Written by Claire Knox
Once enchantingly coined the ‘pearl of Asia’, and part of the French Indochinese colonial empire, Phnom Penh, built on the confluence of the mighty Mekong River, and the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, is experiencing a renaissance.
Cambodia was in its heyday in the 1950s and 60s: with its incandescent, tangerine sunsets and jungle-enveloped thousand-year-old temples. Tourists, such as Parisian actress Catherine Deneuve, and former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, flocked to the country, perhaps sipping on Kir at the luxurious Raffles Le Royal hotel, or riding in a cyclo through the warm breeze.
The late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk gained independence from the French in 1953 and was determined to transform the former French outpost into a modern Southeast Asian state.
Then came Year Zero: in April 1975 the ebony-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers, under the leadership of brutal dictator Pol Pot, stormed the capital, marching its inhabitants to rural work ‘camps’ and completely emptying Phnom Penh. What followed was mass genocide – when the Vietnamese army overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, an estimated 2 million people – nearly a third of the population – had died.
While the country’s tumultuous past still provides the backdrop to much of Phnom Penh, the city is moving on: on its wide, elegant streets, people smile and chat with an ease and friendliness not common in many places.
Now is an exciting time to visit the Kingdom – although hordes of travellers have trekked through the famed crumbling temples of Angkor for the past decade, the last 12 months saw an unprecedented 3.2 million tourists.
Phnom Penh’s famed Sisowath Quay, a wide boulevard flanking the banks of the Tonle Sap River, is bustling and an ideal location for a glimpse into local life.
The riverside is peppered with numerous cafés perfect for whiling away a lazy afternoon. Sink into a leather chair on the terrace of the famed Foreign Correspondents’ Club and sip an iced coffee (order it Khmer style: saccharine-sweet with condensed milk). Further along Sisowath Quay, Blue Pumpkin bakery is an ideal escape from the heat outside, with exotic ice-cream flavours such as durian and black sesame and ginger. Hundreds of locals head to the wide riverside pavement every morning and evening for aerobics, tai chi, and gossiping.
Come dusk, the dramatic web of lights strewn around the Royal Palace begins to illuminate the city sky. Plumes of fragrant incense waft through the warm air, fuchsia lotus flowers are piled at the gilded palace gates, and a dulcet hum reverberates.
By day the Royal Palace is a hive of activity; hordes of people gather to pay respects to the late King-Father Sihanouk, whose death in late October prompted hundreds of thousands of mourners from the far-flung villages to make pilgrimages to the palace.
The ornate classic Khmer architecture of the palace, built in the 1860s, is a spectacular juxtaposition of old Cambodian and French design aesthetics: manicured French gardens are nestled between soaring golden spires and shimmering tiled roofs. The striking Silver Pagoda should not be missed – its floor is made up of over 4,000 shiny silver tiles.
Adjacent to the palace is the rose-hued, sandstone National Museum, with over 5,000 artefacts – ancient geometric vessels and Angkorian shrines to name a few – dating back to the 12th century.
An important, although almost agonising, site to visit is Choeung Ek, or the Killing Fields, 16 kilometres south-west of Phnom Penh. This infamous area remains as an eerie, sombre memorial and museum for the estimated 20,000 people who were killed and buried there.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S21, was once a high school turned into a political prison and torture centre by Pol Pot. Still swathed in barbed wire, it is brimming with haunting images of its 17,000 former prisoners and vivid, shocking paintings by well-known Cambodian artist Vann Nath, one of seven people to survive S21.
One of the most exhilarating ways to explore the city is by tuk-tuk or on a cyclo. Wat Phnom is the perfect place to take a breather – verdant gardens surround the temple, built in 1373. Drive back down along the leafy Norodom Boulevard to the lotus-shaped Independence Monument, designed in the 1950s by architecture legend Vann Molyvann.
Contemporary art and culture in Cambodia is thriving, with young artists holding regular exhibits at modern galleries and arts hubs about town.
The beautifully tiled Java café, Bophana audio-visual centre, the white minimalist space of Sa Sa Art gallery, the riverside Top Art gallery and the roof-top of gallery and independent cinema Meta House all showcase some of the country’s most exciting art.
Street 178houses some of the city’s best boutiques. Garden of Desire sells exquisite silver and gold jewellery with handcrafted stones.
Close to here is Bodia, one of the more luxurious spas in Phnom Penh. Opt for a reflexology foot massage, one of their acclaimed facials (using natural products such as jasmine oil, mango, and black sticky rice) or a traditional Khmer massage.
Further along Street 178, Ambre, set up by Romyda Keth, a Cambodian-born but Prague-and-Paris-raised designer, boasts a vast, vibrant selection of celestial silk evening gowns and other garments.
On Street 240, visit Bliss boutique for colourful and breezy cotton and linen kaftans and smocks – perfect for the tropics. Also here is First Floor; a boutique stocking some of the region’s best designers, including the bold and exquisite Cambodian-based Eric Raisina. The Russian Market and art deco-style Central Market are great places to pick up souvenirs and trinkets.
In 1887 Cambodia was included in the French Indochina union, and the country remained a French colony until its independence in 1953. The French influence in Cambodia is still pervasive, from the remarkable colonial-era mansions to the baguettes, pastries, and syrupy coffees still on offer in the heaving markets.
In the 1950s, Sihanouk commissioned some of the country’s most revered ‘New Khmer’ architects – educated in France and heavily influenced by Le Corbusier – to design elegant and remarkable, modernist structures.
Architects such as Lu Ban Hap and Mam Sophana created striking buildings around the country, especially around the misty seaside town of Kep, home to a smattering of modernist and art deco villas and colonial mansions – many of them abandoned but some restored into glorious boutique hotels, such as the wonderful Miami-style Knai Bang Chatt.
But most adored is Vann Molyvann, also a disciple of Le Corbusier, and responsible for architectural marvels such as the Independence Monument, the Olympic Stadium, and the National Theatre. Khmer Architecture Tours stroll past these and other works of Molyvann’s.
Tours also wind past many of the beautiful, ochre-hued French mansions and villas that are still scattered around Phnom Penh, although they are increasingly being demolished, with soaring skyscrapers set to take their place.
The grand and opulent Raffles Le Royal is one that remains – it also remains the city’s most luxurious place to stay. Rooms (starting at US$279 per night) ooze with sophistication, and the Elephant Bar is reminiscent of a Parisian cocktail haunt. The Pavilion, a restored villa that the owners say was built by Sihanouk’s mother, Queen Kossamak, is an oasis in the centre of the city; private pool rooms start at US$100.
Phnom Penh boasts some excellent French dining establishments. On Street 240, The Shop is an ode to the city’s colonial past – enjoy crusty baguettes, buttery pastries and excellent coffee here. La P’tite France serves up classical French fare – excellent steaks and succulent duck confit, with an extensive wine menu. Comme à la Maison, a favourite of French expats, leans towards the French Mediterranean – hearty French onion soup and roast chicken with buttery roast potatoes are popular choices.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A city of culinary delights
Eat delicious Japanese tapas, fresh seafood, and yakitori – grilled meat at Yumi, cooked by former top London chef Caspar von Hofmannsthal.
Decoserves up mouthwatering lamb burgers, while Metro, on the riverside, is the perfect spot for a glass of Australian Shiraz and divine pâté. At Beirut, also along the same stretch, devour succulent mixed grill plates –
Eat for a cause at Friends, a restaurant that trains Phnom Penh street kids in hospitality skills. At Romdeng, high-end Khmer cuisine is on offer (also at the remarkable Malis) – you can also nibble on a tarantula’s leg here!
The jungle-enveloped temple ruins of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor have long been the drawcard for Cambodia and they remain magical. Angkor Wat itself is astonishing. Said to be one of the biggest religious structures in the world, the Hindu temple was built in the early 12th century and is resplendent at sunrise. The expansive Angkor Thom,and within it the Bayon, its walls lined with 216 enormous reliefs of faces, is labyrinthine. Ta Prohm, with its looping tree roots and stone walls entwined, is one of the complex’s most striking. Further afield, Preah Khan also remains largely unrestored, vegetation climbing up and over it. In Siem Reap, stay at the stylish Amansara resort – Angelina Jolie is rumoured to have stayed here – standard suites go for US$950 per night while one with a pool is US$1,250. A private taxi from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap costs from US$75–100 each way.
By the numbers
While over 2 million live in the capital, Cambodia is an agrarian country with more than 80% of the population being farmers in rural areas.
The number of mobile phone SIM cards sold in the country. This has exceeded Cambodia’s population of 15 million.
The amount of milled rice Cambodia exported in the first nine months of last year. The country produced 8.25 million tonnes of paddy rice in 2011 and aims to export at least 1 million tonnes of milled rice by 2015.
The number of Buddhist monks who filed into the Royal Palace to mourn King Sihanouk’s death – a sea of saffron robes, on October 20, 2012, five days after his death.