Once seen as a stopover, Phnom Penh is shaking off that reputation and evolving into a dynamic destination of its own, propelled by a youthful, trend-setting population. This is a city that celebrates its ancient civilisations through meticulously restored landmarks while also embracing its counter-culture, both past and present.
Contemporary galleries, artist-in-residence programmes and hybrid live performance venues have been popping up in many corners. As a result, the arts scene in Phnom Penh – relatively small though it may be – is emerging as one of the region’s boldest and most intriguing.
Enthusiasts, take note: here are some of the best places to experience the arts in action in Phnom Penh.
Named after an ancient Angkorian art form, KBach Arts is a contemporary art complex made up of three galleries within the creative hub known as Factory. Since opening its doors in 2017, the space has showcased young Khmer talent. Not only does it highlight emerging artists’ latest works but it also serves as a space for artist-in-residence programmes, where creatives create on site – inspiring each other and putting their stamp on the new wave of Cambodian art.
Wang Wang Doodle by Space Four Zero
Tucked behind the Royal Palace of Cambodia and a short walk from the historic Wat Langka, Wang Wang Doodle by Space Four Zero hones in on an altogether different part of Cambodian history. Part art gallery, part vintage record store, the space houses a range of signed concert posters, backstage passes and other memorabilia, as well as unique pop-art inspired prints inspired by Cambodian singers and performers from the golden era of the 1960s and ’70s. For present-day concerts, DJ sets and film screenings, head to nearby Meta House.
Java Creative Café
Java Creative Café opened its first outlet a short distance from the Independence Monument. It’s an aptly named venue that supports several of the city’s non-profit arts programmes. While Java’s flagship café recently closed its doors, two additional outposts remain in Toul Kork and Toul Tom Poung. Visitors can make their way through the galleries, which spotlight local talents; take in a show at the black box theatre; or while away an afternoon in a library filled with fascinating Cambodian literature.
Institut Français du Cambodge
There is still French influence to be found across much of Cambodia, a former colony, from its architecture to its contemporary cuisine. Founded in 1990, the Institut Français du Cambodge opened with the mission of highlighting this enduring relationship between Cambodian and French culture. Its open exhibition space has hosted acclaimed international and Cambodian artists including the likes of Sothea Thang, while the institute also offers a wide range of film screenings, live performances and workshops.
For some context and insight into the roots of Khmer art, swing by the Royal Palace, erected in the 19th century when the Cambodian royal capital was relocated to Phnom Penh. The expansive complex is spread across four compounds that span more than 174,000 kilometres. As the official residence of the current reigning monarch, King Sihamoni, most of the palace remains closed to the public. However, visitors can purchase tickets to enter the lavish throne room, Silver Pagoda and Chan Chhaya Pavilion —traditional masks, gilded statuary and murals await.