The capital of Cambodia it may be, but Phnom Penh is a bite-sized town, and it’s easy to combine sightseeing, shopping, eating and drinking into a single walk through the city. The key to connecting the dots is the town’s riverside promenade, Sisowath Quay, which runs along the west bank of the Tonle Sap River.
Our journey begins at the top attraction of the city, the Royal Palace, on Sothearos Blvd just one block to the west of Sisowath Quay. The King of Cambodia still lives here, but much of the palace, including the throne room and the famed Silver Pagoda, is open to the public. The manicured gardens are nearly as dazzling as the colorful glass tiles of the palace roof. Open 7-11 AM, 2-5 PM daily, entry $3 (plus $2 for a camera). No shorts or bare shoulders allowed, but you can rent T-shirts and sarongs for a token 1000 riel at the entrance.
Just across the street from the Palace you’ll find the National Museum, featuring some of the finest Angkorian art anywhere, including the remarkable statue of the Leper King. And if you’re heard the disturbing rumors, fear not: the infamous bat colony moved out after the 2002 renovation, so you no longer need to carry an umbrella when touring the exhibits inside! Open 8 AM-5 PM daily, entry $3.
By this point a cool drink probably sounds nice, so head down to the riverfront and make your way to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) at 363 Sisowath Quay. This Phnom Penh institution is in a renovated colonial building and its second-floor terrace offers sweeping views over the river, a great Khmer-Western menu and a list of signature cocktails ($4.50): try the Tonle Sap Breezer or the Burmese Rum Sour. The bar is open until midnight and a very popular nightspot on weekends.
Around the FCC are a number of interesting shops and boutiques. Colours of Cambodia at 373 Sisowath Quay specializes in handicrafts from around the country, while the aptly named Happy Painting Gallery just next door has colorful paintings of Cambodian life. Street 178, around the corner, is also known as “Artists’ Street” and Kravan House at #13 has a wide range of Cambodian silk products, including a wide range of ladies’ handbags at a fraction of the price you would pay in a hotel gift shop.
Up the street is Wat Ounalom, which dates back to 1422 and is one of the five original founding monasteries of Phnom Penh, but if you feel like you’ve seen enough temples for the day then just keep on walking. The left side of the road here is full of bars and restaurants packed with tourists, while the quayside park on the right fills up with food stalls and picnicking Khmers on weekends and in the evenings. You may even spot a few brave souls swimming in the river, but for an easier close-up look, the Chenla Floating Restaurant opposite the Paragon Hotel at 219B Sisowath Quay offers dinner cruises (set menu $8, departure nightly at 17:30).
A few hundred meters further on is the ferry terminal for boats to Siem Reap (Angkor) and Street 104, with backpacker-friendly pubs and guesthouses. Continue a bit further onwards and turn left onto St. 94, and you’ll see the spire of Wat Phnom up ahead. This hilltop pagoda marks the spot where the city was founded, and is always busy with pilgrims and fortune-tellers. You may also spot Sam Bo, the city’s only elephant, who has been giving tourists rides for over 40 years. Entry $1.
On the other side of Wat Phnom are the twin boulevards of St. 92 and 96, with the fortresslike bulk of the American embassy standing guard. At the western end of St. 92, just a short stroll away, is the city’s colonial landmark hotel, Raffles Le Royal. If you’ve made it this far, reward yourself with a drink at the famous Elephant Bar, and don’t leave without sampling the delectable tiny pastries at the Le Phnom deli (only $0.50 a piece, half price after 6 PM). Pick a moto or tuk-tuk from the crowd waiting outside (don’t forget to agree on the price in advance) and head back – your slice of the city is now complete.
Originally published in Jetstar Asia’s inflight magazine.