There is just something about Phnom Penh that I can’t get enough of. When I first traveled to Cambodia eight long years ago, I fell for its capital city hard and fast. I don’t know if it was its picturesque location on the banks of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers or the orange-robed monks that casually stroll through the parks or the gently decaying colonial buildings that line the boulevards. But whatever it was, I was hooked.
Ever since that brief trip, I’ve held Phnom Penh in incredibly high esteem. So high in fact, that I often regard it as my favorite city in Southeast Asia. But despite having such a lofty opinion of Phnom Penh, I’ve recently become very aware that many travelers don’t possess the same rose-colored view of the city as I do. And until very recently I was oblivious to the fact that some travelers downright hate Phnom Penh.
While I can fully understand why some would be turned off of the city, I’m always interested to learn just how wildly travelers’ opinions and experiences of a place can vary. I know that Phnom Penh is full of seediness and grit and poverty. I realize, too, that there are many downright disturbing and heartbreaking realities that plague Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole. And there is no denying that the country is still slowly recovering from a haunting and unfathomable history.
It might not be the prettiest or the most perfect city on earth but, in a sense, I prefer it that way. And I simply can’t help but see the beauty beneath the grime and grit.
I was overjoyed to read this post, written by a fellow traveler who shares my same enthusiasm for what I feel is a highly underrated Southeast Asian city. Inspired in part by this self-described love letter to Phnom Penh and in part by my recent trip to Phnom Penh, I felt compelled to share why it is that I love Phnom Penh so much.
The perfect place to get lost…
As I often say, my favorite way to explore a city is either on a motorbike or with my own two feet. Whenever I’m traveling in a big city I tend to do a lot of walking. Part of the reason is because I’m cheap; I much prefer to walk everywhere as opposed to taking an overpriced tuk-tuk or taxi – even if it is the middle of the day in the boiling heat of Southeast Asia. But I also thoroughly enjoy getting lost, catching glimpses of everyday life and stumbling across hidden treasures I might otherwise never have found.
Phnom Penh just so happens to be the perfect kind of city to explore on foot. Measuring 262 square miles and consisting of roughly two million people, the city isn’t overwhelmingly large, but it’s not so small to render visitors bored in a day’s time. It’s the perfect size to spend days or even weeks just wandering around, exploring its nooks and crannies and taking in all this great city has to offer.
Phnom Penh is easily walkable and many of the main attractions – from Wat Phnom to the Central Market to the Royal Palace – are located within walking distance from the main tourist area. For me, there’s nothing better than just meandering the city’s chaotic streets, which are abuzz with tuk-tuks, motorbikes and vendors, getting lost and seeing what I can find.
A variety of architectural styles…
I have a thing for old and unique buildings – and Phnom Penh has them in spades. I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone thinks this city is drab because I actually love this city’s architecture. From ornate Khmer-style temples to old French-colonial buildings to the narrow Chinese-style shophouses, the architecture is indeed something to marvel at.
I also happen to have a thing for old colonial buildings, with their peeling paint and crumbling facades, so I am partial to Phnom Penh’s picturesque architectural landscape. And, for me, even though Phnom Penh isn’t all gussied up and flawless I much prefer the beauty that comes with a little grit and age.
Another thing that makes Phnom Penh’s architecture so fascinating is that the buildings tell a story of the city’s complicated and varied history. Wat Phnom was built in the 13th century and still stands on top of Phnom Penh’s only hill, right in the center of the city. Just as it has for centuries, the Buddhist temple is still used as a site of worship.
The city is probably best known for its colonial structures, a remnant of the French, who colonized Cambodia from 1863 until 1941. The city’s wide, tree-lined boulevards, stately villas, and stunning churches are distinctly French. After Cambodia gained its independence, Phnom Penh experienced a building spree as part of the King’s efforts to create a new architectural style – referred to as New Khmer Architecture – which incorporated post-modern and traditional Angkor styles. Most of these structures are located outside of the city center but are actually quite impressive.
Browsing at the local markets…
I’m not much of a shopper. But I do love a good ol’ fashioned market. And Phnom Penh has several. The Central Market is the most well-known market in Phnom Penh. Located a 10-minute stroll from the riverside, it’s easy to walk here and with it’s unique art deco style it’s pretty easy to spot.
Wandering through the maze-like alleyways you’ll find everything from kitchenware to freshly-cut meats to exotic flowers to fresh fruits and veggies. It’s true that prices are marked up at this touristy market but it’s still one of the cheaper places in town to find a meal. From grilled seafood to steaming bowls of noodle soup to sweet desserts, there are some great and cheap options at the Central Market. Aside from sampling the local cuisine, it’s possible to spend hours exploring everything this place has to offer.
The Russian Market is also a very popular stop for tourists. It’s located a bit inland from the river so you’ll probably want to flag down a tuk-tuk to take you. I honestly can’t say that I think the Russian Market is worth the cost of the tuk-tuk ride (not to mentioned prices are pretty marked up here), but I had a good time exploring the different areas of this market nonetheless. And for those who want to do a little souvenir shopping, this is the place to go.
It seems like every corridor is dedicated to one product. Walk down a lane and you might find an array of motorbike parts or coffee stalls or Buddha sculptures. There was even a lane dedicated wholly to glitter!
The Night Market – which is held near the river on weekends – is also a great place to go to people watch and fill up on cheap eats, clothes and bootleg DVDs.
The city is teeming with cute kitties…
OK, this was more of an excuse to include a few cute cat pictures in this post. But, seriously one of the worst parts of living a semi-nomadic life is that I can’t have any pets. What kind of pet owner would I be if I just abandoned my animal every time I decide to skip town? But I am a huge animal lover and a total cat person. So when I went back to Phnom Penh this time around I was so excited to see all of the cute and cuddly cats that were roaming the streets.
I know, I know … the stray cat and dog populations in the city are a problem, but they were all so cute and playful (for the most part). And I couldn’t help but stop and take pictures of each and every one I encountered.
As travelers it’s hard to say what exactly it is that makes us like or dislike a particular destination. I suppose a lot of it is up to luck and is highly dependent on our personal tastes and experiences. But for whatever reason, Phnom Penh is just a city that I love.
And at first glance I can understand why people might just want to beeline it to the ancient temples of Angkor or the perfect beaches of Koh Rong. But, in my opinion, Phnom Penh is well worth a visit. And, I argue, those who make the effort to give Phnom Penh a chance will be highly rewarded.