x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Phnom Penh is a cultural revelation

My kind of place: The Cambodian capital has emerged from its painful past as a vibrant, modern destination, writes Kit Gillet.

One of Phnom Penh’s culinary options, the FCC Restaurant, offers fine dining in its renovated colonial-era building. Jerry Redfern/LightRocket / Getty Images)
One of Phnom Penh’s culinary options, the FCC Restaurant, offers fine dining in its renovated colonial-era building. Jerry Redfern/LightRocket / Getty Images)

Why Phnom Penh?

In the past six years, a cultural renaissance has taken place in Phnom Penh, with new art galleries, boutique stores and a vibrancy and chaotic energy now present that feels infectious. Buddhist monks in bright orange robes now share the streets with young professionals, artists and filmmakers and wide-eyed tourists. At the same time, it doesn't take long to realise that the Cambodian capital is, at its heart, a city still struggling with its recent history, even as it strives forward.

In the 1870s, the French transformed what was a small village at the mouth of three mighty rivers into a grandiose colonial capital. For almost 100 years, it remained a city known primarily for its stunning architecture, both from the French days and the subsequent Cambodian monarchic rule, which ended abruptly in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge's guerrilla forces took over the country. Phnom Penh was quickly emptied of people, as almost everyone was sent to the countryside to work, and for the next three years the country was held in a grip of terror. Upwards of 1.7 million people died during a bloody period before the regime was overthrown, and it would take until the late 1990s for the civil war to fully end and peace to return. Now it finally looks like prosperity is also on the horizon - though the streets remain as dusty as ever.

A comfortable bed

Those wanting to recline in colonial glory may opt for the five-star Raffles Hotel Le Royal, first opened in 1929. Rooms start from $216 per night (Dh793) (www.raffles.com; 00 855 23 98 1888). Nowadays, however, Phnom Penh is also home to a number of stylish boutique hotels, including White Mansion, the former American embassy that has been repurposed as an ambient boutique hotel featuring an attractive blend of Khmer designs and modern touches (www.hotelphnompenh-whitemansion.com; 00 855 23 555 0955). Rooms from $99 (Dh364), including breakfast and taxes. Likewise, The Plantation (theplantation.asia; 00 855 23 21 5151), located just behind the Royal Palace at the heart of the city, is a peaceful base from which to explore the nearby city. Rooms start from as little as $69 (Dh253) for a double room with breakfast.

Find your feet

Start at Wat Phnom, a picturesque Buddhist pagoda on the hilltop from which the city gets its name. From there head in the direction of the riverfront, making sure to pass some of the rundown delights of the former French Quarter, including the recently renovated Post Office, which originally dates from the 1890s. Also not to be missed is the architecture by Cambodian Vann Molyvann, who in the 1950s and 1960s fused together ancient and contemporary styles to create some of the city's most iconic structures. Take one of Khmer Architecture Tours (www.ka-tours.org) to find out more.

After passing through the chaotic market area you should arrive at the waterfront, ideal for an evening stroll or to watch the boats go by. Finally, head to the area in front of the ornate Royal Palace complex, which has been the home of the Cambodian monarch since 1865 (with some notable periods of forced absence).

Meet the locals

Most evenings, the small square in front of the Royal Palace is abuzz with monks, young families and those looking for a place to relax with friends as the temperature cools (young couples choose benches on the nearby riverside, where the light is a bit more moody and romantic). Alternatively, head to nearby Ounalom Pagoda, an often-overlooked temple complex that offers shelter from the midday heat, serene Buddhist prayer chambers, and friendly and welcoming monks happy to engage in conversation. For the more artistically inclined, stop by Meta House (www.meta-house.com), which is fast becoming the artistic hub of the city.

Book a table

Unlike neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia isn't known for its culinary offerings. Romdeng, on Street 278, is one of the best options for those wanting to try some traditional Khmer cuisine in a beautiful setting, and has the feel-good factor of being staffed by former street children. Make sure you try the amok fish curry and sour beef and morning glory soup (though perhaps stay clear of the fried tarantula). Khmer Surin, on Street 57, is also highly regarded for its reasonably priced food, ambient decor and fun atmosphere. A full feast at either will cost you less than $12 (Dh44) per person. Alternatively, head to the Foreign Correspondents' Club (363 Sisowath Quay; www.fcccambodia.com; 00 855 23 21 0142) for fine international dining with an open-air view over the river. Main courses at FCC will set you back anywhere between $6-$16 (Dh22-Dh59), and include beautifully prepared grilled sea bass, yellowfin tuna, and Kari Banlei, a vegetarian red curry with tamarind and ampot pepper dressing.

Shopper's paradise

Street 240 has become the centre of new and funky Phnom Penh - the place where the young and upwardly mobile head to for international cuisine and boutique shopping. Charming French jewellers (Waterlily, No 37) stand a few doors away from non-profits selling beautifully crafted and sleek bamboo furniture and tableware (Mekong Creations, No 45; www.mekong-creations.org). Don't miss The Chocolate Shop, set to reopen in a month after undergoing renovations, where slabs of chocolate encrusted with Kampot pepper are sure to please (No 35; www.chocolate-cambodia.com). If you are after more traditional souvenirs, get a tuk-tuk taxi to take you to the sprawling Russian Market.

What to avoid

Like most developing nations with a booming tourist scene, there are plenty of locals looking for a quick way to take your cash. Stay clear of the sketchy bars to the north of the night market, find out from your hotel how much a tuk-tuk ride somewhere should cost before setting out and if you need medicine during your trip, then head to one of the more reputable pharmacists, since fake medicines are a major problem across the country.

Don't miss

It is still two of Phnom Penh's most morbid sites that draw the largest number of tourists: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and, a 40-minute tuk-tuk ride out of town, Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields, an excavated site which is now a memorial.

Go there

A return flight from Abu Dhabi to Phnom Penh via Bangkok costs from Dh2,650 with Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com). The flight takes eight and a half hours.

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