It’s a late November night at Rosewood Phnom Penh’s sky bar Sora, on the 37th floor of the showstopping Vattanac Capital Tower. The view from the outdoor section is of a sprawling city, glittering with promise.
Inside, the dancing is reaching fever pitch, fueled by Cuban beats and cocktails courtesy of the month’s edition of the Rosewood Bar Series. A collaboration with the World’s 50 Best Bars, the monthly event has been jetting in some of the world’s most renowned mixologists to the Cambodian capital since it debuted in May 2022.
The night’s bar takeover features no less than Giacomo Giannotti, owner and master mixologist of Paradiso in Barcelona, and his wife and bartending partner Margarita Sader. Just weeks before, the speakeasy-inspired bar tucked behind a pastrami shop had been proclaimed the best in the world. In matching black chef’s jackets with a deep-green jungle pattern (by Sader, who’s also a fashion designer), the couple serve a parade of glorious cocktails that are equal parts performance and experiments in flavour. Among the most popular is The Cloud – hibiscus-infused vodka, mezcal, amaro and dry vermouth – served with an edible foamy coffee bonbon that sometimes sails upward beyond reach, sending everyone on a giggly quest to retrieve it.
Dancing, drinking and chasing rogue clouds – in many ways the evening at Sora perfectly sums up the city’s after-hours scene: electric, bursting with energy, and so much fun. But that’s just one reason to visit Phnom Penh. Here are more temptations to give into now.
For art lovers: A booming contemporary art movement
There’s no shortage of art in the kingdom, from gilded pagodas to retro Vann Molyvann landmarks, but a new street-art movement is boosting the city’s creative scene.
At the center of the movement is FONKi, graffiti artist and owner of FT Gallery, located at The Factory, a sprawling warehouse conversion that’s a hub for startups, hip boutiques, eateries and art spaces.
Born in France to Cambodian parents who had escaped the Khmer Rouge, FONKi grew up in Montreal, Canada, where he became a graffiti artist at age 15. His visit to Cambodia became the subject of a 2015 documentary called The Roots Remain. While discovering a landscape that was at once foreign and familiar, he created graffiti lettering inspired by the kbach, or traditional decorative elements found in temples and traditional homes.
Since that first encounter with his ancestral homeland, he’s become a creative force, championing a distinctly Cambodian kind of street art and promoting fellow contemporary artists at his FT Gallery. The gallery also manages artist residencies and oversees The Factory’s art programming, and works by local and international graffiti artists are splashed on entire walls across the compound.
For taste hunters: An exciting culinary renaissance
Cambodian cuisine, eclipsed for years by the almost universally applauded cuisines of its neighbours, is creating major buzz, thanks in part to the work of Rotanak Ros. Also known as Chef Nak, Ros has spent over 15 years scouring the country for traditional dishes, most of which have been documented in Nhum: Recipes from a Cambodian Kitchen, a beautiful volume that offers both culinary history and recovered recipes.
Her own cooking is heartfelt and homey, and displays a sophistication of technique, a deep knowledge of the culinary traditions, and an instinct for what works. A Chef Nak meal, whether for a private dinner at her traditional wooden house by the Mekong or at the Rosewood’s Brasserie Louis – where she developed the Khmer menu that includes dishes based on royal recipes – is both a gastronomic adventure and an emotional journey through the kingdom and across time.
For conscious consumers: Shopping that’s extra-rewarding
The made-in-Cambodia brand is having a moment as design-savvy and socially conscious entrepreneurs look to local craftsmanship and indigenous materials in creating uniquely Cambodian products. The Shack Collective along Street 19 is among the newest boutiques to showcase ethically made products in the capital – including blankets and scarves from Fair Weave, woven rattan bags and baskets from Manava, and knitted stuffed toys from Cambodia Knits, which employs artisans from poor communities around Phnom Penh.
Many of these products are handmade in far-flung provinces around the country – weaving in Preah Vihear and Takeo, basketry and ceramics in Siem Reap – and have a built-in social and cultural dimension to them: every time you purchase an item, you’re supporting local artisans with a living wage and helping keep age-old craft traditions alive.
For urbanscape junkies: A city in the midst of change
In the last five years or so, dozens of towers have sprung up across Phnom Penh, with more in the process of being built, creating an interesting visual narrative of a city in the midst of dramatic change. For a deeper understanding of the urban metamorphosis, begin with Khmer Architecture Tours’ half-day journey through the works of Cambodia’s best-known architect, Vann Molyvann.
Tours are led by architects or architecture students, and take you around some of Phnom Penh’s landmarks from the 1950s and 1960s – including the National Olympic Stadium – built in a distinctive style called New Khmer Architecture. It provides plenty of insight into what the city was like after the country became independent of France and before the dark days of Khmer Rouge rule.
Complement this tour with a peek at the brand-new Morodok Techo National Stadium, the 60,000-seater centerpiece of a new sports complex where most of the events of the 2023 SEA Games will be held.
End the day at one of the city’s earliest skyscrapers. Almost a decade after it was completed, the Vattanac Capital tower – whose design evokes a dragon’s back – is still arguably Phnom Penh’s most striking high-rise. The Rosewood Phnom Penh occupies the building’s top 14 floors, fitting in luxury suites, restaurants and bars, an art exhibition space and a spa with an indoor pool, in what would be the dragon’s head.
The views from the top floors are stunning – on a clear day, after a night of cocktails mixed by international mixologists at Sora, enjoy a slow breakfast at Brasserie Louis while contemplating a vista that includes scenes that have endured, despite all the changes: the Tonle Bassac River where it meets the Mekong, an ancient temple, a bustling quay.
For more information on Singapore Airlines flights to Phnom Penh, visit their website.