Set at the crossroads of three rivers and of past and present, Phnom Penh, once known as the “Pearl of Asia”, is regaining its luster.
Its reputation as a wild west frontier town has been eclipsed by a growing status as an international playground, and where once Rambo type fun seekers could haul live grenades into fishponds, entertainment these days is more akin to hanging out at the latest swanky spa or hotel or being an eco-tourist.
The skyline of this classic city has been changed with the entry of high-rise buildings among its low-level houses, and when planned construction of towering skyscrapers is completed, Phnom Penh will take its first few steps into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, it remains a gem of city offering the charm of an age reminiscent of the golden age of travel. But it is also a city of sharp contrasts.
A city infused with energy, charming colonial French houses and alleys choked with motorbikes, it is hard to believe this was once a ghost town. For four years, it remained so, occupied by only 50,000 Khmer Rouge senior party members and trusted military leaders. At that time, pigs lived in the National Library, priceless ancient Khmer treasures were destroyed, and its political leadership, intellectual and artistic talents were marched into the countryside to take up the hoe. The less fortunate ones were tortured and buried in mass graves.
City of Four Faces
Phnom Penh was previously known as Krong Chaktomuk, the City of Four Faces, or Quatre Bras in French, denoting the junction where the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac Rivers meet to form an ‘X’. It became Cambodia’s capital almost 400 years ago, although it lost the prestige a few times before reclaiming it for good.
While it was once bypassed by travelers magnetized only by Siem Reap, many are now stopping to enjoy its charm. The city has more than enough attractions to fill a day, or several days, but fascinating Angkorian sites at Phnom Oudong, Phnom Chisor and Phnom Da are an easy day trip. Cruise round the city in a moto, bargain for silk at the psars, grab a cocktail by the riverfront or ride an elephant around a temple.
Cool Southeast Asian Capital
This is one of the coolest capitals in Southeast Asia. Its seedy red light areas have been put out of commission, and getting caught in a drug crossfire on main street is no longer a pastime. Tourists would love it to hang onto its disheveled charm, serene temples, broad avenues and a very pretty riverfront. The city’s colorful markets are a refreshing break from the depersonalized shopping malls found in nearby capital cities, though more and more of them are on the drafting board.
Siem Reap has been experiencing a gold rush. A sleepy backwater until recently, it has expanded at an unanticipated speed, with hotels, resort, restaurants and spas mushrooming to match the millions of tourists who fly in every year to visit Angkor. The gateway to this ancient temple complex which is high on the ‘it’ list of hot destinations ever year, Siem Reap has become an international playground.
Small Town Charm
Despite the glitz of new five star resorts and restaurants, Siem Reap thankfully remains a small town at heart. It is still only 2km on the north-south axis along the gentle Siem Reap River and 3-4km east west along Route 6. Wide balconies, shuttered windows, French colonial style shop houses and villas and broad boulevards recall its colorful past. There are still more bicycles, tuks-tuks and motorcycles than there are cars. Cyclists hobble by, balancing bunches of fruit on their bikes, and ducks waddle across the streets. Bats hang on the branches of trees hundreds of years old lining the square in town.
The town has been receiving visitors for over 100 years, ever since Angkor was discovered, and in the 1960’s it played host to a steady stream of the rich and famous. Near the center of town is the landmark and prestigious Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor, which was visited over the years by Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Its name means “Siamese Defeated” and it was really a cluster of small villages when the French explorers stumbled across Angkor in the jungles. The first tourists started arriving in 1907 and the Grand Hotel D’Angkor, now owned by the Raffles Group, opened for business in 1929 in what used to be the French Ambassador’s residence. It fell into slumber during the Khmer Rouge, a sleep which it woke up from in the mid-1990s.
Looking to the Future
Siem Reap is fully embracing the future. Once it had only three hotels – today there are more than 60, spread evenly across the town. Budget guesthouses in the center of town, around Psar Chas, share the same street as unabashedly chic contemporary Hotel de la Paix, which has an iPod in every room, pre-programmed to be taken on a tour of Angkor.
A whole street is turned into a pedestrian area every night so that pub crawlers need not worry. Restaurants staffed by celebrity chefs are a stone’s throw from popular street dining. Internet cafes have spread like wildfire and the top end hotels offer wi-fi access, private plunge pools and enclosed courtyards. Tuk-tuk drivers conduct business on cell phones.
Siem Reap is the hub of a drive to revive the country’s cultural heritage which was dealt a near death blow by the Khmer Rouge, who killed so many of the Cambodian artists.These centers also take in poor and disadvantaged young Cambodians to teach them heritage skills. Instructors at Les Chantiers Ecoles pass on wood and stone carving techniques; elegant reproductions of Angkorian statues are sold through their beautifully decorated shop called Artisans d’Angkor.
It also runs a silk farm in which all stages of silk cultivation, from the growing of mulberry trees to the hand weaving of silk, can be seen. Exquisite silk is made into cushions, bedspreads and clothing or can be bought by the meter.
The National Center for Khmer Ceramics Revival has reconstructed an ancient high-firing dragon kiln, based on archaeological finds, as part of attempts to revive ancient ceramics methods. As these are complicated centuries old techniques, the center focuses only on stoneware, faience, raku and saltware.
Siem Reap is easy to navigate. The heart of town is Psar Chas or the Old Market and Route # 6 cuts across its northern part. Siem Reap River flows north-south and there are many bridges spanning the east and west banks. The airport is 6km from the town center, and the main temples of Angkor are between 6-8km north. While hotels are evenly spread out, there are some concentrations, with smaller hotels near Psar Chas, several upscale ones along Route 6 between the airport and town, mid range hotels along Sivatha, and budget and mid range hotels in the Psar Leu and Wat Bo areas.
The floating villages and bird sanctuaries are 20 minutes south of the town. The scenic Chong Kneas floating village is the closest, but it is worthwhile spending the extra time to explore further afield. Less visited villages on bamboo stilts look like otherworldly bamboo skyscrapers when the water of the Tonle Sap Lake recede during the dry season. Rare storks can be found at the bird sanctuaries, and the best tours are run by conservation groups.
The sprawling megalithic complex of Angkor is no longer Asia’s best kept secret. Hidden for centuries by jungles, Cambodia’s ancient treasures and far-flung temples are at last emerging. More and more visitors are being lured to explore these mysterious temples and the rich and proud civilization that lived in them.
Set on top of a 27m artificial hill, Wat Phnom is Phnom Penh’s tallest temple and the center of activity during Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Dead. Legend has it that Madam Penh built the temple in 1373 to house six Buddha statues that were washed up by the Mekong River.\
Angkor Thom, which is Khmer for “Great City” is a fortified city which might have supported one million people in the surrounding region at its height. Built by Angkor’s greatest king, Jayavarman VII, it is laid out in a near perfect square, which runs north-south and east west.