Feb 18, 2024

Phnom Penh: A City of Surprises


A gilded reclining Buddha in Phnom Penh

What kind of hotel does $97 a night buy in the U.S. or Europe? In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it buys a comfortable suite at the Pavilion Hotel, with gardens, two pools, a spa and outdoor restaurant serving $6 cocktails and an unlimited breakfast on the outdoor terrace.

The Pavilion  Hotel, five-star service at two-star prices

An isolated and pretentious Western-style resort, you say? Hardly the case, given our next-door neighbors - street food vendors grilling on the side walk, sugar cane juice sellers and Buddhist monks living in a monastery where a giant Buddha reclines in a gilded temple.

A family sets up for the evening dinner rush

When most Americans think of traveling overseas, they think of Europe or Australia. Few think of Southeast Asia, and when they do, it’s the beaches of Thailand or Vietnam that come to mind. Few consider Cambodia, a country bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam war, and ravaged in the late 1970s by Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge regime.

While Siem Reap is well-known for its ancient Angkor Wat temples, Phnom Penh is the surprise city. Abandoned when Pol Pot forced city dwellers back to their home villages in the countryside, it‘s now alive with a mixture of modern and French colonial architecture; street food carts and rooftop bars; outdoor markets and modern malls; and massive monasteries where monks in saffron robes welcome visitors. 

Bea Tem, a Buddhist monk at our neighborhood temple

Morning Glory for sale in a street market

With major sightseeing out of the way on a previous trip, we found various ways to explore the street life, either on foot or by taking Grab taxis which work like Uber does in the U.S. Most rides are $1-$4 at most, more comfortable and often less expensive  than Tuk-Tuks, the open-air motorcycles, we use when we were here 19 years ago. 

Especially fun are a variety of three or four-hour tours organized by eager, English-speaking young people. This is where the Tuk-Tuks do come in handy. Because of the 95 degree heat, signing up for a “walking tour” means going with a guide in a Tuk-Tuk with a driver who waits at each stop.

Neara explains the many types of herbs grown in Cambodia

The delightful Yim Neara, 30, was our guide for an early-morning breakfast tour by Turk-Tuk, organized by Portland, Oregon Lost Plate Tours. She arrived at our hotel at 8:30 a.m. and by 9 a.m., three of us were sampling steaming bowls of a pork and vegetable noodle soup at a popular street stall where the owner shows up at 4 a.m. to start the broth.

Key Teay is a popular breakfast food in Cambodia

Most Cambodians go to a stall like this for breakfast rather than prepare the time-consuming dishes at home. The soup is eaten with a spoon and chopsticks, for picking up the thin rice noodles, and accompanied by shot glass-sized cups of coffee laced with sweetened condensed milk.

Market day in Phnom Penh

After several snack stops and a walk through an outdoor urban farmers market, we stopped for banh chao, a thin, crispy pancake made with duck eggs and rice flour and tinted yellow with turmeric.  It’s a savory dish, filled with pork and vegetables, and served with a pile of fresh herbs. One was big enough to share.

Banh Chao for breakfast

Our next “walking tour” by Tuk-Tuk was an architectural tour led by Hun Sokagna, 30,  a university graduate and freelance architect specializing in urban preservation. She is a member of Architecture Cambodia, a non-profit organization of architects and students promoting urban heritage in Cambodia. Customized tours can be organized on request for around $20 a person.  Free walking tour maps are available on the website of Khmer Architecture Tours.

Tuk-Tuks provide easy transport between stops on walking tours

Our guide, Sokagna, going over our plan to see local architecture 

The French colonized Cambodia in 1863, and left 90 years later in 1941 when Prince Norodom Sihanouk became the king. Houses and monuments built by the French remain along with other reminders of the past. Many older people speak French, and  fresh baguettes appear where you might expect rice. 

Our first stop was the main post office, built in the Neo-Classical style by the French in 1885. Like many buildings of that era in Phnom Penh, it was never bombed, but abandoned when  the Khmer Rouge emptied the city, forcing people back to their home villages in the countryside.

The post office building, built by the French in 1885.

Across the street is the building that was once the Grand Hotel, the city’s first five-star hotel built in Phnom Penh in 1910. Abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over, it and other buildings like it became the property of squatters once the genocide ended and people returned. Complicated laws mean various owners still claim rights to different parts of the same building.

The former Grand Hotel, now part casino, part run-down apartments 

The facade on this side of the old hotel is run down and in need of a paint job. The interior is run down as well although some of the original tile work remains. On the other side of the building is a sleek entrance to a modern Chinese-owned casino and a wine bar. 

Abandoned churches and temples became housing once the Khmer Rouge left. Books in the National Library were burned but the building was left standing, and has been renovated. The iconic Le Royal hotel, built in 1929, was used by the Khmer Rouge to welcome officials from China, then left in ruins. Today it‘s the luxury Singaporean-owned Raffles Hotel. 

Top-notch hotels, drinks and meals come at bargain prices in Cambodia, as they do in many parts of Southeast Asia. Given the country’s poverty and tragic past, travelers need to be sensitive about supporting businesses, restaurants, hotels etc. that promote responsible tourism. Some hotels cater to sex tourists, or do nothing to dissuade the practice, while others, such as the Pavilion, actively discourage it by posting “Child Safe” stickers on their doors.

While wandering towards Phnom Penh‘s Russian Market one day we found Y.E.K. Peace Handicrafts above a convenience store. Walking past shelves lined with boxes of detergent and cereal at Twin Supermarket, we climbed a flight of stairs to find a boutique that provides training and employment for disabled artisans, many of whom are land mine victims.

YEK Hong Tang

YEK Hong Tang, above, is the executive director and also the designer of many items, including these new messenger bags made with reused nylon netting traditionally used for hammocks or mosquito nets. 

Colorful bags made made from upcycled materials

Shops such as Peace Handicrafts can be hard to spot, or even know about. Friendship with Cambodia, the Oregon non-profit we support, publishes an online responsible travel guide on its website with updated suggestions on where to stay, eat, shop and patronize businesses that practice fair trade, and train disadvantaged workers for careers.



  1. Carol, I love and appreciate your focus on responsible and sustainable tourism in places where tourist dollars can easily harm vulnerable people and wreak havoc on local culture. Thank you for opening the door to countries many of us might otherwise hesitate to visit.

  2. Cambodia is a marvelous place to visit. We haven't stayed in Phnom Penh but have been to Siem Reap twice...staying at Jaya House.... small hotel