As I sit eating a bowl of noodles, a little street kid asks in perfect English, “You want to buy a newspaper?”
“OK if you don’t want to buy. I will rent to you. Only 1000 riel (47c). It costs 4000 to buy, so this is a good price. You can read for one hour. Then I will come back and collect it.”
As I’ve only just begun slurping on my noodles, I hand over the cash and get something to read.
Given the destruction that Phnom Penh endured, the creative entrepreneurial skills of some of its poorest inhabitants are certainly inspiring. At last, it seems as though a new identity is emerging from the City of Ghosts.
What is even more surprising is that Phnom Penh is becoming decidedly sophisticated.
“Here’s your passion fruit creme brulee,” says the sleek, black-clad waitress. I’m sitting outside Metro, one of Phnom Penh’s most popular upmarket watering holes. On the menu is an array of Asian fusion nibbles and the kind of cocktail list you’d expect in London or New York.
Yet, what London and New York can’t provide is the view: Metro is on Sisowath Quay, a riverside road that fronts directly on to the point where the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers meet.
To grasp the full potential of Sisowath Quay you have to get up before dawn and head to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC). With its open-walled cafe providing full access to the light and air of the rivers, the FCC serves its breakfast with a staggering sunrise.
“We even have a few rooms for rent,” says operations manager, Michelle Duncan, “and we’ve just opened a new designer boutique property called The Quay a bit further down the river.”
In Phnom Penh, boutique hotels are springing up like mushrooms. Many of the colonial-era French villas were left intact by the Khmer Rouge and are now being turned into funky places to stay and eat.
“When I first arrived here I never intended to be a hotelier,” says Eric
Weisman, a former movie producer from Los Angeles. Eric’s property, the
Scandinavia Hotel, on Street 282, is a small villa in central Phnom Penh with a resident modern art gallery, a cute, kidney-shaped pool and a low-key, designer vibe that uplifts without being pretentious.
But where did the name come from? “The place used to be owned by a Scandinavian expat who wanted to create a party place for his biker pals. It took a while to restore the reputation,” says Eric with a grin.
In Phnom Penh there’s the Spanish-managed Boddhi Tree Aram, a tiny, stylish eight-room villa, buried away on Street 244, which has become one of the most sought-after places to stay.
Then there’s The Pavilion, an elegant property that has a mixed reputation largely due to a Fawltyesque management style. Back on Sisowath, and probably the pick of the bunch, is the sumptuous Amanjaya – the corner suites have the best riverside balconies in the city.
Phnom Penh also hits home on the culinary front. The bizarre North Korean
Government-run Pyongyang on Monivong Boulevard – arrive in time for the surreal nightly 8pm song and dance show – serves up fantastic bulgogi steak, while the Spanish-flavoured Pacharan, on Sisowath, is a revelation.
“Seafood is so cheap here,” says my waiter, as a paella arrives. “We can make it even bigger than we would back in Spain.”
Soothed by the evening air of the Mekong, I’ve found my own little bit of heaven. I order a coffee and unwind. All I need is something to read – does anybody have a newspaper to rent?