The Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh
I’ll be honest, Phnom Penh didn’t blow me away as a travel destination, and certainly wasn’t a highlight of Cambodia. In fact, cities in South East Asia rarely excite or inspire me compared to the countryside or the beaches. Nonetheless, Phnom Penh is an interesting place to spend a couple of days and nights, rough around the edges but captivating in its own unique way. Here are my Phnom Pneh recommendations …
EAT: A Cambodian speciality – Prahok Ktis
Unfortunately the top two restaurants people rave about – Friends and Romdeng – were both closed during our time in Phnom Penh (although we did go to another restaurant owned by this group in Siem Reap). Still, this allowed us the opportunity to go to Malis – another highly-rated restaurant – and try a Cambodian speciality, prahok ktis. Prahok is a paste made from fermented fresh river fish, and is widely used in Cambodian cooking. It has a distinctively strong flavour and odor. It is then combined with ktis – minced pork – and cooked in coconut milk with kreung paste, made with a variety of ingredients, including turmeric, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Somewhat like kimchi, prahok ktis didn’t initially appeal to me, but I found it strangely addictive, with the deep umami flavour incredibly moreish. Served with rice and plain vegetables (including cabbage and carrots), it is a peculiar but very interesting culinary experience.
Prahok ktis, courtesy of the internet
Malis itself was an unusual restaurant that didn’t wholly inspire. The waiters insisted on putting our large bottle of chilled water on a separate table just out of reach, so that whenever we wanted a top up we had to call a waiter over, or get up and fetch it. We didn’t understand this at all – although it was quite funny. The service was pretty poor, but the restaurant at least has a nice outdoor courtyard in which you can eat.
Malis is located at 136, Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Open daily from 6:30 a.m.to 10 p.m., with dinner service starting at 6 p.m. Visit their website www.malis-restaurant.com.
For the other Cambodian speciality – Fish Amok – see my Siem Reap page.
SEE: Tuol Sleng Museum
School turned prison, Tuol Sleng
Of all the ‘attractions’ in Phnom Penh, none is as affecting or powerful as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Situated south-west of the main tourist area (I’d advise getting a tuk-tuk there for a couple of riel), this school was used as a prison during the time of the Khmer Rouge. I won’t detail the full history of the place – you can read about it here – but I will say the site gets the right balance between showing how this prison used to be and providing information about what went on here, without being overly commercial. It has been preserved as an important site of remembrance, rather than being converted into a tourist attraction. This is all the more important as there are few intact sites that tell the story of the Khmer Rouge. We didn’t have time, but it might be a good idea to combine Tuol Sleng with a visit to Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) for another side of this horrific story.
Inside a cell at Tuol Sleng
STAY: Blue Lime
We enjoyed our stay at Blue Lime. We had a good sized room with a small balcony, and use of a swimming pool in a walled-off back courtyard. Breakfast was filling and the staff helped us book onward travel to Siem Reap. It is also well located just behind the National Museum. If you’re on a budget I’m sure better bargains can be had, but as a couple this place had the right balance between comfort and good value. www.bluelime.asia
Other attractions in Phnom Penh
- Lonely Planet or any other major travel publication will list the sights that you will probably see in Phnom Penh. These include the National Museum (I like history museums but ceramic pots aren’t really my thing, so this museum had limited appeal), the Silver Pagoda (an attractive, diverting sight, even if you have to fight your way through hoards of Chinese tourists to see inside) and the Russian Market – a good place to snap some pics if you’re in the neighbourhood – south of the Tuol Sleng Museum.
- Foreign Correspondent’s Club – Thai-style curries and Fish Amok are among the eclectic menu at this colonial ‘club’, perched at the south end of the long riverfront promenade. The food was good if not outstanding – I’d recommend going here, but perhaps only to perch on the bar stools with a beer, people watching. For more colonial comforts, head to the Elephant Bar.
- There are plenty of nice bars along the riverfront, which is the place to head for nightlife. We went to one on the top floor of a hotel, which served great cocktails. Unfortunately I can’t remember or work out what the name of the place was.
Get around: Walk, dodging traffic. If you are going any distance, get a tuk-tuk (you should negotiate the price).
Travel Rating (out of five): ★★★
A city that you should visit if you’re going to Cambodia, but it’s unlikely to become a place you fall in love with.
On the bus route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is a town famous for its arachnoid cuisine. This provides an interesting photo opportunity, although I shied away from trying the delicacies on offer!
Battambang often features as a destination in its own right in Cambodia. But we were a bit disappointed by this colonial town, that didn’t offer anywhere near as much ambiance as we’d expected. We traveled to Trat (Thailand) from here the next day, and preferred Trat immensely. We did enjoy Gecko Cafe, which serves up a range of tasty Western fare as well as these excellent fruit smoothies. I should add we didn’t have time for the nearby bamboo train – so I can’t comment on that.
Crossing into Thailand
We traveled from Battambang to Trat very easily – we left the former at 9am and were in the latter by around 2pm. We traveled from Battambang to Pailin by shared taxi, but as our driver knew we were headed toward the border we switched taxi at a service station just before arriving into Pailin. Once at the border we had our passports stamped and walked across a bridge spanning a small stream to the Thai side. There was a bit of a wait on the Thai side. Once through, our plan had been to get a taxi to Chanthaburi and then a public bus to Trat. However a family were waiting to find extra passengers for a large shared taxi / minibus to go directly to Trat. It cost a bit more but we felt like it was the right thing to do – and it meant we had the rest of the day to explore Trat before heading on to Koh Kut the day after.
My top three Cambodian experiences all revolve around Angkor Wat and Siem Reap. I spent just over a week in Cambodia – not enough time to get to know the country really – but Angkor was breathtaking, as well as being perfect for a photography enthusiast like myself. Siem Reap was the perfect complement to it.
WAKE UP for sunrise at Sras Srang – before exploring the jungle temple of Ta Prohm
My ideal day at Angkor would probably involve a slightly later start, but at least once on your visit you should get up at 4.30am, tuk-tuk out to Sras Srang artificial lake and watch the sun rise over the trees to the east. Then, dive inside the nearby temple Banteay Kdei for an atmospheric start to the rest of the day, or tuk-tuk straight to Ta Prohm, where hopefully you’ll beat the crowds to exploring this impressive temple filled with gargantuan spung trees.
HIRE a tuk-tuk driver to help you explore the Angkor Temples
It’s the obvious thing to do for convenience, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable parts of seeing Angkor – tuk-tuking around the complex between temples and taking in the trees, fields and ramshackle houses in the surrounding countryside. Also a great opportunity to get to know your driver.
EAT amazing food in restaurants of Siem Reap
The image above is of Marum, one of Siem Reap’s best restaurants. Others are detailed on my Siem Reap page. It’s a blessing that Siem Reap has so many great restaurants, and it’s a great way to unwind after spending a hard morning and afternoon looking around the atmospheric ruins of the Angkor complex.
Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, Banteay Kdei, Banteay Samre, Banteay Srey, Baphuon, Bayon, bayon temple, beng malea, Cambodia, Neak Pean, Phnom Bakheng, Pre Rup, Preah Khan, Sras Srang, Ta Prohm, Ta Som, temples of angkor, things to see, Travel, travel tips
Detail from Bayon Temple
Angkor Wat is rightly billed as the top travel destination in Cambodia. Because of its size – and despite its popularity – it is possible to explore this historic site without feeling constantly hemmed in by the crowds. The biggest tip I can give for Angkor Wat is not to rush or pack in the various temples and sights. The middle of the day is not a time to be exploring. If you hire a tuk-tuk driver like we did, remember that you are paying for the day. You should head out early morning to hit a temple or two, head back to your hotel for a few hours rest, then head out again around 3pm for a couple more temples before sunset. Doing this for three days should allow you comfortable time to explore the main sights within the central Angkor complex. It’s better to see six temples ‘properly’ than rush around and see twelve but feel exhausted!
One of the beauties of Angkor is that there is a variety of different temples that offer different things at different times of day. The best map for pre-planning your trip is this one.
We had intended to go further afield to temples such as Beng Malea, but in the end stayed around the central area, which has more than enough for three days. Some highlights include:
- Sras Srang – a perfect spot for sunrise, less crowded than Angkor Wat, and near to Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm, which are good temples for early morning exploring. We saw our first (and only!) sunrise here.
- Angkor Wat – obviously this is the one that you come to see, although it probably wasn’t the most memorable temple we visited. Still, it’s worth taking your time over it – we saw it in the afternoon and in the evening, and it was more atmospheric later in the day.
- The whole complex of Angkor Thom offers a variety of temples that can be seen over a relaxing afternoon of exploring. Bayon has the famous faces carved into the rock, while nearby Baphuon is reminiscent of an Aztec pyramid that you can climb to the top of.
- One of the best-known temples is Ta Prohm, a jungle temple covered in foliage and broken up by impressive spung trees. The battle between the stones of the ruined temple and the trees is incredible, leaving one with a sense of the epic battle between man-made objects and the nature that surrounds them, played out over hundreds of years. Ta Prohm featured in Tomb Raider and gets very busy – for a similar scene, including spung trees, go to Preah Khan.
- Banteay Srey – one of the most distinctive-looking temples, Banteay Srey is a few kilometres away from the main complex. We loved tuk-tuking out here, as you wind through quiet country roads and passed rice fields. Definitely one of the highlights, but best to come here when you can avoid the crowds – we probably visited at the wrong time of day (10am-ish).
- Banteay Samre – it could be argued that this temple offers little that can’t be seen elsewhere, but I really enjoy this one – it has a symmetrical layout with turrets and a central temple.
- Phnom Bakheng – we enjoyed watching sunset on this hill overlooking the West Boray, but it was insanely crowded, possibly the worst spot crowd-wise of our three days. A better choice might be Pre Rup – it also gets crowded around sunset too, but it is very atmospheric.
- The three temples north of Angkor Thom are a nice set to see late afternoon – Preah Khan, with its gargantuan spung trees and passageways, Neak Pean, with its atmospheric wooden walkway that traverses a swampy lake, and Ta Som, which has a much-photographed doorway (see below).
Okay, I seem to have named all of the temples, but they really do all offer different things. Here are a selection of photos from Angkor:
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng
Sunrise the next morning at Sras Srang
Atmospheric temples early in the morning – worth the early start
It was nice to see Ta Prohm before the crowds arrived
Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom
Two heads at Bayon
The ‘Big One’ – Angkor Wat
The much-photographed doorway at Ta Som.
Sunset at Pre Rup with the crowds (HDR)
Don’t stress too much about seeing certain temples at certain times of day. Instead, remember that all of the temples are better-visited either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. One exception is Ta Prohm, which is covered by trees and so could be a good choice for mid-afternoon.
For sunrise, I’d definitely recommend Sras Srang. We didn’t manage a second sunrise whlie at Angkor, but Angkor Wat is apparently good (if crowded).
For sunset, I’d recommend Pre Rup over Phnom Bakheng. Angkor Wat is also a good area to hang out at at this time of day.
Get around: Walking is impossible, and cycling would be exhausting if you had limited time. The best option is tuk-tuk. We rented one for $15 a day for two of us. We enjoyed journeying between temples through the countryside almost as much as the temples themselves.
Travel Rating (out of five): ★★★★★
One of the must-see destinations of the world, let along Cambodia. Angkor deserves at least three days – and also to be seen at an unhurried place.