If you’re rushing round Phnom Penh and ticking off the sights, may we suggest a small detour? Just opposite Wat Phnom is Street 92, or Daun Penh Street, to give its full name. This elegant tree-lined boulevard running between Wat Phnom and Monivong Boulevard encapsulates much of Cambodia’s history and future, and includes the poshest hotel and a psychedelic fountain.
Around the corner from the beginning of Street 92 is a large plateau featuring the statue of its namesake Daun Penh, the grandmother of Phnom Penh who discovered Buddhist relics in a tree trunk and built the original wat on the hill to house them. Looming behind is Canadia Tower, the city’s first proper skyscraper, now dwarfed by neighbouring Vattanak Tower. Business is booming in Cambodia and these constructions are the national equivalent of a family Lexus — a very visible status symbol.
At the street entrance you’ll see the large US Embassy building. Khmer families queue for visas here, wanting that all-important stamp to visit relatives who left in hope of a better life in the 1980s. Just over the crossroads is the Lycee Descartes high school, a reminder of the lingering French influence in Indochina. Halfway down, stop to read the names on the tribute to journalists who were killed while covering the conflicts leading up to the Khmer Rouge takeover. But this isn’t just a history lesson: since 1992, nine journalists have been killed in Cambodia, eight of them murdered. Most recently, investigative journalist Hang Serei Odom died from axe wounds in 2012 following reporting on illegal logging.
Further on is the National Library of Cambodia, worth a look if you like architecture, old wooden bookshelves and a sense of hush. Opposite, you’ll notice the National University of Management and lines of food carts waiting to serve hungry students. Fancy trying nom bahn chok or Khmer sausages grilled on an open fire and served with green papaya salad? Lured by the nuts? Take the weight off your feet on one of the wonderfully branded benches and chow down.
The Raffles Hotel Le Royal brings a touch of class, an elegant colonial building with a suitably varied history. Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham stayed here and it was a refuge for journalists covering the Cambodian civil war and Khmer Rouge. It’s a lovely spot for afternoon tea or happy hour cocktails in the Elephant Bar. The Femme Fatale signature cocktail is named after a drink enjoyed by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy when she stayed, and her lipstick-stained glass in on display. We’ve been assured it’s genuine.
The mini-park and shaded benches along Street 92 make this a perfect spot for relaxation any time of the day. In the evening, coloured fountains at the end of the street are a popular draw for teenagers hanging out, snacking and comparing scooter customisation. The benches and central grass runway along the boulevard sprout courting couples and if the bushes are rustling, it may be best not to pay close attention.
One of our favourite views in the city is looking back towards Wat Phnom from Monivong Boulevard, especially at dusk. The white spire of the stupa peeking out from the coconut palms is as evocative as any Phnom Penh scene is likely to get. It’s definitely worth taking five minutes out of a tour for that.
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 19th September, 2014.