It sounds like a quiz question: “What capital city has streets named after Charles De Gaulle, Mao Tse Tung, Tito, Pasteur, and Jawaharlal Nehru?” If our headline didn’t give it away, it’s Phnom Penh. In this city, which walks in the present while surrounded by shadows of the past, you’ll find enough history to keep you exploring for days. But if you only have 24 hours in Phnom Penh, here’s how to make the most of your stay.
Early morning: 7 – 9am
Start your morning with a leisurely cyclo ride on Phnom Penh’s wide avenues (before the day’s traffic gets really moving), taking in the stately colonial buildings that are relics of Phnom Penh’s former glory. Phnom Penh happens to be the first city in Southeast Asia to use the cyclo-pousse (a bicycle-powered tuk-tuk). Invented by French engineer Maurice Coupeaud in 1937, the cyclo became popular after his publicity stunt of riding one from Phnom Penh to Saigon in a time of 17 hours (not bad considering the journey even today in a motor vehicle takes about six hours!).
Cruise down Phnom Penh’s wide avenues to the Independence Monument. Renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann designed the monument to commemorate Cambodia’s independence after almost a century of French colonisation. (You can also see this depicted on the 100 reil note.) Nearby, a statue of King Norodom Sihanouk, who led the crusade for independence from the French, has recently been constructed in his memory.
A short distance away down Norodom Boulevard you’ll pass many stately French Colonial mansions and Sisowath High School, which was the first secondary educational institution in Cambodia. A number of senior Khmer Rouge leaders were schooled there, including Pol Pot. As you continue, look our for Wat Phnom, a temple on a small hill, and Hotel Le Royal, which is packed with interesting history and has seen the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham.
Late morning: 9 – 11am
After all that touring, you’re probably starved, so stop for a late breakfast at the Phsar Thmei or Central Market. A good Cambodian breakfast to buy here is noodle soup (kyteow) — thin, white rice noodles cooked in a soup with meat or seafood, bean sprouts, and lime. Bobor (rice porridge) is another favourite, served with either fish, chicken, or perhaps some salted egg as well as thinly sliced ginger, bean sprouts, and lime. Or perhaps you prefer fried chicken or pork on rice, both regular Cambodian staples.
Midday: 11am – 2pm
While at Central Market, pick up a cotton krama, a traditional scarf favoured by farmers that has become a symbol of Cambodia. You might also want to purchase some of Cambodia’s famous Kampot pepper, which is considered one of the best peppers in the world. It was once said that there was not a fine restaurant in Paris that did not have Kampot pepper on the table.
If you haven’t made it to Angkor Wat, head back to the riverfront area and check out some of the amazing Angkorian artifacts at the National Museum of Cambodia, not far from the Royal Palace. The inviting courtyard garden here is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh’s streets.
Continue exploring the arts of Cambodia just around the corner on Street 178. The Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture is a non-profit organisation dedicated to Cambodian art and culture, and is opposite the Royal University of Fine Arts. The entire street is lined with shops selling paintings of Cambodia’s countryside and Angkor-inspired artwork.
Stop for a break and fuel up with a delicious lunch while supporting a great cause. Friends the Restaurant is one of Mith Samlanh’s training restaurants, dedicated to helping former street kids and marginalized youth to learn about and gain employment in the hospitality industry. Next door, Friends ‘N’ Stuff has a nail spa and shop which sells interesting knickknacks, clothes, and artwork that provide income for local communities, so don’t forget to pop in there, too.
Afternoon and early evening: 2pm – 5pm
Take some time to wander along the riverfront boulevard, which has been restored to its French colonial splendour thanks to a massive aid projects. The early evening is a great time for people-watching as locals, expats, and visitors take in the riverside breeze and enjoy some exercise. Watch the Khmer aerobics or pop into the Foreign Correspondents Club or The Quay for a refreshing pre-dinner drink. Both have balconies with great views of sunset over the river. But you will need to be quick if you want to get a riverside seat — they disappear quickly!
Evening and nighttime: 5pm until late
If you are after some up-market Cambodian food in a chic restaurant for dinner, Malis Restuarant is run by a well-known Cambodian chef Luu Meng. The surroundings are delightful, the menu is extensive, and the food is fresh and modern, showcasing the best of Khmer cuisine.
Alternatively, order your food with a side of history at Tepui at Chinese House. Located on the Sisawath Quay slightly away from the main tourist area, the building was constructed in 1904 by a merchant and member of the Phnom Penh Chinese community. The atmospheric restaurant and bar serve up an interesting marriage of South American food and Asia-inspired cocktails.
After some traditional Khmer street food instead? Try one of the barbecue restaurants that serve up inexpensive seafood, beef, and other barbecue dishes around Phnom Penh. They are everywhere! Businesses go in and out of popularity so quickly that our best advice is to look for stalls crowded with locals for the latest in what is fresh, tasty, and inexpensive. A great accompaniment is a draft beer sold chilled in a tall beer tower, or, if you prefer, buy it by the can and add your own ice.
For those of you with energy left to burn, Heart of Darkness nightclub is a Phnom Penh institution that attracts all sorts of people.
Our local guides are true Phnom Penh experts. Take a Phnom Penh tour with them to see this city from a unique perspective.