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The talesofasia guide to Phnom Penh

by Bronwyn Sloan

updated August 17, 2004

Phnom Penh index page

Getting there

Staying there
Eating and drinking
Things to do and places to go in and around Phnom Penh


Apologies in advance for everyone who does not get a mention here but Phnom Penh is a small town with a big drinking and dining scene and everything you could want is on offer here—except perhaps very high end fine dining and a decent night club. There just isn't a place with consistently good music and dancing here, sorry. Probably the best music and dance floor you can hope for is River House, on the top floor. Downstairs is a very good restaurant. Even River House has its ups and downs depending on the DJ, but at least you can chill and watch the river go by. Memphis, near the river, is very new and has had a few rave reports about its live music and its design. Might be the up and comer.

Sharky Bar serves great Mexican, Thai, and American bar food and has earned its fame. Women and couples can feel comfortable here despite what you might have read, as besides the tasty menu it is known as a place where men come to find friendly female company. The same goes for that Phnom Penh institution Martini, although it is currently battling closure in its new position. Martini is now down the road from the Chinese embassy and also down the road from Sparks nightclub, a nightclub for rich young Cambodians which, by all reports, does not welcome uninvited foreigners. If they want to terrorize foreigners, they go to the Heart of Darkness. They don't like foreigners coming to them. That spoils the fun.

The tiny Sophie Bar is a paradise for men seeking regionally local female company and some wild nights are had there. This place is definitely not designed for dancing, nor for the faint hearted.

One local nightclub that does not mind foreigners, is not a pick up joint and has plenty of dancing is Pacific Kis (yes, Kis) just up the road from Psar Thmei on Kampuchea Krom. Check your weapons downstairs at the door. That said, this is a Cambodian nightclub, and idiots and troublemakers will find themselves biting off more than they can chew, but fellow revelers are welcomed.

The famous Heart of Darkness has had its share of problems as on occasions it has become apparent that not everyone has to check their weapons or their attitudes at this door. The music is not to everyone's taste, customers are not to some of the staff's taste, and there is consistent trouble on this strip and inside that bar. Shootings, running battles, rich young Cambodians with attitudes, poor disenfranchised Cambodians with gangster accents and attitudes, large vehicles which were not built for civilian passengers on the doorstep and selective security guards (why check Western tourists in singlet tops and shorts for weapons if you are just going to let the locals and their bodyguards swan past, guys?). On a bad night, it can be just plain dangerous. When guns go off, there is absolutely nothing to take cover behind after the hookers hit the floor.

Consequently a few other bars on the Street 51 strip have become popular with people who are sick of that atmosphere lately and for the past couple of years, Howie Bar has become the new favorite with expats and travelers who are sick of feeling like a sardine, living in fear and listening to bad music—you can buy a seat in a local taxi if you want that feeling, thank you very much. At Howie's you can watch the fireworks down the road from a stool outside on the footpath or go inside and sit at the bar, or just play pool. Howie has his own taste in music, but fair enough—it is his bar and he has done a great job with it. Drinks are inexpensive and he will stay open until dawn if there are enough customers. The staff is friendly and efficient and the mood is (usually) quite mellow. There is a dance floor, but it isn't a dance club.

Shanghai and Walkabout (open 24 hrs) are mostly male orientated, as is Cathouse, and all serve that role well. Pretty girls, pool table, fellow males. Shanghai and the Fillipino-style Cathouse get a lot of expat custom as well as tourists and both these places are chilled out, relaxed and offer a place to unwind with a friendly local lass away from the buzz of the street. Shanghai is particularly orientated towards this men's club atmosphere, and offers a cozy outside terrace and if there's a major sporting event on you'll probably catch it here. The Walkabout attracts a more touristy and not so local crowd, is a bit rowdier, is open to the street but has pretty girls, pool table, rooms upstairs.

There are quite a few others on this strip open late. None count as night clubs. The Sweet Home is a favorite with American-Khmer returnees, the intriguingly named Beauty of Half Blood is a quieter joint where the staff is very friendly, and Yungs down the road to the north is a tiny hole in the wall many locals go to because it is so laid back it sometimes stops and the drinks are very cheap. Blink and you will miss it as there is no sign.

But just one footnote to all bars on this strip—when will even just one of you hire professional security and be done with it?

Another hub is the riverfront area, which is jumping between 7 pm and about 1 am most nights. Here you have all sorts of food and some very friendly little bars—Eidelweiss serves German food that isn't bad at all at reasonable prices, Pop Café is now run by a young Roman after he bought it from the former Italian owner (who subsequently set up Famous Beef Noodle around the corner). The mainly vegetarian pasta menu is well thought of. The FCC (which is NOT a foreign correspondents club—purely a bar and restaurant which discovered a copyright loophole) serves decent food and drink, though not the cheapest joint in town, it does however, have a good view and a very good happy hour between 5pm and 7pm. The FCC also owns the Frescos deli downstairs with similarly priced fare.

Around the corner the Rising Sun on Street 178 has some of the best English comfort food in town, a tremendous Sunday roast and great coffee as well as providing a range of inexpensive drinks. Also on 178 and a block up, the Ginger Monkey does not do food, but it is an increasingly popular late night bar with a full range of drinks, cocktails and good company. Doesn't really get going until at least 10pm, but stays open until the last customer leaves. On the same strip is the newly opened Rory's Irish Pub, reviews so far have been quite positive.

Back on the river strip, three bars in a row share mobs of custom every night. Cantina serves authentic Mexican, and Happy Herbs and Pink Elephant bar have been around for years and sell pizza, pasta, Thai and Khmer food. The Pink, especially, has some good music. Frizz, just further north, has a good menu of both western and Khmer food.

On the same strip and up on the first floor, Pon Lok is a favorite with high ranking Khmers as well as foreigners and has a great view from the balcony if you get there early enough to win a table at the front. This place has a fine reputation for Cambodian cuisine.

Further up the strip sit more corner restaurants and more bars. Jungle Bar is a small relaxed place with a good menu and one of the last places on the strip you can get food as they keep the kitchen open until 2 a.m.

For fine Australian wine, it is impossible to go past the tiny but very inviting Rubies, located on the corner of Street 240, which runs down the southern wall of the Royal Palace, and Street 19. Diverse crowd, wine by the bottle or the glass and a great range of the finest Aussie grape makes this a very civilized to spend an hour or so—a friendly place with a touch of class.

One of the best mid-range bar and restaurants in town must be Talkin' to a Stranger, located on Street 278, almost behind Lucky Supermarket on Sihanouk Boulevard. The short menu of exquisite home style food changes weekly, and a fully stocked bar with a huge range of great cocktails is usually complemented by an interesting range of people, from tourists to teachers to aid workers to anthropologists. Vegetarian friendly (one half of the Aussie couple who owns the joint is a veggie), but also accommodates meat lovers, who should not miss the aged beef fillet with mash, peas and gravy if it is on offer. Lamb roast Thursdays. Interesting vodka bar. Open late but closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Across Sihanouk Boulevard from Lucky Supermarket, Maxims is a good breakfast place and also does some delicious and quite reasonably priced Vietnamese dishes—try the chicken curry or the stewed beef if it is on the menu that day. Further up from Maxims towards Monivong are a few small restaurants offering very inexpensive basic dishes such as chicken and rice. The bakery in this strip is also pretty good.

Friends the Restaurant near the National Museum offers tapas-style dishes and is a non-government organization project which provides a venue for formerly disadvantaged youth to master the final phase of learning the cooking and service industry. Fine food, good cause. A weekly list of specials accompanies a menu of favorites.

Up near Wat Phnom, Tok Thom is a new restaurant in traditional Belgian beer hall-style that boasts an interesting range of beers, as well as top notch food—try the beer and beef stew, one satisfied customer recommended recently. Opposite, the relaxed and friendly Rose Bar is staffed by lovely ladies and is a bar affectionately thought of by many locals. Tell Restaurant is another local favorite serving up a classy western menu with a few Asian dishes tossed in for good measure.

If you are feeling adventurous, across the Japanese bridge at Prek Leap is a whole strip of Khmer restaurants serving Khmer, Chinese and Western fare at reasonable prices with a floor show included and are well worth a visit. Rainbow and Hang Neak are the two best known, but all are busy from sundown until around 9 or 10 pm. Ask the moto or taxi to wait, or be prepared to telephone Phnom Penh for a lift as there is no public transport out here once your ride leaves.

Chinese restaurants are a great strength of Phnom Penh. A whole street of dumpling restaurants runs from Psar Thmei to the Monivong between the Asia and Diamond hotels, with Peking Canteen being the restaurant in this strip that all the foreigners usually hit. One street north, Sam Doo has the best dim sum in town unless you want to try Xiang Palace in the Intercontinental hotel, which is a bit pricier. On Monivong near the Capitol guesthouse turnoff and then traveling south in this order, Tai Tai is foreigner friendly, Wa Kee speak no English but serve great sashimi Chinese style among other things, and Uncle Bo Sea past Sihanouk Boulevard is the new number one of these three late night eateries by popular vote—very good seafood and meat dishes.

Between Sihanouk and Uncle Bo Sea, a bunch of stalls selling stewed pig feet and leg (it is delicious, try it) and other delicacies for next to nothing offer a chance to sit and watch the morning arrive over cheap beer, and down Charles de Galle somewhere is one of the oddest dim sum joints to exist outside Hong Kong, but it is open till dawn. Look for the mob of motos and cars around a brightly lit place, or ask a moto outside of the Heart or Howie. Tea Club, on Street 199 just off south 63 is getting very good reports for good, cheap daytime food and a $2.50 lunch buffet, although its best dish is reportedly the Sunday laksa, which is not Chinese, but hey, the owners do happen to be Malaysian. And Red House, next to the French Cultural Centre, is a hidden jewel, especially for lunch. Great tofu—even non-veggies say that—and astoundingly good ribs.

Ginga and Nagasaki offer traditional Japanese, and Oragami on Sisowath near the Hong Kong Center gets the vote for the best service and the most authentic sushi of all the Japanese places in town.

Fast food? There are a bunch of burger joints all over town suddenly. They all produce things that taste nothing like burgers anywhere else in the world. Enough said.

There are not food courts here as you would find in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, unless you count those in the local markets. The exception is Sorya Centre, near Psar Thmei, which is a trip in itself and is worth a few hours of wandering around in anyway. The two top floors offer a range of cheap meals in a food court setting. Not bad. Not Bangkok though.

Indian style food is plentiful. Shiva Shakti, near the Independence Monument, is at the top end, and is considered by some to be the best in town (royalty dine here occasionally) and Chi Cha, with its $2 all you can eat curry meals has to be the cheapest, but has its own charms (these do not include the décor or the view, but despite the fact they are Muslims, they will allow BYO alcohol). In between these extremes are Lumbini, Himalaya and Mount Everest, all of which have loyal fans.

Garden Centre Café on southern Street 57 is, as the name suggests, set in a garden and does some wonderful food. Most widely loved for its Sunday roasts, Garden Centre actually has a very extensive menu, and who knows—after months on the road, the homemade yogurt with homemade muesli may just be your fantasy. It is not a fantasy I have ever had, but I hear it is good stuff at this place nonetheless.

And in a town with a history like Phnom Penh, there has to be a good Russian restaurant. There is—Irina, on Street 228, which runs off Norodom next to Monument Books. Vodka lovers can drink with fellow connoisseurs here and the food is totally authentic.

The prize for the most eccentric restaurant in town could be the Pyong Yang North Korean restaurant on south Monivong. Good food is accompanied by a complete floorshow staged by the waitresses themselves, who are dressed in traditional costume and abruptly stop serving at brief intervals to burst into revolutionary song, play traditional instruments, perform karaoke or dance Korean folk dances. Who said propaganda was dead? They have recently made their menu more foreigner friendly (read mundane), but the dog soup is still available on the one they give the people who don't speak English, if you just ask.

And the most eccentric bar? Hmm…could be the Viper bar, which is out in the middle of nowhere on 701 Kampuchea Krom Boulevard. As a strip club, this place is more like a high school prom meets lets play dress-ups, but beer is USD1.50 or even USD1 if it's on special, so you should have guessed as soon as you walked in and anyway, who cares? You can always get drunk there and take a moto back to Sophie Bar. At Viper, girls in platform heels who seem to have watched and taken seriously an inordinate number of bad seventies Swedish porn flicks before seeking additional coaching from a geriatric retiree from Pat Pong sort of shuffle their stuff. They try hard, but no bananas. Instead, witness fire dancing which consists of a little ring of fire that sputters around the edge of the stage far too sedately to risk setting alight the St Vincent d'Paul lingerie collection writhing confusedly against the poles above. Feather boas are alive and well in Cambodia. So restrained you could even take your mum, but the mood is good natured and everyone is having fun. Have a look just for the hell of it.

Phnom Penh index page

Getting there

Staying there
Eating and drinking
Things to do and places to go in and around Phnom Penh

Guesthouses, restaurants, tours and more
Cambodia businesses to serve your every need.



The text appearing on this page is © 2004 - 2006 Bronwyn Sloan. For the rest of the website, unless otherwise noted, all text and photographs © 1998 - 2008 talesofasia.com. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.