"A city under Reconstruction" Phnom Penh by Ramonq

Phnom Penh Travel Guide: 1,511 reviews and 3,995 photos

click: Khmer music

Phnom Penh is surprisingly pleasant, that is, if you stay in the right place. And most definitely, the best place to be is the riverside road, Sisowath Quay, overlooking the three rivers that merge in Phnom Penh: Tonle Sap, Bassac and Mekong River. This city is vibrant and full of optimism, because for Phnom Penh, there is no way but up, after the brutal Khmer Rouge revolution in the late 1970's and descending further into anarchy during the 1980's, which brought Cambodia to its knees. The capital city of around 2 million is still very much a Third or even Fourth World. Away from the pleasant main avenues and boulevards, which are well paved and have islands complete with lawns and trees, the sidestreets are potholed and dirty where many impoverished street children and amputees roam and beg. Yet Phnom Penh somehow grows on you, after a few days and you'll begin to appreciate the edgy charm of this former French colonial city.

Exploring Phnom Penh

This is a city that's undergoing rapid change. Many of its civic buildings and monuments have been spruced up to a point that they look brand new. The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh's main attraction, was built in the 1860's under the French protectorate by King Norodom and the Silver Pagoda was added in 1902. The royal complex appears fresh and spotlessly clean, but it's much more spartan compared to Bangkok's Royal Palace or Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda. A huge portrait of the King overlooks the riverside park which is a popular relaxation spot for his loyal subjects.

There are some great looking structures in Phnom Penh that were built over time. There are imposing buildings that bear the traditional Khmer style such as the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, and the rust-coloured National Museum. I particularly liked the the Independence Monument on Sihanouk Boulevard, Phnom Penh's version of Arch de Triomphe. The city also has a sprinkling of fine French colonial buildings. Some have been given fresh coats of paint and they lend the city a European flair. The Railway Station and the Post Office are classic examples of this genre. The massive Central Market built in the 1930's, is a fine example of Art Deco architecture. Post-modern skyscrapers have yet to appear in Phnom Penh, but give it time, and they'll soon appear and change the skyline.

Phnom Penh's roads were laid out by the French colonists. You'll notice the French vestiges from the wide tree-lined avenues that radiate out from circles. The side streets are in grid pattern and they are crowded and brimming with activities. Except for the main boulevardes, which are named after some historical figure, most of its streets are not named at all, but have a unique number assigned to it. It's quite sensible and this system makes it easy to tell a cab driver to where you want to go.

Phnom Penh hasn't always been the capital of Cambodia. The ancient Khmer capital was at Angkor near the city of Siem Reap where the world-famous Angkor Wat is located. Angkor declined as result of wars with Siam (Thailand) and so the king moved the capital near present-day Phnom Penh during the 1420's. King Ponhea Yat built a few wats but the capital was a little more than a few huts along the Tonle Sap River. Subsequent kings even moved the capital elsewhere in the region and Phnom Penh remained an insignificant town.

However, when the French took over Indo-China, they turned Phnom Penh into a French colonial outpost in 1866. They built ports, canals, roads, railways, and many civic buildings which still stand today. By the 1920's, Phnom Penh was transformed into the "jewel in the crown" of French Indo-China and the city was reputed to be the most beautiful in the entire region, with wide boulevardes and different quarters for the French and native population. Phnom Penh became the capital of Cambodia after its independence from France. But it fell into a bloody and gruesome history when the city was besieged by the Khmer Rouge. From 1975-79, Phnom Penh was turned virtually into a ghost town after the brutal Khmer Rouge forcely evacuated all its citizens to the barays and tortured and killed most of the city's educated elite. After the expulsion of the regime, Phnom Penh was ran by the United Nations until the nation was fit enough to govern itself.

To the Future

Today, Phnom Penh is rebuilding itself. There's a revival of sorts and you'll notice new construction sites springing up in the city. Internet cafes are cheap and abundant and the tourist areas are filled with trendy restaurants and bars . It appears that Phnom Penh likes to show to the world that theirs is a city on the move. But it still has a long way to go. The infrastructure is seriously lacking and the basic needs of the general population are not being met. Poverty sadly prevails in Phnom Penh. It's a young population, thanks to Pol Pot's genocide, and these people are getting restless.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:The sophisticated riverside area.
  • Cons:Lots of child beggars
  • In a nutshell:A city rebuilding itself
  • Intro Updated May 24, 2012
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