Victoria Burrows and Reggie Ho take in Khmer treasures and expat movie houses on a walking tour of the Cambodian capital.
National Museum of Cambodia
Housed in a spectacular, burgundy-red Khmer-style building with an elegant multi-layered and multi-spired roof, the National Museum on Street 13, next to the Royal Palace, features cool, high-ceilinged halls and serene gardens with lily ponds in the central courtyard. The building, which opened in 1917, was designed by Frenchman George Groslier, a historian and curator who helped drive the revival of interest in traditional Cambodian arts and crafts.
The architecture alone is worth seeing but the artefacts inside – a small but jaw-dropping collection that exudes a powerful sense of Cambodia’s “golden age” of Angkor – are even more stunning. From the centrepiece statue of King Jayavarman VII, who reigned in the 12th and 13th centuries, in meditation pose, to the graceful stone carvings of Hindu gods, to delicate ceramics and incredibly detailed paintings, it’s a visual feast. Open 8am-5pm daily. Entry is US$3. Tel +855 2321 1753; cambodiamuseum.info
Set up by non-governmental organisation Friends International, this charming café – across the street from the museum at number 215 – is staffed by former homeless youngsters who are training to work in the hospitality industry. The café offers affordable Western, Laotian and Khmer dishes, with plenty of vegetarian options, as well as fresh fruit shakes and frozen daiquiris. You can sit in the small garden at the front or inside the funky main dining room. After a tasty bite, the Friends shop (a short walk down the road) sells reasonably priced notebooks, hanging mobiles, wallets, toys and jewellery handcrafted from recycled materials. Profits from both the eatery and the shop are put back into projects for street children. Open daily 11am-9pm. Tel +855 1280 2072; friends-international.org
Head towards the Tonle Sap river until you hit the Sisowath Quay boulevard. Very few visitors to Phnom Penh will leave without having visited the waterfront street, lined with shops, bars, restaurants and boutique hotels. It is busy by day and night, and everything you need can be found within a few blocks. If all you want to do is sit by the roadside with a drink and watch the world go by, there are many places that allow just that. Otherwise, a stroll down the promenade to admire the blend of colonial and Khmer architecture is also a delightful experience. Two of the most famous landmarks here are Wat Ounalom – an ornate monastery dating back to 1422 – and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a bar, eatery and boutique hotel housed in a converted French villa. Visit fcccambodia.com
Turn right at Boulevard Samdach and continue on to the new-build Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, where the road meets Boulevard Samdach Sothearos. Even though it only opened in March, it aspires to bring back the atmosphere of a bygone era. It is slightly out of the way of the busiest areas of the city but that is also part of its charm. Le Bar in the lobby is a great place to sit down for a cocktail or glass of wine while soaking in the colonial atmosphere created by dark woods, roomy leather chairs and ceiling lamps. You could imagine yourself transported back to the 1930s heyday of French Indochina… except with air con and wifi. 26 Old August Site, Sothearos Boulevard. Open 10am-10pm. Visit sofitel.com
Walk south down Boulevard Samdach, which becomes Boulevard Mao Tse Toung, turning left at Street 163 and onwards until the road meets Street 444. Phnom Penh has a few markets but this one, covering one block, is the most fun for treasure hunters with its maze of small, dark paths between stalls selling a mind-boggling array of goods, from Buddha statues – hand-carved by local artisans – to motorcycle engine parts. The covered market is named after the Russian expatriates it attracted in the 1980s and, today, it continues to pull in visitors of various nationalities as well as local Cambodians. Start at one corner and go systematically through the aisles, or have a wander and see what you find. At some point you will reach the row of food stalls in the centre. Open daily from 7am to 5pm.
There isn’t much to do here in the evening other than drink in bars, which is why a pair of expats opened the Flicks movie house in 2009. Housed in a converted double-storey colonial home on Street 95 (back down Boulevard Mao Tse Toung then turn left) the Flicks shows Western films on a six-metre-wide screen. Audiences recline on mattress-sized cushions on the wooden floor or lounge on rattan sofas at the back. Expect everything from classics such as The Terminator to the latest Harry Potter or European art house titles. Show times are at 6pm and 8pm on weekdays, with an extra show at 4pm on weekends. Tickets are US$3.50 per person, and cold drinks, ice cream, finger food, warm snacks and hot-buttered popcorn are available at the bar. You can even order meals such as moussaka or beef fillet, to be delivered during the film. 39B Street 95. Visit theflicks-cambodia.com