Phnom Penh, Cambodia travel tips

Phnom Penh gives a first impression of a rough, ugly, sprawling town. The second impression is unfortunately much the same. With a huge expat community, the high end is very high. With the a large poor population, the low end is very low.

Where we ate:

  • Friends Restaurant, House #215, Street 13, website – A friendly, colorful and busy nonprofit restaurant run by former street youth, your dining dime goes to a good cause and excellent food. Filled with expats and tourists, in a good way. Todd was blown away by the chili-pineapple margarita and the food was adventurous: YEH
  • Boddhi Tree Aram Terrace Cafe, #70, Street 244 just south of the Palace, website – Another restaurant (and now that I look at the website, their sister hotels Umma and Del Gusto have nice looking shared-bath doubles) that benefits a nonprofit. We got a fruit museli and a “more traditional” Khmer breakfast of tomato-pineapple noodle soup, which was sublime, if you like that kinda sweet-sour-savory thing for breakfast. Free WiFi: YEH
  • Pineapple-tomato soup breakfast at Bhodi Tree - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    Pineapple-tomato soup breakfast at Bhodi Tree | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Frizz Restaurant – House #67, Street 240, website: See below for more about Frizz’s cooking class. Their amok was delish and the samlor kor ko vegetable soup was a new herbal experience. A nice place to snack and relax over a drink: YEH
  • Anise Restaurant, Ph57, Street 278 – Judging from appearances, it seemed like they’d serve a good Western breakfast, which Todd was in the mood for, but execution was unimpressive: MEH
  • Rubies Wine Bar, corner of Street 240 and Street 19 – A good sandwich, a friendly bartender, free WiFi and outlets: YEH
  • Khmer Borane Restaurant, 389 Sisawath Quay, website – We were suspicious of all of Phnom Penh’s hyper-touristy waterfront restaurants, but we found ourselves hungry and in the neighborhood. Khmer Borane had the most Khmer dishes on the menu, and the least Western. The amok (fish, curry, and coconut cream steamed in a banana leaf) and lok lok (sauteed beef with a vinegary peppery dipping sauce) were on the less than stellar side of ok, but the shredded pomelo salad (with the dried shrimps you wimp) was sublime: YEH
  • The pomelo salad was amazing - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    Khmer Borane’s pomelo salad was amazing, the rest not so much | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Sher-e-Punjab II, #72 Sotheares Blvd – We were tired and lazy, and not too hungry. Thankfully. This was some mediocre Indian food: NAH
  • Green Mango, Street 63 at Street 278 – We got beers and used their free WiFi. Good on those counts: YEH
  • Khmer Surin, #9 Street 57, south of 278 – Sometimes you have to see what all the fuss is about, and we heard this place did some very authentic Khmer food, packing the foodies and tourists alike into its three-floor restaurant. We were happy with our natang, a pork and coconut dip eaten with rice crackers that we’ve had at Angkor Borei in San Francisco, but the other dishes, though immensely portioned, were pricy and just not very fuss-worthy: MEH

Where we stayed:

  • Okay Guesthouse – Oh what a bunch of ninnies both run and stay at this place. The lobby/restaurant is filled with young Western tourists spending time watching movies and eating burgers, and the staff is filled with fibbers, exaggerators, and snarly bossy men. The bathroom in our none-too-cheap room stunk like a skunk (trick: wet a towel and pile it over the shower drain), and the room was small and dark. Adding insult to injury, since this is a popular backpacker place, at least a dozen aggressive tuk tuk touts constantly hover at the entrance, yelling at you as you come and go. We left after one night: NAH
  • Todd-Forgot-to-Write-Down-the-Name Guesthouse, to the right of Eden’s Bar, on Street 258 – On the same block as Okay, this place is just slightly less clean, but sunnier and larger rooms for much less. The family who owns the place lives in the lobby and in a few adjacent rooms. Don’t be turned off by the family’s younger son who you will probably see cleaning rooms in his boxers. He’s pretty helpful, though if he says he’ll book you a bus seat out of town, double check that he actually does: YEH

What we saw:

  • National Museum of Cambodia – Considering how much historic art has been stolen from Cambodia, this small museum has an impressive collection of Khmer Empire art. One of the better museums we saw in Southeast Asia. The museum building is very photogenic: YEH
  • Roof of the at the National Museum - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    Roof of Phnom Penh’s National Museum | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda – Maybe it was the ridiculously-high-for-Cambodia admission price of $6.25 each; or that the heralded silver floor of the Silver Pagoda was 90% covered in carpet or duct tape; or that the Palace’s garden pagodas were badly made poured cement constructions; or that displays were poorly lit, dusty, and cluttered; or that the beautifully muraled ceiling in the Throne Room was barely viewable since visitors were kept absurdly far back behind ropes; but the Palace was the least impressive sight in Phnom Penh: MEH
  • Bug carts in front of Palace – There’s a rinky dink parking lot that’s been taken over by a dozen stalls selling bowls of fried bugs, grubs, roaches, tarantulas, and snakes. Though the all-female vending force is clearly there for the tourist buck, they scream at you if you take pictures without buying some of their fried bugs. We passed because they bugs were clearly fried hours before and had been sitting in the intense sun. If we’re gonna eat bugs, we want them cooked fresh: MEH
  • Snake skewers with egg sacs - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    Snake skewers with egg sacs | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Frizz Restaurant Cooking Class – Well-worth it cooking class ($20 for a full day), where you will probably learn to make amok, pound your own red curry paste, and toss a banana flower salad. Each student gets their own station with a stove, and can eat the full-sized portions of the three dishes prepared during the class. Filling to say the least. The well-made cookbook you get has even more Khmer recipes: YEH
  • Today Hair Cut, next to #31 Suramarit St. (aka St. 268) – Todd needed a hair buzzing and got a great cut at this simple place for just $2. Lots of cars with diplomatic plates dropped off Cambodian clients during Todd’s cut: YEH
  • Bohr’s Books, 5 Sothearos Blvd – We managed the near miraculous here, trading in slightly used guidebooks for Laos and Vietnam, and picking up a few decent titles to read. Of course, you have to bargain for a decent price for your trade-in, but that’s the way: YEH
  • Choeng Ek Genocidal Center – Of course, you must go. You don’t need a guide inside, but it’s good to get an English-speaking driver and guide like Peter Tuk Tuk Driver so you have the history: YEH
  • Tuol Sleng Muesum – Another must-see. A guide is helpful, though if you’re on a budget you can probably “tour barnacle” onto someone else’s tour if you ask nicely: YEH
  • Independence Monument – Well, it’s tall: MEH
  • Monks circumabulate Independence Monument at sunset - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    Monks circumambulate Independence Monument at sunset | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Mulberry Boutique, #9 Street 51 (Pasteur) at 278 Street – Cute shops abound in this section of Phnom Penh. Some share their proceeds with a nonprofit, some are just overpriced traps. Here, we found a few things we liked: YEH
  • Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Company bus to Siem Reap – Finding a bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is surprisingly complicated. After doing some research so we’d know a fair price, we booked through our hotel. The bus made meal stops at places with cheap, basic, but safe and tasty local food (noodles with curry, pork on rice, pomelo with chili salt, fried tarantulas), and we made it there on time, more or less: YEH