Having been reduced to a virtual ghost town during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, the Cambodian capital has reemerged as a tourist-friendly destination that offers rich history, stunning architecture, haute cuisine, and luxury accommodations. From the Khmer-style golden roofs and spires of the Royal Palace and the treasure trove of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures at the National Museum, to the grand French colonial tree-lined boulevards and beautiful Art Deco dome of the Central Market, Phnom Penh is a diverse and dynamic city where past, present, and future collide in fascinating ways. Not just a mere stopover en route to the ancient temples of Angkor, Phnom Penh warrants several days of exploration.

Cheat Sheet

  • Experience…a magical sunset over the mighty Mekong River
  • Eat…at the classic French Van’s Restaurant
  • Sleep…in a colonial-style suite inspired by Jackie O. at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal
  • Explore…the National Museum’s collection of ancient Khmer sculptures
  • Visit…the grandiose Throne Hall at The Royal Palace
  • Walk…Street 240 to find Phnom Penh’s hippest boutiques and eateries
  • See…the sacred Emerald Buddha statue inside the Silver Pagoda

Lay of the Land

Located in the southern interior region of the country, less than 100 miles from the Vietnamese border, the Cambodian capital lies at the intersection of three major rivers: the Tonle Sap, the Bassac, and the mighty Mekong. Though the city was forcibly evacuated and left to ruin during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), tourism has increased, slowly but surely, since the 1990s and Phnom Penh is reestablishing itself as a vibrant industrial and cultural capital. The lively riverfront—a wide and grassy promenade—is the heart of the city and a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Western-style cafes line the grand quay, which is near important tourist sites including: the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the National Museum.

The French colonial rule over Cambodia (1867-1949) brought to Phnom Penh tree-lined boulevards and stately villas as well as a gridded street system, which makes the city fairly easy to navigate.  The major thoroughfares are named for various rulers and dignitaries (Norodom Boulevard is a central north-south artery, Sihanouk Boulevard runs east-west), but the rest of the streets are numbered.  North-south streets have odd numbers (the low numbers are closest to the river) and the east-west streets have even numbers (the low numbers start at the city’s north end.) Tuk-tuks and taxis generally know all of the major tourist sites, but if you are going somewhere off-the-beaten-path (a newly opened restaurant, for example), it is best to call ahead for directions or locate the nearest landmark in advance. Many buildings do not have street numbers, which can make finding a particular address difficult without good directions. It may be useful to show your driver the destination on a map (and always agree on a fare for a taxi or a tuk-tuk in advance.)

Cambodia’s recent tragic past can make it a difficult place to visit—both physically and emotionally.  Though Phnom Penh is a major metropolis (with a population of over two-million people as opposed to just 32,000 in 1978, at the height of the Khmer Rouge), it still bears visible scars from the country’s long civil war in the form of badly paved streets, crumbling sidewalks, and decaying villas. And in stark contrast to the city’s recent explosion of boutique hotels, trendy shops, and high-end restaurants, historic sites like the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum provide grisly reminders of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.  In spite of their difficult recent history, Cambodians are some of the most affable and gracious foreigners you will ever meet. It is inspiring to see the city and its people so full of life and joy.

When To Go

Cambodia is a tropical country that boasts warm weather year-round.  The long dry season between November and May and is divided into the cool season (November–February, when the average temperature is 85°) and the hot season (March–May, when temperatures hover in the mid-90s.) Traveling around the country during the rainy season (June–October) is not recommended as river levels rise dramatically and roads are prone to flooding.

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Beyond… Phnom Penh

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