Readers' Submissions

Delightful Urban Cambodia – Some Going Out In PP

  • Written by Anonymous
  • June 14th, 2006
  • 14 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

By Hans Meier

Once you're done with the Khmer hinterlands, Phnom Penh offers a welcome change of scene with even traces of style and civilisation. On the expanse of just a bigger village, the Cambodian capital harbors lots and lots of drinking and dining options – only short motorcycle hops away from your lodging and from each other. Many places are atmospheric, and most quite affordable.

— FCC —

Foreign Correspondents' Club, known as the FCC by any motorcycle taxi driver, is *the* landmark of Phnom Penh gastronomy. No need to show a journalist's accreditation. With a great colonial ambiance, FCC sits in the second and third floor of a handsome corner building on the river side. Bangkok has nothing like this. There are few walls – the FCC always catches a breeze. Service speaks good English, and if you like your cappuccino slightly on the bitter side, then FCC seems to have one of the best cappus in the world for you.

I prefer the place in the lazy daytime hours, for dinner it is too brash and busy. Once at FCC Norah, my Khmer partner, orders a bobor, a Cambodian rice soup. Asked about the quality, she looks a bit desperate, searches for words, then straightens her position and says: "You know!… I think!… FCC good place for barrang [western] food… Rice soup taste like water. Much better on street shop."

— COCKTAILS —

Rarely costs a cocktail in Cambodia, outside the big hotels, more than four US dollars. But it's hit and miss. Upon ordering Mai Tai, some fancy Phnom Penh riverside bistros dish up what might better be described as lukewarm orange juice or flocculated diesel.

My personal favorite for Mai Tais is the "Cambodia Club", the corner pub exactly opposite the FCC. I could drink their Mai Tai by the bucket – maybe because it contains less alcohol and more fruit juice than elsewhere? At 3,50 USD, it is on the pricey side, and happy hour does not apply for cocktails. But "Cambodia Club" serves up delightfully decorated glasses, and the quality remains constant. The dull "RS Bar" above "Cambodia Club" gets its drinks from the same kitchen (but needs an hour for the trek down the stairs and up again). Of course in "Cambodia Club" you sit on ground level, which makes you easy prey for the riverside's ever-active rummaging beggars, scammers, shoeshiners, newspaper sellers, snack sellers, flower sellers, tuktuk drivers, motorcycle drivers, taxi drivers and rikshaw drivers.

One new specialised cocktail outlet is the Blue Marble down in NGO Land (for NGO Land see below). Blue Marble serves a big range of cocktails and not much more in a small nondescript courtyard. It claims that their lemons grew up organically, and on Fridays NGO workers drink with a discount. My Mai Tai there comes in a Scotch glass and without any decoration except for a mint leaf; maybe it is something different altogether. What I mostly remember from Blue Marble are the mosquito bites.

— PRIVATE ATMOSPHERE —

Another great place for cocktails and more is Elsewhere, which looks like a private villa with a garden pool you are free to use – towels provided. There you get anything from cocktails to expensive western food, with seating from al fresco wooden platforms to formal dinner tables in an air-conditioned room. A place like no other.

Highly fenced in, just as Elsewhere, Del Gusto Café sits in a charming villa with many open walls, intimate corners and varying furniture. Whether you sample their great Italian food within the building or in the garden, you feel like a design aficionado had invited you to his private cocktail party.

You'll find Del Gusto Café on a dusty side road, the entrance easy to miss. Let your motorcycle or tuktuk driver go to Martini, the infamous disco pub, and then continue about one block north. It's on your left side. Once, when we couldn't find Del Gusto Café, we asked security at Martini Pub for Del Gusto. Of course security had no idea where to find the place; they didn't even know the name of the road and house number for the very Martini pub they had to protect.

— NGO LAND —

The area between Norodom and Monivong Boulevards, south of Sihanouk Boulevard, is known as NGO Land. Technically Boeng Kaeng Kang district, NGO Land boasts many nice old villas behind high steel fences topped with barbed wire. Recently, the area lost some of its colonial charm, as many former dirt roads have been orderly paved. Many NGOs set up shop there, plus GOs like the EU development agency.

NGO Land harbors lots of interesting restaurants and bars, the nicest of them located in old wooden houses and with a certain casual oriental elegance that you wouldn't find elsewhere. One example is the Amoc Café, named so after Cambodia's national dish, Amoc, steamed fish in coconut sauce (and 20 more ingredients, according to Norah). Slightly more upmarket, Comme à la maison comes with a French touch and sells unexciting western bakeries too. Even more I like the atmospheric woodhouse restaurants with lie-down-seating, like sprawling expanding Khmer Surin, or Baan Thai.

Another nice option in the area is Nature & Sea, one of Phnom Penh's many rooftop establishments, almost opposite of Boom Boom Room (which sells pirate-copied audio CDs off the hard disk). You have a choice of banks or seating on bamboo platforms with cushions. They do excellent western style fish filets plus many juices – I mostly indulge on mango-strawberry there. Their crepes are actually pancakes. The place fills up with expats.

— PIZZA —

Pizzerias with woodfire stove compete heavily in Phnom Penh. If you hail from Naples, Italy, you may find Phnom Penh fare not authentic – but you will realize that in Phnom Penh you hardly get a bad, uninspired pizza.

The most famous pizza players are not the best though. We were neither enthusiastic at FCC, nor at Antony's Pizza next to Wat Phnom, nor at Ecstatic Pizza in the deep south of Monivong Boulevard. Happy Herb's has a somewhat slimey dough and lots of pineapples on the vegetarian variant.

Happy Herb's is part of a line-up of four very similar pizzerias next to each other on the riverside. All offer "happy" pizzas, i.e. with a topping like marihuana. I will never try such an offer.

Much better than Happy Herb's is almost next door the Pink Elephant with a thin crisp dough and, by Phnom Penh standards, thin crisp layers of toppings. After Khmer New Year in mid-April, this place seemed closed. Some blocks upriver, Kandal House has a similar dough, but puts a lot more cheese on top and even a bit of unique atmosphere. I also like the house Chardonnay there.

All pizza places on the riverside reside in row-houses ("pteah leveng"), this means they are only four meters wide, then the next business starts. To get a breeze, you dine on a sidewalk awash with fake-books-sellers, taxi touts and crippled beggars. They watch you with big burning eyes, hoping to grab your food leftovers when you walk away.

Ambiance-wise, you can't beat La Luna d'Autumno. Ha, say that to a motorcycle taxi or to your local girl friend. We simply call it "Pizza Garden": You sit in a fancy garden which is so highly walled that you don't get any breeze, and watch the pizza being made in the show kitchen. While everything is quite upmarket, expensive and maybe authentic, I prefer the pizzas in some of the cheaper places. But they serve the best tak krootchmah (lemon juice) I ever had in Southeast Asia.

— WIRELESS INTERNET —

To show off your new Powerbook or Vaio, look no further than the FCC – in the mornings, the place sometimes has more busy laptops than waiters, and that means something. The FCC air buzzes with about four WLANs, but none of them seems accessible for free, at least not to me.

Blue Marble (see above) offers free Wi-Fi, but I didn't try it. Another of Phnom Penh's rare free-Wi-Fi offers comes from Posecafé in road 108, near the smelly Old Market. Waiters there kill flies with electric tennis rackets, each one dies with the sound of a short-circuit – "sorry sir, too many flies coming from Old Market ". They obviously cater to affluent overseas Khmers with an ostentative noveau-riche attitude.

According to their menu, cappuccino at Posecafé is proudly done with "Nespresso". Whatever that may be, it makes the brew bland, no, inedible. So next time I try hot chocolate, which is obviously prepared with more water than milk. After that I stay with lemon juice. As it should be, they don't sweeten the juice right away, but serve a small jug of sugar cane juice on the side.

On the plus side at Posecafé, I had a very nice sweet crepe there, furniture and tableware are delightful. The free Wi-Fi worked fine on half of my visits, but could be interrupted or unusable at other times.

— KHMER FOOD —

Any western restaurant will do Khmer food too. Some of the best Khmer food so far I had at Ponlok, a big Khmer restaurant on the riverside – one of the first riverside eateries to come up there in the early eighties and one of the few riverside places that have more than four meters width. Ponlok employs swarms of attentive, but sometimes confused waiters; the food is not a bargain, but excellent.

For an easy lunch time, I retreat to my casual neighborhood Khmer, which as of 11.30 a.m. is packed with middle class Cambodians and the odd westerner teacher or NGO worker. The food is not breathtaking, but pleasant enough. You eat à la carte or order from the big pots on display. What I like is the shaded pavement seating with almost no beggars in a quiet neighborhood, the irregular layout of the tables and that they serve mixed fruit juice, home made soy milk and fresh orange juice on the premises – few Khmer restaurants do that.

Another Khmer recommendation would be the very new Bopha Phnom Penh. It sits on the riverside opposite road 106. Unlike all other riverside gastronomy, at Bopha you don't have Sisowath road between you and the river – you lounge in very comfortable chairs right over the water, which is of course much quieter, more breezy and 100 per cent beggar free. The atmosphere is uncomfortably formal, the waitresses even try to parachute napkins onto your lap. We had very good, pricey Khmer food there, and also good cocktails. The menu also lists western food including fondue.

— TELL —

But I wouldn't order fondue in a Khmer-run place. For "cheese soup", as I explain it to a curious Norah, we direct a tuktuk to the Swiss-German restaurant Tell, behind impressive Le Royal, maybe Phnom Penh's most expensive hotel.

I'd recommend taking your Khmer partner to Tell. All the western dishes on the menu are well-explained in Khmer language, something I never saw before. I ask for a menu to take home, but we aren't allowed to do that.

Cheese fondue comes in three varieties. We order the pot for two people with Mediterranean spices, which is just perfect – delicious, rich and creamy. Unfortunately this fondue comes together with a big plate of cold meats, sour vegetables and bread; we don't need much of that, but it brings the price up to 25 dollars.

— SOUP CHNANG DEI —

Is it the steep price or the food – Norah never asks to return to Tell for another "cheese soup". Whereas she can't get enough of soup chnang dei – Khmer style soup you cook on your own restaurant table in earthen pots over a gas cooker. We know at least three different soup chnang dei places, all on busy roads. One time we dine right under a traffic light on bustling Monivong boulevard – in the roar of dust and diesel, but that may be part of the fun.

Waiters bring plates and plates filled with anything that might fit into the boiling broth. All kinds of meats, egg, fish, salad, veggies, fish chips, meat balls, noodles. Empty plates don't disappear, but service stacks them in a laundry basket next to the table. When we ask for "cut loy" – pay the bill – the waiter grabs the laundry basket with all the empty plates and counts them. Our different items came on three different kinds of plates, relating to three different prices. So the bill is easily added-up; then he counts the old Coke cans that have also been collected in our laundry basket.

— LIVE MUSIC —

Very much unlike Thailand, in Phnom Penh I never experienced any live music that made me happy. Once I was at a Khmer-oriented live music club in down town. I have completely forgotten about place name, music and food there – it was very loud and black. Just when I had a chat with the security guy why he didn't check me on weapons, a rich Cambodian entered and with a smile handed a sizable pistol over to security. The man in uniform slipped the gun into a drawer. "Why", he said to me later, "this man works for government, so of course he needs a gun." Of course.

Well, sometimes I go to the Memphis Pub near the river side, where the house musicians from Vietnam, Philippines and Cambodia play western blues and rock classics quite decently. Atmosphere and drinks prices are low-key, and on some weekends you see untypical Khmer-western couples shuffling on the dance floor.

When I first hear of Memphis pub, I have no idea where the place is. We approach a tuktuk driver on the river side if he knows of Memphis Pub. He promises to take us there and asks for two dollars. With some effort, we get him down to 1,5 dollars, having no idea about the distance. Then the tuktuk stops after only 500 meters – we already reached the Memphis Pub. That trip is worth no more than 70 cents or so. Of course we pay 1,5 USD, because that's what we agreed upon.

The very new Art Café down in NGO Land announces rooftop sunset jazz concerts on Sundays. I try the Sunday after Khmer New Year. I climb the tiny stairs up to the establishment, run by a friendly Dutch guy, his charming Khmer wife and a lively "khone cut" (look krung, mixed child). Art Café has the typical, boring floor plan of a Khmer row house, about four by sixteen meters, and the typical rattan chairs of a Cambodian restaurant for foreigners.

Anyway, I climb up to Art Café shortly before sunset. I am the only customer. Their computer pipes breezy 60ies jazz, and I see a band setup – but no musicians. "I think today my musicians are late", explains the friendly Dutch owner, "I guess we start around 8 or 9 p.m. Please try again later."

I return at 8.30 p.m., still the only customer. "I think today my musicians don't come", explains the friendly Dutch owner. "Please try again next time".

— BREAKFAST —

Boutique road 240 becomes my pilgrimage destination for breakfast. The Shop has not only some of the best western bread in town, it is also beautifully displayed (but still can't compete with better western bakery products). You get delightful breakfasts there, with good coffees, mueslis, juices, bread and cheese. The place buzzes with younger, well-dressed expats, the ladies often in casual silk wear from the trendy local Ambre store. They all know each other and all carry a Cambodia Daily. They seem to be teachers and diplomats.

Once I had an awkward moment at The Shop. My bill came up to 11,50 USD – but in my wallet I found no more than 10 USD. Fortunately the waiter remembered me from previous visits. As I did carry my own Cambodia Daily on that day, he believed I was an expat too and that I surely would come back. He asked me to pay what I could and to write name and handphone number on the bill.

The Shop is not only close to interesting book shops like D's Books and Monument Books, but also to Veggies – maybe Phnom Penh's best supplier of good cheese, which I believe is actually made in Vietnam. In the hot season, their walk-in fridge makes for a chilling and beggar-free daytrip destination.

Stickman's thoughts:

It's a shame that more people do not send in pictures with their submissions. They really do make submissions that much more interesting.