For many years Phnom Penh has been regarded as a business destination with little to offer to those traveling on leisure. However a thriving arts and culinary scene is now offering everything from film festivals to art exhibitions, concerts and some very memorable dining. Cambodia’s capital city is no longer just a city for doing business, but a perfect weekend getaway for those searching for a uniquely vibrant city to escape to.
On a warm June day, a group of Thai social media stars landed in Phnom Penh for the first time. Flown in by Bangkok Airways and hosted by Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, the group was invited to discover the Kingdom’s thriving capital – just a 50 minute flight from Bangkok. The influencers would spend three days visiting cultural sites, trying the vibrant culinary scene and taking it easy in the city which presents everything within easy reach by local Tuk-Tuk.
Indeed, Phnom Penh offers something that no other capital in South East Asia offers – a true sense of discovery. With so many restaurant openings and new hotspots for arts and entertainment, there is a feeling that this is the Bangkok of 20 years ago. On the south-side of the city, Phsar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market) is an area bursting with energy. The market itself offers very affordable shopping, while the streets surrounding it are lined with hidden rooftop cocktail bars and an excellent collection of restaurants and cafes, opened by locals and expatriates alike. One such spot, Intégrité café, has a loyal following and offers Bruneian, Malaysian and Singaporean Cuisine, just across the road from an Australia run Whiskey Bar – proving just what an international community the city is home to. Other culinary hot-spots include Bistrot Langka for French cuisine, Casablanca for Mediterranean flavours or the stunning Chinese House – a fusion of European and Asian dishes. The city’s top hotel, Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, offers the most diverse array of restaurants in the city with Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French restaurants in the offering.
For those interested in local art, Street 178 provides an accessible array of boutiques with quality handicrafts and silk. Exhibition centres such as the French Institute and Meta House regularly exhibit Cambodian artists, extending an excellent insight into the arts scene. Street Art has undergone a quiet revolution, with many alleyways bearing the creative works of local and international artists. Down at alleyway off Street 240, walkers can admire the work of Nepali artist Kiran Maharjan before sitting down for a coffee at Artillery or visiting the urban art gallery of Bong Bong Bong.
High up on every visitor’s list should be the Royal Palace, which was constructed in the mid- 19th century and is the official residence of Cambodia’s King. The palace sits on the Western bank at the meeting point of the Tonle Sap River and Mekong River, and is a pleasant setting for wandering the perfectly manicured gardens or discovering national treasures such as gold and jewelled Buddha statues. The National Museum is just a short walk away from the Royal Palace and houses 14,000 items from prehistoric times to periods before, during and after the Khmer Empire. Architecture enthusiasts will enjoy the Khmer temple architecture of the museum and should certainly register for the Phnom Penh Heritage Tour which includes visits to 21 other sites. The tour is conducted in a Tuk-Tuk or Cyclo with your own tablet for watching videos and hearing memorable insights to the buildings that remain from the time of the French Protectorate over Cambodia.
All of these sites are within close distance of Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra which was awarded 6th Best Hotel in Asia last year in the Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards. Situated on the Riverside, the luxurious hotel fuses French colonial design with traditional Cambodian touches. The rooms and suites feature polished hardwood floors, natural light and Sofitel’s world-class MyBed concept which guarantees a perfect night of rest. Four gourmet restaurants are offered for the ultimate culinary journey, and the country’s best Sports Club offers guests complimentary access to pools, tennis courts, squash, group fitness classes and state-of-the-art equipment. Lush green gardens ensure the ultimate resort experience in the heart of the city.
Phnom Penh is a city that is transforming to provide the perfect weekend-break for couples, families and solo travellers alike. Indeed this is a city like no other, with a young yet vibrant arts and culinary scene. Easily accessible from centres throughout Asia and free of huge groups of tourists, surely this is South-East Asia’s best kept secret?