Phnom Penh, Cambodia: 10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh

February 16, 2018

10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia




PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA in 24 HOURS: 
THE 10 PLACES YOU MUST SEE, STAY, AND EAT AT


There are very few occasions in which I like to be proven wrong. They all involve pleasant surprises especially when it comes to managing travel expectations. More specifically, when a layover city turns out to be more than a place to pass through but rather a destination in itself. That was what happened last Christmas. The plan was to fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia via the capital, Phnom Penh. What I thought was going to be a simple stopover (maybe just a cocktail at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a few lazy hours at one or two museums) turned out to be an extremely enriching experience of culture, history, food, food for thought, and shopping..all of it clocked in just 24 hours, with time to spare. Suffice to say, I had a Phnom-menal time, and you can too. Here are my 10 Things To Do with 24 Hours In Phnom Penh, Cambodia...





10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia



- 1 -
STAY
SOFITEL PHNOM PENH PHOKEETHRA


Amidst an ever-changing landscape in Phnom Penh is a timeless treasure seemingly untouched by the development craze that has swept the city. Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra Hotel is a gorgeous luxury hotel overlooking the Mekong River. Built in French colonial style, the hotel evokes Old World Charm with its details referencing the Angkor era and the immaculate service of its highly-professional staff.

Despite its feeling of seclusion - Angelina Jolie and family are among the many guests seduced by the  peace and security afforded by the sprawling landscaped gardens that surround the hotel - Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra Hotel is well positioned, just a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride away from the royal palace and a 45 minute taxi ride to the airport, making the hotel ideal for this busy traveller on a short stay. I only wished I had more time to enjoy the oriental nostalgia of the hotel or even peep in on the wedding that was happening in the ballroom during my stay. 





10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A GIANT BUDDHA WELCOMES YOU TO MALIS...
...WHERE AN EDIBLE HISTORY LESSON AWAITS.


- 2  -
EAT & DRINK
MALIS

Malis is “Living Cambodian cuisine” - an award-winning restaurant whose mission is to revive traditional Khmer recipes that nearly went extinct. The menu is Cambodian soul food - classics such as fish amok and mango salad with distinctive local flavours like green peppercorns and lemongrass - updated for the modern, sophisticated palate. Served in tranquil, colonial surroundings in the heart of downtown Phnom Penh, Malis is a landmark not only for its location but also its role in restoring Cambodian culinary culture. 



- -
EAT & DRINK
TOPAZ

French fare - steak tartare, foie gras, and champagne, oh my! - prepared to exacting standards with only the freshest ingredients sourced locally and from Paris. Topaz is consistently named as one of Phnom Penh’s best restaurants (with the price tag to match) and ranks among the top fine dining French restaurants in the Asia Pacific region. Elegant and exquisite dishes in a contemporary and romantic setting, Topaz made for an impressive meal that I won’t forget anytime soon. A multifaceted gem in the rough.

FURTHER READING:
MY RESTAURANT REVIEW OF MALIS AND TOPAZ 




10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
TRES CHIC: TOPAZ IS A CELEBRATION OF ALL THINGS FRENCH...
...WHICH TO ME MEANS STEAK TARTARE.


10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia



10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
ASIAN ARCHITECTURE LEADING TO EUROPEAN GARDENS...
...THE LIVING LEGACY OF INDOCHINA INFLUENCES.
10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia


- 4 -
SEE
ROYAL PALACE


Lording over the skyline of Phnom Penh is, appropriately, the Royal Palace. Sticking out like a gold thumb with its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding, the palace is a striking structure near the riverfront, and completely unmissable. 

The compound is the official royal residence, which means that parts of the complex are closed to the public. There’s still plenty to see; whether its the Silver Pagoda, the Throne Hall aka "Sacred Seat of Judgement”, or the curious “Khmer meets King Louis” style of the French-influenced formal gardens and buildings.

A word of warning: the dress code at the palace is a royal pain. Understandably, decorum dictates that shoulders and knees are covered - such is the general rule at places of worships like the Angkor (temples) of Siem Reap. However, a large shawl of scarf which usually suffices even at the holiest of sites is not good enough at the Royal Palace. This rule is only really pointed out by staff after you purchase your ticket, which forces the unsuspecting visitor to buy a not-especially-stylish “souvenir T-shirt” in order to enter. Fortunately I had a cardigan in my car so I was spared this sartorial scam, but keep that in mind.


10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia


- 5 -
LEARN
KILLING FIELDS

Choeung Ek is the the best-known of the notorious Killing Fields. The former orchard and mass grave is now a memorial marked by a Buddhist monument (left) filled with over 5,000 human skulls. As horrific as it is, the Cambodian government encourages tourists to visit Choeung Ek: to not only hold accountable the crimes of the Khmer Rouge but also to understand how far Cambodia has come from their very recent, very tragic history.


- 6 -
LEARN
TUOL SENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM

Even more harrowing but equally neccessary is a visit to Tuol Seng Genocide Musuem, also known as S-21. Tuol Seng is especially depressing because its meticulous records of depravity is juxtaposed against a suburban setting: Tuol Seng was a high school before Pol Pot took over and turned it into the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Tuol Seng Genocide Musuem is not just a display of the country’s darkest days, but also a highly disturbing exhibit of the darkest side of human nature.


10 Things to Do With 24 Hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

- 7 -
SEE
WAT OUNALOM


A world apart from the stomach-churning barbarity of crimes against humanity is the gentle spirituality of Buddhism. Wat Ounalom is the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism, comprising of 44 structures. The 15th century complex is home to the head of the country’s Buddhist brotherhood land a large number of monks.  Besides the country’s holiest of men, Wat Ounalom also houses an eyebrow hair of Buddha. 

Other Buddhist relics that barely survived the vandalism of the Khmer Rouge regime include a statue of Huot Tat - the 4th patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism who was killed by Pol Pot - that was thrown in the Mekong River (to demonstrate that the country no longer belonged to Buddhism but to the regime) and retrieved afterward, as well as a small marble Buddha that was smashed by the Khmer Rouge and later reassembled. Wat Ounalom is a much needed breath of fresh air as well as a testament to the ability of the human spirit to endure, survive, and transcend. 




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- 8 -
SHOP
PSAR THMEI CENTRAL MARKET


If enduring the sweltering heat of the so-called Russian Market for the spoils of discounted Gap, Banana Republic, Calvin Klein clothing and antiques of questionable origin doesn’t sound like your kind of party, perhaps Psar Thmei may be more up your street.

Psar Thmei, often called New Market or Central Market, is a landmark art deco building. With a huge domed hall resembling a Babylonian ziggurat that allows for maximum ventilation, the iconic daffodil-yellow central hall with its famous clock is cool and airy even on the hottest of days. Recently renovated with support from the French government, Psar Thmei is in good shape and is by far the best market for browsing in Phnom Penh. Four wings are lined with stalls selling wooden handicrafts, fresh flowers and food, and most famously, cheaply priced gemstones - the authenticity of which may be questionable; but for that price who cares if that ruby was grown in a lab or not?
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- 9 -
LEARN
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CAMBODIA


Just north of the Royal Palace is the National Museum of Cambodia - a striking red terracotta structure of traditional design wrapped around a courtyard garden. The museum, built between 1917 and 1920 may be relatively young but it contains over a millennium of Khmer design and is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. As the name suggests, the National Museum of Cambodia is the country's leading historical, cultural, and archaeological museum.

The idea is to start left and continue clockwise in chronological order. The timeline begins with the pre-Angkorian collection (pottery and bronze from the 4th - 9th centuries, Indian sculpture of humans progressing to the Khmer sculpture style of divinities spanning the 5th to 8th centuries), continuing with the classical Angkorian period (10th to 14th century) and ending with more recent works. Highlights include an imposing, eight-armed Vishnu statue from the 6th century, several striking statues of Shiva from the 9th to the 11th century; an eerie, atmospheric room filled entirely with dozens of buddhas of different sizes.






- 10 -
EAT & DRINK
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS’ CLUB

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) is an institution, being the preferred watering hole for travellers, war correspondents, and journalists alike since its inception during the colonial era. Fancying myself as an intrepid gadabout with a penchant for bombastic-ness (I’m really just a narcissist who can spell), I can’t think of a better place to watch the sun set on my whirlwind day trip in Phnom Penh: sipping a signature cocktail and facing the river while watching dusk fall over the city. The perfect ending to a happy surprise. 


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