Few names conjure up the exotic east as potently as Phnom Penh. The mere mention of this former pearl of Indochine hints at gorgeous palaces, glittering temples and a relaxed and elegant pace of life. Not long ago synonymous with war and violent revolution, Phnom Penh has shrugged off its recent troubles to reinvent itself as a vibrant and trendy city with fine dining, great shopping and nightlife all in a delightfully authentic Asian setting.
Phnom Penh was established in 1423 when the mighty Angkor empire in the north fell into terminal decline. After holding sway over much of the region known as the Realm of Gold (Suvarnabhumi) for over half a millennium, Angkor had proved impossible to defend from rapacious neighbours.
Phnom Penh made a fine choice for a new capital. Its location on the banks of the Mekong, Tonlé Sap and Bassac rivers allowed easy travel to the rice-rich hinterlands.
Together with neighbouring Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia became a French protectorate in the 19th century, which left an unmistakable mark in the form of grand boulevards, open air Parisian style cafes, gracious colonial villas and a passion for baguettes and fine coffee.
Despite the unruly traffic and relentless construction, the bustling metropolis still reflects the beauty that once earned it the sobriquet of 'the Pearl of Asia'. It's a place where tranquil temples and leafy lanes mingle with leafy avenues and sleek bars pulsating to the latest beats.
Phnom Penh is a city best enjoyed for its atmosphere rather than any grand sights. But wonders do exist there. The Royal Palace is a masterpiece of Khmer architecture and the National Museum houses the finest collection of Khmer art to be found anywhere.
As capital of a Buddhist kingdom, Phnom Penh shows its festive face throughout the year in vibrant events such as Cambodian New Year in April and the amazing Water Festival in October.
Making the most of Phnom Penh
Visit Wat Phnom
To touch the spirit of Phnom Penh you can do no better than pay homage to its founder. Legend has it that a certain Madame Penh discovered Buddha images washed up on the river bank and had a temple built to house them on a nearby hill (Phnom in Khmer). A trip to visit her statue involves walking up a staircase lined with celestial serpents and rewards you with great views of the city.
The Royal Palace
Though constructed in classical Khmer style, the palace and its sprawling complex were constructed during the late 19th century. Highlights include the stunning Silver Pagoda with a floor that is inlaid with 5,000 silver tiles.
The National Museum
Delve into the world's finest collection of Cambodian art at the ornate National Museum. In its four pavilions house, you can feast your eyes on ancient statues of Hindu deities such as Shiva and Vishnu as well as some lovely friezes from Angkor. The delightful courtyard in the centre is a great place to relax and features a statue known as the Leper King taken from Angkor.
Several evenings a week, the museum features classical dancing shows. Marvel as slender young dancers sway and bend to the hypnotic pulse of a Khmer orchestra.
Buzz round on a Cyclo
One fine way to get up close and personal is by taking a cyclo (pedal rickshaw) tour. Sprawled back in your vehicle, your driver powers you past shophouses, Chinese temples, cafes, bars, bistros and boutique hotels. Keep an eye out for the French contributions to the city in the form of the imposing Post Office, art deco Central Market and swank Raffles Le Royal Hotel.
Discover the Killing Fields
It may be grim and harrowing but visiting the museum of Tuol Sleng is vital to truly understand Cambodia. This former school features a museum exhibiting photographs and relics from the era. Another must is to visit the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek). Located just outside the city proper, this former orchard is the final resting place for the victims of the Khmer Rouge.
For some quirky shopping, head to the art deco style Central Market. Dating back to 1937, it offers everything from food and flowers to garments and gems. For a racier ambiance, head to the Russian Market, where vendors hawk dodgy DVDs and similar paraphernalia.
Calendar of Events
Cambodia's festive calendar is a rich and vibrant one with festivals galore to enchant and inspire. As a fun-loving people, the Cambodians also love to celebrate Valentine's Day and Xmas.
Cambodian New Year. Taking place in April just before the rains arrive, Cambodians celebrate their traditional new year with much water throwing, dancing and music. The three-day event brings a decidedly carnival atmosphere to the Cambodian capital.
Visak Bochea (Visakha Bucha Day). The full-moon day of the sixth lunar month sees the dignified Buddhist festival of Vesakha. This lovely event celebrates the date of the birth, enlightenment and passing beyond (Parinirvāna) of the Buddha. During this time, you can witness mass ordinations at temples around the city.
Coronation Day of HRM King Norodom Sihanouk. October is a month for commemorating Cambodia's late King Sihanouk, widely regarded as the father of the nation. On Coronation Day, on the 29th, the Royal Palace becomes decked out with coloured lamps and elaborate decorations.
The Water Festival (Bon Om Touk). Another aquatic festival takes place in November, when locals celebrate the Tonlé Sap river reversing its flow. The custom was started by the kings of Angkor to mark the start of the fishing season. During this three-day extravaganza, you can witness boat races, fireworks, concerts and, of course, much eating and drinking.