The ideal base for exploring the country, Cambodia's capital offers plenty of nods to the past even as it continues to embrace a brighter future
Once known as the “Paris of the East”, Phnom Penh was built at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers. While the kingdom’s tumultuous past, which includes being a prominent part of France’s colonial empire, continues to exert a strong influence on present-day Phnom Penh, the city is moving on. On its wide streets, people smile and chat with an ease and friendliness that’s all too rare in big cities.
Phnom Penh remains an enthralling juxtaposition of old and new but it’s developing fast, so now is the time to visit. It’s a charming city, with lovely colonial architecture, glittering palaces and pagodas and a top-drawer dining scene (though enjoying it won’t break the bank). It makes a great base for exploring nearby historical sites and Cambodia’s gorgeous countryside. Mega malls have begun to sprout so it’s also the place to head if you’re on the hunt for familiar creature comforts.
Things to do
Built to order
Join in on one of Khmer Architecture Tour’s opens in new window glorious three-hour walks around Phnom Penh. Laced in with ramshackle markets and Chinese shophouses are some glorious, ochre-hued colonial mansions, some of which have been turned into hotels and eateries; check out Raffles Hotel Le Royal, The Pavilion Hotel and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. But best are the modernist structures of the 1950s and ’60s New Khmer architecture movement, spearheaded by Vann Molyvann. Check out the lotus-shaped Independence Monument, the Olympic stadium and the White Building, a former social housing project where street art and art exhibitions often pop up.
Cross my art
Contemporary art and culture in Cambodia is thriving, with young artists holding exhibitions regularly at the town’s modern galleries and arts hubs. The beautifully tiled Java Café & Gallery opens in new window, Bophana Audio-Visual Resource Center opens in new window and the French Cultural Centre all showcase some of the country’s most exciting artists, many of whom are gaining traction abroad. The Royal University of Fine Arts is a lovely, airy space in which to take a breather. Nearby are stores selling an assortment of silver and laquerware, replica paintings and gems.
It can be a harrowing experience but make a point of visiting Choeung Ek, aka the Killing Fields, 16km south-west of Phnom Penh. This infamous area stands as an eerie, sombre memorial to the estimated 20,000 people who were killed and buried there. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S21, was a high school that was turned into a political prison and torture centre by Pol Pot. Still swathed in barbed wire, it’s brimming with haunting images of its 17,000 former prisoners.
A firm hand
Bodia opens in new window is a luxurious spa with great reflexology foot massages, first-rate facials --using natural products such as jasmine oil, mango, and black sticky rice -- and traditional Khmer massage. Bodia also sells a range of products made with Cambodian ingredients. But you can get a great massage at many places in town, often two hours costs less than USD $10.
Travel time 10 minutes
Taxi Approx USD $9
Moto remork (tuk tuk) USD $7, journey takes 10 minutesBack to top
When to go
While temperatures are at their most searing in April, most other times of the year are pleasant. The wet season runs from June to October, during which time downpours tend to come in short, heavy bursts, however so much can still be done. The city streets are very quiet over Pchum Ben, the festival of the ancestor spirits, in September and during the Khmer New Year festival in mid-April, when most of Phnom Penh’s inhabitants head to their countryside villages. Check out a pagoda, either in the city or its outskirts at these times – they’ll be filled with incense and colourful offerings. The Water Festival takes place from mid-October to November, at which time dragon boats race down the rivers.Back to top
Phnom Penh’s roads have greatly improved over the past 10 years and it’s nice to stroll along the riverside and the area surrounding the Royal Palace on foot or in a cyclo. Otherwise, taxis are available – ask someone at your hotel to arrange one first – and tuk tuks abound. It’s best to negotiate a price beforehand. It’s usually USD $3-5 for a one-way trip in town and less than USD $10 for a return.Back to top