Cambodia may not be at the top of everyone’s Southeast Asia must-visit list, but those who underestimate or write off its charms would be remiss.
We were introduced to the captivating city of Phnom Penh through a client and have since fallen in love with it. The market research visit was one of many our company has conducted, but it has remained indelible by the education, surprises and “a ha” moments we had during the journey. This insight has brought invaluable input into the concept we have eventually proposed for our client in the Old Post Office Square area. (Stay tuned for more on that…)
At first glance, the aesthetics of Phnom Penh may seem underwhelming. It has a subtler version of that cultural, social and visual dichotomy one would see in New Delhi, for example, where the wealth gap is extreme. Shiny buildings and opulent mansions located next to street-side shacks and old storefronts in shambles. But you have got to explore. Tour around town in a tuk tuk and see how the city’s history is painted throughout. The French influence is undeniably speckled throughout its architecture and signages. Walk into cafés near the Russian Market and speakeasy bars in Bassac Lane and discover a world of food and beverage that rivals some of the best cities in the world.
First, the menus you see around town are a far cry from boring. Everywhere you go, from 5-star hotels to tiny cafes, is brimming with cutting edge ideas, ingredient pairings and culinary offerings. Many cleverly take the indigenous flavors of Cambodia and modernize it; or take its classic dishes and present them in a contemporary or more alternative way. Fish amok burgers? Sign us up. They are delicious. With such creativity brewing here, it would certainly be a hot spot for producing and honing up-and-coming chefs.
A little more on Cambodian cuisine. To dispel a possible theory for those who have not tried the food, it is not unapproachable at all. In fact, one would argue that its slightly milder curries and use of sweetness and acidity instead of spiciness make Cambodian food even more palatable than Thai food for most. Due to its geographic location, rice and fish dominate most meals. The many roots in Chinese cuisine also make the Cambodian fare rather comforting and familiar as well. And for the more adventurous, the street food culture in Phnom Penh is as prevalent as its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Unlike in other Asian cities, communication with the locals and service staff is surprisingly easy. Perhaps with the historical American occupation, English is quite prevalent around town and taken on with conversational capabilities by most. Not only was communication unchallenging, the attentiveness and know-how of service staff were generally quite good. During the time that we spent in the city, most of the hospitality staff we encountered displayed radiating warmth and an impressive level of service even by international standards.
#vegan, #sustainable, #farmtotable, #speakeasy, #coffeelab … you name the hashtag, Phnom Penh has got you covered. The food and beverage offering in Phnom Penh is surprisingly on trend. We were wowed by the many places that prompted us to whip out our smart phones and snap away. The sheer number of cafes that had us oohing and aahing at the menu selection, the décor and its concept innovation, was astounding. Let’s put it this way, any Instagram fanatic would have a field day in this city.
While there’s certainly still room for improvement and a bit more polish, the food and beverage industry in Phnom Penh has achieved a level of standard that’s impressive in its own right. With more and more influx of international players in the game, it will no doubt soon become a force to be reckoned with in Southeast Asia … if it isn’t already.