Destination: Phnom Penh

 |  August 30, 2013

Welcome to Phnom Penh, the crazed and colourful capital of a country steeped in brutal history and contemporary political turmoil. Today, it’s something like Bangkok, but a bit (okay, maybe a lot) rougher around the edges: tuk-tuks honking, motorbikes flying, exhaust bellowing, beggars begging, hawkers hawking and the occasional cow ambling along the side of the road. Step into the fray and you’ll find a cornucopia of hidden gems and national treasures, from posh hotels to bustling markets to world-class cuisine.

Cambodians are friendly and open, with an impressive level of English and an eagerness to strike up a conversation about politics, family, food – you name it. But make no mistake, the gut-wrenching genocide that occurred here just a few decades ago remains fresh in the memories of the locals. Many of the Khmer Rogue’s worst doings took place here in Phnom Penh, and no trip is complete without taking at least a day to reflect on Cambodia’s bloody past.


White Mansion

Housed in a gorgeous white colonial building that used to be the American Embassy, White Mansion artfully combines classic architecture with modern convenience, alongside excellent all-day free breakfast, first class spa treatments and a courtyard pool. Oh, and then there’s Marcel, the world’s cutest bellboy and perhaps the cleanest dog in all of Cambodia.

You Khin House 

Budget-friendly, artsy guesthouse owned by a local non-profit. All proceeds go directly toward providing quality education for underprivileged local children.

The Villa Paradiso

Garden oasis in the heart of Phnom Penh, with a lovely pool, acclaimed spa and delicious restaurant to boot.


The iconic luxury accommodation of Phnom Penh since 1929. But be warned, old world glamour does not come cheap!

See & Do:

S21 Prison and The Killing Fields

No trip to Phnom Penh – perhaps no trip to Southeast Asia – is complete without visiting both the Killing Fields and S21 Prison. Here, you will be taken on a fascinating journey through the history of the Khmer Rogue’s horrific regime, which lasted from 1975 to 1979.

Preying on a country already weakened by war and political turmoil, Khmer Rogue leader Pol Pot’s twisted Marxist vision was to create a purely agrarian society. He tried to accomplish this by torturing and murdering suspected intellectuals and dissenters, along with their entire families, and forcing the rest out of the cities and into back-breaking rural labour camps. In the process, three million Cambodians – over a quarter of the country’s population – were killed.

At S21 Prison (Tuol Sleng), a former school transformed into a torture chamber, you’ll see endless photos of the victims in the very place they were tortured – and they will break your heart. At the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre), typically the next stop for those held at S21, you’ll listen to the horrific stories of what happened in each place you step foot, thanks to a well-made guided listening tour (don’t forget to grab a set of headphones at the entrance). Here, victims were blindfolded and beaten to death before being thrown into mass graves, many of which remain untouched. The tour ends at a newly erected stupa, housing the bones of victims and honouring the millions that were murdered during the regime.

It is chilling, it is tragic, but it is so very necessary to understand one of the world’s most brutal – and recent – mass genocides.

The National Museum of Cambodia

For a glimpse at the brighter side of Cambodia’s history, check out this century-old traditional terra cotta museum, arranged around a lovely courtyard. It is home to a stunning collection of Khmer sculpture and design from the “golden age” of Angkor.

The Flicks Community Movie House

The perfect air-conditioned escape from Phnom Penh’s hot streets, this quirky little non-profit movie house charges just $3.50 for a day of unlimited and well-chosen films both new and old. Cosy up on their comfy couches and mattresses with cheap food, homemade popcorn and plenty of booze.

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre

More than just a zoo, this sanctuary provides a second chance for hundreds of poached and abused animals, from sun bears to gibbons to tigers to birds, with plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with the animals themselves. Guided tours are recommended.


For a Cause:

Friends Restaurant

Fabulous fusion tapas and frozen daiquiris served by former street kids training for a better life. Reservations a must – it fills up fast!

Daughters of Cambodia

Western food, tasty cakes and coffee, with a lovely spa and handicraft shop attached. The organisation employs survivors of sex trafficking.


Creative and contemporary Cambodian cuisine, including fried tarantula if you’re in the mood for a culinary challenge. Also employs former street kids through the Tree Alliance.

Lotus Blanc

Tasty French and Cambodian fare cooked and served by students of the not-for-profit Pour un Sourire d’Enfant vocational training school.

Hidden Gems:

The Lost Room

Tucked away on a quiet side street near the Russian Embassy, this chic expat favourite features a tiny patio, modern exposed brick interior and fabulous food, from cashew-coated sea bass to lavender spiced emu fillet. Stay on for a chat with the friendly Aussie owners alongside perfectly paired cocktails and desserts.

+855 78 700 001

Chez Gaston

Located in a rather shoddy neighbourhood whose street numbers seem picked out of a hat, this hearty and authentic French bistro has blood red walls, blackboards in place of menus (all in French) and no air con. But the enormous meat and potato dishes served up by the eccentric owner and his friendly Khmer staff are not to be missed.

+855 77 910 945


Equinox Bar

This lively rooftop bar draws a crowd of expats, locals and tourists looking for a fun night out, with live music on the weekends, social dancing on Tuesdays and Thursdays, art exhibitions, foosball and nightly happy hours on draft beer and cocktails from 5-8 p.m.

Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC)

One of Phnom Penh’s most legendary watering holes since 1993, this used to be the place for international journalists to gather, booze, and file breaking stories. Today, it is more popular with tourists, but the sweeping river views, fascinating history and yummy pizza make it worth a trip.

Love Bar

An unexpectedly elegant and intimate New York style bar with a dance floor, located in the heart of Phnom Penh’s buzzing nightlife district. Stays open late!