Dating back 600 years, the origin of the capital’s name can be traced back to 1372 when a wealthy, elderly woman named Penh discovered four bronze Buddha statues and a stone statue of a Hindu divinity in the hole of a koki tree which she pulled out of a river near her house.
Her neighbours helped to pile more dirt on a small hill or phnom close to her house to build a shrine in honour of the discovery and to house the sacred objects.
In 1422 King Ponhea Yat built a sanctuary on the spot when he moved his capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh. Resting at a height of 27 metres above ground, the temple eventually became a sacred site and sanctuary that was frequented by worshippers who make wishes and pray for good luck.
It wasn’t until the arrival of the French in the early 1870s when the country was on the brink of political and economic ruin that Phnom Penh evolved from an ancient seat of government to a modern city.
Phnom Penh was considered to be one of the most beautiful French-built cities in Indochina during the 1920s, fusing the perfect mix of exotic and elegance, earning the sobriquet Pearl of Asia.
Although colonial rule existed for less than a hundred years, French cultural influences are still strong in the capital. The Khmer language is peppered with French words while many of the country’s elite, academics, members of the royal family and high-ranking officials remain fluent in the colonial language.
The southern part of Phnom Penh commonly referred to as the French Quarter, now serves as the city’s commercial district with banks, embassies and old villas. Many of these structures still remain and are worth exploring for a glimpse of their historic grandeur.
Efforts have been made in the past few years to preserve these structures which are an important part of the city’s history and identity. These include the main post office, the National Library and the Raffles Hotel Le Royal resplendent with rococo facades that is reminiscent of French élan.
And a country’s cultural influences are never more evident that in its food. The long-sustained relations between the countries have resulted in a host of authentic French restaurants and restaurants offering an array of Cambodian dishes with French flavours.
De luxe lodgings
Exuding a quiet elegance and class, the Raffles Hotel Le Royal has played host to an impressive list of dignitaries and celebrities which includes US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, classic actor Charlie Chaplin and French writer André Malraux.
Serving as the city’s landmark with its unmistakable tree-lined grassed avenue and louvered shutters, the hotel formerly known as Le Royal was constructed in 1924 with Ernest Hébrard—a visionary planner credited for turning the small French colonial city into a well-planned metropolis—as architect.
In 1996 the hotel underwent major restorations, refurbishments and extensions to befit a premier hotel, opening a year later under its current name.
Fulfilling all the requirements of a modern world-class hotel but still retaining its old world charm, it remains a popular choice with the international clientele and remains a stalwart of the drinking and dining crowd.
Spend an evening at the vintage Elephant Bar where you can sip a Femme Fatale (named after Jacqueline Kennedy) or dine at the Restaurant Le Royal, a fine-dining outlet bedecked with crystal chandeliers serving modern French and traditional Khmer dishes.
For a truly leisurely experience, visit the hotel’s Amrita Spa to enjoy an indulgent pampering with traditional massages, body wraps and beauty baths fit for a queen.
Rubbing shoulders with the Royal Palace is The Plantation, nestled between famous historical sites in the city and a riverside bustling with its nightlife. Dating back to the 1930s, the main building is thought to have been an administrative centre for the French and was later modified to serve the Ministry of Labour in the 1960s.
Today guests will be greeted by contemporary-style interiors and modern amenities. The 20 metre, aquamarine, natural slate swimming pool with surrounded by salas or open pavilions provides a perfect spot to catch some rays.
Tucked in the old quarter amongst landscaped gardens on the riverside, is the stunning 12-storey Sofitel Phnom Penh. Boasting 201 luxuriously appointed rooms and suites with views of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, the colonial style hotel also houses an array of chic restaurants and bars as well as an upscale spa and two swimming pools.
Being closely situated to key attractions, embassies and the central business district Sofitel is especially suited to business travellers.
For something more contemporary and with unobstructed views of the mighty Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers, a stay at the Australian owned and operated Riverside Suites would be ideal. With nine newly furbished luxurious rooms with four different suite types, the hotel situated in the heart of Phnom Penh’s riverside precinct offers a secluded and tranquil reprieve from the bustling city and is ideal for small families and groups.
28 Street 184
Tel: (855) 23 215 151
Raffles Hotel Le Royal
92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh,
Sangkat Wat Phnom
Tel: (855) 23 981 888
Corner Sisowath Quay & Street 144
Tel: (855) 23 211 927
Sofitel Phnom Penh
26 Old August Site, Sothearos Boulevard,
Sangkat Tonle Bassac
Tel: (855) 23 999 200
For those wishing to sample fine-dining restaurants outside the hotels, there are many options that will not fail to satisfy. French themed restaurants are aplenty offering a good selection of haute cuisine, complemented with a top-quality wine list.
But the fusion concept is also visible with restaurants incorporating, Spanish, Italian, Mediterranean and especially Khmer elements in their cooking.
Combining traditional French cuisine and colonial grandeur is Van’s Restaurant. The restored Indochina Bank building is not only famous for its decadent menu and wraparound balcony dining area, it is also the venue for weddings, parties and movie shoots.
But food is definitely the star here with provincial fares including filet de beouf au poivre (beef steak in pepper sauce) and lapin en gibelotte (rabbit stew in white wine).
Another popular dining destination is Topaz which is situated along the Norodom Boulevard. With first-class presentation and superb service, the restaurant which offers a selection of contemporary French dishes such as Steak d’agneau aux hari cots and a great variety of wines is amongst the top fine-dining venues in Phnom Penh.
Also a favourite, with a loyal following is Tamarind, a French/Mediterranean restaurant with tasty tapas, sidewalk seating and full bar on the ground floor. With a mouth watering selection of tapas, mezzes and tagines taking centre stage, the French influence is more evident in the desserts menu with classics such as crème brulee, profiteroles and chocolate crepe.
For the adventurer at heart Miro’s discreet location along the Sihanouk Boulevard will prove be a gastronomic discovery. Less than a year old, the classy restaurant and bar serves Basque cuisine with a French twist.
Whet your appetite on a select menu featuring recipes by Head Chef William Mahi who hails from the Basque coast of France and savour the delights of lobster bisque which is cooked for 72-hours, cuttlefish with roasted almonds and ratatouille niҫoise, and roast French duck breast.
The upstairs dining room is chic and trendy with stained glass windows flanked by copies of Joan Miro paintings.
Blending refined architecture with the beautiful and intricate Cambodian style, La Résidence which is located close to the Independence Monument is a quaint restaurant with an extensive choice of fine pastries, chocolates and sorbets which can be served during a meal or taken separately in the salon de thé or private tea room which is quite characteristic of fashionable habits à la French nobility.
22-24 Street 214
Tel: (855) 12 828 788
Miró Restaurant & Lounge
43 Sihanouk Boulevard
Tel: (855) 23 217 991
Tamarind Mediterranean Restaurant & Bar
31, Street 240
Tel: (855) 23 012 830
TOPAZ Restaurant & Piano Bar
182, Norodom Boulevard
Tel: (855) 23 221 622
5, Street 102, Place de la Poste
Tel: (855) 23 722 067
Chic cafes & bourgeoise bars
The Parisian cafe culture is also strongly represented with an array of bakeries, patisseries and cafes to be discovered around the city, especially along the riverside.
A popular bakery cafe The Blue Pumpkin recently expanded by opening outlets in Monument Books and on the riverfront. The menu includes a contemporary menu of sandwiches, salads, ice cream and good coffee as well as fresh breads and pastries.
If you fancy some thick sliced French toast, layered with sautéed bananas and drenched in syrup or freshly baked scones to go with your tea, Jars of Clay fits the bill. Located just outside the Russian Market the cosy cafe is only open for breakfast and lunch so don’t be late.
Brown Coffee & Bakery is a modish cafe which offers a large selection of gourmet coffee, freshly baked breads, delicious cakes and fine pastries. With its stark interior, slate floor and abstract art adorning its wall, the cafe is a popular hangout for the trendy crowd.
Java Café & Gallery, established by American, Dana Langlois on the other hand is a unique venue that offers local and international artists an opportunity to exhibit and sell their work to customers who frequent the cafe.
The bar scene in Phnom Penh is also thriving with several specialist bars, cocktail bars and wine bars making their presence felt. The Equinox is a perennial favourite sporting a Bohemian feel with live music and art exhibits.
For a sense of camaraderie, visit The FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) Phnom Penh Restaurant & Bar which has been frequented by journalists, diplomats and movie stars seeking shelter from the tense and uneasy atmosphere which enveloped the street during the civil war. Sitting above the villa style boutique hotel, the outlet serves beer-battered fish and chips, deli-fresh sandwiches as well as stiff martinis.
The Blue Pumpkin
245, Sisowath Street
Brown Coffee & Bakery
17 Street 214, Sangkat Beoung Rang Khan Daun
Tel: (855) 23 217 262
3A Street 278
Tel: (855) 92 791 958
FCC Phnom Penh
363 Sisowath Quay,
Tel: (855) 23 724 014
Jars of Clay
39B Street 155
Tel: (855) 23 300 281
Java Café & Gallery
56 Sihanouk Boulevard
Tel: (855) 12 894 180
Riel (KHR) but US dollars are widely accepted with approximate exchange rate of USD1=KHR4, 015
Nov–Apr is mostly hot and humid with temperatures up to 28°C, whilst May–June sees regular heavy rainfall with temperatures averaging 27°C
Getting there: Air Asia flies four times daily to Phnom Penh. Other airlines are also available.
Flanked by paddy fields and a river, the provincial Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination mainly for the Angkor Archeological Park; a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising temple ruins including the legendary Angkor Wat.
However, in Siem Reap Town you will find a conglomeration of villages built around pagodas depicting French colonial and Chinese style architecture, a wide range of upscale hotels, restaurants and bars as well as attractions steeped in Khmer culture.
Hotel De La Paix
Once French owned and operated, the Hôtel de la Paix (1957) is Siem Reap's most centrally located five-star boutique hotel.
With 107 beautifully appointed rooms and suites, award-winning Spa Indochine, world class dining at Meric and exhibitions of emerging artists at the Arts Lounge the hotel caters for the discerning traveller seeking style and relaxation www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com.