Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, yet most visitors bypass the city and head straight to Siem Reap to see the story of the ancient Khmer capital with its amazing temples. But there are reasons why you should visit Phom Penh: It also has a story to tell, off the French Colonial period, the dreadful times of the Khmer Rouge and off the countries recovery and future. You can also enjoy some of the most unique city hotels in Asia and cost of living lower than in neighboring countries, giving you plenty of reason to add Phnom Penh to your itinerary.
During the French Colonial period, Phnom Penh was the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Royal Palace is a symbol of that time. Spread out over several city blocks along the river, The golden roofs of the halls and temples shine in the sun and are visible from much of downtown Phnom Penh. It’s the most impressive sight for visitors and should be high on your list of places to see in Phnom Penh.
Another reason to visit Phnom Penh is to learn about the Khmer Rouge and the impact their regime had on Cambodia until today. The Khmer Rouge were supported by Communist China and Vietnam and won the Cambodian Civil War in 1975. They set up a brutal regime that slaughtered up to 3 Million Cambodians (around 25% of the population), including most of the intellectuals, educated and professionals, in an attempt to return to a self-sufficient, agricultural society.
Vietnam invaded in 1979 to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, resulting in a civil war that lasted until 1994. The Tuol Sleng prison and genocide memorial in Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields outside the city bare witness to the tragic period of Cambodia’s history. While a visit won’t be a pleasant experience, it will leave deep memories and provides a backdrop for modern Cambodia.
Phnom Penh is the best place to see modern Cambodia and where it is heading: The city is growing rapidly with building renovations and new construction on every street. You’ll find restored colonial buildings next to crumbling shop houses and brand new high-rise! There are new coffee shops, international restaurants and bars popping up every day.
Old meets new – you can call a Riksha or Tuk Tuk with your smart phone app for a ride across town.
Or head to the Central Market, a landmark building with lots of little stalls selling everything imaginable under a huge dome!
A great place to see the ebb and flow of live in the city is the river promenade where everybody is congregating as the sun sets over Phnom Penh, with couples on dates, families going for a stroll or young people going for a run or a game of soccer!
Phonm Penh has changed dramatically since my first visit 16 years ago – and I expect it to change just as rapidly over the next 10 years. So, if you have a trip planned to Siem Reap, consider Phnom Penh as stop-over on your trip!