Set at the crossroads of three rivers and of past and present, Phnom Penh, once known as the "Pearl of Asia", is regaining its luster.
Its reputation as a wild west frontier town has been eclipsed by a growing status as an international playground, and where once Rambo type fun seekers could haul live grenades into fishponds, entertainment these days is more akin to hanging out at the latest swanky spa or hotel or being an eco-tourist.
The skyline of this classic city has been changed with the entry of high-rise buildings among its low-level houses, and when planned construction of towering skyscrapers is completed, Phnom Penh will take its first few steps into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, it remains a gem of city offering the charm of an age reminiscent of the golden age of travel. But it is also a city of sharp contrasts.
A city infused with energy, charming colonial French houses and alleys choked with motorbikes, it is hard to believe this was once a ghost town. For four years, it remained so, occupied by only 50,000 Khmer Rouge senior party members and trusted military leaders. At that time, pigs lived in the National Library, priceless ancient Khmer treasures were destroyed, and its political leadership, intellectual and artistic talents were marched into the countryside to take up the hoe. The less fortunate ones were tortured and buried in mass graves.
Since then, Phnom Penh has become the hot destination. Step into the peaceful gardens of the Royal Palace and admire its graceful gold-roofs or delve into a rich and proud cultural heritage by viewing centuries old Angkorian sculptures at the National Museum. The 5,000 silver tiles and jewel-encrusted and gold Buddhas in the Silver Pagoda hint at a dazzling and brilliant culture. Stroll along Sisowath Quay - with international flags fluttering in the breeze and vintage lampposts lit at night, it is a delightful place for a meal or drinks.
Untold stories of incomprehensible killing are hinted at by the black and white photo galleries at the Toul Sleng Museum. Previously S-21, it was an ordinary looking school which was turned into one of the grisliest detention camps known to the world. A memorial stupa filled with cracked skulls at the Killing Fields speaks silently of the nation's trauma.
Phnom Penh has its own pace – there are more and more imported luxury cars on the road, but saffron-robed monks with their begging bowls still grace the streets. Cambodian cooking is now on the culinary map and Phnom Penh showcases some of the best, from street stalls in its busy markets to very fine, sophisticated dining. Its international menus rank with the finest in the region's capitals.
Its traffic is crazy and chaotic. Motorbikes, cars, SUVs, bicycles, push carts and the occasional elephant nudge for openings on the roads, and size does matter here. But strangely, there is order in chaos. For those who dare, cycling through the streets of Phnom Penh can be an invigorating experience.
Cool Southeast Asian Capital
This is one of the coolest capitals in Southeast Asia. Its seedy red light areas have been put out of commission, and getting caught in a drug crossfire on main street is no longer a pastime. Tourists would love it to hang onto its disheveled charm, serene temples, broad avenues and a very pretty riverfront. The city's colorful markets are a refreshing break from the depersonalized shopping malls found in nearby capital cities, though more and more of them are on the drafting board. Its 2 million inhabitants have experienced the first of the global fast food franchises, KFC which opened in 2008, and eagerly await more.
City of Four Faces
Phnom Penh was previously known as Krong Chaktomuk, the City of Four Faces, or Quatre Bras in French, denoting the junction where the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac Rivers meet to form an 'X'. It became Cambodia's capital almost 400 years ago, although it lost the prestige a few times before reclaiming it for good.
While it was once bypassed by travelers magnetized only by Siem Reap, many are now stopping to enjoy its charm. The city has more than enough attractions to fill a day, or several days, but fascinating Angkorian sites at Phnom Oudong, Phnom Chisor and Phnom Da are an easy day trip. Cruise round the city in a moto, bargain for silk at the psars, grab a cocktail by the riverfront or ride an elephant around a temple. Catch Phnom Penh while you can.