A heaving crossroads of cultures, times, peoples and worlds, Phnom Penh is a city on the edge of everything. With one foot still rooted in the past, which you can find in the temples, markets and buzzing back streets, and another striding boldly into the future, which is pretty much all around you, this thriving, turbulent city brings together Cambodian, Chinese and French influences in a congested, grimy, shiny, vibrant and thrilling mash that somehow seems to work — except when it rains.
Once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’, Phnom Penh used to be one of the better-preserved French colonial towns in Southeast Asia. However, developers — occasionally driven by a need to clean up someone's cashflow — are working tirelessly to put paid to this sobriquet, and once beautiful parts of town are yielding to the seemingly inexorable rise of some of the most artless lumps of brick and concrete you’ll ever be misfortunate enough to lay eyes on. There is a legion of architects in this city who should be taken out and shot for conspiring in this vandalism, and especially for the bewilderingly unlovely edifices that are being chucked up in place of a beautiful and wholly irreplaceable heritage. Be that as it may, this is the price you pay for being a city so eager to take its place at the table so long occupied by its neighbours to the east and west.
Today, once sleepy — indeed once silent — streets run thick with motor scooters, lusty motorbikes, bicycles, tuk tuks, rickshaws, Toyota Camrys, and monster gas-guzzling machines frequently belonging either to those who would profess to be "saving" Cambodia, or those who are quietly asset-stripping an entire state. They move to a rhythm defined by chance opportunities, a reflection of the city’s own vibe, which can can infuse you with wild optimism at the genuine sense of limitless possibilities, or knock you down with crushing cynicism in less than a heartbeat.
Sitting at the confluence of three rivers that stretch out to the north, west and southeast — the Mekong, the Tonle Sap, and the Tonle Bassac — Phnom Penh is the heart of Cambodia, but is arguably not strictly a Cambodian city. The majority of the population is Sino-Khmer, Cambodia’s merchant class, and it is largely they who are at the root of the city’s thriving commercial life. This and the energy and creativity of the city’s expatriate community mean that the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh has a lot more to offer the visitor than a swing through the sobering Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and a run out to the Killing Fields. Although not to be missed too are the charming Royal Palace and quaint National Museum, both of which offer glimpses of Cambodia's richer history.
But Phnom Penh is a city far more interested in the present and future than the past. A highly competitive restaurant and bar scene means that you can browse beautifully turned out international (almost global, but not quite) flavours at a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere, dance the night away in pumping nightclubs, shop your heart out on the emerging local design scene, meander through the markets, or savour the city’s arts scene. It’s all there, just on a smaller, and occasionally more naif, scale than you might find in more established capitals, and that is also part of its charm.
Cambodia is a country trying to resist the nation-state version of the maxim that character is destiny. Whether a country’s history is its destiny is yet to be decided however. In 2015, there are already rumblings about unrest to come in the next round of national elections, due in 2018. Those rumblings are fuelled by memories going all the way back to the 1970s and the horrors that then unfolded, and a great deal of the focus is very much on Phnom Penh, where a young, tech-savvy, educated population is unafraid to question the things their parents have learned, the hard way, to ignore.
Young Cambodians know that large chunks of the rest of the world function very differently from here, and they want to see change. They have relatively little to lose in pursuing it too as they are used to the idea that whatever they have can be taken from them at any time for whatever reason by those with more power. This would appear to be one of the great weaknesses inherent to a system built on abuse and exploitation.
As far as Phnom Penh's founding history 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 in 1434, Phnom Penh for long remained little more than a large village and didn't become the permanent capital until 1866 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.
After independence came a few decades of optimism -- some overseen by then King Norodom Sihanouk, a charismatic, arts-loving playboy, whose memory is still revered despite his difficult role in subsequent events. But the bright years were finally interrupted by war, at home and abroad. 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. When 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 communists were finally evicted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1978-79.
Over the 1980s, people trickled back to Phnom Penh and the city slowly returned to life under the control of the Vietnamese. 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, quirky modernist buildings and concrete egg-carton eyesores.
And as the money has flowed, so have the people. Urban migration continues apace and poverty is endemic -- a crisis not well addressed by the country's largely dysfunctional government, despite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s continued support by the international aid community.
By Nicky Sullivan. Last updated on 19th June, 2016.