Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Why this city is a must-see magical mess

For a welcome like no other to a new city, head to the banks of Tonle Sap and Mekong River  and stand with locals among motorbikes, remorques and cargo and watch the barge that is coming from Koh Dach or Silk Island.  

If you're lucky, the local women might gently pinch your skin as they do my daughter's arm as a sign of endearment and offer snacks of fried crickets that my son takes a whiff of then politely declines on account of allergies.

Everyone's laughing as we shuffle  onto the ferry to cross the waterway to explore the island. 

Getting to grips with Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh and its surrounds in one day, its recent chequered history and rich culture, is impossible.

Add two children acclimatising to the fierce May heat and one might be tempted to slump poolside and wave a white towel of surrender as only the privileged westerner can do.

But not this day. You see Sok Reaksmey ("just call me Smey") is waiting, politely gunning his engine at the entrance to the cool and much-loved Raffles Hotel Le Royal. 

Earlier in the day it was just Smey and me, under the the shade of a tree at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former school turned notorious S21 prison of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 where an estimated 20,000 people were incarcerated in that time.

Like so many here, Smey has no record of his birthday and no memory of his mother. 

As he quietly detailed the horrors of the prison – using rape, water and other torturous methods of interrogation, the discomfiting reality of countrymen against countrymen is front of mind. 

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"It was Cambodians killing Cambodians," he says of that time.

"Can you imagine that?"

It's an instructive, rather than voyeuristic few hours. 

Back at the hotel after, the three of us now in Smey's pristine remorque, box of cold water at our feet, we're again sliding out into the city traffic, tame compared  with other Asian cities, for the remainder of our "urban adventure". 

We stop for lunch in the grounds of the popular Romdeng restaurant and its old colonial building filled with wooden carvings and silk cushions made by students of this organisation designed to assist vulnerable youth. 

The training element is no barrier to fresh and fine food slickly delivered by a kid not much older than my 10-year-old boy. 

We try the  lemongrass marinated grilled chicken and the Khmer favourite, amok in banana, and later regret not giving the crispy tarantulas with black pepper and lime sauce a go, or the tasting plate of creamy silk worms.  

By the time we make it across the river, about 15 kilometres out of the city  to Silk Island, the kids are enjoying the breeze of the open-air ride. 

On this island, best known for its silk production of mosquito nets, sarongs and the  krama – the highly practical and uniquely Khmer garment – we're in a rural Cambodia of rice paddies and dirt roads, the high-rises of Phnom Penh not far in the distance.  

Stopping at an open air work space of heavy wooden looms, we watch the finer detail of weaving, its physicality, the tempo required and the ridiculously fine thread that is difficult to see in the dim light.

Smey demonstrates the uses of a finished krama whipping it into various shapes  – "Look a sarong, a baby carrier, a shelter from the sun" – while we mangle a few warps and wefts to be untangled once we're gone.

After, the kids explore the in and outs of the Prek Bongkong Pagoda, home to 25 monks, a 30-metre reclining buddha and plasters of brightly coloured buddhas atop monkeys. 

At sunset, returning to the city on our wooden cruise  boat ride decorated with artificial flowers and captained by a flamboyant woman in purple velour tracksuit, the lemonade flows freely. 

We have seen the worst   but also the best of human nature  in just one day

TRIP NOTES 

MORE INFORMATION 

tourismcambodia.com

TOURING THERE 

Intrepid Travel's Phnom Penh Secrets is one of seven Urban Adventures in Cambodia that include Street Food  in the capital and Mekong Sunset. The tours cost from $139 for adults and $79 for children. Minimum age is six years. Maximum group size is 12 and private tours can be arranged. There are now 150 tours globally with Dili and Dhaka the most recent additions with a focus on supporting local operators. 

See urbanadventures.com

STAYING THERE

Raffles Hotel Le Royal is an iconic property of Khmer, art deco and French colonial architecture and a destination in itself. Take some time to walk the breezy hallways hung with photos of past guests, including the former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy,  and sample her signature drink, the Femme Fatale, a champagne-based drink with Creme de Fraise Sauvage and  Cognac made in honour of her visit in the newly restored Elephant Bar. 

   Rooms cost from $283 a night. See raffles.com

Jane Reddy travelled to Cambodia at her own expense, and visited Phnom Penh courtesy of Intrepid Travel and  Raffles Hotel Le Royal. 

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