Spend even one night in Phnom Penh and you’ll probably find yourself by the river. Which is not, incidentally, the mighty Mekong but the less internationally-famous Tonle Sap.
Check your city map — unless you are at one of the more expensive hotels close to Koh Pich or out on a cruise, the Mekong is slightly out of reach. But the Tonle Sap is a worthy alternative and extremely important to the Cambodian countryside’s annual cycle. The river links the lake of the same name at one end to its bigger cousin at the other. It flows into the Mekong between November and May (the dry season) and then reverses its flow from June to October, coinciding with the rains. The change of the flow is celebrated with boat races and plenty of partying at the water festival Bon Oum Teuk.
Riverside is a magnet that attracts backpackers, holidaymakers, expats and the chi chi crowd, and there’s an ideal venue for each of them. For a drink with a view, or a long lazy lunch, the FCC is a perennial favourite, although Touk bar on the opposite corner is cheaper and often less busy. Get a glimpse of modern Cambodia at Brown’s coffee shop — the local architect showing what can be done when a colonial building is repurposed instead of pulled down. There’s a selection of rooftops for that sundowner cocktail although to actually see the sunset, you’ll need to cross the river. Restaurants such as Mekong River provide a formula of comfy chairs, cheap beer (75 cents during very long happy hours) and excellent people-watching, but you may also find yourself the centre of attention.
Cheap eats are available from vendors on the promenade, mostly selling corn on the cob and barbecue skewers. If you prefer to eat at a table, there’s a choice of Khmer, Thai, Indian, British and generic Western food to suit all budgets. Metro has a reputation for fusion food, and there’s a row of happy pizza shops where extra herbs are a speciality. Fast food is also catered for, with a KFC, Dairy Queen and Pizza Company if you really need a fix of the familiar. Ice cream at Chill or Blue Pumpkin might help the kids (and grown ups) cool off if they’re getting fractious. One of our favourite places to take newcomers is Titanic restaurant at the northern end of riverside — the Apsara dancers, decor and tasty Khmer food make it a great introduction to Cambodia. Try to get a seat on the balcony by the river for maximum fairy-lit romance. Party animals can get their groove on at Riverhouse Lounge or Mao’s Club until the wee hours.
Over recent years, riverside has been the subject of several developments. The far shore has been cleared of small dwellings and businesses to make way for a new hotel and other plans. Most useful for visitors though, as well as Cambodian fitness fanatics, is the paving and landscaping of the promenade. Now smooth underfoot with benches and bins at regular intervals, it’s the perfect place for dahling — exercise and recreation in many forms. As the sun cools, or before it’s fully risen, the pavement is busy with walkers, runners, tai chi exponents and aerobic devotees. Choose your favourite instructor and join in for a modest fee, or work up a sweat in record time on the outdoor gym equipment.
If you don’t have time to get to one of the big markets, riverside has its own — the Night Market is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, with a selection of clothing, jewellery, souvenirs and food. The stage is usually occupied by wannabe karaoke video stars belting out the latest hits. There’s more street food and big mats to gather with friends and eat family-style. During the day, beauty products, T-shirts, hammocks and pirate DVDs are sold from shops along the riverside strip — there’s even a coffin shop, although a purchase here might not fit in your backpack.
One of the best ways to enjoy riverside is from a distance — there is simply nothing like a boat trip to appreciate the lights and bustle of Phnom Penh. Past the Titanic restaurant and Brown’s to the north, you’ll find a row of river boats for hire. Check out the actual vessel you’ll be floating on and be sure it has some shade from hot sun or rain on the horizon. Most boats go for about $20 an hour, and there’s a pier tax of $1 per person to cross the floating metal bridge to your boat of choice. The standard tour takes you along riverside, into the Mekong and alongside the shore of Kandal province. Bring your own drink and food and settle in to enjoy the breeze, the sunset or the night lights. For something less makeshift, join a lunch or dinner cruise on the Kanika boat behind the Himawari Hotel, or book a weekend trip to The Bungalows floating bar.