Phnom Penh has a reputation for booming nightlife. Booming it is, but a large part of that is actually pretty seedy. As in Thailand, in some parts of town you may see Khmer girls from the countryside, waiting for large white men with fat wallets. There are, however, a number of classier options. Most restaurants are also bars and those along the riverfront will be open as late as midnight. Cantina is convivial and very popular. Talkin' to a Stranger is a bastion of social relaxation, and Kandal House is also cozy and friendly. The nicest Phnom Penh nightlife is largely found in its restaurant scene.
There are a number of large discos you can visit if you feel a boogie impetus coming on. They are not your best bet, however, since they are expensive and not very pleasant. Better to head to one of the bars with a dance floor. Avoid the Heart of Darkness because it is dangerous (see below). Upstairs at the Riverhouse is the best since it is relaxed, not overly peopled with commercial sex workers, and has great music.
Heart of Darkness -- The story of this once wonderful place is one of sad decline, mingled with greed and violence. In the '90s, the Heart of Darkness (at 213 Sisowath Quay) was often described by visiting travel writers (including this one) as the best bar in the world. It was a hole-in-the-wall haven from a city that was then a dark and often risky place at nighttime. The music was brilliant, and the mixture of journalists, NGO workers, diplomats, and mercenaries made for interesting conversation. It was a dark and funky dive with real atmosphere.
Then it started to change. It got bigger. Then it got even bigger again. Then they put in a dance floor and the place filled up with prostitutes. By 2001, the old Heart had ceased to exist and a monster was born. It became a place where fights and violence became the norm as privileged sons of the ruling elite arrived with their armed minders. Gunfire became frequent, and someone got murdered. The bar got security, but the security searched everyone except these scions of the elite, since moonlighting soldiers are loath to offend their commanding officers.
Today, the reputation of the old Heart feeds this beast and on weekends it is packed. You can take your chances, but be aware that it is dangerous and many embassies put out a warning and forbid their staff to visit.
In the evening, you will see a number of boats lit up like Christmas trees chugging slowly up and down the Tonle Sap. Cruises taking in great views of the Royal Palace, National Museum, and floating villages along the banks are becoming ever more popular as is dinner afloat. You can find these boats of many different sizes and quality along the waterfront between Street 178 and Street 130. They are also at the ferry terminal opposite Street 104. They have small signs up and may also hail you as you walk by. Costs start at about $10 an hour. Kanika (tel. 012/848-802) runs a unique catamaran for parties and dinner cruises. Proceeds go to Seametrey NGO projects. Experience Mekong Boat (tel. 012/432-456; www.cambodiabyboat.com) offers tours of various sorts, including a look at how the boats are built and general life on the river.
The Bopha Penh Titanic Restaurant (Sisowath Quay near the boat pier opposite St. 104; tel. 092/646-361; www.bopha-phnompenh.com) stages nightly performances from 7 to 9pm.
The excellent Sovanna Phum Art Association (No. 111 St. 360; tel. 023/221-932; www.shadow-puppets.org) runs shows of classical performance every Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm. Dance alternates with other disciplines such as shadow puppetry and theater.
The Veiyo Tonle Restaurant (237 Sisowath Quay; tel. 012/847-419) hosts traditional dance performances by kids from the New Cambodia Children's Life Association. They take place at 8pm.
Art & Film
The art exhibition center and media lounge Meta House (No. 6 St. 264; tel. 023/224-140; www.meta-house.com) hosts art shows celebrating contemporary art in Cambodia, and also plays host to foreign films and lectures. Check out their website to see what's available.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.