Cambodia's capital is a city that straddles the gap between ancient civilizations and all-action, dynamic modernity. Over the past couple of decades, the city has boomed, becoming one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant and youthful urban centers. Sure, you can still gasp at Buddhist wats and French colonial architecture or visit the stunning remains of Angkor Wat, which aren't too far away. But there's a brash modern side to Phnom Penh too, with mega casinos, Khmer hip-hop jams and rooftop cinemas all part of the rich urban mix.
Modern Phnom Penh has (to western eyes) an amazingly youthful population, and that's sparked a cultural renaissance, featuring dance festivals, numerous art galleries and a thriving live music scene.
From the National Museum and Royal Palace to the huge Central Market, Phnom Penh is easily recognizable as a world capital, and it has the range of attractions a capital deserves.
Angkor Wat may be a few hours to the north, but other ancient sites like the Hindu temples at Phnom Chisor or the old capital of Udong are easily within reach.
Blending curries from India with southeast Asian seafood styles, with a nod to Vietnamese pho and incorporating plenty of Chinese dishes as well, Cambodia's food is like nowhere else and the capital is a great place to sample its delights.
Ancient weaving, stoneworking, woodcarving and silverworking techniques have experienced a recent revival in Phnom Penh. Head to Art Street (Street 178) for a galaxy of souvenir hunting opportunities.
Modern Cambodians are very proud of their Khmer heritage, and the National Museum is a fitting showcase for the nation's impressive past. Outlandish 19th century dance outfits, 5,000 archaeological finds and a series of tranquil lotus ponds make it a must visit.
Now restored after the Khmer Rouge period, the Cambodian royal family make this splendid palace their home. It's not all open to visitors, but with sights like the soaring Silver Pagoda and the Moonlight Pavilion, there's plenty to see.
Since the 1930s, Phsar Thmei has been Phnom Penh's commercial hub. Nowadays, it's an unbeatable place to grab bargain sarongs or scarves or locally made jewelry. And to top things off there's a bustling street food market out back - a great place to tuck into pho or dumplings.
In the 1970s, Phnom Penh was virtually emptied by the Khmer Rouge regime. This powerful museum is housed in what was once a detention center, and commemorates the millions of innocent victims of the "Killing Fields". It may take a strong stomach, but this thought-provoking museum is unmissable.
Legend tells that, in the 14th century, four Buddha statues were found in a tree near this stunning temple. That sacred site became the basis for the city of Phnom Penh and the modern temple offers an intoxicating mixture of statues, wall paintings and exotic Buddhist architecture.
Whenever you visit, expect high humidity and heat. However, between November and February (the so-called "cool season") is usually the most popular time to go, as temperatures dip into the 80s on a regular basis. Then again, the temples and markets will be more hectic in peak season, so it might be worth thinking about arriving in March or April instead.
Phnom Penh International Airport can be found around 7 miles west of the city center, although traffic means that taxis can take around 30-40 minutes to get into town. Expect the fare to be around KHR60,000. There's also a regular bus which leaves every 15 minutes and works out much cheaper, at KHR1,500 per trip.
Cambodia is just starting to get its trains back on the rails, but there are some options for reaching the capital. If you're coming from the coast, there's a regular train service from Sihanoukville which runs once a day on Fridays and Saturdays and two times on Sunday. It takes seven hours and costs KHR28,000.
Buses run from most major Cambodian cities into Phnom Penh. For instance, Mekong Express, PSD Express and Giant Ibis run services from Siem Reap (6 hours 30 minutes, KHR52,000) and there are daily buses from Kampot and Battambang as well. Giant Ibis also runs international services two times a day from Ho Chi Minh City (6 hours 30 minutes, KHR72,000).
Phnom Penh isn't short of 5 star luxury hotels, and places like the Raffles or the Sunway Hotel are as plush as any in southeast Asia. If you want something a bit more personal, options like La Rose Boutique will be ideal, while the 252 blends Khmer and European food with tranquil surroundings. And if you need a budget option, rough and ready (but high quality) establishments include the Sky Park Guesthouse. If you're looking at particular areas, 178 and 240 streets are popular neighborhoods, and anywhere in the Riverside district should have great access to the sights.
Public transport isn't Phnom Penh's strong suit, with no Metro and only three bus lines. Then again, they can be really handy for seeing the sights. City buses run from 5:30-20:30 every day and there's a flat fee of KHR1500 per journey.
Taxis may be a better bet for getting around Phnom Penh. Locally made apps like Exnet or PassApp make booking easy (and have English interfaces), and rates generally work out at around KHR3,000 per mile. You can also hail or book tuk-tuks (motorcycle taxis,) which cost about KHR2,000 per mile and tend to be favored by locals.
Driving in Phnom Penh isn't for everyone. In fact, the traffic is often heavy and signs very hard to decipher. It’s also quite difficult to find a legal parking spot, especially near markets. Should you find a legal parking spot, rates are generally very low (around KHR1000 per hour). But having a vehicle can make it easy to nip down to the coast or see rural Cambodia. So if you have the skills and temperament to cope, car rental is definitely a good option. You can expect to pay around KHR240,000 ($60) per day for a standard family car from an international rental company.
The past decade or so has seen Phnom Penh become a genuine shopping destination. For jewelry and fabrics, the Central Market (Phsar Thmei) is an essential stop, while the Russian Market is a huge clothing emporium. Bartering aside, a decent-quality t-shirt will set you back around KHR8000 and pants, KHR18000. But Street 240 may be more to the liking of visitors. Recently redeveloped, it's now home to artisan quilt-makers, high-end boutiques like Bliss and antique furniture showrooms like Le Lézard Blue.Then again, if you want a huge range of familiar brands, there are also centrally-located malls like the Aeon or City Mall, which will definitely do the job.
If you're hunting for high-quality food and drink, check out local supermarket chains like Lucky (where the fresh produce is particularly good). Other options include Thai Huot on Monivong Boulevard and/or the Super Duper outlet in Toul Tom Pong, which is open 24 hours a day. Expect most stores to be open from 8:00 to 6:00, and expect relatively low prices. A gallon of milk should come to around KHR32,000 while 12 eggs will cost about KHR6,500.
Finding great Asian fusion, Khmer or European cuisine in Phnom Penh shouldn't be hard. If you want Khmer curries, Lucky Pho on Street 178 is hard to beat, while Khmer Surin in the BKK1 neighborhood is also handily located. If you're near the National Museum and want a unique venue, the colonial-era Foreign Correspondents' Club is now a popular European restaurant, and Chinese House on Preah Sisowath Quay serves up Asian and Mediterranean-fusion food right by the Mekong. Prices vary a lot, from KHR80,000 for mains at high-end spots to KHR10,000 for three course meals at cheaper places.