Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Discovering Phnom Penh in a few hours


As soon as I heard a new cafe serving six types of freshly roasted coffee beans has just opened up in Phnom Penh,  I decided to try it out yesterday. Being a coffee lover (note, not addict), I was anxious to see for myself whether it’s as good as what the review has said.

As I was riding in a tuk-tuk on my way to Cafe Symphonies (#81, Sisowath Quay), we went past a busy and crowded crossroads between Street 13 and Street 108. I haven’t really been there before but the atmosphere was a harbinger of something interesting to come. There was so much action going on judging from the throngs of people moving around purposefully. I made a mental note to trace back to the place right after I had my breakfast and a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

Alas! Cafe Symphonies does not serve food and I was not willing to drink a strong cup of coffee with an empty stomach. But as the review said, the lovely and intoxicating aroma of roasted coffee was worth the short whiff. I told the lady that I would come back after having my lunch, but I didn’t. Street 110 was too much of an excitement for a day and coffee would just send me right over the top.

Anyway, I was glad that I didn’t leave my photo camera behind. As I walked back to that crossroad, I was pleasantly surprised by the assault of local scent, noise, taste and colour at every corner. Most tourists or expats would normally stop by the tonnes of restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels lining Sisowath Quay (aka Riverfront) and only a few manage to walk further down on Street 110 towards Street 13. I guess I’m one of the lucky few.

I was glad that I stumbled upon this path less travelled by many of us. If you are here in Phnom Penh and plan to do some walk-about around the city, you might want to consider this itinerary.

0900: Breakfast at the Amazon Bistro (#8, Street 102)

Amazon Bistro food

Start off your morning tour with a hearty breakfast and Jazz and Bossa Nova music at this small bistro situated at a relatively quiet street. The old buildings with French louvers are rather quaint and charming. For just US$5, you get a full breakfast of scrambled eggs, croissant, toast with butter and jam, a cup of Vietnamese coffee and orange juice (not fresh though). However, if you prefer to go native, there is a restaurant just right next to the Amazon Bistro serving rice, noodles with mixed vegetables and meat although Amazon Bistro serves local cuisine as well.

Amazon Bistro_2_com  Amazon Bistro inside Laundry_com

0945: Market area on the crossroad of Street 13 and 110

Busy crossroad_com

Before proceeding to the market, it’s worth stopping by at the infamous Green Vespa pub (#95, Sisowath Quay), if only just to have a look at the monochromatic pictures of beautiful international actresses posing with different models of vespa mounted on the walls.  Go on and have a draft beer if you feel like it, especially if you’re on vacation.

Unfortunately, I felt that the owner wasn’t too friendly. Perhaps, all the fame has gone into his head and the place is mostly frequented by expats, especially those of the middle-aged, beer-bellied type.

Before heading towards Street 106, walk past across the Bopha Phnom Penh Titanic Restaurant and enjoy the view of its strikingly beautiful traditional Khmer roof.  Along Street 106, you’ll see an old laundry shop on your right. Walk further down and turn left. You’ll reach the crossroad of Street 13 (see picture below) and 108. Remember to look to your right and left before crossing the road.


This open market is rather small compared to the dozens of others around the city. It might just as well since the bigger market can be quite daunting especially if you’re not used to the heat and crowd.

Since it’s open, you can observe pedlars selling pickled fruits, spiced cockles, broomsticks and sugarcane juice on their bicycles or carts. Otherwise, watch the bored look of cyclo-riders and fruit vendors staring into vacant spaces as they wait patiently for the arrival of customers. Who says business is easy when the economy is down?


Fruit vendors_com         Peddlar_5_com

As you can see below, Cambodia is bestowed with a tropical climate which makes it a haven for growing fruits. Here, you can find almost any fruits you would  normally find in other parts of South East Asia (bananas, rambutans, durians, mangosteens, dragonfruits, oranges, etc.), but they somehow look juicier, fresher and I would suppose cheaper as well. It’s true that bananas that are as big as your little finger are the sweetest. Don’t forget to pick up some lotus flowers along the way. The subtle but alluring fragrance beats any synthetic air freshener anytime.

 Fruits vendor_3_com Customers_com Lotus flowers_com

Walking about in the heat will no doubt leave you thirsty and perhaps peckish as well. Do try the freshly squeezed sugarcane juice and some of the local snacks such as grilled fish or cockles. The sugarcane juice is normally mixed with a squeeze of fresh lime juice to tame the sweetness, giving it a refreshing quench. If you’re concerned about the hygiene, it might reassure you that I’ve not had any unwanted incident yet. Besides, the smell of grilled fish will most likely make it difficult to resist.

Street 110_4_com  Grilled fish_com

1100: Shop along Street 110 and arrive at Sisowath Quay (aka Riverfront)

Now that you have check out the market area, it’s time to do some shopping indoors. Turn back and walk along Street 110 towards the Riverfront. If you’re a knife lover, you’ll be happy to find Citadel (#11, Street 110), an internationally known shop specializing in all kinds of knives produced locally at a workshop situated near the international airport.

Once finished, walk just a few steps further and you’re back at the Riverfront. Take a right turn and walk along the rows of shops, cafes and restaurants. Not far away, you’ll come across a cookie shop called Camory Cookies (#167, Sisowath Quay), what they claim as the best cookie in town. There is a small table at the entrance for you to sample the different types of cookies sold. The oatmeal with cashew nut and palm sugar with honey are simply delicious! If you decide to buy some (US$3/10 pieces), 50% of what you pay would go towards an orphanage.

Cookie sampling_com Cookie store_com Cookie with a difference_2_com

1200: Lunch with a twist at the Mekong River Restaurant (#1, Corner of Street 118 & Sisowath Quay)

Situated at the crossroad between Street 118 and Sisowath Quay, the Mekong River restaurant is rather special for two things. Firstly, it plays two documentaries in English and French daily at scheduled time with a charge of US$3/person (please call 012494705 for the schedule). Now, watching Pol Pot:The History of Genocide and The Mines in Cambodia and the World may not go down well with your food, but you can always catch the documentaries later on in the evening.

Secondly, you are able to try snake wine at the restaurant (definitely not for the faint-hearted or animal activists). I have a strong feeling that most people will be able to swallow the documentaries easier than the wine. If you like them, you can buy some  at 3 different sizes, selling at USD$6.50, 10.50 and 16.50 each, they all come with a baby cobra and scorpion stuffed into recycled Hennessy Cognac bottles.

Potent remedy_2_com Potent remedy_com

1315: Continue shopping along Sisowath Quay

Shopping with a difference_2_com

Once you’re stuffed, burn off some calories by continuing to walk along the Riverfront. Take a few minutes to look at the different silk products at the KNN Cambodia Arts and Crafts (#169E, Sisowath Quay). If you feel like doing something for the environment, it sells some pretty creative bags and note pads made out of recycled materials.

For men, if have gone to Indonesia or Malaysia but failed to buy some cotton batik shirts, you can find some along the way. Do remember to look up because they are hung high up above the shops and are easy to miss.

1400: End your tour with a massage at Islands Massage (approaching corner of Street 130)

From the exterior, this massage place doesn’t look too enticing especially when compared to so many other spas along the Riverfront. However, with a great bargain at US$8/1 hour full body oil massage, you’ll be pleased to know that the massages are in fact really good and it comes with an adventure as well. You’ll be brought into a really dark room with only the soft music guiding your senses and right there, you’re asked to strip. It’s up to you whether you choose to strip down to the bare minimum or retain your underclothing.

Don’t expect a massage table because there are just mattresses lining the whole floor (so yes, it’s not an individual room but a shared common room). As soon as you’re asked to lie down, the masseur immediately treats you to an hour of blissful kneading, pounding and twisting of your body in total darkness. I assure you that it may seem alarming at first but once you allow your sense of adventure to take over, you’ll be wanting to go back for more. The good thing is, only ladies are allowed (sorry, guys!).


I find that whether you are living in Phnom Penh or just visiting, the city has the ability to continuously surprise you. Phnom Penh is not just about the pagodas, Royal Palace, the Killing Field or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. All you need is to walk around the city and you’re bound to stumble across a street that is filled with a lot of local flavour.

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