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.