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Cambodia in Brief – A Quick Guide to Phnom Penh

Cambodia in Brief – A Quick Guide to Phnom Penh

A Quick Guide to Phnom Penh

In early 1960’s Phnom Penh was known as “Paris of the East”, and you still can find remains of the old glory in wide boulevards lined with French colonial buildings. Some travellers make the mistake of skipping the Cambodian capital in favour of ancient temples of Siem Reap and beaches of Kep. But for those who want to understand Cambodia – its complicated 20th century history, its people and traditions – Phnom Penh is a must visit city.

What to do and see in Phnom Penh

Learn about the dark history of Khmer Rouge regime in S21 and the Killing Fields

No visit to Phnom Penh is complete without a tour to S21 prison and the Killing Fields. These two sites open a widely unknown period of Cambodian history, when the country’s ruling regime – Khmer Rouge – closed its borders and set to create a new “better” society. It came with a cost of 3.5 million lives, ruined economy and 20 years of civil war. Documents and photographs in both locations will help you to understand not only the timeline of the events, but also the role the American war in Vietnam played in the rise of Pol Pot. Both sites provide audio guides, but we strongly recommend visiting with a guide and we can organise this: you will have lots of questions after listening to the information about one of the bloodiest genocides in human history.

Take a slow Cyclo tour

There were times when cyclos – three-wheel bicycle taxis – were the most popular mode of transport in Phnom Penh. If you want to feel the city and see all the major sites at a leisurely speed, hop into one and go explore. Start with the oldest temple in town – Wat Phnom, then continue to the Independence monument, and then to the riverside – to get a bit of fresh breeze. Finish your tour by the Royal Palace where you have a chance to learn even more about Khmer history and architecture. Most of cyclo drivers are far from young (we know one who’s 83 years old, and he’s the funniest and most knowledgeable guy you can meet in Phnom Penh). For them it’s the only way to earn a living in the busy capital. By choosing a cyclo over a speedy tuk-tuk you not only get a chance to know the capital better, but also help local traditions to stay alive.

Try fried Tarantula

Along with Amok and various curries, the Cambodian cuisine offers a wide range of cooked insects. People started eating them during the starvation period of the Khmer Rouge era. And though the times have changed, deep fried tarantulas, grasshoppers and silk worms still make their way to the tables. One of the best restaurants to try deep fried tarantula is Romdeng. Located in a small garden in the centre of the city, this restaurant not only offers traditional Khmer dishes, but also serves as a training centre for young Cambodian chefs and waiters.

Cheer at Khmer kick-boxing

One of the most important things to remember about Khmer kick-boxing – never call it “Muai Thai” (it’s a traditional Siamese sport). It might offend locals, who religiously follow all matches and can argue for hours about their favourite fighters’ techniques. Kun Khmer competitions are held every weekend in several stadiums around Phnom Penh. All you need to do is to ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you there. And you will be treated to the most authentic and exciting Cambodian experience: lights, fights, beer and happy cheering locals.

Drink with a view – exquisite cocktails in FCC

After a busy day exploring Phnom Penh relax drinking freshly made cocktails and enjoying the sun setting over the Mekong River on one of the FCC balconies. FCC stands for Foreign Correspondence Club. During the American war in Vietnam it was a popular hangout for war journalists. The best time to visit the FCC nowadays is during the Happy Hour (5 pm-7 pm every day). Choose a table, order a drink and enjoy fresh breeze from the river. FCC staff make the best Passion Fruit Daiquiris in the whole of Asia.

How’s the food?

As any capital city, Phnom Penh has hundreds of restaurants offering excellent Khmer and International dishes. Visit “Friends” and “Romdeng” for Cambodian food with a fusion twist in it. If you want to relax and enjoy a great view while eating – head to the riverside. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants there for any taste and wallet. And if you find yourself at one of the city’s markets during lunchtime – don’t miss an opportunity to try street food.

Quick Tips

Tuk-tuk drivers know more about Phnom Penh than local guides. Wherever you need to go, however complicated your interests are – always smiling tuk-tuk drivers will help you to get there. Just make sure you agree on a price beforehand.

Is Phnom Penh for you?

Phnom Penh welcomes everyone. History buffs, avid photographers, foodies and art lovers will find something interesting to do every day. Whether you want to browse markets or stroll through art galleries – you won’t be disappointed by Phnom Penh.

The best time to go to Phnom Penh

As most of Cambodia, you can visit Phnom Penh at any time of the year. Dry season (November-April) is hot with daily average around 35 degrees celsius. From late May and until end of October monsoon rains bring cooler weather, and the daily temperature drops to about 27 degrees. Located on the connection of two rivers (Mekong and Tonle Sap) Phnom Penh is often flooded during the wet season. It shouldn’t stop you from travelling during this period, though – if you can’t walk to your destination, you always can get a tuk-tuk there.


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