The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is rapidly modernising. A gargantuan hotel and casino called NagaWorld has recently been completed, and dime-a-dozen skyscrapers are popping up all over the city. But some of the city’s most interesting places are connected to its past. A number of museums honour victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, while French Colonial architecture harkens back to a bygone era when the city was known as the Pearl of Asia. Decades later, the nickname still seems apt, suggesting pure beauty inside a tough shell.
Phnom Penh’s developing tourism sector also means that nearly every attraction has an entry fee, even if just a dollar or two. But in keeping with history, some sites cost nothing at all.
To observe a country at a crossroads, what better place than a serene suspension bridge? Constructed in 1966 and rebuilt in 1995 after its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, the Japanese-Cambodian Friendship Bridge provides a panoramic look at life along both sides of the Tonle Sap River. Make treks across the narrow footpath if you dare, though be prepared to dodge oncoming traffic, or simply pause to admire a view that stretches for miles.
For a waterfront adventure a bit closer to the ground, wander past the charming café, boisterous pubs and many shops along this popular riverfront stretch. With the Royal Palace in the background, duck into the galleries along Street 178, known to locals as Art Street, for a glimpse at local handicrafts and silk samples. Overlooking the Chaktomuk, the convergence point of the city’s three rivers — the Tonle Sap, the Mekong, and the Basaac — this paved walkway bustles at any time of day but comes alive at night, when tourists and locals alike pour into mainstays like the Foreign Correspondents Club bar.
Beneath a lemon-yellow art deco dome, the Central Market offers miles of no-strings-attached window-shopping. But if you can’t stand the thought of leaving empty-handed, pick up flip-flops, jewellery, delicacies such as juicy mangosteen fruit or fried insects, or khama scarves in bright, gingham-like patterns. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, the nearby Night Market (Phsar Reatrey) becomes to go-to spot for displaying handicrafts produced by local artisans.
With a pricetag of a dollar, admission to the centuries-old hilltop temple of Wat Phnom isn’t quite free. Nor are the elephant rides that are offered on site. But a free and carefree stroll along the bucolic grounds is a reward in and of itself. Sculpted into the hillside leading to the temple’s entrance is a functioning topiary clock, whereas the gigantic sculpture of a Naga, or sea snake, provides yet another photo op.
Though statues crop up in unusual places around town, two of the most iconic structures sit just steps away from the Royal Palace. Inspired by lotus blossoms and Buddhist stupas, or burial mounds, the bulbous spire of the Independence Monument is a striking shade of terra cotta by day and brightly illuminated by night. Glowing or not, it was constructed in 1958 to commemorate independence from the French that had been achieved five years prior. The concrete soldiers at the base of the Cambodian Vietnamese Friendship Monument, on the other hand, pay tribute to an alliance formed between the two countries in the aftermath of the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge. But its political message makes it a lightning rod for protest — in 2007, unidentified suspects detonated a bomb near the statue.