I’ve been to many memorable places in Southeast Asia over the years, but there are a couple I visited more out of obligation than desire, with few expectations. Phnom Penh, Cambodia was one of these, but I was delighted to have any reservations swept firmly aside after spending five fascinating days in the city last year.
This was, primarily, a house-building trip. A group of ten of us were treading in the footsteps of our 16-year-old kids who had previously been to Cambodia with The Tabitha House Building Programme, so we could see for ourselves what it was all about.
As part of our orientation, Janne Ritskes, the founder of Tabitha, gave us background on Cambodia’s turbulent history and information about the people we were there to build houses for. Perhaps one of the most daunting realisations that I took away from this trip was that during my teenage years back in the UK, I had been oblivious to the events that were taking place in Cambodia. After visiting Tuol Seng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields on day two of our trip, it seemed impossible that all this could have happened in such a relatively recent past.
The next day, armed with hammers, gloves and kneepads, we headed out into the glorious Cambodian countryside, somewhat apprehensive about our house-building capabilities – a feeling that was accentuated when we met the families who were depending on us! But as it turned out, despite the language barriers, we had the satisfaction of working as a team with these poorest of Cambodian citizens, and ended the day with eight houses built. We had hardly hammered the last nail before families had moved in, rice had been spread out on mats between the stilts, chickens and children making themselves at home, and smiles all round.
Our house-building duties done, we explored Phnom Penh and discovered a charming, welcoming city with a big heart.
We flew on Jetstar. Just over two hours from Changi direct to Phnom Penh.
We stayed at The Kabiki.
We ate at The FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club) – clichéd, but has to be done! Friends Restaurant – expect gorgeous food, delicious daiquiris and smiling service at this must-visit restaurant set up to train and help build brighter futures for Phnom Penh’s street children.
We shopped and were totally charmed by the pretty boutiques in and around Street 240.
We visited Central Market – an art deco gem filled with flowers, clothes, watches and lots and lots of jewellery. Toul Tom Pong, The Russian Market (named after the hordes of Eastern Bloc tourists who visited Phnom Penh in the 1980s), for handicrafts, fabrics and “antiques”. The Royal Palace – beautiful, but we only saw it only from the outside (it’s closed between 11am and 2pm every day). The huge stretch of water alongside which Phnom Penh is built, where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers converge.
Also worth a visit:
• The Khmer Surin for excellent Khmer fare in a particularly atmospheric setting.
• Boddhi Tree Umma, a pleasant restaurant with a shady garden courtyard, almost opposite Tuol Sleng Museum.
• Le Rit’s guesthouse and restaurant, managed by an NGO set up to help vulnerable women in Phnom Penh. Much quieter and more low-key than Friends, but still well worth a visit – we enjoyed our dinner, and service was sweet and attentive.
• Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh’s only hill, topped by lovely temple and offering some great views over the city.
• Raffles Hotel Le Royal, highly recommended for happy hour cocktails.
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