Words by Julie Miller
Phnom Penh is a city shaped by its chequered history, but with its sights set firmly on the future. After decades of dictatorship, genocide and civil war, Cambodia’s capital has crawled from the mire to become one of southeast Asia’s most vibrant cities. Its newfound prosperity is evident in gleaming skyscrapers, thriving small businesses and the fleets of luxury cars plying its chaotic streets.
At the heart of this phoenix-like transformation is Sisowath Quay, a three-kilometre strip at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. Just 25 years ago, this riverside precinct was a no-go zone - the domain of thieves and vagabonds, and policed by soldiers wielding AK-47s. Today, it’s a tourist hotspot. Magnificent French Colonial buildings reinvented as bars, restaurants, galleries, cool boutiques and day spas. Sleepy during the heat of day, the Quay awakens with a jolt at sunset as families, joggers, vendors and street performers converge on the riverside parkland. Meanwhile, international visitors head to the rooftop of the FFC - the infamous bar where foreign correspondents reported the fall of the Khmer Rouge – for Happy Hour with a view of the carnival below.
Overseeing the riverside is the Royal Palace, the residence of the King of Cambodia and arguably the city’s most popular attraction. Built in 1860, it features a Silver Pagoda and combines an eclectic mix of traditional Khmer, Thai and European architecture.
Another glorious nod to Cambodia’s colonial past is Raffles Hotel de Royal, the city’s most exclusive hotel that has entertained dignitaries, celebrities and well-heeled travellers since 1929. The hotel’s legendary Elephant Bar is an institution in itself, serving 30 different gins and a range of cocktails, including the signature Femme Fatale, named in honour of former US first lady Jackie Kennedy, who visited the hotel in 1967.
No visit to Phnom Penh is complete without visiting one of its many markets - hubs of street food, music and dance performances, and handmade crafts and clothing courtesy of entrepreneurial local designers. The art deco Central Market is worth a look for its architecture alone; while the Russian market is a great place to nab souvenir bargains. The most recent addition to the buzzing market scene is Jet’s Container Night Market, where bars, restaurants and boutiques have been built into and on top of cargo containers.