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Phnom Penh

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In a nutshell

Take a sunset cruise to watch the lights twinkle on in Phnom Penh. Soberly reflect on the Khmer Rouge regime's crimes at various monuments. Marvel at ancient wonders at the National Museum. Enjoy the fine dining, shopping and spas amid the fast-paced development.

One of the better preserved French relics in Southeast Asia, the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh has a lot more to offer travellers than a quick, depressing swing through Tuol Sleng and a run out to the Killing Fields.

Cambodia's history stretches far back beyond the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. As far as Phnom Penh goes, legend has it that its beginnings stretch back to the late 14th century, when an old woman named Penh found a tree with a handful of Buddha images lodged in one of its nooks. She retrieved the images and had a hill (phnom) built to house them: Penh's Hill, or Phnom Penh, was born.

Established at the crossroads of the Bassac, Tonle and Mekong Rivers, Phnom Penh remained little more than a large village and didn't become the permanent capital until the late 19th century during the reign of King Norodom I. On April 17, 1864 Norodom agreed to make Cambodia a French protectorate in an attempt to keep the bellicose Vietnamese and Siamese at bay. In the years following, the construction of Phnom Penh proper began. Interestingly, 111 years to the day after King Norodom I signed his first treaty with the French, the Khmer Rouge entered, took control and totally emptied Phnom Penh.

By the time Cambodia became a part of French Indochina in 1884, Phnom Penh had developed into a sizeable, largely French-designed city, and by the 1920s it was considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia, earning it the moniker Pearl of Asia.

A few decades of optimism -- some overseen by then King Norodom Sihanouk, a charismatic arts-loving playboy -- were finally interrupted by war. Historically Cambodia had been a battleground between the Thais and the Vietnamese, but through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cambodian fought Cambodian as a brutal civil war engulfed the country. By the time the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and evacuated the city, Phnom Penh became a ghost town, and it was but a shadow of itself when the Khmer Rouge were finally evicted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1978-79.

People trickled back to Phnom Penh and the city slowly returned to life. However, it wasn't until the 1990s when UN-sponsored elections took place (accompanied by a slew of aid) that the city really began to develop anew. The new century has seen considerable financial investment from China and South Korea and an onslaught of new construction projects have resulted in many of Phnom Penh's French relics as well as its unique 1950s and 1960s architecture falling to the wrecking ball, only to be replaced by characterless glass and brass affairs. The result is a hodge-podge of stunning French colonial buildings and concrete egg-carton eyesores.

And as the money has flowed, so have the people. The once sleepy streets are developing into a chaotic mess of motorcycles, cars, minibuses, ox carts and remorques battling for space. Urban migration continues apace and it's not unusual to see entire families camped out on footpaths. Poverty is endemic and one not well addressed at all by the country's largely dysfunctional government, despite Prime Minister Hun Sen long being a darling of the international aid community.

Phnom Penh and Cambodian history is well documented at the National Museum, S-21 and the Killing Fields. Other attractions include the Royal Palace, temples, markets and boat tours and a bountiful supply of excellent cafes and restaurants for gourmands, bars for night owls and spas for those who need to unwind. Phnom Penh is a charming spot, so don't make the mistake of allowing just a day or two here.

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One-day itinerary
If you're limited to one day in Phnom Penh, there is plenty to see within a small geographic range. If you want to do like the Indochinese, begin breakfast with a steaming bowl of pho or dumplings at any one of the noodle shops across Phnom Penh. For something more Western, grab a delicious (if overpriced) muffin and a latte (well worth the price) from Cafe Fresco. Spend the morning at the Royal Palace, before the sun gets too hot over all those unshaded, manicured gardens inside. Take your lunch surrounded by fans at one of the many villa-style restaurants in town -- The Shop, Java Cafe, or any of the Boddhi Tree locations. From there, head to Tuol Sleng, the affecting torture prison where the Khmer Rouge purged its inner rank and file and thousands of other unlucky souls. Nearby is the Russian Market, a mazelike complex and the best place in town to snag fairly-priced souvenirs and handicrafts. For dinner, Khmer Kitchen or Khmer Surin serve up a range of Cambodian fare, all in a relaxed ambience with floor seating and reasonable prices.

Two-day itinerary
Take an extra day to explore. Though most street food in Phnom Penh is unimpressive, if you're going to brave it, morning is the time because the ingredients are fresh and this is a city of early risers so you can tell who makes the good stuff by the number of diners surrounding her stand. Fried bananas are simple enough to always be fresh and reliably good. There are plenty of these stands near the Independence Monument, as well as noodle stands frying up Khmer-style noodles, vegetables, meat and a fried egg on top all for 2,000 riel a dish -- a true Cambodian brekky. Next secure a tuk tuk to take you out to Cheung Ek (the killing fields) or, if you're game, the shooting range. Upon returning, lunch at Pop or any of the riverview restaurants. In the afternoon, check out the Central Market and Wat Phnom. Enjoy happy hour at Raffles Hotel Le Royal or The Quay, before dinner at Sher-e Punjab or Lemongrass. Alternatively, take an evening boat cruise out to Snowy's across the river, watch the sunset, eat greasy, delicious burgers from the food stall outside and vow to never leave.

Three-day itinerary
If you have a third day to explore Phnom Penh, use it to get away from the main tourist highlights. Begin the morning with a fabulous breakfast at the Living room, complete with the perfect coffee and a delicious spread that includes homemade bread. If you're an architecture buff -- or if you just want to take in some unusual sites -- take a cyclo architecture tour. If animals are your thing, take the Betel Nut tour out to Phnom Tamao where you can spend the day playing with elephants. To conclude, dine at Chinese Noodle, where you'll leave feeling sweaty, abused, and more satisfied than you've been in ages.

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Text and/or map last updated on 3rd October, 2015.

Last reviewed by:
Abigail has been stoned by villagers in India, become an honorary Kenyan tribeswoman, sweet talked border guards and had close encounters with black mambas. Her motto is: “Live to tell the tale.”

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