Food and Drink in Phnom Penh
If you've been to Thailand or Vietnam, you'll notice quite a dramatic difference in the flavor and the heat of Cambodian fare. Unlike these neighboring countries, which rely heavily on fresh chilies, garlic pastes and spicy sauces, Cambodian dishes are far more moderate, with just a small hint of spice and more of the creamy flavor and texture that come from the use of coconut milk.
Typical dishes you'll find on almost any Cambodian menu are crispy tofu tossed with rice (vermicelli noodles), chicken mixed with coconut milk and fresh coriander (or cilantro) and even crispy bugs (think crickets or ants) served over a bed of rice. Cambodia's desserts are some of the best in Asia, with sweet palm sugar candies, pumpkin cakes, coconut milkshakes and lemongrass ice cream found at almost any market or restaurant.
Regarding drinks, Cambodia has some of the region's best (and strongest) coffee. It's also known for locally brewed beer and spirits like rice wine and Angkor Beer.
Elephant Bar: If you're looking for the city's most legendary cocktail, the only place to go is the Elephant Bar housed inside the iconic Raffles Hotel. U.S. former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy spent a few days in this five-star hotel and ordered her favorite tipple -- a Femme Fatale -- while listening to one of Norodom Sihanouk's jazz renditions on the hotel's grand piano. The drink, which blends sparkling wine, brandy and strawberry liqueur, is decorated with an ornamental flower and served in an old-fashioned Champagne flute. A Femme Fatale costs a pretty penny, but the bar's ambiance, which feels like that of a renaissance French nightclub, makes the price tag worth it.
Friends The Restaurant: One of the most popular restaurants for both locals and tourists, Friends The Restaurant is a nonprofit eatery that sits right near the entrance of the National Museum and serves a huge range of both Khmer-style dishes and Western favorites. The food is often served tapas style, and you'd be remiss not to order one of their made-to-order fruit juices.
The bright artwork breathes life into the buzzing restaurant, and the neighboring nonprofit shop helps underprivileged Cambodians earn training in hospitality.
The menu is meant to be shared, so order a few of the tapas -- like the penne with roasted chili and cashew nut pesto; stir-fried chicken with mango, cashew and chives; or the student favorite Khmer-style Scotch egg made with slightly fermented duck and pork and served alongside a rich garlic dip. (215 Street 13, Phnom Penh City; +855 12 802 072; open Monday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Malis: If you're looking for a more upscale place to enjoy lunch or even a dinner off the ship, head to Malis, a stunning Khmer restaurant that sits inside of a peaceful and relaxing garden. Luu Meng, the world-renowned chef who made the restaurant famous, has appeared on TV with the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver.
The long menu, which can be slightly daunting to see at first, features an incredible variety of local specialties prepared with an innovative twist. Options include fresh fish steamed in coconut milk and topped with Cambodian herbs and spices, complex curries mixing both Cambodian and other Southeast Asian chilies, more traditional soups paired with fluffy dumplings, and a grilled assortment of meats served alongside spicy and milder dipping sauces.
The restaurant also serves breakfast, where you can enjoy famed Cambodian dishes like beef noodle soup or a signature pork and prawn soup. (136 Preah Norodom (St. 41), 12301, Phnom Penh; +855-15-814-888; open Monday to Sunday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Romdeng: Situated in a beautifully redesigned colonial house with a pool flanked by candle lit tables and a lush garden near the National Museum, this insanely popular eatery functions under the same nonprofit umbrella as Friends The Restaurant, offering jobs and training to Cambodia's underprivileged.
The cuisine is Khmer- based and offers diners a chance to taste some of the country's signature dishes, including fermented fish paste and crispy fried spiders. For those a little less adventurous, don't fret; the restaurant also offers plenty of milder dishes, such as crispy, fried Cambodian-spiced chicken wings served with pickled crab and a green papaya salad; Tonle Sap River fresh fish soup served alongside green banana, tamarind and spicy basil; or the students' favorite -- duck breast served with red ant soup and winter melon. Like Friends The Restaurant, most of the proceeds go back toward helping the former street kids who are now employed at the restaurant. (74 St. 174, Phnom Penh 12210; +855-92-219-565; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., open Monday to Sunday.)
Sesame Noodle Bar: One of the Russian Market's most popular food establishments, the Sesame Noodle Bar was created by an American and Japanese duo who felt compelled to bring the beauty of Japanese ramen to the streets of Cambodia while using as many local ingredients as possible. The noodles are served cold and mixed with a fragrant and mouthwatering collection of sauces and toppings, like fresh coriander.
For something a little heartier, opt for the Sesame Fatty Noodle, which comes with crispy pork belly and a splash of hoisin sauce, or the Sesame House Noodle that comes with chewy cold noodles, veggies, caramelized pork and a boiled egg. Prices range from $4 to $6 USD. If you're looking for something lighter, try the killer pork gyoza, which is hand rolled and stuffed with pork and green onion and deep fried; the mighty thor buns filled with pork belly, homemade pickles and hoisin; or the tofu and kimchi, a crowd favorite that's deep fried and perfectly crispy. (#9 Street 460, Phnom Penh; +855-89-750-212; open Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.)
Don't Miss in Phnom Penh
Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Sobering and heart wrenching, a trip to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is often included as an optional excursion for many cruise ships -- primarily because of the extremely emotional nature. The killing fields, or extermination camps, which sit less than 9 miles from downtown, are an outdoor museum where you can walk along the fields where thousands of innocent Cambodians were tortured and exterminated at the hands of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
The site now consists of a large glass pyramid filled with 8,000 human skulls that were exhumed from the mass graves just feet away. As you walk through, don't be surprised if you find fragments of bone still poking up from under the earth or shreds of clothing that haven't been picked up yet.
Following the killing fields tour, your day will conclude with a visit to the equally horrifying Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former prison seems completely unchanged by history, with the cell blocks still bearing the basic accommodations the prisoners were forced to endure. With '70s barbed wire still hanging from the facade of one of the buildings, the insides are now filled with thousands of victims' photos.
The museum can be self guided with an audio tour or led by a local guide. Please note that these are places of respect, and visitors should refrain from loud talking, laughing and taking photos. (Choeung Ek Killing Fields: Phnom Penh; +855-23-305-371; open Monday to Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum; St. 113, Phnom Penh City; +359-88-820-2037; open Monday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
National Museum: One of Cambodia's biggest museums, the National Museum houses some of the country's most prized and impressive relics that survived the war, the mass genocide of the late 1970s, widespread plundering and the riot-fueled revolution. The exhibits chronicle everything from the pre-Angkor (5th to 8th centuries) and Angkor (10th to 13th century) periods to what life was like in Khmer villages.
The museum is home to a staggering 5,000 pieces, which vary from fragments of statues and offering bowls to full costumes that were donned by the kings of the time. The museum itself is hard to miss, with its rust-red facade and three pointed steeples painted in white and flanked by squiggly red sculptures that curve up to the sky. The museum sits next to the Royal Palace, so it's easy to visit both landmarks in one day. (Preah Ang Eng St. (13), Phnom Penh; +855-23-217-643; open Monday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace: Two of Phnom Penh's most recognized landmarks -- the awe-inspiring Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace -- are situated in a large, sprawling complex. The Silver Pagoda, which is also known as the Emerald Buddha, was built in the late 1800s and literally glistens in the sun, thanks to the more than 5 tons of silver tiles that were used to create it.
In the back of the vihear (or temple hall) is the main point of interest for many visitors: the Emerald Buddha. Many say the 200-pound statue was carved completely from jade, where other historians believe it was more likely to be carved from Baccarat crystal from the neighboring waterway. Regardless of what you believe, the Buddha itself is astounding, adorned with gold and studded with more than 2,000 diamonds. The statue is encased, but you'll also find hundreds of donations and gifts received by the royal family over the years -- including other precious gems and significant artifacts.
The gallery walls around the pagoda are also a good stop, as they depict scenes from the Ramayana (an Indian epic). The Royal Palace, which is a bit of a contrast to the pagoda but equally stunning, boasts one of the striking gold-outlined Khmer-style roofs found in most royal structures; it truly dominates the busy city's skyline. The complex is home to a stunning array of gardens, a large throne hall and adjacent rooms that showcase the outfits of the queens and kings in different collections of royal colors.
When visiting, guests are required to wear pants or skirts that cover the knees and shirts that cover the shoulders. Admission to the Royal Palace compound costs about $10 per hour with a guide, and you have to pay a small fee to enter with a camera. (Samdach Sothearos Blvd (3), Phnom Penh City; +855-96-247-3471; open Monday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.)
Oudong Temple and Monastery: The town of Oudong, about 28 miles from Phnom Penh, is the former capital of Cambodia and home to the famed hilltop Oudong Temple and the largest Buddhist monastery in the country. It's difficult to get there on your own, but most ships offer excursions. (If yours doesn't, you can book one through Viator.) You'll have a chance to visit a temple where you'll receive a blessing from resident monks. You can also see where they live and witness how locals join them for lunch in a large temple mess hall, where everyone sits in rows on the floor. (You're welcome to join them, which adds to the experience.)
Riverfront Park: If you're looking for a place that's home to more locals than tourists, hop in a tuk tuk or walk toward the Riverfront Park. It overlooks the Tonle Sap waterfront, which is where the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong converge. The area is often filled with local residents practicing tai chi and yoga or jogging from as early as 5 a.m. Later in the day, you'll find thousands of residents sitting and relaxing by the water, having picnics or family meals or simply reading books under the towering palm trees. If you're hungry, delicious local bites are served all along the streetside by a variety of vendors. You'll find everything from dried, salted fish and boiled duck embryos still in the shell to fresh, spiced curries.
Phnom Penh Food Tour: For a tour that takes you to some of Phnom Penh's best street vendors and guides you through the small, weaving alleyways and packed streets, book a street food tour with Urban Forage, started by an Australian (Ducky) who has lived in more than 17 places. The tour offers local pickup and takes you to the markets to indulge in street food classics like fresh fruit juices, locally purveyed Khmer-style barbecue and more.
The most popular tour is the Street food and BBQ dinner tour, which takes you past the tourist haunts and deep into the local Khmer neighborhoods, but the morning market breakfast tour is also a great way to see the often overcrowded markets in the early light. It will also give you a chance to try local breakfast specialties like bobor, a rice porridge similar to congee; nom banh chok, a dish of rice noodles topped with a fish-based green curry gravy made with lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime; or kuy teav, a soup made from pork or beef bones and rice vermicelli and topped with fried shallots, scallions and bean sprouts.
Nighttime Tuk Tuk Tour: get a sense of the frenetic hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh at night, hire a tuk tuk to take you for a spin through the city after dark. Not only will the weather be cooler and more pleasant, but you'll see just how the city takes on a different persona when the sun sets. The city is generally safe to navigate on your own, but it's easy to get lost, so this gives you a chance to take in the sights without having to find your own way around.
Most drivers don't speak fluent English, so it likely won't be a verbally guided tour, but you'll get some great photo opportunities for less than $20 (including tip). Your cruise director or guide should be able to find you a drive and negotiate a rate if a similar tour isn't offered by the cruise line.