Greetings ... a monk at Phnom Penh's Royal Palace. Photo: AFP
With an eye on the past and the future, Louise Southerden explores the capital of a nation rebuilding after tragedy.
Once called “the smiling country” and “the Nixon doctrine in its purest form” (by former US president Richard Nixon), Cambodia is waking from its long slumber and Phnom Penh is the place to witness the transformation. Unlike Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat and populated by more tourists than locals, especially during the high season between November and February, Phnom Penh is a living city.
Like Vietnam, Cambodia was once a French colony (between 1863 and 1953), which means breakfasts of cafe au lait, crusty baguettes and fresh croissants, with tropical fruit, in stately colonial buildings. The main cafe-restaurant strip is on Sisowath Quay, the riverside road that hugs Tonle Sap River. Sink into the wicker chairs at Riverside Bistro, on the corner of Street 148 (cross-streets are numbered in Phnom Penh) and start your day with a mocha frappe.
Riverside Bistro, 273a Sisowath Quay, open from 7.30am, +855 (0)23 213 898, see riverside-bistro.com.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the end of Cambodia's darkest years. Between April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge “liberated” Cambodia from a corrupt martial government, and January 1979, when the Vietnamese army overthrew the Khmer Rouge, an estimated 2 million people died of starvation or were killed by Pol Pot's henchmen. The Killing Fields, 16 kilometres south-west of Phnom Penh, was the largest of the country's 343 “killing centres” and is now a major, if sombre, tourist attraction and memorial. A new museum at the site, opened in September, explains how almost 20,000 men, women and children were killed and buried here in 129 mass graves. There is also a 62-metre-high Buddhist stupa containing 8985 human skulls. You can buy a chrysanthemum for $US1 ($1.10) in memory of those who died.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, open 8am-5pm, entry $US3, see cekillingfield.com.
Another must-see is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in downtown Phnom Penh, a former high school that became S-21, Pol Pot's most feared prison. Tens of thousands of people were kept shackled in tiny, purpose-built cells, interrogated and tortured, then transported in trucks to the Killing Fields. Today its four concrete buildings are filled with haunting photographs (listed on UNESCO's Memory of the World register in July last year) of its former inmates, and paintings of prison life by Cambodian artist Vann Nath, one of only seven people to survive S-21. His book, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21, is available at the front gate for $US4.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, corner of Street 113 and Street 350, open 8am-5pm, entry $US2, +855 (0)23 216 045.
Across the road from the genocide museum is the Boddhi Tree, a shady garden cafe that serves vegetarian and health food and was the first organic restaurant in Phnom Penh. It supports community projects such as ChildSafe, which works to reduce child abuse in Cambodia. Order something long and cool from the menu; most iced drinks or shakes in Phnom Penh are made with “clean ice”.
Boddhi Tree Umma Restaurant and Guest House, 50 Street 113, open 7am-9pm, +855 (0)23 211 397, see boddhitree.com.
For souvenirs, you can't go past the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Pong), named after the Russian expats who flooded into Phnom Penh in the 1980s. Sharpen your haggling skills before you plunge into the maze of narrow, dimly lit passageways and you could emerge with anything from a bottled cobra or an “I survived Cambodia” T-shirt (made in Cambodia) to an “antique” Buddha or a silk lampshade. Buy a set of hand-painted cards from one of the wandering wooden-legged booksellers, victims of the millions of landmines laid throughout the country in the mid-1980s and 1990s.
Russian Market, Street 450 (south of Mao Tse Tung Boulevard), open sunrise to sunset.
A sunset cruise is an ideal way to cool off and gain some perspective on this riverside city. Some boats serve drinks but even if yours doesn't, the tables and chairs on the top decks are a lovely place to watch the sun disappear behind the spires of the Royal Palace. It's a good idea to wear long sleeves and pants to protect against Cambodia's dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes.
Tourist boats leave from the dock near Street 104 and cost $US10 a person for one hour.
A short walk along the riverfront will bring you to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), a Phnom Penh institution that has been popular with journalists and expats since the mid-1960s. Framed black-and-white photographs of wartime Cambodia by photographer Al Rockoff grace the walls at the entrance and on both levels of the club (prints cost $US275). There's a rooftop bar but the open-air first floor is the place to be, reminiscent of Graham Greene novels with its dark leather chairs, chirping geckos and silent ceiling fans.
FCC, 363 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, open 6.30am-midnight, +855 (0)23 724 014, see fcccambodia.com.
One of the most stylish places for dinner is the Bopha Phnom Penh Titanic. Don't let the name, the ship's bow entrance or the stateroom lounge put you off – that's where the marine-themed decor ends. The restaurant has clusters of white cane lounges around small dining tables, open to the stars, with fairy lights, a lotus pond and the river at your elbow – you can watch the tourist boats cruise quietly by as you dine. There are nightly apsara (traditional Khmer dancing) performances. And the Khmer food is superb – less spicy than Vietnamese and more subtle than Thai.
Bopha Phnom Penh Titanic, Sisowath Quay, open 6am-late, +855 (0)92 646 361, see bopha-phnompenh.com.
Cross Sisowath Quay, the main road that leads along the riverfront, to Mekong River Restaurant. Its tiny upstairs cinema screens two documentaries, one about Pol Pot, the other about landmines, in French and English, several times a day. The $US3 admission entitles you to discounted drinks downstairs afterwards, making a round of Angkor beer ridiculously cheap (for example, three beers for $US2).
Mekong River Restaurant, Sisowath Quay (corner of Street 118), open 7am-late, +855 (0)23 991 150.
Cambodia's best-known, but tiny, bar is Heart of Darkness, and it's best after midnight. A late-night tuk-tuk ride back to your hotel is a cool alternative: Phnom Penh's open-sided, motorbike-drawn tuk-tuk carriages comfortably seat four people and a 10-minute ride costs less than $US3.
Heart of Darkness, 26 Street 51, open 7pm-late.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.
Malaysia Airlines has a fare for about $950 flying non-stop to Kuala Lumpur where you change aircraft for Phnom Penh. Vietnam Airlines has a fare for about $1165, flying non-stop to Ho Chi Minh City where you change aircraft for Phnom Penh. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) Australians require a visa for Cambodia, which can be obtained upon arrival or before departure; see embassyofcambodia.org/visa.htm.