Twenty reasons to visit Phnom Penh

1 Royal Palace

Dramatic both inside and out, the Royal Palace dates back to the late 1860s and is noteworthy for its classic Khmer architecture, elaborate gilding, soaring spires and golden temple nagas (carvings of mythical reptilian creatures). The palace is an oasis of peace in the middle of an increasingly frenetic Phnom Penh city centre and its lush French-style gardens house life-size sculptures of Khmer warriors and Buddhas reclining in a range of poses. Don't miss the Silver Pagoda, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; its floors are covered with more than 4000 silver tiles. It was rebuilt in 1962 and houses religious and cultural artefacts.

2 National Museum

There is a lot more to Khmer history than the recent Khmer Rouge atrocities - and this is the best place to learn about the culture of the local people. A red-sandstone building of colonial Khmer design, it is home to sculptures, ceramics, textiles, glass, pottery and bronzes dating back as far as the 12th century. The building was designed by renowned French architect George Groslier under the direction of King Sisowath, who wanted to preserve Khmer cultural heritage.

3 Affordable lodgings

Phnom Penh remains one of the great bargain cities; good food and lodgings can be found for much less than in many other Asian capital cities. The Ohana Phnom Penh Palace Hotel is just a few steps from the Sisowath Quay Riverwalk and within walking distance of many attractions, as well as a range of bars and restaurants. Multilingual staff are able to help with a range of suggestions of places to visit and the hotel has a ground-floor swimming pool with a jacuzzi, a gym, sauna and massage facilities. There are just 75 rooms, giving the Ohana a boutique feel, and rooms have cable TV, airconditioning, in-room safes and minibars. Free wi-fi is offered throughout the property. Rooms from $US75 ($74) a double.

4 Get to know the locals

The Sisowath Quay Riverwalk, alongside the west bank of the Tonle Sap river, near where it meets the mighty Mekong, is a great spot for a late-afternoon stroll. Lined with palm trees, the riverwalk from 104 Street to 178 Street is popular at dawn and dusk with locals practising tai chi and a variety of martial arts as well as enjoying the French-style promenades. The three-kilometre strip is dotted with street vendors, hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, shops and internet cafes. If you stroll up the Riverwalk after dark you will come upon the night market, where clothing and souvenirs are on offer.

5 Eat like a journo


The Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) on Sisowath Quay has nothing to do with journalists and is not a club but a bar and restaurant complex over several levels that is hugely popular with local expats. Head for the second-floor terrace of this renovated colonial building and enjoy cocktails while you take in some great views of the boats at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. It has a colonial ambience, Western-style food (the crab cakes are very decent for $US5.50) and Australian and New Zealand wines by the glass. You can eat cheaper and better elsewhere but the FCC is something of an institution and a popular place to meet.

6 The killing fields

Choeung Ek, a 35-minute drive out of Phnom Penh, is the hamlet where Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge slaughtered thousands of Cambodians and buried them in mass shallow graves between 1975 and 1979. Many of them were bludgeoned to death to save the cost of a bullet. Formerly an orchard and Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek is today an eerie place where the remains of almost 9000 were discovered and more remain underground. It is estimated up to 20,000 people died here. Human bones can be seen protruding from the ground in some places and skulls of many of the victims are stored in a macabre memorial tower. Choeung Ek is the best known of more than 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia. Entrance costs $US3.

7 Local flavours

Khmer cuisine tends to be flavoursome without being overly spicy. Kampot pepper is more prevalent than chillies, which tend to appear as a side dish - good news for those who don't like their food too hot. Rice-noodle soups, stir-fries and curries are common and you'll occasionally find frog's legs, reminiscent of French colonial days. Sit at local roadside cafes and pay just a couple of dollars, or try Sophy's Restaurant and the Khmer Food Village for local cuisine on a budget. More expensive are the Sugar Palm, Villa Khmer and Malis, arguably the best restaurant in town. Think dishes such as Kampot crab with green pepper ($US16).

8 An evil place

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for less than four years but this short chapter devastated the country and those who survived Pol Pot's reign of terror. Toul Sleng, on the fringes of downtown Phnom Penh, is a former high school that became known as S21, a centre of torture and interrogation of political prisoners that is now a genocide museum showing in graphic detail the beatings and humiliations dealt to more than 17,000 who passed through the doors. Some history books say that only seven people survived, and one of them, Chum Mey, can be found in the grounds selling a book written about his horrific experiences. S21 remains exactly as it was, surrounded by barbed wire.

9 Ride in style

Cyclos, better known as cycle rickshaws, are dying out throughout south-east Asia, replaced by motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Some do survive, however, usually ridden by cyclists from poor country families, who sleep in their cyclos at night. Tour companies such as Footsteps in Asia, which custom-designs tours of Cambodia and Vietnam, use cyclos supported by Cyclo Centre, a non-government organisation that is helping keep the tradition alive. A cyclo ride gives a close-up view of the city and its people without anything to obscure the sights, sounds and smells. A one-hour ride can cover many highlights, including Wat Phnom, the Central Post Office, palaces and museums. The passing parade can be absolutely fascinating.

10 Wat Phnom

Set atop a 27-metre-high artificial hill, Wat Phnom (Temple Hill) is the capital's tallest temple and a gathering place during the annual Pchum Ben, the festival of the dead. Legend says the temple was built in 1373 to house several Buddha statues found washed up on the banks of the Mekong by a woman named Penh. Today, the gardens surrounding the temple are popular with locals, who use them for family gatherings, and with visitors, who use the benches as picnic areas.

11 Take a tuk-tuk

These motorised rickshaws can carry up to six people, so are an affordable way for groups to get around town - expect to pay $US1-$US2 for a short trip in the central area, or book a driver for the day for about $US20. Alternatively, jump on the back of a motorbike taxi, known as a motodop, for a quick, and sometimes hairy, way to beat the traffic. It pays to have the name of your destination written down, as local tuk-tuk drivers and motodop jockeys are notorious for their lack of directional knowledge.

12 Monumental interest

The Independence Monument, built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia's independence from France in 1953, stands at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards, one of the city's busiest intersections. It is a high-rise lotus-shape structure that has been modelled on the central tower of Angkor Wat.

13 Do some good

Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (For the Smile of a Child) is a French charity working with poor and at-risk children in Phnom Penh and surrounds. It originally began rescuing youngsters living on what they could scavenge from local dump sites. Today, PSE helps more than 6000 children with food, education, healthcare and vocational training. Visitors are welcome. A shop at its Stung Meanchey campus sells scarves, clothing and artworks created by the children and their parents, and PSE now employs more than 450 Cambodian adults as teachers, trainers, social workers and nurses.

14 Travel by water

One of the most spectacular ways to enter Phnom Penh is on board one of the many ferries that ply their trade from Chau Doc in Vietnam along the Mekong, passing tiny villages, bamboo stilt houses and floating markets and fishing boats. For those arriving by air, cruises on the Tonle Sap and Mekong depart throughout the day from several riverside locations. Late-afternoon and sunset cruises, when the punishing heat has dissipated, are the most popular, and boats are available for hire for about $US5 a person an hour.

15 Market shopping

Phnom Penh is full of bustling street markets, all of which merit leisurely exploration even if you have no intention of buying anything. Bargaining is de rigueur, although you will still pay a "foreigner's price", and expect to be bumped into on occasion. Among the major markets are Psar Thmei (Central Market), Psar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market), Psar Chas (Old Market) and O Russei, the most modern of them all. Pick up gifts such as local coloured check scarves known as kramas, Kampot pepper and silk purses.

16 A taste of home

Australian bars in Asian cities are often to be avoided unless you are looking for loud and lewd. The Aussie XL Cafe & Bar is a welcome exception to that rule. It serves cold beers and cheap Western food (fish and chips for $US3.95) and there are helpful waitresses but no hostesses. A mug of local Anchor draught beer costs $US1.25. Sit on couches indoors, or on the outdoor terrace. A popular hangout for legendary war correspondents and photographers.

17 Get pampered

Phnom Penh is home to hundreds of massage parlours and beauty spas, offering a range of treatments and prices. A Khmer massage on a mat costs just a few dollars but there are also plenty of upmarket spas offering a choice of treatments. Nata Spa, Amret Spa, Amara Spa and The Spa at NagaWorld are among the higher-end choices.

18 Get your eye in

It may seem incongruous in a country with such a violent past, but the Thunder Ranch Shooting Range, near Choeung Ek, is a shooting range run by a unit of the Royal Cambodian Army. Visitors can fire anything from pistols to machineguns at targets. If firing an AK-47 takes your fancy, or maybe hurling a live hand grenade, you've come to the right place.

19 Dine with Friends

Friends is a charity-run eatery that trains Phnom Penh street kids in restaurant skills (kitchen, front-of-house, waiting etc) so they can find jobs in hospitality. Now in its 10th year of operation, Friends specialises in what it calls Western and Cambodian-style tapas and frozen daiquiris (think Khmer glass-noodle salad with fish cake slices and fresh herbs for $US3.50, or Cambodian chicken curry for $US2.50). The service is charming and your dollars go a long way to improving someone's life. Profits from the restaurant help 800 kids each day.

20 Enjoy some space

Find hotel rooms too restrictive? Colonial Mansion offers new luxury serviced one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in the heart of Phnom Penh for short- or long-term rentals. All feature daily maid service, kitchenettes, 24-hour security, gym, swimming pool, cable TV, daily newspaper delivery and free wi-fi.

The writer was a guest of Footsteps in Asia.