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phnom penh
Bruce Scott

4 reasons you need to revisit Phnom Penh now

Cambodia’s capital city has become a thoroughly modern metropolis

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

Back in 1998, author Amit Gilboa wrote a shocking memoir entitled Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja. It graphically details the sex and drugfuelled exploits of the city’s expat residents while simultaneously painting a picture of the intense political unrest during that turbulent time. Reading this classic piece of gonzo journalism today is startling, as Phnom Penh in 2019 – now full of high-rise buildings, upscale shops and restaurants, cultural attractions and glamorous hotels – would be unrecognisable to the depraved characters depicted in Gilboa’s book. Not surprisingly, the city’s modern municipal makeover has attracted an influx of both tourists and investors. By Bruce Scott

RECOMMENDED: Hit the road and visit the Mekong Delta in Cambodia's neighbour, Vietnam

Phnom Penh Revisited

Getting around

Image: Bruce Scott

The heart of the old city has not been overly modernised and remains a pedestrian-friendly zone with ample sidewalks and numbered streets (a holdover from the time of French colonial rule). The city’s handful of historic landmarks also remain untouched, although admission fees have risen. The Royal Palace, built in 1866, now charges $78, as does the National Museum, which is housed in a beautifully ornate teakwood building. By contrast, the hilltop Wat Phnom, where legend has it that the first pagoda was erected in 1373 by Lady Penh, the city’s founder, still charges just $8.

Image: Bruce Scott

For shoppers, the infamous Phsar Thmei (Central Market), a huge Art Deco-style indoor market built in 1937, overflows with stalls selling everything imaginable – authentic goods and fakes alike. But there’s also great boutique shopping to be found now on Street 240, an arty avenue that’s also home to bookstores, cafés, clothing shops and trendy eateries.

Wining and dining

Image: Oskar Bistro

The old city’s highest concentration of restaurants, bars and cafés can be found along Preah Sisowath Quay, a broad boulevard that directly overlooks the Tonle Sap River. It’s a lively thoroughfare with a huge assortment of Khmer and Western restaurants, as well as bars on every rooftop that hold hip lounge spots such as Oskar Bistro, which attracts Phnom Penh’s local in-crowd. Another popular nightlife hub is Bassac Lane, a small alleyway running off Street 308. Each bar here is deliberately quirky and small, somewhat like the Golden Gai in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Check out Harry’s Bar, a cocktail joint-slash-funky trinket shop.


Development boom

Image: Bruce Scott

The deep pockets funding much of the city’s new construction projects belong to Chinese investors. Their presence is especially evident on ‘Diamond Island’, accessible via the bridge near the glittering NagaWorld Integrated Resort and Casino. The buildings currently under construction here are primarily luxurious private residences, grand hotels and shopping plazas, most of which have been meticulously designed to resemble neoclassical Parisian architecture (there’s even an exact replica of the Arc de Triomphe on one street). A culturally significant tourist destination it’s not, but Diamond Island does provide a fascinating glimpse into the future of both Phnom Penh and Cambodia itself.

Image: Bruce Scott

For visitors to Phnom Penh who liked things the way they were decades ago, this unrelenting urban expansion will no doubt come as a shock. Traffic congestion and pollution problems are on the rise, while proper public transportation continues to be sorely lacking. However, the introduction of PassApp – a taxi hailing app for the city’s new fleet of modern, bubbleshaped tuk tuks – makes getting around much easier.

Blast from the past

Image: Bruce Scott

For those who would rather escape the modern city altogether, do a day trip to nearby Koh Dach, commonly known as ‘Silk Island’. This nickname is a nod to the traditional silk-weaving communities here, and most organised tours include a return boat ride, a visit with the weavers, lunch and some additional island sightseeing.


The details

How to get there

Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon operate direct flights to Phnom Penh, starting from $2,538. Alternately, new Cambodia-based low-cost carrier Lanmei Airlines flies roundtrip from about $1,000.

Where to stay

Budget digs

The Alibi Guesthouse is an old converted mansion near Wat Botum Park that offers 10 clean and simple rooms (approx $200) spread over three floors, each with its own shared terrace. In the morning, a lovely breakfast is served in the charming main floor garden.

Living large

Image: Plantation Hotel

Located near the Royal Palace, the Plantation is a chic, 84-room property housed in an elegantly restored colonial era building. Couples looking to get cosy will like the 35sqm Deluxe Pool View rooms (approx $1,400), which are loaded with plush amenities. The property also boasts two gorgeous swimming pools, beautiful gardens, a spa and a fabulous breakfast buffet spread each morning.

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