The National Museum & Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
After settling into our hotel, we took a tuk-tuk into the main area of town in search of food. We were dropped off right in the heart of the tourist area, as the moment we got out of our tuk-tuk, some Cambodian guy approached Minh asking if he wanted to buy any marijuana. The streets were lined with bars and restaurants catered for Westerners and large signs for cheap drinks. Minh and I tend to avoid places like these, for several reasons – the food is usually not that good and overpriced, we’re not trying to get trashed on cheap drinks, and it usually attracts a type of crowd that’s obviously not there to take in any of the local culture.
So, went on a hunt for some local flavors and ended up at the Phnom Penh Night Market. This night market had a good mix of locals and foreigners there. It was much more authentic than we were expecting, as the seating was just straw mats on the floor.
It was a little overwhelming trying to pick where to eat, as the locals obviously knew what to order and how to pick out what they wanted. There’s obviously no menu, and just a bunch of random ingredients that they’ll assemble for you depending on what you order or put into your basket.
As we have a love for trying street food, we have some things we look for when choosing a street vendor to eat:
- They’re busy – so that the food isn’t just sitting there and the food is hopefully “fresh” when you get your dish.
- They’re not calling for you to come over to eat at their place – if they are, it probably means nobody is eating there and the food has been sitting around (and probably not that good, because nobody wants to eat there!)
- A bonus – Someone a little younger working/helping – it’s a higher possibility they’ll speak English, and have more patience for you when you’re standing there like a deer in headlights trying to figure out how or what to order.
We stuck with what we could manage to order – noodles and papaya salad. As our food was being prepared, we couldn’t help but notice how many bugs there were everywhere! Each vendor also uses bright fluorescent lights with strips of translucent packing tape attached to them as a home made fly trap, which attracts all the bugs – and also hangs right above all the food. We were reconsidering if we should still eat the food, but once the food came out to us, it looked fine and we did a thorough bug check (all clear!), and ate our meal.
We had to take our shoes off and sit on the mats in the middle of the hot concrete floor to eat our food. The weather at the time was about 90 degrees+ with probably 80-85% humidity (at night!), and it was like we were sitting on a hot skillet that had been heated all day from the sun, so we hurriedly ate our food as we couldn’t bear the heat.
To try to cool down, we found this yummy coconut ice cream vendor within the night market. It was really good and exactly what we needed!
We walked around a bit and got a glimpse of the Royal Palace lit up at night before heading back to the hotel.
The next morning, after eating our delicious made to order breakfast provided by our hotel, we set out to do some site seeing.
Our hotel helped us call over a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Royal Palace and National Museum. As we are driving towards the Palace, our tuk-tuk driver pulls over to the side a few minutes after leaving, and tells us that he forgot to tell us that the Royal Palace is closed until 2PM, and he can take us on a city tour instead. We’re not sure if he’s trying to trick us into hiring him for the day as a tour guide – we’ve run into plenty of instances where people tell us places are closed when they’re really not – so we ask him to just drop us off at the National Museum first.
Inside houses a bunch of historical relics, statues, and furniture from the Khmer Empire. Photography isn’t allowed indoors, but it’s definitely worth checking out – there’s informational signs throughout the museum in French, English, and Khmer and we spent about an hour or so here. In the center of the museum is a great garden courtyard.
After finishing up at the National Museum, we walked over to the Royal Palace to verify if our tuk-tuk driver was being honest or trying to scam us. On our way to the palace, another tuk-tuk driver waved us down asking where we were going and told us the palace was closed for lunch, and asked if we wanted to hire him to take us somewhere else. We politely declined and walked further down the pathway to the entrance to verify for ourselves. Yep. It was closed. Our tuk tuk driver was telling the truth, and so was the other guy (this is what happens when you travel to tourist-heavy places where you need to look out for scams all the time, you just look like a jerk when the honest people are genuinely trying to help you out!). For anyone wanting to visit the Royal Palace, the official hours are 7:30-11:00AM and then reopens at 2:00-5:00PM.
As we walked back in the scorching, shade-less heat, the same tuk-tuk driver was gracious enough not to make us feel bad for not listening to him earlier, as we verified with him that the Palace reopens at 2:00PM. We decided to have lunch and wait until the Royal Palace reopened. Luckily there are some restaurants nearby, and we visited a very well known restaurant that is run by an NGO that employs students interested in the hospitality industry called Friends the Restaurant. The menu was eclectic with lots of Asian, Western, and fusion options, and you can definitely tell the people who work there are students, as they are all so young and nervous! The prices are a little higher than what you would expect in the area, but knowing that it’s going towards a good cause and the food is actually very tasty…it’s a win-win!
After lunch, we made our way back to the Royal Palace just as it re-opened at 2PM. As we were walking back, the tuk-tuk driver from earlier remembered us and asked us how lunch was and if I had something to cover up, as there’s a dress code for the Royal Palace. This tuk-tuk driver was really killing us with kindness! Luckily, I did read up about the dress code and brought a shirt with me to throw over my tank top. A bunch of foreigners in front of us in line were all wearing tank tops and had to buy t-shirts from the Palace before entering. The women had sarongs with them that they planned to use as a cover up, but that also isn’t allowed at the Royal Palace and they were forced to buy a shirt.
Knees and shoulders must be covered up before entering the Royal Palace. Sarongs are not accepted as cover ups, but a t-shirt is, so dress accordingly (or bring along with you) to avoid having to buy their shirts and pants!Two Peas Travel Tip
Upon entering, you’ll see the Throne Hall, with amazingly intricate details all along the roof and columns of the building.
From the Throne Hall, you get a beautiful view of the courtyard and Royal Guesthouse. The scenery looked so nice, it looks like a fake backdrop!
The attention to detail here is incredible, not just on the buildings, but the landscape as well.
From there, we explored the rest of the Royal Palace complex, which has another section that houses the Silver Pagoda and other buildings.
A really cool part of this section of the complex was the miniature model of Angkor Wat. Even in a miniature version, you can see how huge the complex is, and gave us an idea of what to expect when we were to make our way over there in a few weeks.
After a long day in the relentless sun and humidity, we sought refuge in the Aeon Mall for the air conditioning. While in the mall, we discovered the food court in the basement, that had several vendors selling basically the same food at the Phnom Penh Night Market, at the same prices, and looked much more sanitary and bug-free!
In addition, we didn’t need to sit on the floor outside in the heat to enjoy our food, but in a nice air conditioned area with tables and chairs! The food was even better than the night market and from then on, we were sold on mall food courts in South East Asia! Weird to say, as in the US, we wouldn’t usually seek out a mall to eat in their food court. So, for anyone who is not ready to try out the foods at Phnom Penh Night Market, we recommend going to the Aeon Mall food court instead – you’ll get the same type of food, with a cleaner and more comfortable environment! It was a great way to end our long day of exploring some of the main attractions of Phnom Penh.