As many of you will no doubt know, Cambodia was formerly colonized by the French. So in addition to having its own rich history and culture to explore, there is an adopted culture of fine European food, wine and architecture. As such, what will follows can most accurately be described as both a dissection of culinary pursuits with a smattering of local culture in between.
Upon arriving in Phnom Phen, we made our way to the lovely Boddhi Tree Aram boutique hotel. Located in the heart of Phnom Phen and close the Royal Palace, we found ourselves perfectly situated to explore the city environs. A colonial French-style building from the 1950’s, Boddhi Tree Aram has blended an old architectural backdrop with traditional and contemporary furnishings new to arrive at what is a thoroughly charming hotel. The staff is supremely attentive – during our stay we enjoyed taking breakfast on the tranquil, leafy balcony and chatting with the staff about their life in Cambodia and how they came to work at the hotel. It seems the Boddhi Tree has a program to train local students for careers in hospitality. This kind of behaviour is indicative of the Cambodian spirit of always trying to improve oneself and better the community.
It was late afternoon, so after quickly scouring the admittedly small “downtown” of Phnom Phen and buying various Cambodian silk purses and trinkets, we made our way to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC) – a journalists’ hangout from the days of the Cambodian civil war and now a favourite of expats and visitors alike. Sitting and savouring the view of the convergence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, we sampled the local beer – Angkor – and watched the sunset while nibbling on some tasty appetizers. The food at FCC is a real draw, with desserts being their most raved-about specialty.
We had some friends living in Phnom Phen, one from Spain, who was dying to take us to a tapas place called Pacharan Bodega overlooking the riverfront in Phnom Phen. Here we stuffed ourselves on multiple courses of tortillas, chorizo, olives, bread, flan and pitchers of sangria. I think the bill was something like $20 USD / person – a good value considering the amount of food we ate, the sangria we drank and the overall quality. Our Spanish friend insists it’s the best tapas she’s had in SE Asia. (If you ever find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, there is another location there, as well)
The next morning we made our way to the Russian Market which is where the majority of Phnom Phen expats and locals do their shopping. Anything you can imagine is sold here – from custom gemstone jewelry to motorcycle parts to produce. We were on a hunt for good prices on GAP and Old Navy clothing and some DVD’s – and a few hours later we emerged with our wallets a little lighter and well stocked on t-shirts and movies.
Near the market is a cute café which is a cool spot to take a break – the market can get quite hot and sticky inside, so post – refreshment is a must. In this case try Café Yejj – there is sidewalk seating, but we preferred the air-con to cool down. Not only is the food good, but Café Yejj employs women at-risk in order to break the cycle of poverty and prostitution that many Cambodian women face. I enjoyed my $4 burrito in the cheerful lemon-yellow surroundings knowing I was also giving back to the community. Try the pastas, sandwiches and smoothies too. Paul had a lassi that he quite enjoyed.
After exploring the city and its sights on foot, we chose to have dinner in a tiny little Italian place called Pop Café. This colourful little place on the main drag was completely packed out – clearly a favourite of locals, who were lined up waiting for a table. Pop Café proved to be worth the wait as they turned out perfect handmade gnocchi for $9USD and thin and crispy pizzas for $7-9USD. Giorgio, the owner, recommended a lovely red wine for us and stayed and chatted a bit to make sure we were comfortable and happy with our selections. Basically, Italian as it should be – warm, charming and utterly delicious.
In our last day in Phnom Phen, I wanted to take time to see the Killing Fields, S21 Prison and visit the Genocide Museum. While chilling, a trip to Cambodia is not really complete without an exploration of the genocide that took place there in recent decades. It is hard to believe that in my generation, today’s modern world, that countrymen were actually were killing and torturing one another in such medieval ways.
What could be a sad commentary on human nature is softened by the peaceful and gentle nature of Cambodia’s today. Everyone we spoke to, from the market to the guesthouse, was friendly and optimistic. They strove to build their businesses and improve their English and education in order to be more successful. They have dreams of running larger businesses and growing the local economy by training and employing more people. The incidents of the past seem not to weigh them down as they look forward to better futures for themselves and their families.
In a decidedly somber mood from the morning’s tours, we stopped off at The Shop Café and Bakery for a lunchtime bite. The Shop is a delightful little café on one of Cambodia’s leafy little streets sure to cheer up even the darkest of moods. We savoured refreshing lemonades and Mediterranean-inspired sandwiches on freshly made, thick-cut breads. The food was delicious, but we were blown away by the assortment of tantalizing pastries. I simply marvelled at the counter for a full 10 minutes before I was able to make a choice.
After lunch we strolled down Street 240 and took in all the shops of local artisans. From jewellery makers and textile designers to hand carved statues, there were a great many unique, handmade items on offer. I particularly enjoyed Couleurs D’Asie who had a wide variety of high quality Asian handicrafts – from modern, well-structured handbags and silk pillows to hand-painted ceramic pots of local pepper and tableware.
All and all, I would say Phnom Phen presents a most gracious Cambodian experience. Between the beautiful architecture, delicious food and compelling historical significance, Cambodia is a must-see in SE Asia. For me personally, to see the strength, determination, kindness and cheer of the locals is humbling. And I, for one, cannot wait to go back.
Note to reader: It may puzzle you as to why we enjoyed so many European food options in Cambodia rather than the local fare. And what I will say is that Cambodian food is good, it pales in comparison to its vibrant local neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand. With that said, European food is a staple due to the former French occupation. So when we visit Cambodia, we prefer to enjoy things that are hard to find where we live, and are not done nearly as well in other SE Asian countries.
My Phnom Phen short list:
Boddhi Tree Aram Boutique Hotel
$58 – 68 USD a night
No. 70 Street 244
Reservations: +855 11 854 430
FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club)
363 Sisowath Quay
No. 389E1, Sisowath, entrance on Street 184
No. 170 Street 450
The Shop Café & Bakery
No. 39 Street 240
No. 33 Street 240
Telephone: +855 23 221 075
Pop Café (da Giorgio)
371 Sisowath Quay
Telephone: +855 12 562 892
Killing Fields (and museum)