An insider's guide to Phnom Penh, Southeast Asia’s new capital of cool

Phnom Penh, view from inside tuk tuk taxi, Cambodia
Phnom Penh from inside a tuk-tuk, one of the fastest ways to get around the city. © Walter Bibikow / Getty

Phnom Penh has often struggled to be defined by anything other than its grim past under the Khmer Rouge. Even today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields of Choeung Ek count amongst the most visited sights. Yet the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979; more than 70% of the current population is under 30 and they’re out to definitively rewrite the image of Cambodia's capital.

Fortunately, Cambodia was able to maintain some normalcy the last year and a half, documented here by Lonely Planet contributor Nicky Ray. 

Coming out of the pandemic, the Phnom Penh reemerges as a rapidly rising metropolis with glittery skyscrapers, world-class restaurants and one of the fastest-growing major airports in the world. From gender-bending dancers to backyard brewers and aspiring artists, innovation is happening here, as the city sheds the cloak of the past and looks towards the future with optimism. 

Street scene with tuk tuk cab, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh is emerging as a hotbed for artists, brewers and culinary stars © Getty Images

Where to get the best coffee in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh’s classic attractions – including the ornate Royal Palace, art deco Central Market and hilltop Wat Phnom (where the city’s story begins) – all hug the mighty Mekong River north of Preah Sihanouk Boulevard. It’s a great place to watch saffron-clad monks stroll past glimmering wats and to dive into pungent markets, but to see the trendier side of town, it’s best to head south and inland.

Boeung Keng Kang (BKK) is a leafy area just below Preah Sihanouk that’s popular with ex-pats thanks to its third-wave coffee shops (with Cambodian beans!) and fashionable eco-friendly boutiques, particularly around Golden Street (St 278) and Langka Lane.

Nearby, in the newly hip Russian Market neighborhood, traditional shows take place every evening at the National Museum, the world’s largest repository of Khmer sculpture.

On the southern edge of town, a 3.4-hectare former Levi's factory was completely transformed in 2018 into Factory Phnom Penh, a mural-covered hub for entrepreneurs, artists and creative thinkers. On a ride through the sprawling campus (there are 50 free-to-use bikes) you encounter four galleries, including the nation’s largest contemporary art space, Kbach. There’s also a skate park, theatre, cinema, market, restaurants, brewery and co-working space, so you can easily park yourself here for hours.


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Street food is among some of the best food in Phnom Penh
Street food is among some of the best food in Phnom Penh © Steve Estvanik / Shutterstock

Where to eat and make a difference

Sandwiched between the culinary powerhouses of Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia may not seem like much of a foodie destination. Think again. Visitors arriving in the capital with low expectations are often taken aback by the creativity of Phnom Penh’s emerging chefs.

Can’t-miss restaurants include Nesat Seafood House (serving the best soft-shell crabs and oysters plucked from the southern coast), Malis (the pinnacle of Khmer fine dining) and Vibe Café (where you can check the pulse of the city’s growing vegan scene).

Phnom Penh also boasts a number of places where you can dine for a cause, including the art-filled House of Scott, which is a creative partnership between the Cambodian Children’s Fund and Academy of Culinary Arts. Local humanitarian organization Tree Alliance runs vocational training for at-risk youth at two of the city’s chief addresses: Friends (for fusion tapas) and Romdeng (for Cambodian country fare like amok, a traditional curry dish). You can also eat with the lights off at Dine in the Dark, where visually impaired waiters guide you through three-course meals meant to awaken underutilized senses.

A mural of Salvador Dalí has been painted on two huge doors on rollers; the doors are partly open, so his contorted face is pulled apart. Through the doors is an almost empty, open industrial space.
Factory, a former Levi's factory, is now a hub for entrepreneurs and creative thinkers © Mark Johanson / Lonely Planet

The best local drink to order in Phnom Penh

Sleazy hostess bars and dingy boozers where washed-up Westerners hold court with visiting backpackers are becoming a thing of the past as the city moves towards a more sophisticated nightlife scene. At newer bars, you’re more likely to find a flair for design and a penchant for (dangerously affordable) craft cocktails.

At the heart of the movement is Bassac Lane, a tiny alleyway off St 308 with a clutch of closet-sized bars catering to the city’s hip bohemian set. Take a five-minute stroll from here and you’ll find the source ingredient for many of the libations: Samai. Sugarcane has its roots in Southeast Asia, so the Venezuelan owners of this premium rum distillery see themselves as bringing the spirit full circle. Try local infusions like Kampot Pepper Rum at tasting parties each Thursday evening.

Across town in the Russian Market neighborhood, check out Sundown Social Club, a funky rooftop bar offering bird’s-eye views over the Russian Market and Riel Brewing, one of a dozen new craft breweries (other standouts include Himawari and Cerevisia). 

When the clock ticks past midnight, clubs kick into action around the intersection of St 51 and St 172, appropriately nicknamed “Area 51”. Several LGBTQ establishments here, including Blue Chili and Heart of Darkness, draw big crowds for their lavish late-night drag shows.

Phnom Penh outdoor dining
There are plenty of great outdoor dining options throughout Phnom Penh © gagula / Shutterstock

Best recommendations on where to stay

Phnom Penh offers incredible value for money, with a dizzying array of hostels, guesthouses and luxurious resorts catering to all tastes and budgets.

Backpacking couples looking for peace and privacy rave about SLA, a boutique hostel near the National Museum whose spotless dorms include double bunk beds with privacy curtains. Poshpackers who want perks like a pool and a bar without the chaos of a full-on party hostel book beds at Manor House, a one-time villa hotel near Independence Monument that’s managed to transform into a budget option without losing its charm.

Those willing to spend US$40 or more will be spoiled for choice. The high-rise Patio Hotel boasts inlaid stone showers in its art-filled rooms, a panoramic rooftop infinity pool and an unrivaled setting on one of the city’s trendiest alleyways in BKK. Steps away near Wat Langka, Villa Langka is a more low-key affair with rooms in a traditional Khmer villa all overlooking a shaded pool and fragrant gardens.

The MAADS hotel group dominates the city’s upmarket boutique scene with some of the most atmospheric urban hotels in all of Southeast Asia. Their newest outpost is tropical-chic Penh House, near the Royal Palace, but the best is still Pavilion, around the corner. This elegant adults-only establishment is housed in a dreamy French villa with two teal swimming pools and many more private plunge pools attached to its handsome suites.

This country with limited Covid-19 cases never went into lockdown
This article was first published on November 20, 2019 and updated on November 11, 2021

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