Phnom Penh was the first stop on my SE Asia leg as it was my friend Mick’s 30th birthday and I didn’t want to miss it. Phnom Penh, like most places around SE Asia that I have now come to discover in February is quite a dusty from pollution and a smoke and haze blankets the area caused by agricultural burn off that occurs across most of the countries in the region. During this time, the weather starts to becomes hotter as the year goes on can reach well over 40 degrees for days on end.
As I wasn’t going out till late at night, I found myself waking up quite early in the morning. My daily routine would be: Get up, eat soup/rice and pork for breakfast, work on one of my projects, nap around 2pm at the peak of the heat and then go off exploring from the late afternoon, into the evening and then we’d head out for dinner and Beer Lao. In fact, I would easily say that I put on some weight in my time in Phnom Penh. Staying with expat locals who are equally obsessed with food as I am does not help with the waistline. It doesn’t seem like I was doing much but I didn’t have any difficulty finding things to do in Phnom Penh during my time there.
Getting around the main central areas of Phnom Penh is pretty easy. The city is so flat, you can cover quite a lot of ground on bicycle. Some areas may be a bit of a push to cover the distance by bike in the late afternoons but the price of a tuk tuk is around $3 for a 10-15 min ride. I would highly recommend going either in the mornings or late afternoon and just chill with a coconut juice in the mid afternoon.
Here’s are ten thing that I enjoyed doing early in the mornings or late afternoons whilst exploring the city.
1 – Check out the architecture
You wouldn’t consider Phnom Penh as a place with amazing architecture, but I thought it was charming and interesting nonetheless. With a mix of colonial style buildings influienced by the French colonisation as well as the new Khmer architecture, you’ll be able to find a mix of old crumbly buildings such as a the old police station to well preserved ones like that of the old post office. When in doubt, just look up beyond the tangled twisty mess of power lines to spot the charming old buildings.
See Khmer Architecture Tours (www.ka-tours.org) for more details on Phnom Penh architecture and free walking maps.
2- Get cultured at The National Museum
The national museum has over 14,000 pieces of Khmer art and cultural artifacts including paintings, sculptures, jewellery, ceramics and other works of metal. Centrally located, it is adjacent the University of the Fine Arts where they aid in the recovery and restoration of artefacts. The building has a feeling of an enlarged temple primarily with Khmer features as well as subtle colonial elements incorporated. The building is also square shaped with high ceilings and allowing plenty of cool airflow to circulate on hot days.
Opening hours are 8am-5pm and the admission price is $5
3 – Stock up for lunch at Central Market
Come here before midday to grab some lunch. There’s an array of vendors on the edge of the main market building that will dish up freshly cooked dishes such as soups, curries, bbq’d meat and other cooling and lighter dishes such as salads and rice paper rolls. If you love seeing your food alive then the wriggling catfish and eels will have you jumping for joy. Go further into the centre of the market where the building opens up to a huge golden dome shaped room which stays cool all day long.
You can find pretty much anything you want from electronics to shoes, clothing and jewellery. It is a tourist market so it is difficult to bargain down. If you want a deal then you should go find a specific market for what you need here.
The Central Market operating hours are between 7am – 5pm.
4 – Enduldge with some Hot pot
It seems counterintuitive to eat hot pot when it’s warm but one the other hand there’s something in a hot pot that fires up those friendly feel good endorphin chemicals in your body. Throughout the city, there are many places that offer hot pot outdoors where you can sit down on plastic tables and chairs and watch people zip by on scooters. Whether outdoors or indoors, this interactive ritual of adding a mix of noodles, vegetables, seafood and meat to a bubbling broth makes for a fun night out with new or existing friends. I would have gone to about four different places during my time in Phnom Penh. Costs range from $5 set menus to $10 all you can eat sushi train like buffets.
5 – Take a dip in the pool at the Sofitel Hotel
Ok this might not be everybody’s cup of tea but admission to the pool is included if you book the Sunday lunch buffet which includes all you can drink Veuve Clicquot champagne for $80. Towels, robes, slippers and the all that jazz are available from the immaculate looking change rooms as well. No wonder why it was voted the best Spa facility in Asia. You will never want to leave the sauna.
6 – Sunset drinks at the FCC
Also known as the Foreign Correspondents Club and centrally located on the Riverside, you can get a good view point of the river on sunset despite the sun actually setting behind the building. Sit at the back corner balcony if you want to see the sunset. There’s an extensive cocktail list (although slightly on the sweeter side) and they have 2 for 1 specials in the early evenings to enjoy whilst admiring the colonial interior and the old photos hanging from the walls. It gets crowded quickly so get there early. It’s not a place that I would stay for too long but there are many other places to move on to after happy hour is done.
7 – Cycle around the Independence Monument
If you don’t recognise the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh while you’re visiting then you’ve been hiding under a rock. Shaped like a lotus flower like the temples at Angkor Wat, the monument was built in the 50’s to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from the French. Located on the intersection of the Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard, it is the site for many national celebrations.
Behind the monument is the statue of Norodum Sihanouk, the popular king who died in 2012. Many locals can be seen using the strip of land the statue is on for afternoon exercise activities of just catching up with friends. It was only a couple of hundred metres from where I was staying and made for a great place to people watch.
8 – Walk around the area where you are staying
There’s so much going on with regards to infrastructure and property development that there could be some new restaurants or shops opening up just around the corner. If you don’t feel like venturing out too far, just walk a few blocks around from where you’re staying. One many occasions I found lots of cheap places to eat and some cool hole in the wall bars to drink at.
9 – Stroll through the Royal Palace
Built in 1866 close to the river side, the palace is occupied by the king whenever he is in town. When he is not in residence, certain sections are available for the public to visit. The intricately designed buildings are largely covered in gold and the surrounding grounds immaculately kept with many ponds and statues dotting the grounds.
If you don’t feel like going inside then the grassed area outside of the walls in between the northern end of the palace across from the river offers a great location to relax and watch the sun set behind the palace. Many locals hang out there as well as monks who visit from around the world.
Admission cost is $3.00/person.
Opening hours: Monday-Sunday 7:30am-11:00am / 2:00pm-5:00pm. Make sure you dress appropriately with your shoulders, knees and chest covered.
10 – Aerobics at the Olympic Stadium during Sunset
About a 15 minute tuk tuk ride from the city centre is the Olympic Stadium. With capacity to hold up to 50,000 people, it is host to an array of activities every afternoon. Runners pound the oval track, whilst the soccer team goes through their training drills. Along the rim of the eastern side of the oval are groups of local aerobics enthusiasts. Varying in all demographics, shapes and sizes, they all get stuck into the exercise routines, moving around to cheesy high NRG music. Join in the action of just sit back with some beers and snacks from nearby food vendors and enjoy the setting sun.
What are your favourite things to do when escaping the heat?