take away for a long bus ride.
Alleyway off St 240 or St 278 near St 63
$3-7 for super smoothies and raw goodness
In every city I travel to I always seek out the healthiest food options available, and Artillery offers just that in Phnom Penh. Their menu has entire raw food section, freshly pressed green juice, and smoothies with goodness like homemade almond milk, chia seeds, and raw cacao. The raw zucchini spaghetti was surprisingly flavorful and delicious, with a fresh tomato sauce and even raw nut cheese that tasted like fresh ricotta.
The Russian Market
$1-2 for dishes and snacks
This market is not my favorite for shopping, I think the selection is limited and the heat is unbearable, but it has some delicious authentic food stalls. My favorite is the crispy crepe almost identical to the ones they have in Vietnam served with a big pile of fresh herbs.
Across from the National Museum
$2-5 for entrees
You may find it strange that I should recommend an Indonesian restaurant in Cambodia, but I surprisingly never saw Indonesian cuisine outside of Indonesia and this place is as good as what you’d find in Bali. The owners were extremely hospitable and the place had a very warm, friendly vibe. I ordered the gado gado, veggies with salad, peanut sauce, and boiled egg, and it was very tasty, but I heard that the spicy squid is the best dish on the menu.
$5 for breakfast, $1 for chocolate
This cute café makes for a great lunch or breakfast spot with homemade artisanal breads and fresh salads. However, if you want to use it as your office, be aware that there is no wifi. The good news is, their place next door The Chocolate Shop does have wifi and you can order anything off The Shop menu in there. Both cafes have inventive, delicious homemade chocolates. For breakfast you can’t beat the breakfast smoothie and a hazelnut dark chocolate is mandatory any time of day.
Street 95 at 348
$5 for entrees
This beautiful Khmer restaurant is in the top floor of an old building with high ceilings, and big windows overlooking the trees and flower covered terrace. The open space feels cozy and chic all at once, with delicious Khmer specialties, all with vegan options. The vegetarian amok here was the best I’ve had, steamed perfectly in a banana leaf, and I loved the vegan chocolate orange ice cream.
$6-9 for entrees
This little organic restaurant has vegetarian and non-vegetarian, healthy and decadent, and it’s all delicious. You can order a shot of wheatgrass or a gooey chocolate cake, a light salad or creamy risotto. I had the lentil and wild rice salad, which was exploding with flavor.
Across from the Royal Palace
$5 cocktails, 2 for 1 Happy Hour
This rehabilitated old Colonial mansion is now Phnom Penh’s coolest event space. Every evening they have happy hour drink specials like Pimms Cup and Kampot Pepper Bloody Mary. The Foreign Correspondent Club, Phnom Penh’s original expat hotel and bar, hosts parties here often and several times a month you can stop in for art exhibits, live music performances, and great parties.
56 Sihanouk Blvd.
$2-6 for drinks and meals
Overlooking Hun Sen Park, this two story cafe is a hub for expats fueling up on coffee. Most of the food on the menu is homemade including bakery goods, yogurt, and fresh pasta. They have rotating visual contemporary art exhibitions, and across the street they own an entire workspace that supports local artists. Check out the event calendar for occasional stage poetry and other performances.
$2.50 margarita, $5-7 dishes
Sadly I didn’t get the chance to visit Taqueria Corona when I was in Phnom Penh, but my expats friends all say that this is hands down the best Tex Mex in Southeast Asia. The margarita pitchers are a big hit, portions are huge, and the flavors are allegedly authentically Mexican. The nachos, fish tacos, and anything with al pastor seem to be especially popular.
Across from the National Museum
$5-7 for small plates
This ultra popular good cause restaurant in Phnom Penh is a great place to dine and support the education of underprivileged locals. On the job training provides students with various skills in hospitality to help them graduate and create better futures for themselves. The ambience is very warm, almost like eating in someone’s (beautiful, fancy) house. The menu consists of imaginative, upscale Khmer specialties, served as small plates meant for sharing. The young coconut and beetroot salad was quite large and satisfying, and the chocolate cake is pure decadence. Also check out the sister restaurant, Romdeng, serving elegantly executed Khmer dishes in an beautiful old colonial building with a swimming pool.
Where to Shop in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has the best shopping in Cambodia with anything from high-end boutiques to cluttered markets. Street 240 and the riverside have several chic shops owned by local designers while the Russian Market and the Central market at the most popular places to get deals.
Alleyway off St 240 or St 278 near St 63
In addition to having a great café, Artillery sells superfood basics to replenish your travel supply. They have Coco Khmer products, all sustainably produced beauty products made from organic raw coconut oil. I buy big bottles of their coconut oil whenever I can to last me through my travels. The shop also has raw cacao, chia, pink Himalayan sea salt, and raw granola.
BKK1 Street 306
This gourmet grocery store has some great foreign favorites for stocking up on. If you have access to a kitchen they sell organic produce and other cooking supplies and travelers can pick up Coco Khmer coconut oil and healthy snacks here. They also have a full deli and restaurant that could easy fit into an international city like New York.
The Central Market
$1 and up
By far the cleanest, most organized market in Phnom Penh, The Central Market is the place to shop without a lot of stress. They have a huge assortment of products including factory clothing, fresh fruit, jewelry, and basically anything you could possibly want. I went there for the handmade cotton kramas (local scarves) with bold summery stripes that come in a big size that you can use for a sarong, beach towel, scarf or blanket on a long bus ride, and a shawl for an impromptu temple visit.
$1 and up
The complete opposite of the Central Market, Orussey Market is a tangled mess mostly frequented by locals. You can get some of the best goods and the best deals here, but you have to dig. Stalls sell factory H&M, Gap, and other name brands for $1, you can find cool vintage clothing, and it’s a great way to see how the locals actually shop.
$35-100 for handmade clothing and textiles
Of all the designer shops, Bliss, which also operates a spa, is hands down my favorite. It’s pricey for Cambodia, but cheaper or on par with places you’d find in the USA. The dresses, quilts, pillows, and bags are made locally from fabrics collected from all over the world. They sell colorful, flowing dresses, unique handbags, and gorgeous textiles for the home. Overall it reminds me of a less commercial Anthropologie.
$18-35 for hand woven clothing
This cute shop with two locations, one on Street 240 and the other on the riverside, sell fair trade, hand woven, high quality cotton scarves, sarongs, and clothing with modern designs. Cotton sarongs, chic shorts, and tailored dresses come in pastel colored ikat hand crafted by local artisans.
What to Do in Phnom Penh
With a deep history, an expat population from all over the world, and a booming tourism scene, you can find entertainment everywhere you turn in Phnom Penh. Here are some of my favorite things to do in the city.
Visit the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum
Despite the smiles and life in Phnom Penh, this city, like the rest of the country, has a tragic recent history. Take a tuk tuk out to the Killing Fields and then to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to learn about the atrocities that took place during Pol Pot’s regime. Be sure to listen to the stories on the audio guide while you walk through the memorial site.
Walk Along the River
The riverfront in Phnom Penh is the ultimate people watching place. Families picnic on the Royal Palace lawn, kids play football on asphalt, monks walk in packs, and middle aged women take dance aerobics facing the busy street. Go around sunset and you will see the river at its best. Be aware, this is a popular spot for pick pocketing and scam artists, so don’t leave with strangers or agree to card games.
Shake it in a Dance class
If you want to dance without going crazy in a club, Phnom Penh has many dance studios offering lessons. Try out some traditional Khmer dance moves at Selapak, learn Salsa and Merengue at Salsa Phnom Penh, or improvisational dance at the International Institute of the Arts.
Flow With Yoga
In hectic cities like Phnom Penh it’s important to find quiet spaces to recharge. Yoga has always been this space for me, and Phnom Penh has two yoga studios. Yoga Phnom Penh has a variety of class styles offered several times per day including Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga, Hatha, and even Fly Yoga where you practice postures from swings. Krama Yoga is the first nonprofit yoga studio in Cambodia, sharing the healing practice of yoga with underprivileged locals. Class fees fund their programs which teach children physical health, compassion, and self respect, teaches young adults self confidence and leadership skills, and works through trauma with victims of sex slavery. They have three locations and a wide variety of classes including Restorative, Yin, Ashtanga, and Flow.
Scope Out Art Galleries
Along with teachers and monks, most artists were killed during the Khmer Rouge takeover in the 70s. Phnom Penh has done a tremendous job reviving the arts scene in this country and the city has many modern, inspiring galleries featuring local artists. Meta House has three floors of exhibitions from local and international artists, supports local artists in international exhibitions, and works to foster the art community in Cambodia. They host many events including live music and movie screenings. Java Arts is another popular gallery that supports and funds local Cambodian artists through grants and proceeds from Java Café. Read about more contemporary art galleries in Phnom Penh.
Listen to Live Music at Doors
Street 47 & Street 84
Head to Doors for live music, DJs, art exhibits, and tapas. On the last Thursday of the month they have an all you can eat tapas feast for $10 with a live DJ.
Party at Top Banana
Street 278 near the Independence Monument
This popular hostel has some of the best parties in the city. They have international DJs and wild parties on the weekends, live music throughout the week, and host Open Mic for travelers who want to share their talents. This is a great place to meet expats, other travelers, and locals.
Dance at Code Red
Riverside opposite Naga World
Want to party like you would in New York or Bangkok in Phnom Penh? For some debauchery and all night dancing, head to Code Red, which has live DJs and a packed house on weekends. They also have live music and other events, so be sure to check their calendar.
Hang at Soul Tease
#55E Street 240
Do you wish the coolest expats in Phnom Penh would invite you into their apartment and serve you tinctures for your health? Look no further than Soul Tease. This place is owned by friends of friends who make some of the best mocktails with turmeric, chili lemongrass, and ginger and superfood smoothies with raw coconut oil. They have some vegetarian snacks too for just $1. Come on Sundays for movies, events, and playtime like drawing sessions with a live model. And don’t tell them I sent you, tell them my friend Gabriella did.