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The laidback and lively city of Phnom Penh has so much more to offer than neoclassical apartments, royal palaces and gilded pagodas. Here are 5 of our favourite alternative things to do in Cambodia’s capital.
Most first-time visitors to Phnom Penh learn about two things: colonial architecture, and the city’s role in the Khmer Rouge years.
Between the arrival of the French in 1867 up until Cambodia’s (hard won) independence in 1953, Phnom Penh’s streets filled with architecture so striking, it became known as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’. Even with faded paint and the occasional crumbling corners, simply walking around the city is a great way to spend a few hours.
After a period of relative stability following France’s departure, tumultuous years followed. In the 1960s the Vietnam War broke out across the border, followed by the devastating reign of the Khmer Rouge (when up to 3 million Cambodians were killed) between 1970-79. Phnom Penh became the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge as documented at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Field of Chheung Ek.
It’s important to appreciate the enormous struggles the city has had to overcome, but if you’d like to balance museums and balustrade balconies with something a bit different, add some of these alternative highlights to your itinerary.
“But isn’t Phnom Penh landlocked?” I hear you cry. Look closely on a map and you’ll see a few stray islands on the Mekong River just a hop from the city. While just a short ferry ride away, the islands are a real change of pace from the city’s buzz. Hiring a bike to explore on two wheels is the best way to meet villagers, see rural communities with stilted houses and pass rice paddies.
Phnom Penh may be packed with incredible architecture predating independence, but contemporary architecture tells its own tales.
Between the French leaving in 1953 and the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, boundary pushing modernist buildings (known as the ‘New Khmer’ style) sprang up across the city, taking inspiration from traditional Cambodian styles as well as futuristic designs. Sadly, with the rapid urbanisation of the city, some have been torn down to make way for high rises. All the more reason to see them while you can.
3. Food & Drink in Phnom Penh
There’s no shortage of fun places to have a bevvy after a long day’s sightseeing. For maximum choice, head to the hip micro bars and restaurants of Basaac Lane. If live music is your bag, Sharky’s is Southeast Asia’s longest running rock bar – you can catch bands playing from Thursday to Saturday. Fancy yourself a singer? Sunday is open mic night…
For something different, don’t miss evening drinks at The Mansion. This colonial building, with suitably retro interiors, is a great spot for cocktails and hosts vintage film screenings on Mondays and live music (normally jazz) on Wednesdays.
If it’s views you’re after, they don’t get much better than the ones from the 23-storey Eclipse Sky Bar. Arrive at sunset and spot the light fall over the city’s most famous landmarks, including the Royal Palace, Mekong River and Independence Monument.
As mentioned, you won’t go hungry at one of Basaac Lane’s petite restaurants. Alternatively we do have some favourite restaurants across the city. The Pan-Asian menu at stylish Chinese House, French cuisine at the swish Vans Restaurant or Topaz Restaurant, and modern take on Cambodian dishes at Malis are all worth a try.
4. Street art
Phnom Penh isn’t all intricate old buildings, the thriving street art scene drags the city into the 21st century. Head to Street 93 in the Beoung Kak neighbourhood to see the bright walls and beautiful murals from international artists.
Meet up with a local to explore Phnom Penh’s warren of backstreets and see daily life. With markets, small pagodas, and open houses, these small alleyways show a different side of the city.
To see Cambodia differently, get in touch with our team of Southeast Asia travel experts.