Beneath every big city’s anonymous veneer are cultures and customs waiting to be explored – but how to get deeper when you’re stuck on the well-worn tourist path? These eight alternative itinerary options will still allow you to tick all the Phnom Penh boxes, but give you an insider’s perspective on Cambodia at the same time.
As difficult to confront as they may be, it’s absolutely essential that visitors to Cambodia learn about the recent events that have shaped the Kingdom. While most tourists make a beeline for the Angkorian antiquities housed inside the National Museum, the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center takes a very different approach to history. Bophana’s mission is to teach young Cambodians about the Khmer Rouge period in a more accessible way: through interactive exhibitions dedicated to music, film, photography and new media. All are welcome to attend their weekly Cine Saturday screenings and other special events.
A masterpiece conceived by Cambodia’s best-loved architect, Vann Molyvann, there’s no denying the magnificence of Phnom Penh’s Central Market. But once you’ve seen the art-deco interior dome, the tourist-centric market itself can be a little underwhelming. The equally popular Russian Market is a good place to shop for souvenirs, but Orussey Market – the city’s biggest and busiest – is the more authentic pick of the bunch. Fresh food, fabric, household items, and thousands of locals to show you how bartering is really done. You might not find anything to take home, but you will come away with a vivid impression of Cambodian commerce.
Khmer Architecture Tours
Forget the hop-on hop-off bus – Phnom Penh traffic is way too sluggish for that. Khmer Architecture Tours offers alternative inner-city itineraries that showcase the city’s post-1953 tradition of ‘New Khmer Architecture’ (think modernist simplicity with Angkorian flourishes and a hint of the village-style stilted house). Combination walking/minibus excursions are all led by local students; choose from tours that focus on religious structures, houses and villas or university buildings. Or you can opt for the cyclo tour and see the city’s highlights from the comfort of a three-wheeled scoop seat.
Wat Moha Montrey
A temple should ideally be a place of contemplation and respite; but the queues, the ticket booths and the enterprising guides synonymous with Phnom Penh’s bigger temples can certainly spoil the mood. Despite its central location, brightly painted Wat Moha Montrey is one of the city’s lesser-frequented temples. It’s a living, breathing monastery complete with monk’s quarters, schoolrooms, food vendors, and plenty of leafy corners to sit and chat with a resident novice. You certainly wouldn’t get away with that at Wat Phnom.
The White Building
There’s the fabulously lavish Royal Palace – and then there’s the fabulously dilapidated White Building. A housing commission built in the 1960s, it’s still a home for hundreds of residents and a mecca for local artists who have opened a small gallery inside. Ad hoc renovations, overgrown houseplants and the detritus of urban life have transformed the building’s facade into a very photogenic layer cake. Browse the hairdressers, butcher’s shops and convenience stores that line the bottom level – just be careful not to enter anyone’s apartment by accident.
“Ad hoc renovations and overgrown houseplants have transformed the building’s facade into a very photogenic layer cake.”
Relentless traffic and non-existent sidewalks: Phnom Penh isn’t exactly pedestrian-friendly. But Street 240 is maybe the city’s best exception. Packed door-to-door with cute cafes, wine bars, bookstores, artist ateliers and clothing boutiques, 240 also attracts street artists who have decorated the laneways with murals inspired by Cambodian motifs. Street 240 certainly surpasses Riverside (Phnom Penh’s main walking street) in terms of its offerings – and without the pickpockets, the touts and the heavy crowds, it’s a much more pleasant place to take a stroll.
Spark and Tawandang
Dinner and a show is a great way to spend an evening in Phnom Penh. The popular choice among tourists is Cambodian Living Arts, a nightly performance of traditional dance, music and theatre on the grounds of the National Museum. For something equally as entertaining but completely different, try Spark and Tawandang German Microbrewery. Like it’s cousin in Bangkok, this place is less about the fine ales and more about the song and dance spectacular. True, there’s more Cambodian pop ballads than apsara on the menu, but the crowd participation makes it a favourite spot for local families and a fun night out for visitors.
Long After Dark
Foreign Correspondent’s Club (or FCC) on Phnom Penh’s Riverside is without a doubt the city’s most famous drinking hole. Back in the day, you would have been hard-pressed finding a free barstool among the crowds of journalists sent to Cambodia to cover the country’s conflict. Now there’s a new generation of speakeasies and bars popping up in Phnom Penh’s suburbs, many of them catering to modern-day expats. A notable favourite is Long After Dark: a whiskey bar that boasts one of the best wine menus in the city, craft beer on tap, and a gorgeous leafy patio that overlooks the suburban streets of the Russian Market area.
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This is a guest post by Emily Lush, a writer, editor and communications specialist who currently lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. When she’s not working at her NGO day job, she regularly writes about travel, culture and urban exploration on her blog, Wander-Lush.
Alexander Grootmeester is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.
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