Phnom Penh

In recent years, the riverside city has undergone a facelift with new shopping malls, luxury residences and fine-dining spots popping up. 

Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, is an attractive riverside city of just over two million people, characterised by broad boulevards and with plenty of sights to interest the visitor. Until recently rather shabby and run-down owing to the long years of war and four years of Khmer Rouge abandonment, the future now looks bright, with new shopping centres, luxury residence complexes, enormous hotels, and fine-dining restaurants opening often.

All of the more important tourist attractions are located beside, or within walking distance of the Phnom Penh riverside, an area which also has many of the best restaurants bars and cafés in town.

Once a Funan-era settlement, the city was re-founded in the 1430s, with the decline of Angkor and the shift of power eastwards. The legend relates how a woman named Penh found four images of the Buddha on the shores of the Mekong River, and subsequently built a temple on the tallest hill in the area in which to keep them. The city that later grew up around the hill became known as Phnom Penh, or 'Penh’s Hill'.

In 1772, now a major centre of commerce, Phnom Penh was completely destroyed by the Thais. The city was soon rebuilt but grew little until 1863, when the French took control. A relatively prosperous period ensued. Growth continued until the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975, forcing the urban dwellers into the countryside and leaving the city virtually abandoned.

 

When to go

Phnom Penh can be quite hot between late February and early May. September sees a lot of rain, but really the city is fine for visits all year-round.

Visa requirements

Singaporeans and citizens of most other ASEAN member states can visit Laos for 30 days without a visa. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months and that you have a return or onward ticket. Visitors from most other countries can get a 30-day visa on arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport for US$20. It is also possible to apply online for an e-visa for US$25.

Money

Cambodian riel, although most transactions above 5000 riel are made in US dollars. Credit cards have become widely accepted and most good hotels, restaurants and boutiques will accept Visa, JCB, MasterCard and sometimes Amex. Cash advances on cards are possible in some banks in Phnom Penh. ATMs are widely available in Phnom Penh.

Transport

The airport is 10km (6 miles) from the centre of Phnom Penh, and the journey into town takes around 20 minutes. The average fare to Phnom Penh centre is about US$10 by taxi or US$5 by tuk-tuk. Motorcycle taxis, or motos, normally wait at the airport, and this can be a viable way into town if you arrive alone. The fare is less than US$5. In Phnom Penh, the moto is the best way to get around as taxis can be hard to find sometimes. Expect to pay US$1 for a short journey, and US$2 for longer ones. Always agree the fare beforehand. 

Health and safety tips

Parts of Phnom Penh are a little risky after dark, and at any time of day basic precautions should be taken to avoid falling victim to the many pickpockets found in markets and tourist areas. Use a money belt, lock valuables in your hotel safe, and don't flaunt electronics and jewellery. Hard drugs are readily available, including cocaine, heroin and opium, all very much illegal. Beware of strangers offering free drinks in bars. Druggings and robberies have been reported. Be particularly careful of water and ice; only consume water that comes from carefully sealed containers or has been boiled thoroughly. Heat exhaustion and prickly heat can result from dehydration and salt deficiency, so drink lots of fluids, avoid intense activity when the sun is strongest, and rest frequently during the day. Travellers' diarrhoea is quite common, though usually not serious; be sure to avoid dehydration problems by replacing the fluids your body will lose.

Emergency details

Singapore Embassy:

129 Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh (tel: (855) 23 221875, www.mfa.gov.sg/phnompenh)


Police:

The tourist police are on Street 598 (tel: (855) 12 942484).

Basic greetings
English Khmer
Hello Jumreap sooa
How are you? Tau neak sok sapbaiy jea the?
Fine, thanks K'nyom sok sapbaiy
Goodbye Leah suhn heuy
Please Sohm mehta
Excuse-me Sohm dtoh
Thank you Orgoon
Yes Baat
No Dteh
What's your name? Lok tch muoh ey?
My name is… K'nyom tch muoh…
Where are you from? Niak mao pi patet nah?
I come from… K'nyom mao pi…
Where is…? Noev eah nah…?
Bus station Kuhnlaing laan ch'noul
Hotel Sohnthakia
Market P'sah
Restaurant Haang bai
Toilet Bawngkohn
How much is…? T'lay phonmaan

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Chatomuk

Sisowath Quay and the Monivong Bridge

Sisowath Quay offers wonderful views over the junction of the Sap and Mekong Rivers, but to really understand the unique confluence of waters at Phnom Penh you should also see the Bassac River. This is best viewed from the Monivong Bridge. The confluence of the four rivers, known in Khmer as Chatomuk or ‘four faces’, is remarkable for a unique phenomenon, the reversal of the Sap River. From May to October, during the rainy season, the increased volume of the Mekong forces the Sap to back up, and finally reverse its course. Then, in mid-October, as the Mekong diminishes, the flow of the Sap is again reversed.

National Museum

227, Kbal Thnal, Preah Norodom Boulevard

The National Museum, housed in a red Khmer-style pavilion built in 1917, holds an impressive collection of Khmer art including some of the finest pieces in existence. It’s a good idea to purchase a copy of the museum guidebook, Khmer Art in Stone, at the entrance desk. This identifies the most important exhibits, including a 6th-century statue of Vishnu, a 9th-century statue of Shiva, and the famous sculpted head of Jayavarman VII in meditative pose. Particularly impressive is a bust of a reclining Vishnu, once part of a massive bronze statue found at the Western Mebon Temple in Angkor.

Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

Samdech Sothearos Boulevard

The Royal Palace, built in 1866, is the official residence of King Norodom Sihamoni, who ascended to the throne in 2004. Certain areas within the palace, including the king’s residential quarters, are off limits to the public, but much of the complex is accessible. The Silver Pagoda, within the grounds, was built by King Norodom in 1892, and so-named because its floor is lined with more than 5,000 silver tiles. The pagoda is also known as Wat Preah Keo, or ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’. It houses two priceless Buddha figures, one of which, the Emerald Buddha, dates from the 17th century.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Street 113, Boeng Keng Kang

Not for the faint-hearted, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a chilling sight. The pictures of those killed stare out at the visitor from the museum walls, and primitive instruments of torture and execution are on display, as is a bust of Pol Pot. Here, during his years in power, around 20,000 people were tortured and subsequently murdered. Everywhere there are crude shackles. Initially those executed were people the Khmer Rouge perceived as supporters of the former authorities, but by the time Tuol Sleng was liberated, in 1979, nearly all those suffering torture and execution were Khmer Rouge officials.

Wat Ounalom

Samdech Sothearos Boulevard

Wat Ounalom, the headquarters of the Cambodian Buddhist sangha, was founded in 1443. This extensive temple suffered badly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. To the west of the main temple stands a stupa said to contain an eyebrow hair of the Buddha. Within the temple are several Buddha figures smashed to pieces by the Khmer Rouge, but since reassembled. Also on display is a statue of Samdech Huot Tat, head of the Cambodian sangha when Pol Pot came to power and subsequently killed by the Khmer Rouge. The statue was recovered from the nearby Mekong in 1979 and reinstalled.

Wat Phnom

Norodom Boulevard

Wat Phnom, built on a small mound in the north of the city is the most important temple in the capital. The main temple sanctuary has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 1926. There are some interesting murals from the Reamker – the Khmer version of the Indian Ramayana – and in a small pavilion to the south is a statue of Penh, the temple’s founder. Although dedicated to Theravada Buddhism, the temple also houses a shrine to Preah Chau, who is revered by the Vietnamese community, an image of Confucius, and a statue of the Hindu deity Vishnu.

Shop

Artisans d’Angkor

12, Street 13 (opposite the Post Office)

The Phnom Penh showroom of Artisans d'Angkok, the renowned Siem Reap arts and crafts workshop, is housed in a brightly painted two-storey building in the heart of Phnom Penh’s historical district. All manner of crafts are for sale from exquisite silk clothing to perfectly-proportioned stone Buddha statues. The prices are relatively high compared to other shops, but the quality is very good.

Budget $$$

Asasax Art Gallery

192, Street 178, opposite the National Museum

The Asasax Art Gallery spotlights the enormously talented Cambodian artist Asasax and his prodigious work. His recent offerings have included mixed-media sculptures and paintings using layered silk. As with many Cambodian artists, Angkor plays a major role in much of Asasax’s work. There’s also a collection of locally produced silver jewellery for sale within the gallery.

Budget $$$

Central Market

Between streets 126 and 136

At the commercial heart of Phnom Penh, is the extraordinary psar thmay or Central Market. This building, which was built in 1937 during the French colonial period, is built in Art Deco style and painted bright ochre. The design is cruciform, with four wings dominated by a central dome. In the four wings, almost everything is for sale including electronic equipment, clothing, watches, bags and suitcases and a wide variety of dried and fresh foodstuffs. There are many gold and silver shops beneath the central dome selling skillfully crafted jewellery, as well as Khmer kramaa (scarves), antiques and other souvenirs.

Budget $

Rajana

170, Street 450 (corner of Street 155, next to the Tuol Tom Pong Market)

Rajana is one of a number of attractive shops dotted around the capital with the express policy of assisting underprivileged and disadvantaged Cambodians by buying and selling traditional arts and crafts. Items include handmade wallets, handbags, purses and scarves as well as home decor ceramics and ironwork. The fairtrade coffee from the hills of distant Ratanakiri and Kampot’s famous black pepper, all in beautifully crafted packaging, are great bargains.

Budget $$

Sentosa Silk

33 Sothearos Street (corner of Street 178)

Sentosa Silk provides a large selection of high-quality silk goods and souvenirs produced by poor and disabled craftspeople in rural Cambodia. All items including handbags, ornaments, pillow cases and various fashionable clothes items are made from 100 per cent pure Khmer silk. Whole silk fabrics can be bought by the metre and their tailoring services can produce unique garments almost overnight.

Budget $$

Tuol Tom Pong Market

Corner of streets 163 and 444, south of Mao Tse-tung Boulevard

The Tuol Tom Pong Market is probably the best place in town to shop for genuine and imitation antiquities, Buddha figures, silk clothing, silver jewellery, silver ornaments and old bank notes from previous regimes. Interestingly, the bank notes for sale include those of the infamous Khmer Rouge, who had currency printed in China but then changed their minds, outlawed money and markets, blew up the central bank and ultimately never issued any notes. Khmer Rouge money is recognised by its pristine condition and by the warlike themes apparent on the notes. Look for rocket-toting guerrillas and fierce-faced KR girl soldiers.

Budget $

Dine

Brown 51

Corner of Street 51 and Street 302

Brown 51 is just one of a chain of Brown cafés dotted around Phnom Penh. It remains one of the most popular cafés in the city and it’s all but impossible to get seats on Sundays. A full range of coffees and lattes are backed up by an eye-watering selection of pastries and cakes. With a 6.30am opening time it’s the perfect place to get your day going. Breakfast items include fresh fruit pancakes, eggs rancheros and their Early Day cooked breakfast.

Budget $

FCC Phnom Penh

363, Sisowath Quay

The FCC (Foreign Correspondents' Club) Phnom Penh is easily the most atmospheric restaurant in the city, with stunning views of the river and the National Museum. It has an excellent international menu with such favourites as beer-battered fish and chips and Mediterranean Chicken Kebab. The Asian and Khmer fare is also very good. It’s worth coming here for a sundowner while watching the fishermen on the river. A travel agent and a souvenir section are located on the second floor. The FCC Hotel Phnom Penh is also located here.

Budget $$$

Friends

215, Street 13, near the National Museum

Friends, a cosy non-profit tapas restaurant, is run as part of a programme to teach former street youth useful skills in the hope of giving them a better and more fulfilled life. The very varied menu includes a number of good international and local snacks, salads and fruit shakes, with some truly inventive desserts, and all served with a smile. Try the coconut and beetroot salad or the fish amok for something different.

Budget $$

Malis

136, Street 41, Norodom Boulevard

Malis is a highly regarded Khmer restaurant with artfully prepared traditional and contemporary Khmer dishes by celebrated Cambodian chef Luu Meng, and a full bar with an extensive wine list. The menu is wonderful and varied; try the crabmeat salad with roasted aubergine and Kampot black pepper accompanied by rice crackers or, for dessert, the jasmine-flavoured mousse. It’s an elegant dining environment, either indoors or outdoors in the terrace garden.

Budget $$

The Blue Pumpkin

245, Sisowath Quay

The Blue Pumpkin is an ever expanding chain of very reasonably priced restaurants, bakeries and pâtisseries. This particular branch, with its cheerful white interior and couches, overlooks the river. They have an extensive selection of the best baked breads and pastries in Cambodia along with a full menu of drinks, sandwiches and pasta dishes. Main courses come from all over the world including, Australian beef steak, a cheddar and walnut salad with Japanese pears, fish amok from Cambodia and fusilli gorgonzola from Italy.

Budget $

Topaz

182 Norodom Boulevard

Phnom Penh’s premier French restaurant, Topaz serves excellent French and Southeast Asian food in a refined environment. Great care is taken over menu combinations and there are not that many places in Southeast Asia where you can eat perfectly preparedl’escargots with garlic and butter. Desserts, including some wonderful sorbets, are a delight. Service is attentive without being overbearing. Altogether it’s certainly one of the city’s very best restaurants.

Budget $$$

Stay

Mittapheap Hotel

262, Monivong Boulevard

One of the best budget hotels in Phnom Penh, the Mittapheap, which means ‘friendship’, is located quite close to the Morning Market and it’s only a short tuk-tuk ride to the riverfront. All rooms include satellite television and mini-bar. Other notable facilities are the Happy Foot Massage, the M Café and the oddly named Golden Cattle Restaurant, a good Chinese seafood restaurant. There’s a free breakfast buffet thrown in and Wi-fi is available throughout the hotel.

Budget $

Okay Guesthouse

38, Street 258

Right next to the Cambodia-Vietnam Monument and south of the Royal Palace, the Okay Guesthouse is in a quiet spot, despite being the largest and most popular backpacker den in the city. Room conditions vary, so take a look before you book, but overall it’s a good bargain and well managed. All rooms come with a private bathroom and cable television. Okay will organise all your onward travel.

Budget $

Raffles Hotel Le Royal

92, Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh (off Monivong Boulevard)

A luxury hotel with a history, the Raffles Hotel Le Royal has seen a succession of foreign guests including journalists of the Vietnam War, UN aid workers after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge and renowned figures like Jacqueline Kennedy. Restored to the height of colonial splendour by the Raffles group, it is unrivalled in ambience (as well as price). Set amidst lush gardens with a choice of fine restaurants and swimming pools. Even if not in residence, a drink at the Elephant Bar is worth its price.

Budget $$$

Sofitel Phnom Penh Prokeethra

26, Old August Site, Sothearos Boulevard

The Sofitel Phnom Penh Prokeethra is the capital’s grandest luxury accommodation. Situated on a southern stretch of the Mekong River across from Diamond Island, the area is destined to become a hotbed for the urban upper class. Featuring multiple swimming pools, a health club, spa, and four separate restaurants (Japanese, Chinese, Italian and international), Sofitel exceeds its 5-star class. Do Forni, their Italian restaurant, is certainly the finest dining in the city.

Budget $$$

The Kabiki

22, Street 264

The Kabiki is a rustic heaven in the heart of the historical district of Phnom Penh, not far from the Independence Monument. The Prime Minister’s residence is on the same street so this means noisy traffic is kept away. In the evenings the gardens are lit with candles and it’s hard to believe that you’re in the centre of a city. The hotel caters to children better than most with a shallow baby pool and a babysitting service.

Budget $$

The Pavilion

227, Street 19

Located just below the southwest corner of the Royal Palace, The Pavilion is a boutique hotel set in a spacious French-style villa with elements of fine Khmer and Chinese decor. A beautiful garden and pool area is hidden in the back. The Spa, located near the reception offers a complimentary welcome massage to all guests. The hotel also offers some specialist activities including a photography tour, a Khmer Architecture from the 1960s tour, and a sunset cruise around the confluence of the four rivers, or Chatomuk as it’s known in Khmer.

Budget $$

Bon Om Tuk

Lunar November

This water festival celebrates the beginning of the cool, dry season and marks the current in the Tonlé Sap River reversing and emptying back into the Mekong. Boat races are held and monks around the country row ceremonial boats.


Bon Prachum Ben

Lunar September/October

This lasts for fifteen days and culminates at full moon in Bon Prachum Ben which is the Cambodian equivalent of All Soul's Day. Ancestors are remembered and respects are paid through offerings at temples throughout the country.


Chaul Chnam

14 April - 16 April

Cambodian New Year is celebrated with exuberant water throwing at all and sundry, especially along the riverfront. Offerings are also made at temples, and houses are cleaned thoroughly. Children all over the country build miniature sand stupas in representation of Mount Meru.


Independence Day

9 November

Celebrates the country’s independence from France in 1953. Grand parades are held in front of the Royal Palace with spectacular floats, marching bands and banners highlighting Cambodia's national achievements.


Royal Ploughing Ceremony

Lunar May

Marks the beginning of the rice-planting season. It is usually led by the royal family and was originally a Hindu rite. Sacred oxen are offered various foods by Brahmin priests and from their choice the coming harvest can be predicted.


Vesak Buchea

Lunar May

Commemorates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana. Candlelit processions take place at brightly-decorated temples with devout Buddhists circumambulating the main temple building in a clockwise direction three times.


Culture

For a not too taxing walk around Phnom Penh’s major sights head for the National Museum of Cambodia, housed in a red pavilion. The museum contains a fine collection of Khmer art.

Immediately south of the museum lies the Royal Palace, built in Khmer style with French assistance in 1866. Just beyond the entrance gate stands the Chan Chaya Pavilion, formerly used by Cambodian monarchs to review parades and to give performances of classical Khmer dancing. Dominating the centre of the larger, northern section of the royal compound is the Royal Throne Hall, built in 1917. Inside, the walls are painted with murals from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana. Exiting the main northern compound by a gateway in the south-eastern corner, you can proceed to the North Gate of the celebrated Silver Pagoda.

Leaving the Silver Pagoda walk south along Sothearos Boulevard and you’ll pass the extensive Wat Botum Park on the right. In the centre of the park stands a statue in heroic Socialist-Realist style depicting two soldiers – one Vietnamese, the other Cambodian – protecting a Cambodian woman and child. This is the Cambodia-Vietnam Monument.

Continue to the southern end of the park and turn west along Sihanouk Boulevard, and you’ll reach the Independence Monument built to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. To the southwest is Wat Lang Ka, a flourishing example of the revival of Buddhism in Cambodia. Saffron-robed monks abound and painted murals gleam from the restored vihara walls.

Places to visit:
National Museum of Cambodia, Royal Palace, Chan Chaya Pavilion, Silver Pagoda, Cambodia-Vietnam Monument, Independence Monument, Wat Lang Ka.

Shopaholic

Although Phnom Penh is not the place to go for upmarket designer clothing and accessories, it is one of the best places in Southeast Asia for bustling markets full of colour and life. The Psar Char, or Old Market, at the junction of 108th and 13th Streets is a densely packed hubbub of noise and action offering a wide selection of clothing, jewellery, dry goods and fresh vegetables. A short walk to the southwest brings you to the Central Market (Psar Thmay). You can’t miss this large bright yellow Art Deco building. If you’re looking to take an iconic kramaa (Cambodian scarf) back with you, this is the place to get one.

The O Russei Market, which sprawls between 182nd and 166th Streets, is full of imported perfumes and liquor, as well as clothing and jewellery. The Olympic Market, just south of the Olympic Stadium and not far from the O Russei is where you’ll see the locals buying their every day commodities.

The highlight of any shopping tour in the city has to be the Tuol Tom Pong Market (Russian Market), and to be found in the southern part of the city just beyond 432nd Street. A warren of tight stalls selling all manner of local handicrafts, paintings, temple rubbings from Angkor and other curios. If you’re looking to have any clothes made up then this is a great place to buy fabric. Bargaining here is an absolute must and it’s also a lot of fun.

Places to visit:
Old Market, Central Market, O Russei Market, Olympic Market, Tuol Tom Pong Market.

Foodie

Slowly, but surely, as the troubles of the past recede, Phnom Penh has become quite the gourmet destination with great Khmer cuisine going toe to toe with some excellent international restaurants. But as usual in Southeast Asia, the street stalls and markets offer some fabulous possibilities.

For breakfast why not try one of the Blue Pumpkin cafés dotted around town, excellent coffee and perhaps a bowl of Cambodian kuthiew, a hearty broth of white noodles, vegetables and your choice of meat. After a bit of shopping in one of the local markets head off for lunch on Sisowath Quay where there’s a great choice of restaurants all overlooking the Tonle Sap River. For Khmer food try the Khmer Borane Restaurant at 389 Sisowath Quay, where the lok lak, a fried beef dish with a lemon, salt and pepper dip, is delicious.

Before sunset, grab a sundowner at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia (FCCC). From the balcony high over Sisowath Quay you’ll get a fabulous view of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers converging and all the busy little fishing boats going about their business. Once dusk has settled jump in a moto for the short trip to Malis on Norodom Boulevard. For a real traditional taste of Cambodia try the restaurant’s amoc, a subtly-spiced baked fish curry steamed in banana leaves with coconut milk, lemongrass and turmeric, which is also the national dish.

Places to visit:
Blue Pumpkin Café, Khmer Borane Restaurant, Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia, Malis.