Ai Bounnareth flashes a smile before disappearing behind the battered counter of his coffee stall. The sound of coffee beans being ground drowns out the cacophony of dealmaking at the surrounding stalls in the Cambodian capital’s Russian Market.
Bounnareth has been serving his now world-famous coffee from his small market stall, Best Iced Coffee, since 1981. Laminated notes of praise that have been left by guests from across the globe, are displayed on his stall. The Cambodian’s charisma, and his top-notch local coffee, have made him one of the neighbourhood’s favourite figures.
“The market was very different then,” says Bounnareth, recalling a time when Russian Market, known locally as Phsar Toul Tom Poung, was an open-air, chaotic spot far from the tourist attraction it is today. “There was no roof and the place was messy.”
Until recently, Russian Market – the name used by foreigners because it was mainly visited by Russian expats during the 1980s – was the sole reason for tourists to visit the neighbourhood in the south of Phnom Penh, which lacked amenities and activities geared towards tourists.
The Toul Tom Poung neighbourhood would go quiet once the market – which sells souvenirs, clothes, electrical items, trinkets and much else besides – closed for the evening.
However, the area has undergone a rapid transformation over the past few years and has emerged as Phnom Penh’s hippest neighbourhood. Its quirky collection of restaurants, bars, cafes and boutiques is constantly growing as more businesses try to set up shop.
“There is a real sense of community here,” says Soklim Srun, whose restaurant Eleven One Kitchen helped plant Toul Tom Poung on the map when it opened on Street 123, in 2014. “Everyone knows one another, and it is a really nice neighbourhood. You do not find that in other areas of Phnom Penh.”
When looking for a place to set up shop in 2014, Soklim settled on a quiet corner close to Russian Market. She was attracted to the more casual vibe of Toul Tom Poung, compared to the popular expat and touristic area of Boeung Keng Kang 1 (BKK1), with its rising rents and increasing condominium construction projects.
Since then, she has watched the area develop thanks to independent businesses run by a mix of locals and expats. “A lot of creative and individual businesses seem to be attracted to Toul Tom Poung and that adds to its character,” says Soklim.
The network of quiet back roads, mostly flanked by typical Cambodian urban houses, complement its charm. It is relatively peaceful compared to other congested areas of Phnom Penh, and walkable in a city renowned for being pedestrian-unfriendly.
“It has a real Brooklyn feel about it,” says Rachel Dodson, who worked as a modelling agent in New York before moving to Phnom Penh in 2013. “It’s got great dive places, an amazing variety of restaurants and some really interesting businesses.”
Jewellery store Penh Lenh is one example of the boutiques opening in Toul Tom Poung. The brainchild of Dodson and Cambodian co-founder Srey Mao, the social enterprise’s ultimate aim is to empower marginalised women by equipping them with skills and a sustainable means of income.
The result is a range of delicate, ethically sourced jewellery created by a team of seven women in an open workshop above the store.
“When we started, this area was up and coming,” says Dodson, whose store recently moved to a new Toul Tom Poung location on Street 456. “It was a great tourist spot with the market, there were more expats living here and a lot of businesses started moving to the area. It was a huge thing to be able to get a good cup of coffee.”
Today, there is no shortage of coffee shops, with independent cafes dotting the area. These range from Tini, a snug cafe, boutique bar and contemporary art space, to Lot 369’s tropical terrace and air-conditioned eatery and bar and Deja Café, which is popular with the young Cambodian crowd.
The vibrant range of restaurants that pepper the neighbourhood make Toul Tom Poung a foodie’s paradise. Independent restaurants serve cuisine from all corners of the globe.
Street-stall holder Hang Sophear, 38, has watched the neighbourhood she was born in transform. “We get a lot more business now than before, but we worry that soon land prices will rise and rents will go up,” she says.
Some businesses have already been affected by gentrification, but for now, Toul Tom Poung’s costs remain significantly lower than those in BKK1.
“I never used to understand why people wanted to live in this neighbourhood,” says expat Sebastiaan Rodnat of Toul Tom Poung when he first came to Cambodia six years ago. “Now, it’s really up and coming, and full of small local and foreign businesses that tend to be more creative. It’s nice to be part of that.”
Rodnat and his business partners Sophal Thim and Sopheavy Chea tapped into Toul Tom Poung’s potential 18 months ago when they opened restaurant Nesat. Wanting to bring a taste of Cambodia’s coastal province Kep – famous for its crab and Kampot pepper – to the capital, the cosy restaurant atery serves up fresh seafood that is delivered daily from Kep to Phnom Penh. Fresh oysters are sourced from the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
Building on Nesat’s success, in May they launched Kinin Collective, a tropical garden oasis that is home to Kumbhaka restaurant, which serves a delicious mix of local and international cuisine; Yemaya, which has its own range of cocktails; and Prasada Sora, which specialises in wine and charcuterie.
“The community we have created at Kinin is what Toul Tom Poung is all about; a nice neighbourhood with great community spirit,” says Rodnat.
Where to eat and drink
Vibe – Phnom Penh’s first vegan restaurant, Vibe, specialises in plant-based cuisine serving nutritious, well-presented plates.
House 26, Tom Pong, 26A Street 446, Phnom Penh, tel +855 61 764 937
Street seafood – for a more local experience, every evening from about 6pm barbecues fire up at the motorbike parking area at Russian Market. Plastic tables and chairs are brought out and locals gather to feast on fresh and affordable local seafood.
Toul Tum Poung Market or Russian Market, Street 440, Phnom Penh
TTP Lane – this hidden back alley is home to a cool collection of eateries, bars and stores. La Pétanque Bar is a laid-back hang-out; The Supreme specialises in burgers and cheesecake; O’Tapas serves up a selection of small bites; and Fizz offers cool cocktails.
TTP Lane, off Street 155, Phnom Penh
Long After Dark – this speakeasy-style bar was one of the ventures that planted Toul Tom Poung on the capital’s after-dark map when it opened in 2016. The hipster hang-out offers a range of whiskies, craft beers and cocktails.
Long After Dark, 86 Street 450, Phnom Penh, tel +855 93 768 354
Sundown Social Club – introducing a slice of Miami to Phnom Penh, Sundown Social Club overlooks Russian Market’s tin roofs and is the perfect spot to catch the sunset.
Sundown Social Club, 86 Street 440, Phnom Penh, tel +855 15 526 373
What to do
Sovanna Phum – founded by Mann Kosal in 1994, this organisation promotes traditional Cambodian arts, including shadow puppet theatre, Apsara dancing and traditional music. Every Friday and Saturday at 7.30pm, visitors can watch a live performance. Dance, drum and circus workshops are held throughout the week.
Sovanna Phum, 166 Street 99, Phnom Penh, tel +855 10 337 552
Prumsodun Ok & Natyarasa – Cambodia’s first gay dance company put on weekly performances re-interpreting classical Khmer dance at Java Creative Cafe, along with guests from music company Sophiline Arts Ensemble.
Java Creative Cafe, 53 Street 468, Phnom Penh, tel +855 77 873 929
Phnom Climb – Cambodia’s first indoor climb gym has a variety of rock climbing and bouldering walls suitable for beginners through to advanced climbers.
Phnom Climb, 345 Street 460, Phnom Penh, tel +855 17 897 105
CrossFit Amatak – the country’s first CrossFit offering when it opened in 2014, CrossFit Amatak runs a series of sessions, with its Kettlebell Café serving a selection of healthy dishes.
CrossFit Amatak, 16 Street 470, Phnom Penh, tel +855 12 490 225
Fly direct from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh with Cathay Dragon and Lanmei Airlines. A tuk tuk or taxi from Phnom Penh International Airport takes about 45 minutes, depending on traffic, to get to Toul Tom Poung.