Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The Demimondaine

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The Demimondaine

I’ve been itching to write about Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and one of my favorite cities. I could write about the whole place, Tuol Sleng and all (I have been coming here for a decade and know it well), but I wanted to rhapsodize about the city as an exemplar of urban Indochine (the area under French influence during the colonial era).

Of course, Vietnam was always the jewel in the French crown in this part of the world, but there remains in Cambodia and parts of Laos a faint impress of francophone influence. A bit like the leonine imprint left if a Peugeot collides with your ass.

Yes, That Demimonde – Phnom Penh

Indochina these days has better coffee (especially in the Nam), better bread, and in Phnom Penh at any rate, a louche, demimondaine[i] (in its secondary sense of ‘relating to flamboyance and ease’) vibe that pervades even the ritzier parts of the city (few though they are). It’s an anything goes type place if ever there was one, an Asian cross between the Reeperbahn and Amsterdam. It has the best elements of both and a much better climate (if like me you’d much rather sling a T-shirt and a pair of shorts on every day than wrap up for the frost).

phnom penh

Just after midday, on the strand at the front of Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Phnom Penh’s riverfront area, with its promenades ideal for flâneurs, fills with locals in the evening, rather than in the blistering daytime sun (when this photograph was sweatily taken). PIC: JC 2017

Indochinese cityscapes have wide boulevards named for Louis Pasteur, grid systems with off-streets populated by dreamy villas fringed with bougainvillea. Here in Cambodia, which was never a full colony but in legal terms a protectorate affiliated to its sisters in French Indochina, slow living rightly ruled. As long as taxes were extracted along with rice and rubber, the French didn’t give a good god damn about a whole lot else. Where the Thais modeled their bureaucracy on that in Paris, Cambodia just got along, and still fully retains the awe-inspiring somnolence of its traditional culture.

Phnom Penh has its ghosts, of course, it has its history. But we’re not into that today. Let’s zoom down to street level, to Street 172 indeed[ii], and get a worm’s eye view of the action.

It’s All Kicking Off Down Here

Cambodian laxity in all things official means that pretty much anyone can rent a property and just start a business, like that. Sure, the fire officers will turn up at some point to cadge some tea money, as will the police. They’ll give you bits of paper and they’ll return every now and then for more cash. But not lots. It means, in the end, that someone, anyone, can rent a bar (such as the Dirty Old Sailors, on Street 172) and sell high-grade cannabis and beer. Beer $1, joints $2, $3, $4, and up. It means that bars and cafés and restaurants are opening up the whole time, with streets all over the city sprouting leafy boutique hotels, chocolate shops, whisky bars, and myriad other concerns.

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The Brunette not being present, my companion was Il Torino, who happened to be visiting while I was preparing this post. The Italian resident of Shenzhen is pictured in the Dirty Old Sailors bar where European non-smoking norms are eschewed. PIC: JC 2017

Who is The Brunette? Check out Where To Find the Best Barbecued Rat

Food 172

But I really want to rhapsodize about the food. This street is not typical of Phnom Penh, though good food is widely available. The markets are full of durian right now, and the mango season is coming in. Every market from the Russian on down has a slew of stalls putting out everything from barbecued ducks to coconut sweetmeats. However, Sara’s is on Street 172, and it’s very, very good. Sara Ethiopian Restaurant and Coffee Shop is hosted by the impeccably polite Berhanu from Addis Ababa, and run by Sara herself, whose sunny, familial persona somehow enhances the flavors of the cuisine she prepares in her postage-stamp-sized kitchen. Prices range up to about $8 for a meat dish, and the $3-$4 breakfast dishes are superb value. The $3-5 wats (casseroles), which come with bread or rice or delicate sourdough injera pancakes, are ideal for lunch, where you dip your injera into the glistening sauces. Even chickpeas take on hidden, meaty depth of flavor, while Sara’s hummus and satin-smooth eggplant paste will have you licking your plate.

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Lunch: shiro wat and injera, with Ethiopian coffee at Sara’s. The place has only been open three weeks, so I’ve lucked out before it makes a name for itself, which it will surely do. Ethiopian cuisine, with African, Levantine, Arabian, and Maghrebian influences, is justly famous for the sheer, gloopy magnificence of its flavors. PIC: JC 2017

Just up the street there’s Mollyda’s Sandwich Shop, with everything from juicy barbecued pork subs for $3.50 to big combination sarnies a buck or two more than that. Molly’s a Phnom Penh native and her spotless new outlet matches the quality of the ingredients. She makes her own highly spiced pickles, which are worth a baguette on their own. The salads are just-bought fresh and you get a choice of cheeses with every sub. Time to buy new shorts because the Philly Cheese Steak is virtually part of my daily routine now.

The street also boasts Cam’s Burritos, and Sony Side Up, and the White River, and Aroma Chef, and bars such as Sundance, where Stewart and Rory reign with a warm welcome and good-humored banter. Sundance’s daily specials can be enjoyed to a bluesy soundtrack of Woodie Guthrie et al. and live music twice a week, with an open-mic night on Tuesdays and various artists playing the Friday night slots. Check out their ‘sliders’ at a buck each: sausage, egg, and cheese in a breakfast roll. 172 has lots of convenience stores too, full of tobacco and rolling papers and salty snacks prominent on their well-stocked shelves.

The microcosm that Street 172 represents is less about the body than the soul of the city, which is a white-hot crucible more than a melting pot. Sort of fantastical in a way.

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Street 172, looking west in early afternoon. Damned hot. Not a lot going on. PIC: JC, 2017

[i] In in its secondary sense of ‘relating to individuals on the fringes of society’. Basically, the sort of society and environment in which Toulouse Lautrec used to hang out and drink absinthe.

[ii] Between Preah Norodom Boulevard and Street 13, close to the riverfront and to the National Museum and royal palace.

John Clamp

John Clamp

John Clamp has lived, worked, and scuba dived in Asia for ten years. An incorrigible traveler, he knows Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, China, and South America. His favorite places are Rio de Janeiro, Borneo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, and the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea. He is currently an editor for Maqshosh English.


  • Erika

    I need to head back to Phnom Penh, I didn’t realize it was so hopping these days.

    May 25, 2017 at 8:17 pm
  • Bill Livingston

    Nice article. Makes me want to travel to Phnom Penh and check it out myself!

    May 26, 2017 at 7:54 am