Ancient and modern elements in the ‘Pearl of Asia’

Where can you find white sandy beaches, French architecture and what are perhaps the most spectacular temples in the world all in the same place? You guessed it: in Cambodia. Travellers should not only spend time at the famous Angkor Wat temple site – which is also the motif of the national flag – but also in the capital. Phnom Penh provides a chaotic and charming mixture of ancient and modern on one of the most attractive riverbanks in Southeast Asia.

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Phnom Penh at a glance

  • Population: Approx. 2.3 million (2019)
  • Surface area: 679 square kilometres
  • Currency: Riel (KHR)

* The informal word ‘susaday’ in the local Khmer language is a greeting for casual situations. ‘Choum reap sor’ is the more formal greeting, which should be accompanied by a ‘sampeah’. The latter is a gesture where people fold their hands together so that the palms of their hands touch each other.

Phnom Penh is located in the southern half of the country at the point where the Rivers Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac meet. Those who would like to understand the history of the city should cast their minds back to the 14th century. According to one legend, a prosperous widow called Penh found four bronze Buddha statues and a stone statue of Vishnu inside a tree, which drifted downstream in the River Tonlé Sap after a storm, in 1372. The wood from the tree was used to construct the Wat Phnom Daun Penh temple for the Buddha statues and a Vishnu shrine on the hill that is located to the north-east of Penh’s house. The city which later developed was named after the temple and therefore means ‘Penh’s hill’.

A story of destruction and a new beginning

Phnom Penh became the capital of Cambodia after Ponhea Yat, the King of the Khmer Kingdom, fled from Angkor Thom. However, it wasn’t until 1866, under the rule of Norodom, that Phnom Penh became the permanent seat of government and the royal palace was built. From that time onwards, Phnom Penh was transformed from a village into a city. This development was accelerated by the French colonial rulers, who constructed numerous buildings, roads, a canal system and a port. Since that time, the city has had an impressive number of buildings in art deco style and villas in colonial style. Phnom Penh was known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ in the 1920s. The city continued to grow during the next four decades as a result of the construction of a railway line to Sihanoukville and the international airport.

The city endured dark times during the Vietnam War, the Cambodian civil war and finally the siege by the Khmer Rouge, a guerrilla movement under the leadership of the dictator, Pol Pot. The enforced evacuation in 1975 virtually turned Phnom Penh into a ghost town – almost all its two million residents had to leave the city. The Khmer Rouge were driven out four years later and life returned to the city. However, the reconstruction of the infrastructure, which had been almost totally destroyed, didn’t start to gather pace until 1991 in the wake of the Paris Peace Agreements; this process was supported by a stable government and foreign investments.

A property boom in Cambodia’s largest city

Phnom Penh with its approx. 2.3 million residents is Cambodia’s most populous city and is also the country’s economic and political centre in the 21st century. The textile industry and commerce play a significant role in economic terms. However, tourism is becoming increasingly important too as shopping and building centres turn Phnom Penh into one of the most important travel destinations in Southeast Asia.

More recently, the city has undergone developments that have rather got out of control and bear little resemblance to the city plan. Many public buildings and structures from the colonial period have been sold, demolished and replaced by new buildings. The edges of the city are increasingly encroaching on the territory of the adjacent provinces. Among other things, the new urban development project, Camko City, is designed to cope with the growing population and the economy, for example; the project involves investments totalling USD 2.6 billion. New roads, canals and a railway system are set to connect Camko City and Phnom Penh with each other.

Essential tourist sights: Spectacular natural surroundings and a turbulent history

The magnificent historical sites are some of the absolute highlights that you should definitely not miss during a visit to Cambodia. Ranging from the impressive Angkor Wat temple to the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh – these sights make this part of the world a fascinating destination with an eventful past.

The royal palace in Phnom Penh was built in 1866 and is home to various interesting buildings that you can visit during a tour of the Cambodian capital. These include the throne room in Khmer style, which is now used for special ceremonial occasions.

The Tuol Sleng school was transformed into a prison and a torture facility by Pol Pot’s troops and was called S-21. It is now home to the Tuol Sleng Museum, which together with Choeng Ek that is 15 km away, is commonly known as the Killing Fields and is a memorial to the 1.7 million people who lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Anybody who visits Cambodia during the rainy season can witness the Pchum Ben ancestral festival. Alongside the new year celebrations, it is the most important public holiday in the country and it can be translated as ‘coming together’. Cambodians visit pagodas in honour of this festival and offer sacrifices for the souls of their ancestors in order to transport them from the spirit world into the cycle of reincarnation.

The temple complex of Angkor Wat, which is about four hours away from Phnom Penh (by car), is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the main reason why many tourists travel to Cambodia. The splendid ruins were once the centrepiece of the old Khmer kingdom and are still a breathtaking site, even 1,000 years later, and fully deserve their global reputation.

Cambodia has breathtaking natural features. Tonlé Sap Lake in Siem Reap, for example, is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It creates huge, flooded forests and wetlands in the surrounding region during the monsoon period between June and October. Those who prefer relaxation can find it on countless islands. Koh Rong provides more than 20 breathtaking white sandy beaches next to the dazzling blue sea. Visitors can experience bioluminescent plankton on the sleepy island of Koh Rong where it glows in the night.

Trying out highlights of Cambodian cuisine

Tropical fruits, soups and noodles are the main elements of Cambodian cuisine. As is the case anywhere in Asia, it all comes down to having the right herbs and spices: ranging from lemongrass to garlic and tamarind and even ginger and black pepper. Some of the delicacies include num banhchok, slightly fermented rice noodles, and amok trei, a fish curry with coconut crème. Red curry with toasted baguette is one example of the French influence on Cambodian cuisine. Kampot pepper is regarded as the best in the world and is served with crabs and octopus. Anybody who would like to try out the full range will find a number of hotspots in Phnom Penh such as cool cafés, restaurants and sky bars.

Phnom Penh as a logistics hotspot

Cambodia’s proximity to the ASEAN countries, its booming manufacturing industry and its open market system make the country a popular location for sales and production centres. The Asian Development Bank (ADP) estimates that the growth in GDP will be 5.3 per cent in 2022 and 6.5 per cent in 2023. Phnom Penh is the dominant force in terms of logistics in this development process: the international airport is the largest and busiest in Cambodia. It is situated seven kilometres west of Phnom Penh and can be reached from the city centre by taxi, train and shuttle bus. The city also has the most important freshwater port in Cambodia, which is connected to the South China Sea 290 km away via a canal linked to the River Mekong. This makes the city attractive for logistics specialists with global operations too: the Rhenus Group opened its first office in Cambodia in 2017. The branch in Phnom Penh enjoys a strategically favourable location and offers customers standardised and tailor-made logistics solutions.

And what can we do for you?

Rhenus Cambodia offers logistics services such as customs clearance, freight and project logistics for the clothing, furniture and construction industries.

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