By the end of the first half of the last century, Phnom Penh was no more than a large town, comprising about 350,000 citizens. The “Pearl of Asia”, as it was called, was an exotic combination of French architecture, geometrical urban planning, and Khmer rural landscapes. This rather particular structure was complemented by the two rivers which run through it: the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap.
Even today, when the capital of Cambodia reached a population of over 2 million, walking in the downtown area reveals the same old style, only partly affected by globalization and modernization. In other words, Phnom Penh is old and young at the same time. And it has the incredible advantage of being the fruit of two very distinct cultures. So even if it is a capital, overwhelmed by political, economic, and industrial activities, there are few places in Cambodia more suitable for a tourist than Phnom Penh.
Bamboo Boats, Dyed Silk, and Wide Rivers
The Central Plains and the Mekong Lowlands offer plenty of opportunities for a regular tourist. At very reasonable prices, you can:
- Learn about local customs and practices. Most of them are related to agriculture, weaving, and fishing, which doesn’t sound particularly attractive. But it’s not the type of practice that attracts millions of tourists every year; it’s the style.
- Witness a very complex fauna and flora which extends all across the country.
Pagodas, Colorful Fountains, and Modernist Buildings
Apart from the Central Plains, which carry their own specific charm, wildlife, and traditions, the city itself has enough attractions even for a long vacation. You’ll have to split your time between visiting historical sites, spending time in local wats, or having cocktails in many of Phnom Penh’s superb bars and clubs. Here are a few options:
- Silver Pagoda – Located in the Royal Palace Complex. It may get a little crowded there during the season, but it’s worth the time and money.
- National Museum – It’s pretty big, so you should consider it if you intend to stay in the city for a week or so; otherwise visiting it may feel a little bit frustrating.
- Mekong Island – A great place to get a fast insight in the Khmer Realities.
- Wat Ounalom – To learn about Cambodian Buddhism.
- Sisowath Quay – Just like any other embankment, the Mekong riverside has its appeal. You can even enjoy a boat ride precisely at the point where Tonlé Sap and Mekong join.
- Choeung Ek – Learn history. For real. The hardcore way. And learn how religion and decency can overcome such tragic events.
- Phnom Penh Pub Quiz – You can polish your knowledge of geography and history at this bar every Thursday.
Phnom Penh in general and Phnom Penhers in particular are extremely adaptable and versatile. You can take advantage of this and personalize your trip to the point where it becomes a rather private experience with a Cambodian twist. Or, on the contrary, you can turn Phnom Penh into a fully personal project. Whichever the case may be, remember that the extension of the city and its local implications create the perfect context for revealing Cambodia’s most authentic identity.