You shouldn’t overlook Phnom Penh, the capital, during your visit to Cambodia. Commentators have been saying for many years now that this city is still in a process of finding its feet after years of turmoil. After all, Phnom Penh was empty as recently as 1975, as a consequence of the perverse ideology of the Khmer Rouge. However, it’s time to simply acknowledge what it is today – a charming city, slightly rough around its edges, but vibrant, utterly enthralling and increasingly relevant nonetheless.
It may not be as brash as its megapolis neighbours – Bangkok to the east, Saigon to the west – but this is instead a more graceful capital, once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’. Much of this colonial charm is evident in riverfront area, perfect for a late afternoon stroll.
Away from these central streets, Phnom Penh retains a rather dusty, small town feel and in places it is easy to imagine the city as it once was – shady boulevards, French colonial buildings, pagodas, monks in saffron robes and the golden spires of the Royal Palace. However, fast forward out of this riverie and you will notice a million motorbikes buzzing around and an explosion in tourist-friendly commerce – boutique hotels, designer restaurants and specialist shops. The future looks bright and Phnom Penh is embracing it.
The capital offers a wealth of opportunities to explore both sides of its character, ancient and modern day history being equally enthralling. The Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum are all “”must see’s”” on any visit. There are vibrant and colourful markets galore, where anything and everything is for sale. A visit Tuol Sleng (S21) and the Killing Fields is sobering and rather harrowing. Certainly recommended, but its not for everyone.
Phnom Penh has a profound story to tell and retains a strong sense of exotica, as it rushes full throttle towards the future.