Situated at the confluence of three rivers—including the mighty Mekong—at the heart of Cambodia is the changing capital of Phnom Penh, once considered as the ‘Pearl of Asia’. It offers one of Southeast Asia’s preserved French remnants amid widely-held images of the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum. Since the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s, Phnom Penh has been slowly rising up and trying to keep pace with its bigger neighbors, Saigon and Bangkok, even with smaller Siem Reap to the west, where more tourists flock to see Angkor Wat.
Although development has started to trickle in where multi-storey buildings and hotels have sprung up and trendy restaurants and bars have been built, this city still emanates a rustic charm, perfect for those wishing to satisfy their visions of the ‘Old Asia’. Huge colonial mansions dot some sections of the cityscape amid tree-lined boulevards. Not to forget are the centuries old temples where people worship in this predominantly Buddhist nation. With this vista, it is hard to picture that this city has endured conflicts and poverty since the end of the regime—motorbikes crisscross the busy traffic of the city, occasional potholes litter the roads, and the usual frenzy of a developing nation pervades the atmosphere.
With an area of 678 square kilometers and home to more than two million inhabitants, there is still a host of things to do in this city other than drinking Angkor Beer at Sisowath Quay. After paying a customary visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, you may proceed to the prominent Wat Botum and Wat Phnom (from which the city took its name) as well as the other temples at the Royal Palace to gaze at the imposing stupas.
The Independence and Liberation memorials will give you a glimpse of Cambodia’s bitter tied history with Vietnam. If you are in for a bit of adventure with a philanthropic heart, then head to the Stung Meanchey Garbage Dump. Since Cambodian cuisine has just started to open up to the world, you may want to enroll at a cooking class. After a whole day of walking around the city, you may proceed to the Olympic Stadium to take a dip or join hordes of people participating in an exercise or dance lessons. Or you may just go to the Riverside to get a massage in one of the spas and right after watch people go by while taking a swig at one of the pubs.
Phnom Penh has benefited from the influx of tourists, mainly backpackers, who chase the Southeast Asian trail from Vietnam to Thailand. As a result, various types of accommodation have sprung up—from budget guesthouses to mid-range inns and luxury hotels. Most of these cater to backpackers where a one night stay at a hostel will set you back with just US$8 on the average. If you came to splurge, then NagaWorld Complex and Raffles Hotel Le Royal are right up your alley.
Getting around to see the sights above will require you to hire a car, as buses serve only long-distance routes. You can take a taxi but metered ones are hard to come by so it is best to make an agreement with the driver in advance before you hop in. The usual fare from the airport to the center of town is US$7, and US$1 per kilometer inside the city center.
If you want to join in the rush of things along Norodom Boulevard, hire a motordop (motorbike taxi) which will cost you US$2 from one point of the city to another. If you prefer to take it slow while spotting wats and colonial buildings, take the reumork (motored tricycle) or better yet a cyclo (tricycle), the cheapest form of transport available. Bicycles can be rented at some guesthouses for US$1, but as always walking is a better option to breathe in the pulse of this city, albeit a dusty one in many parts.
Boats serve the Tonle Sap route to Siem Reap and the surrounding floating villages mainly during the monsoon season, as the lake reverses direction and swells almost six times from its small area of 2700 square kilometers.
As the economic, political and cultural capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is also the transport hub of the country. Buses serve regular routes to adjacent provinces and cities such as Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. The only train service in Cambodia plies the Phnom Penh-Battambang route.
Located seven kilometers to the west of the city is the Phnom Penh International Airport, which saw an improvement since 1995 from foreign ventures. It hosts flights from all neighboring major cities in Asia, and even from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul.
Except for the citizens of most Southeast Asian countries, all travelers entering Phnom Penh Airport and all entry points of the country require a visa. This can be secured prior to arrival but ‘on arrival’ visas can be availed as well.