Phnom Penh is a city in flux. Once the scrambling, frantic yet intensely tropical centre of a country in turmoil, the world is slowly coming to the Mekong’s shores. Sadly, modernization has also taken away Phnom Penh’s lakeside backpacker heartland, where you could slurp Angkor beer and peer out as the sun goes down.
All is not lost, of course, as modernity has bought about a newly skyscraper pierced skyline and a slightly easier to deal with, less chaotic city. But only slightly. Apart from staring out over the Mekong, the key attraction here is the Silver Pagoda. You’ll find it in the Royal Palace, and it’s named after its impressive selection of five thousand shimmering floor tiles, as well as being home to a life sized Buddha made entirely of gold, an Emerald Buddha and nearly ten thousand glittering diamonds. Not bad for a city centrepiece!
The National Museum’s mighty impressive, too, as home to a seemingly endless selection of Khmer Sculptures, which are housed in their own impressive, tree-lined building. This is the luxury side of Phnom Penh, and it doesn’t stretch far. Elsewhere you’ll find touts relentlessly attempting to drag you to the gruesome nearby Killing Fields (a truly harrowing experience, better seen after a full explanation at the Tuol Sleng Museum, yet still a must see), or, if you turn them down, to fire the leftover illegal weaponry somewhere in the countryside (not recommended).
If you want to explore the more typical sides of Cambodia’s capital, though, check out the epic scale of the Psar Thmel market, where you can snap up bargain souvenirs and plenty of provisions, and soak up a taste of the Asia of old that still exists due to Cambodia’s relatively recent exposure to the western world. It’s both poignant and pungent, and you’ll feel a mile from a typical, tourist-filled South East Asian capital.