With weeks of searing temperatures ahead, Phnom Penh is a city sweltering. From palm-fringed city retreats to kitsch water parks and elite lap pools, Rosa Ellen went in search of the best pools for swimming, splashing and idling by the smothering dry season degrees.
A liquid afternoon
Paved in tiny red pearlescent tiles, the relaxing overflow pool at boutique hotel Plantation has a peaceful aspect, closer to a Moorish water feature than a tropical oasis. Unlike a water feature, the “red pool” is designed for a lingering dip, with seated alcoves built into the pool walls and sun lounges stocked with towels. Also departing from Moorish influences, the pool’s surroundings are ideal for drinking: the cost of an afternoon is $5 spent at Plantation’s indoor-outdoor bar, which serves beer and cocktails. The quietest time to visit is, unsurprisingly, during the weekdays, when the only thing creating ripples in the pristine pool is the occasional tropical leaf, drifted down from shady foliage above. Next door, beyond a high tree-glimpsed wall, is the hotel’s private guest pool, but those searching for a stylish poolside loll will feel equally served this side of luxury.
Plantation, #28, St 184. Pool open 8am to 10pm
Floating under the dripping shade of Circa 51’s beautiful Bodhi-like patio tree, you might awake thinking you’re in some ’50s-era Palm Springs pool party. You’re not – but this isn’t the pool to escape the weekend social scene.
Opened in 2011, the small 1950s-built boutique hotel has gained a reputation for its inviting 11-metre pool, which on weekends becomes a social watering and swimming hole for a dedicated group of expats. Just a wall-width away from the noisy goings on of Street 51, the grey-green tiled pool has a pleasingly steep incline, just deep enough to drown out the outside world while touching the bottom with your feet. With vinyl sun lounges and the hotel bar in pool-side proximity, Circa 51 makes it easy to while away the heat and in the mornings is an escape for families with kids. A $5 fee or item of equal cost from the menu will buy you pool time – the earlier, the quieter.
Circa 51, Corner of Streets 51 and 222. Pool open 10am to 10pm
Built in 2002, the white castle-like entrance to the enormous water park on Russian Boulevard doesn’t lead to the neglected 1960s-era water wonderland you might expect from the facade. But before any excitement dies, take heart: it is neglected and it still is rather wonderful. With no less than eight water features and pools, only half of which are still operating, the water park has deteriorated into a faded carnival charm, with candy-coloured paint jobs and cavernous amenities that hint at more prosperous times. A stagnant lazy river snakes around a children’s play island of waterslides and animal fountains, where a few families gather for picnics and breathless kids splash and squeal in shallow pools. On the mainland, potted palms cast a paltry shade on the hot cement, while teenagers play in a cloudy, 25-metre swimming pool and melodious Khmer pop wafts across the complex. A desolate wave pool and a mysterious piece of play equipment (an oil rig?) shimmering in brown water are among the aquatic thrills of times past, but fun can still be had on the dual twisting water slides. Take a picnic and sit under the long grass-covered shelter sheds before a cooling toe-dip. Entrance is $3 per person.
Phnom Penh Water Park, #50 Russian Blvd. Open seven days
The mauve coat of arms and stone Angry Birds feature at the entrance to this new five-storey complex, LyLa Lagoon, might confuse, but architect Tang Vidou built his “sports and family recreation destination” with a strong emphasis on fun. A brightly coloured playground, complete with slides and a giant cup spilling water, will quicken the pulse of any child. This one sits in a sparkling aqua-tiled pool surrounded by aquatic quirks such as the big apple dome and a retro mushroom fountain. An artificial rock waterfall and baby paddling pool can be waded over to from the playground – or crocodile-swum on your elbows, if you’re under 10. The children’s pool is one of the few boasting a child-safe fence and includes a narrow lap pool for adults to soak up while off-duty. The oddball highlight of the Ly La Lagoon, however, is the giant Amazon fish pond. And I mean giant. Four-foot-long alien fish that swim over to the bank when humans approach.
Native trees shade a cafeteria area at the foyer of the modern-looking centre, which also has a modest swimwear shop and an opulent cafe on the ground floor. For those without an excuse to splash around in the playground, there is a pleasant 23-metre outdoor pool at the centre’s gym that is included in a gym pass.
LyLa Lagoon, 36# Street 508, open 6AM-9PM, costs $4
Lapping it up
A pool with a purpose, the clear and clean multi-lane lap pool at the Phnom Penh Sport Club in Tuol Tom Pong makes for an easy power swim, though the depth is more than fathomable. A lack of some lane ropes means occasional pool traffic, but the swimmers here are a polite bunch and manners rule the pool. A mix of local and expat users makes a refreshing change in what can be a segregated pool world. Busiest in the mornings, the Sports Club baths have an early-riser energy that is invigorating for those merely pretending to be, while in full view of the club’s sweaty gym-goers. After-swim breakfast can be eaten at the centre’s cafe, but it’s not cheap. Better to stop off at a busy early-morning pork and rice stall outside the sports club gates or a fruit shake at nearby Russian Market. The $5 cover charge may be standard for pool time, but in the beating heat of April, you may not want to loll about in the glare of the unshaded water for more than one session of laps. A 10-swim pool pass is $35 – a better bet if regular laps are your thing. A decent-sized children’s pool and a shallow learner pool where regular swimming lessons take place are also a feature, for those without their strokes down pat.
Phnom Penh Sports Club, #245 Streets 271 and 464, Toul Tom Punh, open 6am-9pm
It’s early morning, the blazing sun hasn’t yet hit its 10 o’clock glare and all you want is some energising pool time to ease into the day. The stark, concrete gallery of the iconic Olympic Stadium pool can make the prospect of a routine morning swim seem quietly monumental, but the modernist beauty of the place is half the pleasure. The stadium itself was designed by legendary architect Vann Molyvann for the never-held Pan-Asian Games, and its pool has all the neglected time-keeping features of the sports stadium outside,
literally frozen in time.
Sure, the opaque aqua isn’t the cleanest water you’ll put your head under, but it is the only 100-metre pool this side of the Mekong, and with such a leisurely, demarcated stretch ahead of you, the freedom factor is a big one. At 8 or 9am you might be lucky enough to see only one or two other swimmers – or you could have the entire pool to yourself. The water level of the Olympic pool appears to have gone down in recent months and it is only at the 50-metre mark that it’s no longer possible to touch the bottom.
Dare to jump from the diving platform? The highest platform on the towering concrete structure, peeling with white paint, is a dare-breaker between teenage boys. The twin diving boards on the lowest level – even the second - are no preparation for the dizzying heights of the Big One, from which you get a brilliant view of the pool stadium as well as the dangerous aquamarine depths below. Change rooms at Olympic are scant on privacy for women and the basic showers good for little more than a pre- and post-swim rinse. The cost of a swim is 6000 riels for foreigners and 3000 riels for Cambodians. Clothes can be stored in washing baskets behind the counter in the underground change rooms.
Olympic Pool, Olympic Stadium. Open 5-11am and 12.30-4.45pm Mon to Fri and until 6pm weekends.
Lap of luxury
Is this Phnom Penh’s most elegant pool? A 25-metre sheen of crystal-clear water that disappears into the airy skyline, before a glass balcony overlooking the Tonle Bassac. The L-shaped saltwater infinity pool of the Bellevue serviced apartments offers a stunning view of Wat Phnom, the Vattanac building and bucolic river activity - and an equally stunning interior. The indoor-outdoor piscine is half under cover and also features a small warm-water paddling pool and spacious deck lounges. Unless you are one of the occupants of the luxury Chroy Changvar apartment buildings (prices range from $1,800 to $4,850 a month) however, you’ll have to go on my word. I can’t vouch for the swimming pleasures of the pool either, as I wasn’t allowed in but the water did look nice. With occupancy at around 10 per cent since opening late last year, Bellevue’s pristine lap pool may not yet be getting much of a workout, although with such a distracting vista, it may not be possible to rack up many laps anyway.
Bellevue, Chroy Changvar, not open to public.