Nov 03 2012
Every so often in Phnom Penh, you pass something that makes you look twice. Granted, it’s often an overladen motorbike or a T-shirt with words you are sure the wearer doesn’t understand. But the Botanic Cafe on Street 19 also prompts a double take. When you first spot it, nestled behind a explosively pink bougainvillea, you may think you’ve accidentally ended up in the chi chi part of town. With the garden entrance, lattes and Cambodian crafts, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s more suited to Street 240′s ladies who lunch than the surrounding cheap backpackers. But what makes this place a wee gem is precisely that it is placed within easy reach of those who wish to get off the Phnom Penh rollercoaster for a while.
The standard Street 19 coffee shop has plastic chairs and a pirated DVD with bad English subtitles on the TV. Botanic offers something a little more relaxing, housed in a 1920s mandarin’s dwelling with original tiles and high ceilings. There’s garden seating front and back – the courtyards give a hint at what the whole street looked like before space became a premium and every available square metre was developed. Everywhere you look, plants have been creatively potted to make a mini-garden paradise living up to the name, although we’re sorry to report a plastic imposter in the WC. Inside, tables are made from old shutters, half sanded down to show the history of paint beneath.
Up a flight of wooden stairs is a gallery area, showcasing artwork from the cafe’s affiliated NGO Let Us Create in Sihanoukville, which offers a safe place for kids to express themselves creatively. There’s regular evening yoga sessions here for those who find early morning is not the best time to salute the sun, and also occasional drama and art workshops.
The cafe’s menu is divided into Western and Eastern with imaginatively conceived dishes. The curry burger with spiced chicken, served with chips and mango salsa, is definitely at the finger-licking level. Try the squid tempura or fried mango with chicken and cashew nut if you’ve had enough lok-lak to last you your stay in Cambodia. Sandwiches, fish stew and bruschetta will satisfy those looking for more European tastes.
With drinks from US$2 and meal deals from US$4, Botanic Cafe provides reasonable value for money. It’s ideal for a cosy natter over a coffee and a piece of cake when the outside world just seems a bit much. Free WiFi means you can snuggle down on a sofa and catch up with your emails while slurping on a passionfruit smoothie. If you’re after something a little more cheap and cheerful in the area, pop around the corner to Street 172, home to Laughing Fatman and Chat n Chew.
Botanic Cafe and Art Gallery
#126 Street 19, Phnom Penh
T: (077) 589 458
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