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Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is still finding its feet again as Cambodia's capital as years of civil war have taken their toll. The Khmer Rouge emptied the city of its inhabitants and frog marched them to the countryside to be re-educated as labourers or taken to the infamous and chilling Killing Fields outside the city, never to be heard from again. After the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 and the fall of the Pol Pot’s Maoist regime, people began to move back and by the early 1990s, as hopes for peace grew, foreign investment began to trickle back into Phnom Penh. In the decades that have elapsed since, the UN has also assisted in reconciliation efforts among the population through holding tribunals that have held former senior Khmer Rouge generals accountable for the atrocities committed under their rule. Striking to the first-time visitor of the city is now, however, the positive and resilient attitude of the Phnom Penh-ese, many of whom experienced the war first-hand and who can help bring the stories of the Khmer Rouge era to life through personal tales. It is these accounts, and the relative recentness of the horrors of the regime, that make a trip to Phnom Penh so fascinating and deeply moving.

The city itself retains a charming small-town feel, filled with characterful old French colonial buildings and shady boulevards dotted with pagodas and monks’ saffron robes. A stroll down the banks of the Mekong River takes you past groups of ladies practising Tai Chi, landmine victims selling local crafts and beautiful boats cruising down the riverbanks. The riverside also abounds delicious local eateries, from popular ice-cream store Blue Pumpkin to casual restaurant Oskar Bistro and trendy Chinese House. For the more spiritually inclined, a dip into one of the local pagodas to witness and partake in meditation alongside local worshippers makes for a special experience.

Shopaholics will lose themselves in the frenetic atmosphere and bargain hunting on offer in on the local markets. Central Market, once the largest market in Asia offers up an unrivalled collection of local jewellery, whilst the Russian market brims with Western designer brands from local factories at unrivalled prices. Foodies will be fascinated by stalls supervised by crouching Khmer women that overflow with a stomach turning yet captivating array of indigenous delicacies, from crickets and skinned frogs to boiled duck foetus; contrasted with neighbouring arrays of more palatable fresh fruits including mangosteens, coconuts, durian, rambutan and mango. Lovers of textiles will be in awe of the skilled local craftsmen weave quiet masterpieces on Silk Island.

Phnom Penh truly has something for everyone; the young in search of electric nightlife, historians intent on discovering the country’s rich past, architects looking to uncover Khmer, French colonial and Chinese buildings, photographers in search of the best sunrise Mekong shot and everyone in between.

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The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.
G. K. Chesterton

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