Cambodia’s burgeoning capital, Phnom Penh, is jammed with colourful city streets bustling with activity and the frenetic energy of the “flexible” driving rules of its motos and cars. Previously the postcard-pretty “Pearl of Asia”, tree-studded boulevards and French-colonial facades recalled the romantic streets of Paris that were once lauded by the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Sadly a reflection of Cambodia’s more recent turbulent history, now many buildings stand in decay.
It could at times be hard to imagine this old exotic allure were in not for the sensitive restoration of buildings like Le Royal Hotel, Raffles and art-deco Psar Thmey Market, coupled with the orange hues that brush across the skyline over the Mekong River come sunset, catching the glistening spires of the must-see Royal Palace whilst local fisherman bob in their rickety wooden boats. But it’s not just the“must-see sites that hold Phnom Penh’s appeal today, as my animated ABOUTAsia guide – a local University Architecture student – showed me on ABOUTAsia’s Hidden Gems City Tour which gets out onto the back alleys and little-known corners of this bustling, multifaceted capital.
Kicking back in a cyclo, a traditional transportation method from the early 1900s, pedal power afforded the perfect vantage point to immerse myself in the city’s charming crumbling chaos and architectural heritage. Starting with the legacy of the French at the Post Office, built around the 1890’s, this yellow-washed building retains the same function to this day. On the opposite side of the square we climbed up the twisting stairs in what were once important colonial buildings in this French quarter and got a glimpse of present day urban local life as bananas toasted in the sun and kids ran down the hallways. Touches of French history remain on the building’s interiors but are easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look.
Stopping outside KFC to take in the historic building it is located in, embodied the capital’s fusion of past and present, as I certainly wasn’t expecting a fast food outlet to make it into our morning’s tour. But this is Phnom Penh: at first glimpse yet another busy Asian city. But if you scratch just a little deeper and pause just a moment longer, it will reveal levels and depths to it in the most surprising ways.
The breeze was cooling as we headed down the up-and-coming lively riverfront and made our way to the Chinese quarter. The Chinese temple here is Cambodia’s oldest and today Chinese influence can be seen across the urbanscape – namely the narrow Chinese shophouse style buildings that pervade the city, with their deep down floor business spaces and upstairs residences, which are also seen in other Cambodian cities such as Battambang. We’d recommend heading back to the The Chinese House in the evening for a drink or dinner – a beautiful Chinese-fusion building which is now home to Tepui Restaurant and Bar, serving up Mediterranean and South American inspired cuisine, no less.
Hopping out of the Cyclo we then delved into a thick urban maze. Away from any tourists, in keeping with ’s crowd-avoidance philosophy, we wound our way through the labyrinthine alleyways of the Chinese Quarter, as motos sprung up from around corners you couldn’t even spot, women sat outside on plastic chairs preparing lunch and vendors with an array of local – sometimes unidentifiable – snacks wandered these hidden back passages. From the Chinese Temple we reached a fading Catholic Church, where separate families now live under each archway.
Hopping out of the Cyclo we then delved into a thick urban maze. Away from any tourists, in keeping with ABOUTAsia’s crowd-avoidance philosophy, we wound our way through the labyrinthine alleyways of the Chinese Quarter, as motos sprung up from around corners you couldn’t even spot, women sat outside on plastic chairs preparing lunch and vendors with an array of local – sometimes unidentifiable – snacks wandered these hidden back passages. From the Chinese Temple we reached a fading Catholic Church, where separate families now live under each archway.
And then only moments later we were back on the main roads, and meters from the heart of Phnom Penh, Wat Phnom. Within such a short distance so much history, undiscovered architectural sites and insight into local life had been covered. By exploring Phnom Penh with ABOUTAsia’s Hidden Gems City Tour, it’s easy to see how there’s much more to the capital than first meets the eye.
ABOUT the Author
A long-time sufferer of wanderlust, a degree in Spanish and Portuguese from Oxford University took Caroline Major all over South America. After working in London, and before running out of space in her passport, she hopped on a plane to Cambodia to join the business development team at ABOUTAsia, heading up Marketing activities. When not on epic bike rides across secret sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park fuelled by her favourite Cambodian produce, sugarcane juice, Caroline indulges her appetite for hip hotels and the new restaurants that are constantly springing up.