With no expectation of this city before I arrived, I would have probably never visited Phnom Penh if not for business reason. Most people choose to skip Phnom Penh and only visit Siem Reap for Angko Wat. Well, that's kinda a no-brainer: Angko Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, while the places of interest at Phnom Penh are basically unheard of. Thus, although being the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is usually outshone by other heritage places in the Kingdom of Wonder.
Indeed, Phnom Penh doesn't have the ancient monuments that awe the audience at the first sight; it's a place that grows on you the longer you stay. There are amazing choices of cafes, restaurants and bars, ranging from authentic Western to modern Khmer. The well-built food scene contrasts with the lagging urban infrastructure, with tuk-tuk drivers constantly shouting at you to tout for business. The tropical chaos and luscious vibe feel like a primitive version of Bangkok. (Interesting coincidence: the most hip place at Phnom Penh is also called BKK, abbreviation for Bangkok.)
From the old time colonial relationship, Phnom Penh hosts a surprisingly big French expats community. Thus, great selections of French staple (the stereotypical wine and cheese!) are imported with low tax to meet the need. The price overall is so affordable to foreigners that I could easily live like a nouveau riche (chardonnay every meal, anyone?). Life quality is just shamelessly good there.
Here is a short list of my favorite places during my 3-week stay. There is no lack of fancy, high-end dining selection, but I favor those with a style or story. Hope that's your cup of tea too.
Favorite Cafe: Backyard Cafe
I accidentally discovered Backyard Cafe as it's near H hotel where I stayed. (H hotel is nice too! I will mention it in my next post.) It was such a delight to come across this little two-story cafe tucked away in the chaotic, muddy world outside. If you like clean Nordic style, this is your place -- clean, natural. and peaceful.
The menu is entirely plant-based and organic. It's surprising to find a place with such naturalist, clean-eating concept in a developing country like Cambodia. To the vegans (or whoever with first-world problem), this is the dream cafe for ya!
I came here 3 days in a row for breakfast, enjoying the quiet morning with power food. IMAO, I haven't lived this healthy even in New York or in Singapore.
Favorite Restaurant: Chinese House
On its website, Chinese House boasted itself as the "most iconic place in town". Although it is such a big statement, I have to agree that Chinese House is indeed one of the most unique, stylish restaurants I have ever been to, not just in Phnom Penh but around the world.
Housed in one of the city’s true colonial-era masterpieces originally built in 1904, Chinese House is worth a visit for the authentic, architectural value per se. The menu is Asian-fusion and quite pricy compared to other options in town (easily 80 USD / pax for dinner with drinks). But I would say the delicacy was worth every penny. The sophistication of French cuisine was applied to the Asia flavors, while with the carefully drafted branding was paired with the exotic, original oriental heritage. This is exactly what foreigners love.
Bistro Langka was tucked away in a small alley. Named after the nearby Wat Langka, this small French bistro is my go-to place for simple dinner and quick drink after work by myself. Small menu, chilled music and good ambience were all I need to unwind.
There is a also a cute French apparel boutique next door, that sells its original design. I am a real sucker for this kind of indie business.
Some other interesting places that I visited include:
- Friends the Restaurant. It serves as the cooking training institute for kids from low-income families. The dishes are supposed to be creative fusion, but I found the food just so-so. However, the good-will concept made me feel awesome eating there, as I was supporting the privileged kids and giving back to the society.
- Khema Pasteur. Make sure to get their Thursday special dinner with free-flow wine and cheese. Their brunch / breakfast menu was worth trying.
- Farm to Table. From the name, you can tell this is another hipster casual outing place. Yes, exactly. Not just that every ingredient was sourced from local, there are local talents performing live music every week. A true community feel.
- Mok Mony Restaurant: the affordable, authentic local eatery at BKK, favorite of locals and foreigners alike.
Favorite Speakeasies: BattBong and Bar.sito
BattBong is right next to Bistro Langka. I walked by so many times without realizing it was a sham vending machine, although I did wonder about where did the vintage come from.
It has live music almost every day and the cocktails were so on point to me. One of my favorite places in the city to relax.
Bar.sito is your Kingsman club. It's hidden behind an alley and once you walk in, the private club decor adds to the exclusive feeling. There is even a room at the other side of the bookshelf, which turns out to be a door. (Boom!)
Hope you found something that you like to convince you to make a trip to Phnom Penh. Cambodia has a lot to offer beyond Siem Reap!