My 48 hours in Phnom Penh
Cambodia's capital is fast becoming the regional hub of underground music. Marissa Carruthers spends a weekend with DJ Simon C Vent to discover some of the hottest spots
"IT WON'T BE LONG before Phnom Penh stands out as the underground capital of Southeast Asia, " says Simon Ventham, aka DJ Simon C Vent, as he plays Tensnake's Congolal. Enjoying a rare weekend off from spinning discs at the city's more than healthy offering of nightspots, the 29-year-old is gearing up to hit one of the capital's swathes of bars that vie for attention each weekend.
A good way to dive head first into the bright lights of Phnom Penh is at one of the many high-end bars that offer cracking cocktails at affordable prices during early evening happy hours. The elegant Elephant Bar in Raffles Hotel Le Royal offers half-price draught and bottled beers, cocktails and spirits daily between 4pm and 9pm.
"One of the things I love about Phnom Penh is you have two extremes," says Ventham, who has lived in the Cambodian capital for two years. "You can be drinking a 50 cent glass of Angkor draft while eating cheap Khmer food in a Cambodian beer garden, right next to a five-star bar selling classy cocktails and world-class meals."
After sampling Phnom Penh's rapidly growing high life, grabbing something to eat is next on the Londoner's list of things to do. If a tasty budget bite - with most dishes costing between US$1 and US$2 - is what you're looking for, Ventham suggests heading to Chinese Noodle House, an intimate eatery where you'll find their signature dish of pork and chive dumplings, and a selection of hand-made noodle soups.
Next stop is Equinox, the place that planted live music on the city's map. Most Friday and Saturday nights you'll find music blasting from the French-owned bar's upstairs room, which is a regular pit stop when local stars Cambodian Space Project return to the city from international tours.
Over the road is iconic backpacker institution Top Banana, where a party is guaranteed to take over the rooftop bar every weekend night. It is also the venue that helped kick-start Ventham's DJ career in Phnom Penh. "I started DJ'ing in the city after playing at one of Top Banana's boat parties," he says. "It just grew from there and I started regularly playing at Top, which I still do now." If it's a party that you're after, then the best time to head there is after 11pm.
Before calling it a night, drop into nearby Meta House, which hosts club nights ranging from electro, techno and drum and bass, to reggae, dubstep and hip hop. The venue also acts as an art gallery, and a cinema which screens free documentaries.
With a full day to explore the city, delving into Cambodia's dark past is a must. The best known of the "killing fields" is Choeung Ek, which sits about 14 kilometres outside Phnom Penh and offers a depressing but essential insight into Cambodia's not so distant past. Between 1975 and 1979 an estimated two million people died under the Khmer Rouge regime that was led by Pol Pot, with many innocents taken to the killing fields to be slaughtered. A visit includes an audio tour that offers first-hand stories of the atrocities that took place.
Even if shopping isn't your thing, take a tuk-tuk from Choeung Ek to the Russian Market to experience this maze of alleys. This sprawling indoor market offers both an assault on the senses and endless rows of stalls flogging anything and everything. As well as being a great place to test your bartering skills and bag a bargain, there is an abundance of stalls selling tasty local food, including Khmer lort cha, a stir-fry of noodles, bean sprouts, Chinese broccoli, beef, chives and fried eggs.
Ventham also recommends an early evening stroll along the riverside, or Sisowath Quay. "If you like people-watching then you'll love the riverside at dusk," Ventham says. "The promenade is packed with kids playing games, outdoor fitness classes, dog walkers, and kids just chilling." It's a good place to admire the unparalleled views of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers is at Le Moon, which sits atop the Amanjaya Pancam hotel.
After working up an appetite, Sovanna is the perfect place to satisfy your hunger. Always packed, this popular place is famous across the country for its barbecued pork. Street 240 and a half, an alley off Street 240, is a hidden gem, and is home to a range of classy and quirky bars such as Bar Sito and Emergency Room.
Backstage is another recent entry to the city's after-dark scene, and the place where Ventham launched his monthly house and techno night, Drop Dead Disco, in July. With top tunes always setting the scene, Backstage tends to fill up after 9pm and goes on until the early hours of the morning. The party never stops in Phnom Penh and Street 51 is lively all night. There you'll find Love Bar, a great venue to end your evening, with tourists and expats dancing the night away to an eclectic mix of tunes.
With just one day left in Phnom Penh, Ventham suggests spending the morning exploring the Royal Palace, which is also home to a collection of Cambodian art, before grabbing some lunch at ARTillery 2. This organic cafe offers freshly prepared and locally sourced (where possible) food and a great cup of coffee.
When the sun is shining, there's nothing Ventham likes more than spending a Sunday afternoon lazing next to the pool, and Blue Lime sits at the top of his hit list. With luxurious day beds to lounge around the pool on, this is an ideal place to recover before rounding off your last evening watching the sun set from the only sky bar, Eclipse.
Where to stay
Patio Hotel and Urban Resort: #134Z, Street 51, patio-hotel.com
The Pavilion: #227, Street 19, thepavilion.asia
Blue Lime: #42, Street 19Z, off Street 19, bluelime.asia
Where to eat
Chinese Noodle House: #553, Monivong Blvd, tel: +855 (0) 12 937 805
Sovanna: #4, Street 21,tel: +855 (0) 12 398 281
ARTillery 2: #13, Street 278, tel: +855 (0) 78 985 530
Where to drink
Eclipse Sky Bar: Phnom Penh Tower: 23/F, Monivong Blvd, tel: +855 (0) 23 964 171
Love Bar: #60F, Street 51 ,tel: +855 (0) 97 700 7018
Backstage: #377, Sisowath Quay, tel: +855 (0) 97 958 7338
Le Moon: Above Amanjaya hotel, Sisowath Quay, tel: +855 (0) 97 958 7338
Meta House: #37, Sothearos Blvd, meta-house.com
Top Banana: #9EO, Street 278, topbanana.biz
Elephant Bar in Raffles Hotel Le Royal: #92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, raffles.com/phnom-penh/dining
Equinox: #3A, Street 278, equinox-cambodia.com
For more information on Drop Dead Disco, which is shaking up its monthly slot by hitting the road, bringing sounds to venues across Cambodia, including Sihanoukville in November, visit facebook.com/dropdeaddisco