STREET S AHEAD
The ancient city of Phnom Penh is changing, says, but charming accommodation, shopping, dining and pampering options abound as the Cambodian capital races towards its future
PHNOM PENH IS being taken over. Overwhelmed by the communist Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, the Cambodian capital is now being stormed by capitalistic entrepreneurs, who are turning the once-sleepy backwater into a happening metropolis. Locals are keen to boast of developments such as the nation’s first skyscraper (coming soon, at 42 storeys). And there’s much more concrete pouring going on: a sprawling exhibition centre is coming together, a huge casino has partially opened, and there’s an expanding amusement park and glitzy malls aplenty.
Situated in a prime location in the old quarter of the city, Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra is the latest of several luxury hotels in the Cambodian capital. But is the city ready for another five-star property? The Sofitel’s resident manager, Frederik Deman, has no doubt. “Phnom Penh is the future of Cambodia,” he says. “This city is emerging as Cambodia’s hub; as a gateway to Angkor, yes, but also to [beach-resort destination] Sihanoukville and the southern coast.”
Opened in March 2011, and mixing contemporary design with colonial French glamour (staff greet you with “bonjour”), the US$55 million, 12-storey, 201-room property spreads over four hectares to create a self-contained little-village atmosphere. It boasts eight restaurants and bars, as well as no shortage of sports facilities: two large swimming pools, two fully fitted gyms, tennis courts and air-conditioned squash courts (the only chilled courts in the city).
What’s more, there are several high-end gift shops under the hotel’s roof. And for head-to-toe pampering, the signature So Spa is not to be missed. Feeling romantic? A special package includes a full massage treatment for two, followed by a French or Italian candlelight dinner overlooking the river. “This is more than a five-star hotel, it’s a five-star experience,” says Deman.
The hotel’s two-bedroom suites, with butler services and balconies overlooking the Mekong River, feature elegant dark-wood furniture against earth-toned fabrics, flowing curtains, polished teak floors, large and glass-walled marble bathrooms, generous-sized bathtubs, rain showers and Hermès amenities. Other goodies include iPod docking stations, espresso makers and large flat-screen TVs. The 1,507-square-foot Opera Suite has a living room, a dining room with a table for 12, two bedrooms and bathrooms (one with a Jacuzzi), and a small kitchen. All suites have VIP access to the exclusive 12th-floor Club Millésime.
It’s early evening and I’m sitting in that elegant club enjoying a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and savouring a postcard-perfect view of the city and the broad, curving Mekong River. A wooden boat carries tourists past small fishing vessels, and fishermen along the shore cast their nets. Gilded stupas and traditional steep-sloped roofs of red tiles start to darken as the sun sets, and hills turn to silhouette across the water. The scene makes for a beautiful coda to the day, and a splendid overture to the evening ahead.
And at least one evening in Phnom Penh must include dinner at one of the Sofitel’s main restaurants, which all feature view kitchens.
Housed in its own building overlooking the pool deck, Do Forni serves authentic northern- Italian dishes in a romantic setting. The unique timber-framed ceiling resembles the inside of an upturned boat. Fu Lu Zu, with its darkred velvet chairs, oriental carpets and Chinese artefacts, features Chiuchow-inspired dishes with Southeast Asian touches.
Japanese eatery Hachi, meanwhile, with its slate-black floors and rice-paper screens, provides superb sushi, sizzling robatayaki and 30 varieties of sake. La Coupole – named after the landmark Parisian brasserie – has an extensive East-West menu, while its upscale Sunday brunch is an international culinary experience, with show kitchens preparing made-to-order seafood, steaks, and Khmer and Chinese specialities.
Despite Phnom Penh’s rush for the future, the traditionally laid-back Cambodian attitude survives. The shiny new cars whizz past barefoot Buddhist monks; an occasional cow ambles by a snazzy wine bar. Wander the side streets, overhung by leafy trees, and you’ll discover old French colonial mansions that have mutated into high-end boutiques, soothing spas and classy cafes.
Perhaps the finest place to witness Phnom Penh’s trendy transformation is Street 240, one of its hippest retail stretches. Phnom Penh isn’t difficult to navigate (occasional potholes, random livestock and zigzagging motorbikes aside) and – except for some major thoroughfares that are named – all streets are numbered. Odd-numbered streets run north and south, and rise in number as they spread west from the river, and the even-numbered streets run west and east, rising in number as you travel south.
On the aforementioned Street 240, French designer Christine Gauthier’s custom-made dresses, jewellery and works of art can be found at Water Lily, which creatively and whimsically mixes local and European materials and beads for one-of-a-kind creations. Along the same street, in a renovated century-old villa, Bliss is among the finest spas in the city. After a luxurious rubdown (try the four-hand massage; a pair will never suffice again) rummage downstairs among Asian-inspired pillows, hand-stitched bedspreads, dresses, purses and bags made from high-quality silk, cotton and linen. Jasmine Boutique produces two upscale and affordable collections of dresses and outfits each year utilising hand-woven Cambodian silk, while Kashaya Silk has an array of gorgeous handmade shawls, scarves, wall hangings, purses, pillows and silver jewellery. Stylish boutique Couleurs d’Asie offers high-quality silk clothes, home furnishings and a wide selection of local crafts.
Also on Street 240, take a break from shopping to try magnificent Mediterranean cuisine at Tamarind, or local fare at Sugar Palm, or drop by for a glass of wine at Red Apron, which has an extensive menu of tipples originating from more than 10 countries, plus a fine selection of Krug champagne. The upstairs lounge serves quality steaks, seafood, snacks and cheese platters.
Elsewhere in the city, in an elegantly renovated villa on Street 178, Ambre sells glamorous Cambodian gowns and dresses, as well as sharp men’s suits, by one of Phnom Penh’s most celebrated designers, Romyda Keth, who studied in Paris and designed for Macy’s. Then, it’s just a short stroll to Lotus Pond, which sells silk, statues and silverware, plus custom-designed furniture and homeware. On Street 250, Vietnam-based French designer Valerie Gregori McKenzie creates garments out of ethically sourced materials, and sells them from her retail outlet, Song. On Street 246, Kira Madhura specialises in jewellery created from silver, gold and semi-precious stones, as well as fine silverware. Psar Tuol Tom Pong, aka the Russian Market, is a vast and winding labyrinth stocking everything from cloisonné to clothes, pearls to power drills and counterfeit DVDs to certified antiques. The market can be found at the junction of streets 440 and 163.
When it comes to dining away from Street 240, award-winning Malis serves superlative Cambodian cuisine. Fine Khmer dishes – and excellent Tonle Sap river views – can also be enjoyed at Ponlok Restaurant on Sisowath Quay. On Street 57, set in a large Khmer-style building, Khmer Surin serves up a terrific range of Khmer and Thai dishes, including local favourites such as dtrey chhlounh – or deep-fried peacock eel direct from the river. Upstairs dining is informal, with diners resting on huge pillows at low tables.
Fittingly for a former French colony, it’s no surprise to find restaurants serving fine Gallic fare with premium wine lists: chef Takeshi Kamo works wonders at elegant La Résidence (Street 214); the Toulouse-born chef at The Wine Restaurant (Street 19) serves up a seasonal menu of French favourites; and, set in the former Banque de l’Indochine, Van’s Restaurant (Street 102) features traditional dishes like lapin en gibelotte (rabbit in a heavy stew with white wine) in gorgeous surroundings. The colonialstyle riverfront Foreign Correspondents’ Club (on Sisowath Quay) provides good Western and local comfort food, attracts a friendly crowd and offers wonderful views of the Tonle Sap. The rooftop bar is a must for sunset cocktails.
One of the finest places to dine in the capital, and set in the elegantly restored colonial-style Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Restaurant Le Royal features French haute cuisine and classic Khmer dishes served in opulent surroundings. “Le Royal’s menu and atmosphere is a composition of a rich heritage, where one can feel the breath of history,” says restaurant manager Christoph Schlatter. Le Royal is considered Phnom Penh’s premier fine-dining venue, and guests have included royalty, dignitaries and politicians.
The restaurant’s interior is as grand as the food, with beautiful linen tablecloths and napkins gleaming white, long-stemmed candles flickering in silver holders, fresh flowers, chandeliers hanging from an ornately painted ceiling and luxurious drapes framing large arched windows. A designer from Cambodia’s Royal Palace chose the plush carpet in the 2,200-square-foot dining room, and the main wall is decorated with a two-metre-high painting of Her Royal Highness Norodom Buppha Devi, sister of the king.
The French menu, meanwhile, offers treasures such as rack of lamb with a savoury herb crust, presented on an elegant silver tray and cut to request tableside, and Dover sole meunière. There is also skin-seared black cod served atop a green-pea velouté and accompanied by a beurre blanc of Madagascar vanilla. The pan-fried duck foie gras cooked on a grill, served with mashed apples and crumbled pain d’épices (a sweetly spiced bread), is not so friendly to the waistline.
Cambodian dishes include beef loc lac (chunky and tender pieces of beef tenderloin, wok fried with garlic and ripe tomatoes) and steamed fillet of local elephant fish filled with vermicelli noodles, minced pork, black mushrooms and dry shrimps, and topped with a herb sauce. The free-range Khmerherb chicken comes with sautéed pak choi, black mushrooms, lemon-grass sauce and steamed jasmine rice.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy the restaurant’s highlights is via the impressive degustation menu, accompanied by a rare bottle suggested by the sommelier. “We pride ourselves on having mastered the fine art of royal Cambodian cuisine, which is deeply rooted in Khmer traditional cooking, as well as the unique culinary traditions of classic French cuisine,” says Executive Sous Chef Van Sarean. “We are considered the finest restaurant in Phnom Penh, and there’s a reason for this. It’s because to us, quality is everything. Unless it’s done 100 percent properly, it’s not worth serving.”
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