On Norodom Boulevard, one of Phnom Penh’s oldest arteries, a huge, new LED screen dramatically outlines the tiered eaves of the Buddhist temple Wat Langka in shadow. Around the corner, the recently erected, towering statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, founding father of modern-day Cambodia, looks on as teenagers dressed like K-pop stars zip by on motorbikes, and uniformed officials in SUVs navigate the thronged streets. It’s this juxtaposition of traditional and modern life, of the enduring and the mutable, that defines the capital today. As high-rises transform the skyline, stylish restaurants serving food and drink that spans the globe have arrived. Yet, the city retains a provincial intimacy found in its tree-lined streets, tranquil pagodas and thriving local markets.
1. Drinking Up History | 5 p.m.
Jacqueline Onassis, Catherine Deneuve, Angelina Jolie: Phnom Penh has been luring the chic for decades. And they’ve all stayed at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, which has witnessed Phnom Penh’s many incarnations since 1929, even providing safe haven for journalists before the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city in 1975. Nowadays, embassy and workers in nongovernmental organizations gather at its Elephant Bar, lounging on rattan furniture along arched windows overlooking gardens, sipping drinks like the Femme Fatale — Champagne, crème de fraise sauvage, Cognac — which Jackie is said to have enjoyed in 1967 . (A lipstick-stained glass on display supposedly touched the former first lady’s lips.) The bar is named for the 1,396 elephants in its décor, though a renovation is planned.(Drinks, $12; U.S. dollars are the de facto currency in Cambodia.)
2. Dance With the Stars | 7 p.m.
With its tusk-like eaves, the century-old terra-cotta red building housing the National Museum, which displays pre-Angkorean and Angkorean artifacts, is stunning, especially at sunset. Several nights a week, its tranquil garden provides a backdrop to Plae Pakaa, performances organized by Cambodian Living Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Khmer song and dance. In ornate costumes and makeup, performers as young as 14 recreate tales and ceremonies, contorting their hands and feet to awe-inspiring angles. Musicians playing traditional instruments provide the hypnotic soundtrack. Tickets, $13.50.
3. Cambodian Cuisine | 8:30 p.m.
Still recovering from the Khmer Rouge’s near-total cultural annihilation, Cambodian cuisine has struggled to find a spot among Southeast Asia’s more familiar flavors. Luckily, the food — known for its subdued qualities and expert use of herbs — has its champions. At Malis, the country’s celebrity chef Luu Meng produces sophisticated renditions of traditional recipes in a romantic outdoor setting with water features, dim lighting and a life-size Buddha. Try the green mango and smoked fish salad and prahok ktis, a pungent, fermented fish dip ($7.50 each). At the Common Tiger, the South African Timothy Bruyns creates a five-course tasting menu that stimulates the eyes as much as the palate. Sit on the leafy terrace sampling dishes like a deconstructed tom kha, or coconut soup, with sea bass and cured raw tuna with hot basil gel ($50 per person).
4. Serious About Drinking | 10:30 p.m.
Leading the new wave of sleek bar options is Bar.Sito, a smoky, moody, masculine cocktail bar hidden down a narrow lane off Street 240. Espresso martinis and negronis ($5) go down easily to the lounge and dance beats. With arched brick doorways and spacious booths, the French-run Bouchon is a charming spot for a glass of Médoc or a home-infused vodka martini. Head to the anything-goes intersection of Streets 51 and 178, where the expat party goes late. At the black-and-white-themed dive bar Zeppelin Cafe, order a $2 gin and tonic and dumplings while rocking out to the Taiwanese owner’s vinyl rock ‘n’ roll collection.
5. Sweaty Shopping | 8 a.m.
Every neighborhood market has its own charm, though most are sweaty, labyrinthine obstacle courses. Central Market, a 1937 Art Deco structure, rises like a giant yellow four-legged spider in the city center. Thanks to an upgrade in 2011, it offers a cool, comfortable opportunity to shop for jewelry, clothing and flowers with middle-class Khmers. Farther west is O Russei market, a three-story structure that sells everything from dried fish to minidresses and matching heels. A 15-minute drive south is Toul Tumpuong, or Russian Market, stocked with knockoff DVDs, cheap silk, Buddha statues and palm wood kitchenware. Stall 696 sells film and music posters depicting Cambodia’s swinging 1960s; natural bath products can be picked up at Bodia (Stall 284-285), which is air-conditioned, miraculously. Bargaining is unaggressive.
6. Conscientious Eating | Noon
At Romdeng restaurant, your tourist dollars work double time: Not only is the food excellent, but the place also offers former street children a hands-on training program. Don’t let the large tour groups deter you — the regional specialties are among the best in town, and the setting, in a colonial villa, is lovely. Try the pomelo salad with shrimp, topped with mint and bird’s eye chiles, and fragrant chicken soup with straw mushrooms and preserved limes. If you hear shrieking at any point, don’t fret — it’s just a preview of an adventurous diner’s lunch; fried spiders are a Khmer delicacy (lunch, $15 per person). At the nonprofit Bloom, women enrolled in an economic empowerment program produce the city’s best and prettiest cupcakes ($1.50 each).
7. Mind and Body | 3:30 p.m.
Many young Cambodian men shave their heads, don an orange robe and devote themselves to Buddha not only as a path to enlightenment, but also to get an education. They’re often eager to practice English while offering insight into their lives. On the grounds of Wat Botum, just south of the Royal Palace, there have been spiritual gatherings since the 15th century. Walk a block south to Neak Banh Teuk Park, which comes alive at dawn and dusk with aerobics classes, men playing Chinese hacky sack, and elderly couples on brisk walks. The new bronze statue of Norodom Sihanouk, who died in 2012, near the Independence Monument marks the loss of a beloved figure.
8. Ride the River | 5:30 p.m.
Take a sunset cruise along the Tonle Sap River, which runs parallel to the tourist area called “the Riverside.” Private boats whisk you away for two-hour jaunts near the intersection of Street 100 and Sisowath Quay. Prices start at around $25 for a two-level wooden vessel; splurging for an operator like Crocodile Cruise — from $50 for two hours — will get you comfortable sofas, an acceptable toilet and the option of food and drink. You’ll sail by fishermen, stilted huts and the newly developed waterfront on the eastern bank. Sunsets rarely disappoint.
9. Savory Moment | 8 p.m.
For a taste of la vie en rose, book a table at Armand’s, an intimate French bistro. Run by Armand Gerbié, a French-Cambodian who is accustomed to entertaining from his days at Paris’s famed Lido club, it’s a seductive spot with leather seating, nostalgic melodies and French wine and Champagne. Try the Cognac-flambéed Australian rib eye, which Mr. Gerbié prepares tableside (dinner, $40 per person).
10. Creative Infusions | 10 p.m.
With its soaring ceilings, carved doorways and Chinese-meets-French colonial design, Tepui at Chinese House, a restaurant and lounge not far from Armand’s, offers a mesmerizing environment. Order a 21 Points (rum, Coke, Angostura bitters, sugar cane, $5), sink into a sofa and listen to Latin jazz. Along the new Bassac Lane, an alley off Street 308, you’ll find a half-a-dozen tiny, stylish cocktail bars, including Cicada, where gin reigns supreme, and the Library, which serves daiquiri variations.
11. Corner of History | 10:30 a.m.
French colonial life, which endured here for nearly a century, centered around the northern part of town near Wat Phnom. Though many of the era’s grand structures have succumbed to time or developers, you can glimpse the past at Place de la Poste. Start at the 1890s Central Post Office, renovated in 2004, whose airy space is punctuated by pillars. Commemorative stamps depicting Angkorean dancers and flora and fauna at the Philately Counter make a nice souvenir, as do the hand-carved figurines and silks across the street at Artisans d’Angkor. Van’s Restaurant, which opens at 11:30, in the Indochina Bank building, with stained-glass windows, is a wonderful French establishment. Lunch, about $15.
12. Made in Cambodia | Noon
From water hyacinth baskets to ikat scarves, crafts abound. Shelves at the artist-run Theam’s House are lined with lacquered elephants and fish- and lotus-adorned boxes. Nearby, at Garden of Desire, Ly Pisith, a former Philippe Starck eyewear designer, sets gems in silver settings. The owners of Trunkh, a short walk away, scour the country for forgotten beauties — hand-painted signs, old shutters — and reimagine them as modern-day treasures.
Phnom Penh is full of charming boutique hotels, where you’ll get a stylish, clean room and small pool for between $50 and $100 per night. The recently opened Rambutan (29 Street 71; rambutanresort.com; from $50) and Teav (14 Street 310; teavboutiquehotel.com; from $88) are good options in the centrally located, expat area of Boeung Keng Kang.
Down the street from the Royal Palace, the 70-room Plantation (28 Street 184; theplantation.asia; from $88), popular among Europeans, is spread across three renovated historic buildings and boasts one of the city’s prettiest pools.
For the ultimate indulgence, look no further than the Raffles Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh; raffles.com; from $195).
Cred: NY Times