To get a real taste of life in Cambodia, you need to set the alarm because the day starts early here. Dawn is the best time to hit the riverside or Hun Sen Park where you’ll catch fitness fanatics power walking or taking part in a range of exercise classes, complete with pumping music.
Shopping like a local
The markets are at their most vibrant in the early morning as locals compete to snap up the freshest foods. For an authentic market experience, visit Psar Kandal and watch the fish flapping in pans, dodge the slabs of beef hanging from hooks and gaze in awe at the rainbow selection of fruits.
A less frantic alternative is Central Market (Psar Thmei), which is tamer and caters more to the tourist crowd. Beneath the iconic Art Deco dome, which has stood in the city since 1937, you can buy everything from souvenirs, household goods, clothes and food to flowers, shoes, bags and everything in between. Haggling is expected.
Having worked up an appetite, head to Chilly Noodle House (1 Street 172) for some noodles, freshly cooked on a portable metal kitchen set up on the street.
An increasing number of tourists are opting to leave Khmer Rouge-related sites off their lists of destinations. But for those interested, Ek (The Killing Fields) and Toul Sleng (S-21 prison camp) present some insight into the country’s horrific history. Both offer a sobering look at the brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975–1979, killing an estimated two million people.
To delve even further into Cambodia’s past, spend the afternoon at the National Museum, home to relics that hark back to the Angkor period (useful ahead of a trip to Angkor Wat). The neighbouring Royal Palace is home to the royal family. Its manicured gardens are open to the public, and contain a variety of ornate temples and structures such as the Silver Pagoda.
To sample Khmer fine dining, Malis (136 Norodom Boulevard) is a must. Set up by revered master chef Luu Meng, the restaurant revives traditional dishes and gives them a modern twist. Crowned Asia’s top chef, Luu Meng has been championing Khmer cuisine internationally, winning him prestige at home.
For some after-dinner drinks, head around the corner to Street 308, a narrow back lane that in recent years has been transformed into a hub of small bars and restaurants. Try Red Bar, popular with the city’s journalists and creative types, for chilled cheap drinks or Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll-themed La Boutier for some cocktails. Head to the bustling Bassac Lane for themed bars such as Harry’s and Meet and Drink.
For those wanting to party into the wee hours, Pontoon is the city’s stellar nightspot. Vito pumps out classic hits while the Rooftop Reggae Bar blasts drum ‘n’ bass, reggae and hip-hop until dawn.
After breakfast at your hotel, hire a tuk tuk (£16–£24/$20–$30, depending on the length of time) to take to you to Koh Dach or Silk Island.
Situated about 14km (8.7 mi.) from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, Silk Island feels a million miles away from the construction-heavy capital. The island is home to a silk-weaving village and centre where guests can watch the entire production process through to the hand-weaving on looms made from bicycle wheels.
The silk-weaving centre also boasts a peaceful picnic and swimming spot by the Mekong River, perfect for a lunchtime picnic.
Nearby is the bright yellow Koh Dach Pagoda temple. You can visit the temple if you are dressed appropriately – no shoulders or knees showing for women. The island is also home to the Coconut School, where about 200 children, aged 8–12, learn English, reading, writing and computer skills. The school is made entirely from recycled materials, with walls made from beer bottles, seats from coconut tree logs and the school’s sign from old car tyres. Visitors can take a tour of the school.
Afterwards, drop in to Le Kroma Villa (Kbal Koh Village) for some respite. The relatively new guesthouse boasts an infinity pool looking out across the Mekong River, some of the best pizza in Cambodia and very friendly staff.
On your return journey to the city, ask your driver to stop at Wat Phnom.
Wat Phnom is set at the top of a 27m- (29.5 yds.) high hill. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha left there by the Mekong River and discovered by Lady Penh.
Many locals go to Wat Phnom to pray for good luck. It is also popular with visitors who can visit if dressed respectfully (admission is $1). Wat Phnom offers a pleasant and shady meeting place, but beware of the mischievous monkeys that inhabit the grounds. They should be avoided at all costs as they can be vicious and will attack humans if provoked.
If you skipped lunch, The Chinese House (Sisowath Quay) is a trendy spot in which to refuel. The building dates back to 1905 and the menu features fusion Asian food in the upstairs restaurant. Downstairs you can enjoy a selection of carefully crafted cocktails until the early hours.
For pre-dinner drinks, head to Eclipse sky bar (455 Monivong Boulevard) and watch the sun set on the city below from Phnom Penh’s highest drinking spot – for now. Situated on the 24th floor of Phnom Penh Tower, the open-air bar offers unparalleled 360-degree views of the capital.
For dinner, book a table at Friends the Restaurant (215 Street 13). The non-governmental organisation, which provides vocational training for underprivileged young people, uses the popular restaurant to allow students to try out their skills in a real setting. Enjoy the delicious Khmer dishes and don’t forget to try the deep-fried tarantula.
Finish off your 48 hours in Phnom Penh with a visit to Space Hair Salon & Bar (66 Street 136), a Khmer-run salon by day and a gay bar by night. The staff are friendly, and will chat until the morning if you let them while you sip on some to-die-for gin and tonic.