I lived in the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia for two years on and off, and I found it to be one of my favorite places on earth. In fact, this capital city of Cambodia, a country between Thailand and Vietnam in southeast Asia that’s got a remarkable yet blood-soaked history, is now one of the up and coming places for tourists to visit.
While the majority of visitors to Cambodia prioritize visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex right outside the northern city of Siem Reap (as they should), Phnom Penh is a can’t miss destination, too, in my opinion.
It really is one of the most fascinating and culturally rich cities in the world, and surprisingly safe and livable for a major city in Asia. To be clear, I AM NOT a big city person, and places like Saigon, Bangkok, Manila, Cebu, or others hold absolutely no appeal for me. But somehow, I fell in love with Phnom Penh.
There are, essentially, three Phnom Penh’s. First, there are remembrances of Cambodia’s history. Since the ancient Khmer Empire more than a thousand years ago, Cambodia flourished. There are still plenty of reminders of that rich Khmer history in museums, traditional dance and cooking, art galleries, and other icons. But the biggest of all is the royal palace, and while it is not 1,000 years old (the royal family moved the capital form Siem Reap to Phnom Penh around the 1600 or 1700s I believe, it is absolutely stunning and about as photogenic as it gets. The palace is also right in the heart of the city with its own giant, well-manicured park right along the riverside, so you see it, walk around it, or even sit and chill there every day.
The City of Phnom Penh Overview
Phnom Penh evolved in the mid 20th century as a surprisingly cosmopolitan and sophisticated city under French colonial rule. People wore suits and chic Paris fashions, drove nice automobiles on the city’s immaculate streets, and Phnom Penh had its own vibrant western rock and roll and nightlife scene.
All of that changed with the rise of Pol Pot, the despot responsible for one of the worst genocides in human history. Under his Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1978, any vestiges of western or traditional Khmer religion, architecture, education, culture, or business was wiped out. Anyone who had worked in government or for the police or military, or was educated at all (even people who just had eye glasses!) was sent to concentration camps and murdered. In those three short years, about ¼ of Cambodia’s population was worked to death, starved, or ruthlessly killed.
Although that conflict officially ended in 1978, the country didn’t regain stabilization until the mid 1990s when United Nations peacekeeping forces entered and set up legitimate elections.
In the late 2000s, Phnom Penh started to improve, rebuild, and flourish once again, and over the last five years or so, it’s really taken a huge leap as a modern, multicultural, artistic, and once-again sophisticated international city.
But the amazing thing is that it’s still remarkably safe for a major city (although there is a whole lot of begging and petty theft is increasing), and people are incredibly friendly. However, you can still witness all three phases of its unique history on display, with a strong community vibe.
I’ll cover my list of top things to do and see in Phnom Penh in a blog coming very soon!