Phnom Penh

Mentioning the name 'Phnom Penh' brings up wildly divergent images: in its brief history the city has swerved between French colonial elegance and complete evacuation after 1975 during the time of the Khmer Rouge;...

... to decades of neglect and isolation that are now quickly being erased as the city re-emerges as a major business and tourist destination in South East Asia.

The city itself sits on the confluence of four 'arms' or branches of the Siem Reap and Mekong river. This location promises cool river breezes in the evenings and lots of freshwater fish dishes offered in local restaurants. The riverbanks are great places to meet locals who are always ready to practice their English.

Phnom Penh is also uniquely placed to profit from border trade with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam all on water, because decades of war have damaged many of them so badly, that the river was the only means of transport. It is for this reason that the city is growing so fast to meet the needs of the Mekong countries. The streets of the capital today are a rich mixture of commerce and flashy fashions that even 5 years ago the country did not have.

Aside from business activities, Phnom Penh has plenty of cultural attractions. Several centuries ago, a rich woman named Penh founded a temple on a hill, not far from the river, after she found several Buddha statues hidden in a tree. It's a popular place to come and view the city, though the temple isn't much of a sight in itself; as it's more of historical importance than anything else.

There's a royal palace in Phnom Penh built to model the Wat Phra Kaeo, the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Wandering around the complex can take an hour or two, because aside from the graceful buildings are one built in the French style, the world famous Silver Pagoda can also be visited. This temple's floor is lined with 5,000 one kilogram tiles of pure silver, and many glass cases house Buddha images and statues. As you wander around the pagoda, the sharp 'clink' of the tiles (protected beneath the Persian rugs) is a memorable reminder of the wealth you are walking on.

A short walk from the Royal Palace is the National Museum, a traditional 'wat' styled building attractively painted in a distinctive deep red ochre. Inside, a treasure trove of Angkorian artifacts are displayed around a peaceful garden filled with palm trees and lily pads. It's a nice oasis of calm in the middle of Phnom Penh, and whether on your way up to or just returning from Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, the museum makes an interesting preview or post visit stop for anyone coming to Cambodia.

Shopping in Cambodia's capital city is often done under the huge yellowish roof of the Central Market, which sells everything from books on Angkor culture to gold jewelry to t-shirts and Angkorian crafts. It's worth a wander, even if you are in no mood to buy anything, because the large vaulted ceiling of the market is definitely a unique Southeast Asian landmark.

Eating out in Phnom Penh is no longer just a bowl of Chinese noodles or Thai food. Restaurants serving traditional Cambodian cuisine can be found both within the city limits or outside; just over the Japanese Bridge are numerous restaurants serving grilled chicken and spicy soups, washed down with Angkor Beer. Numerous local residents eat here and on weekends the places are packed, especially at holidays. It's an indication of the changes taking place not just in Phnom Penh, but all across Cambodia.

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