The talesofasia guide to Phnom Penh
by Bronwyn Sloan
updated October 7, 2004
Phnom Penh is whatever you want it to be. It can be the gracious host, showing off its points of historic and cultural interests like a regal aunty. It can be a family destination, with comfortable and affordable accommodation and locals who dote on children and have a smile for everyone. Or it can still be edgy and dark, flashing a darker underbelly of seedy bars, guns (if only at the military shooting range, but still) and the faint vanilla scent of drugs. But these are like the personalities of Sybil in this town—they cohabit this place without ever necessarily meeting, and more and more the tourists passing through here are wholesome young backpackers and middle income tourists who want a taste of a kingdom that has captured the imaginations of foreigners for centuries.
The war is over. Cambodia is a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has taken its place in the WTO. That means the headiest days are also over. Ganja is no longer sold openly in local markets (and it is illegal), Cambodia is no longer a haven for pedophiles and the sound of gunfire at night is a rarity rather than the norm. The authorities would rather travelers limit their pursuits to legal activities, and they will arrest and jail foreigners who overstep the boundaries. However there is still a freedom and a joy de vivre about Phnom Penh that neighboring countries lack, and whether a night at Martini's after enjoying a happy pizza is your style, or a night of cocktails at the Elephant Bar of Hotel Le Royal or happy hour in the colonial atmosphere of the FCC, Phnom Penh will happily accommodate you.
Cambodia's recent history has been a tragic one, and Phnom Penh's primary tourist destinations of The Killing Fields and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum echo that. But the stunning French colonial architecture that dots the town and is concentrated in the French Quarter near the post office and fusion masterpieces like the National Museum building show glimpses of why its beauty was legendary before the war. And the river called the Tonle Sap flows across its eastern edge as it always has, changing directions with the seasons in what could be seen as a symbol of the personality of this intriguing and endearing country.
In the last five years especially, the number of businesses and restaurants catering to tourists has exploded, and Phnom Penh offers just about anything a much larger and more developed capital could. Examples of the cuisine of just about any culture and nation imaginable are available in the plethora of eateries which slot into just about any budget range imaginable, and supermarkets sell everything from fresh salmon to fine Australian and French wines and cheeses to muesli.
The government's Open Skies Policy has meant that getting into and out of the capital is simple, although not inexpensive (international departure tax is a whopping US$25, and tickets themselves are much more expensive to buy here than in Bangkok) and flights now leave Phnom Penh International Airport bound for places including Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Vientiane, Singapore and Taipei, with new routes opening up almost monthly.
Roads have also improved, and Phnom Penh has become the perfect jumping-off point for overland travel to anywhere in the country. Taxis, pickups and buses leave from various destinations from various local markets, and it is becoming increasingly popular to jump in a taxi and drive to the numerous border crossings into neighboring countries.
It is still not advisable to wander on foot at night, and the methamphetamine problem that has taken the rest of the region by the throat is also here, meaning violent crime is on the rise despite the best efforts of law enforcement officials. Phnom Penh may look tame in comparison to a few years ago, and it is comparably safer than most capitals in the world, but it should not be taken for granted and the usual precautions apply here as much as anywhere. Phnom Penh is not Toy Town, and if you do get robbed, it will not be Noddy and Big Ears at the other end of the knife or gun barrel.
So what is Phnom Penh? Phnom Penh is a charming post-colonial capital emerging from the shadow of war. It should be respected, but not feared, and enjoyed, but not taken for granted. It is the perfect destination for families with children, but also for singles seeking company or for backpackers seeking an edge. Sitting outside on the pavement at one of the many little restaurants that line the riverfront and enjoying a drink as the moon rises over the water on a balmy night and the bustle of life in this town passes by, it is easy to come to the conclusion that, despite its small size, its lack of neon lights and skyscrapers or state-of-the-art nightclubs, Phnom Penh is one of the great capitals of the world.
restaurants, tours and more
The text appearing on this page is © 2004 - 2006 Bronwyn Sloan. For the rest of the website, unless otherwise noted, all text and photographs © 1998 - 2008 talesofasia.com. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.