–by Gabrielle Yetter
Funny place, Phnom Penh. You either love it (like I do) or hate it (like I did when I first arrived).
If you’re looking for glamour, nightlife, or sophistication, it won’t be on your to-do list. But, if you want to step outside the pages of the travel brochures that suggest you visit the palace, museum, and killing fields, you’re likely to see a local side of Phnom Penh that is far more captivating and compelling. It’s what made me to fall in love with it.
7:30am or earlier – Start the day at Psaar Kandal, a local produce market which stretches from Street 154 to 136 two blocks west of the river. As the city comes to life, you’ll see vendors selling live frogs, flapping fish, and brightly coloured fruit and vegetables; you’ll inhale pungent aromas of fried noodle soup and coriander and watch as locals haggle over slabs of fresh meat hanging on hooks on the street.
8:30am – Have a local breakfast of bai saw saik chrook (a delicious dish of steamed rice with grilled pork and condiments) at a street side restaurant on Street 214 near Street 107 ($1, which includes a cup of tea).
9:30am – Walk over to Psaar Orrussey. This enormous three-story market is frequented by local Khmer people and is an aromatic, frenzied whirlwind of activity as women shop for groceries, vendors sit on the stairs with enormous baskets filled with desserts and bunches of morning glory, and storekeepers dangle in hammocks fanning themselves with pieces of cardboard until a buyer comes along. You’ll find plastic bags filled with 100 Chinese knickknacks, ceramic dishes and housewares, automotive parts, sequinned fabrics, flipflops, garden tools, and gold painted statues, among other things.
11am – Walk a few blocks to the Chinese herb shops surrounding the market on Street 166. There’s a traditional remedy for every ailment: dried plants which are said to soothe gastric issues, balms to ease muscular aches, and herbal teas to make you stronger or more virile. Most are displayed in dusty glass counters or spilling out of enormous straw baskets on the street.
2pm – Get a tuktuk to the riverside near NagaWorld Casino and take the ferry to the other side of the Tonle Sap (ferries run often and cost 12 cents). When you disembark, rent a bicycle for $4 at a roadside store and explore. You’re now in Kandal province, which is only 15 mins from the bustle of Phnom Penh but feels like a world away. Tiny children run to the road and shout “hello” as you ride by, herds of cows meander along the paths, and the dusty roads are almost empty save for an occasional motorbike or pick-up truck that rumbles by.
Within a mile of the ferry landing, you’ll find a temple (look out for the giant prawn sculptures on the exterior) with spectacular paintings over the walls and ceiling. At the end of the opposite path is a silk farm where you can drop by, see the mulberry trees, observe the silkworms, and watch as weavers spin shimmering scarves and sarongs. It’s a far cry from the sophisticated Silk Farm in Siem Reap which, while still fascinating, is set up more for tourists. This place is simple, rustic, and real.
4:30pm – Take the ferry back across to the city. You’ll need to shower, as you’re probably pretty dusty and definitely pretty hot.
5:30pm – Have a sunset cocktail at Phnom Penh’s most spectacular new rooftop bar – Eclipse, at the top of the Phnom Penh Tower on Monivong Blvd (near Street 240). Prices are western-style but for the price of a $6 cocktail, you’ll get a jaw-dropping view of the city that you won’t see anywhere else.
7pm – Soak up some Cambodian culture at the National Museum with Plae Pakaa – a programme consisting of three rotating shows of Cambodian dance, theatre, and music every night. Just show up at the museum to buy tickets or book in advance here.