Daisy Walsh was busy making her mark on the ad industry in New York City when a good friend, who had been helping restore the temples of Angkor Wat and knew she liked to travel, told her to come visit him in Cambodia. She fell in love with Phnom Penh and found a way to stay. She now works for the Southeast Asia GLOBE, a regional magazine (printed in English) that publishes a special travel and leisure edition called Discover. Check out her advice on what to do (and what to avoid) in a city that was once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” then tell us what you love about Cambodia in the comments section below.
Phnom Penh is My City
The first place I take a visitor from out of town is to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) for happy hour and a peaceful sunset. Well known in the city, the giant colonial building offers a great view of the Mekong and is also as the name suggests where most business and on assignment journalists and media type meet for a drink. As you may have heard, it’s either hot season or rainy season in Cambodia. The best time to visit is in December and January (avoid April-June if you can).
When I crave sushi I always go to Rahu. Slightly more swank and expensive than other local joints, but worth the extra money. The spicy tuna and dynamite sushi roll are super yummy. I was hesitant to do sushi in Cambodia, but surprisingly, Rahu does it right!
To escape traffic I head to the BKK1 district (Beong Keng Kong). A mostly NGO and foreigner area, the streets are peaceful and much quieter than others in the city. Here you can find a plethora of coffee shops and friendly tuk tuk drivers.
For complete quiet,you’re out of luck in this city! You’re going to have to jump on a bus, bike, or get in a taxi to head out towards the countryside.
If you come to my city, get your picture taken with a traditional Apsara dancer. Most of the performances are based in Siem Reap, close to the majestic temples, but in Phnom Penh there are a few dance schools that will let you watch the dance practices during the day.
Locals know to skip the Riverfront (the city’s crowded main drag) and check out Golden Street instead. Street 278 (Golden Street) is much calmer, with a few outdoor restaurants and nice guesthouses where you can stay, while still being central to the Independence monument and other major streets like Norodom and Sihanouk.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped I brave the traffic and congestion to get to the Sakura Recycle, a Japanese consignment shop. This place can really get you out of a bind with an interesting selection of cheap skirts, tops, shoes, and funky Japanese bags.
For a huge splurge I go to Raffles Grand Hotel. Located nearby the U.S. Embassy, this massive hotel is a peaceful, air-conditioned oasis. With a top notch gym, pool, and elegant Elephant bar, definitely spend a day here to relax and take in the Kipling-inspired (think The Jungle Book) decor.
Photo ops in my city include Independence Monument, Wat Phnom, Central Market. The best vantage points are from the riverboat rides on the Mekong or from the Sky Bar at night. If you can make it to any rooftop, most views from high above the city are great.
If my city were a celebrity it’d be Brittany Murphy from 8 Mile. She doesn’t have a lot of money, but she has a dream.
My city has the most resourceful men.
My city has the most resilient women.
In my city, an active day outdoors involves waking up very early to beat the heat (I would suggest getting out before 6:00 a.m.). You will lots of people jogging and exercising in any of the major courtyards or parks along the main avenues. Cambodians rise early, starting their day at 5:00 a.m. or earlier. There’s also a Phnom Penh Hash House Harriers club that gets together for a run every Sunday.
My city’s best museum is The National Museum (look for a very distinct red building, just behind the Royal Palace). It’s a tranquil retreat from the heat and full of Angkorian era artifacts and exhibits on Cambodian daily life.
My favorite jogging/walking route can be found a short ferry across the Mekong and through a small village and countryside. It’s only 500 riel (13 cents) to hop on the boat carrying locals back and forth all day. There are no lines and boats are always waiting to depart. Once across the river you can take a short 3-mile run along the dirt roads to see green trees, cows, rice paddies, and rural Cambodian life. It’s a short distance from the busy riverfront, but you feel worlds away.
For a night of dancing go to Heart of Darkness, Phnom Penh’s infamous club. I used to love this place but the music mash ups have become almost unbearable. If they can get a good DJ back in, it’s worth stumbling in to say you were there. Or, for live music, check out Equinox. The live music scene is slowly growing, with different venues hosting small reggae, Motown, or dub nights. Cambodia is still far from being on the map for music, but you may have heard of Dengue Fever. This L.A.-based rock band is Cambodia to the core and always draws big crowds back in the homeland.
Street 51 is the spot for late-night eats.This strip can be a little off-putting at first, but once you get into party mode, the burger trucks and falafel stands are great. I find it similar to Bangkok street food, and it’s always yummy and cheap. I feel very safe in Cambodia as a foreigner, but Street 51 is a matter of personal taste. If you don’t mind bar girls and somewhat seedy men, it’s worth checking out.
You can tell if someone is from my city if no matter what the heat index, they are still clothed in a hooded sweater, gloves, hat and kroma (a traditional scarf).
A hidden gem in my city is chocolate by The Shop. Real Belgian chocolate is made on-premise at this adorable little store. They even flavor some chocolates with traditional Cambodian ingredients, such as Kampot pepper or Kampong Speu honey.
For a great breakfast joint try Cafe Living Room or The Rising Sun – two very different places. The Living Room (a shaded, tucked-away house on Street 308) has good breakfast paninis and delicious fruit shakes. It’s also a social enterprise, working with local NGOs to provide skills training and employment for young Cambodians. The Rising Sun is close to the riverfront and offers a cheap breakfast that includes the classic egg, bacon, sausage, baked bean and toast combo. War film junkies will love this place for its decor.
The best way to see my city is by tuk tuk or cyclo tour. A tuk tuk to most places around the city is only $2, if you want to save just a little money, hop on a moto dop for $1.50. They are faster, but a tad less safe.
If my city were a pet it would be an iguana: smart, with a tough skin.
If I didn’t live in a city, I’d live in nature near the mountains. Perhaps back to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado or the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. The French countryside wouldn’t be too bad, either.
The best book about my city is First They Killed My Father. For me, it was a very realistic account of the horrors of life during the Khmer Rouge. Once you have visited Cambodia, it’s hard to imagine anyone surviving under the brutal conditions — the relentless sun, disease, starvation, and then of course torture and murder. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn what really happened here.
When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is ”Staring at the Sun” by TV on the Radio.
If you have kids, you won’t want to miss Angkor Wat or an ATV ride through the countryside. Although it’s 5 1/2 hours north of Phnom Penh, the temples and town of Siem Reap is a must-see. The ancient temples are true adventure for kids and adults.
Large street weddings could only happen in my city. Cambodian weddings are festive affairs that involve setting up massive (and colorful) rectangular tents in the middle of the busy streets. Floor-to-sky speakers play music day and night for 2-3 days straight. They’re a novelty at first, but can be a real drag living next to. Cambodians know how to party!
My city should be featured on your cover or website because in our modern world today, Phnom Penh is still very much the Wild West. Old timers will beg to differ, but I think it’s safe to say it still exudes a level of freedom and chaos. It’s vibrant, complex, tough, abrasive, beautiful, and innocent all at the same time. Cambodians are some of the friendliest and spirited people in the world and if you want to challenge yourself and be immersed in something far different than what you are used to, Phnom Penh has a lot to offer. The history and the people make this place unique.