A short plane ride – under an hour – from Siem Reap and you arrive in the capital, Phnom Penh, which is a buzzing metropolis. We were only there for two days but managed to see a huge amount. As a family we visited the splendid Royal Palace, which is still lived in by the ruling King of Cambodia. He lives in one part of it – which is closed off to visitors – but the rest of the palace is there for tourists and locals to visit and enjoy.
I adored the stunning yellow – possibly gold leaf – roofing and the mellow yellow paintwork. With the bright blue skies as a backdrop and the fuchsia pink flowers, the whole place looked really magical.
The other place of interest nearby is the National Museum, housed in an equally impressive building – this time a distinctive rust-red colour.
There are over 5000 objects on display – many Angkorian era statues including the legendary statue of the ‘Leper King’. After our mornings culture we decided that my husband and elder daughter would visit the ‘Killing Fields’ and ‘Toul Sleng Genocide Museum’, whilst my younger daughter and I would check out the two key markets in Phnom Penh known as ‘Central Market’ (Psai Thmei) and ‘Russian Market’ (Psah Toul Tom Poung).
We headed to Central Market to begin with, which is housed in a beautiful historic building with an impressive yellow dome.
In the main hall jewels of every shape and colour were being sold and leading off this central area where a labyrinth of passages selling a wide range of goods from clothing to manicures. Naturally the food area is what attracted me the most.
Every possible form of dried fish was on offer, but I particularly liked the demure and stylish lady below selling honeycomb.
We picked up some donut looking snacks to graze upon whilst we surveyed all the wonderful food on offer, although we were tempted to have some Banh Xeo.
They are the yellow rice pancakes above and the large photo below. They are absolutely delicious and you can stuff them with whatever you fancy, although typically they are filled with slices of pork belly, prawns, beansprouts and herbs. I often tend to leave out the pork belly and just have prawns. My recipe for them are here. so take a look and give them a whirl. Let me know how you get on !! They are far easier to make than you think and my whole family adore them. You can easily pick up rice flour now at all the large supermarkets. The summer rolls below look tempting don’t you think?
We then headed over to the Russian market, which is fairly similar to central market in as far as goods are concerned, although I did see more stalls selling some beautiful looking crockery, which I was tempted to buy. Russian market is darker and a little more claustrophobic and I imagine on a hot day with lots of people it could be rather sweltering inside. For both markets we had a guide, but in all honesty this is unnecessary as you can easily wander around at your own speed and feel quite safe. Getting a tuk tuk is easy so moving around the city is pretty straightforward.
We stayed in the old US Embassy, which is now called the White Mansion. It was in a great location to everything we wanted to see, the rooms were large and spacious, there was a pool and the cafe attached to the hotel- Eric Kayser – offered incredible pastries and breakfasts. It is for the public as well as hotel guests, so worth a visit even if you are not staying here. They do offer breakfast, lunch and dinner, although we only ate breakfast there.
On the first evening we dined at a fabulous restaurant that we booked again the following night. It’s called ‘Khmer Surin’ and it is the perfect place to savour real Khmer cuisine in a cosy atmosphere with local musicians playing traditional Cambodian music. There is an English menu and such a range of dishes that over the two evenings we worked our way through a number of memorable Khmer dishes. They also served great fresh juices and cocktails. We also discovered that they operated as a guest house. The rooms look characterful – with Khmer furniture and decor and are very reasonably priced indeed, so I would definitely consider staying here if I were to return to the city.
Our final destination was in the very south of the country in a place called Kep-sur-Mer, which, as the name suggests, is by the sea. We were heading there for two main reasons – to relax and to eat crab, as the town is famous for it’s ‘crab market’.
The drive took a few hours from Phnom Penh but once we reached this sleepy backwater (it used to be THE place to hang out Cambodian high society and French colonials and now is making a bit of a revival) we checked into our hotel – Knai Bang Chatt – a beautifully stylish boutique hotel – only 18 rooms, set in lush tropical gardens overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.
Before we even explored the hotel, we left our bags in our room and headed off for lunch in the local crab market. It was a lot smaller than I had imagined, but nonetheless it was exciting to see our lunch being prepared so freshly. The fisherman would bring in the crabs, then the amount of crabs was agreed – we went for 1kg of crab and 500g prawns. You need to pay the fisherman separately from the cooks.
Watching the preparation is not for the faint hearted. The crabs were severed and cut into four pieces, their lungs – the feathery cones lining the side of the body – were removed. Within minutes they were tossed into the pan. Cambodia is famous for its pepper – particularly its Kampot pepper – and many dishes are heavily peppered. We decided that for the crab dish we would include pepper but the prawns we would keep it simpler so that my youngest daughter could dive in.
Minutes later we were walking away with what looked, and tasted, spectacular. From a separate stall we bought rice, some chilli sauce and water. We found a pew and joined others by diving into our lunch. There is no polite way to eat this so use your hands and get involved.
Back at the hotel we discovered a beautiful space with manicured lawns, a gorgeous pool, a library and lots of day beds, swinging baskets to lounge upon. Next to the hotel (and owned by the hotel), we discovered a rather stylish sailing club, with a great bar and restaurant, pool table, table tennis and volleyball courts. It was a little enclave of cool, which would not have looked out of place in the Hamptons or the South of France. Hotel guests mingled with other tourists and Cambodian families, down from Phnom Penh for the weekend. Happy hour was particularly popular as the bar was particular good at creating fabulously tasty cocktails accompanied by the tasted spiced nuts I have ever eaten. I am going to do a blog post on how to make them as they are seriously addictive and perfect with a good beer, cocktail or glass of wine. One evening we ate in town, which is a short 5 minutes walk from the hotel. There are a handful of restaurants overlooking the sea by the crab market and we were recommended to Kimly, which was good, although our crab lunch will always remain the more memorable.
As far as trips from Kep, one day we ventured over to ‘Rabbit Island’. Go with low expectations and then you won’t be too disappointed. It certainly doesn’t have same turquoise waters that surround the Thai islands such as Phi Phi as I guess it is literally a stones throw from the mainland. I was saddened to see quite a lot of discarded rubbish and bottles as we walked over to the other side of the island to find a place to snorkel. The rubbish is apparently taken off the island every day, but with fairly basic accommodation on offer and no fresh running water, I guess it is hard to keep the place spotless of rubbish. Apparently the islands that are further from the mainland are more inline with our idea of a white sand, crystal clear waters desert island. Islands like Koh Rong Sanloem may be worth checking out if you are keen to find this kind of escape, although I reckon it would be worth staying a few nights as some of the more remote islands take up to 3 hours to reach. Needless to say on ‘Rabbit Island’ our hotel had organised a lovely lunch for us and we had some incredible massages on the beach.
If you are planning a trip and there is something I have not covered here, then write a comment in the comments box below and I will get back to you. Cambodia has a lot to offer whether you are travelling on your own, with friends or family.