PHNOM PENH is home to about two million people (about 14 percent of Cambodia's population) and is the largest city on the Mekong River. Once a charming and quiet French-Khmer city, with wide tree- lined boulevards, colonial buildings and cordial, gentle people, it is now a dusty place dominated by dilapidated buildings, slums, motorbike-choked alleys, a few new developments, pot-holed streets, litter-strewn sidewalks, and guarded, somewhat suspicious people.

Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia as well as its political, commercial, industrial, historical and tourist center and a major port. Situated at the confluence of three rivers, the mighty Mekong, the Bassac and the great Tonle Sap, it is a sprawling city, with a mix of wide boulevards and narrow dirt roads, large French-colonial houses, apartment buildings, and small wooden thatch-roofed dwellings. Phnom Penh was once considered the 'Gem' of Indochina. Hints of its old provincial charm and tranquillity— French colonial mansions and tree-lined boulevards amidst monumental Angkorian architecture—still remain and the pace of life of slower and less hectic and crowded than in other Asian capitals.

Phnom Penh has largely recovered rom the Khmer Rouge period, which began in earnest in 1975 when Pol Pot emptied the city. In the 1990s, only a handful of roads were paved and many looked they were just hit by rocket-propelled grenades. Drunks and begging amputees staked out the tourist hotels; and shady characters, and lawless soldiers and police prowled the streets at night. The crime and the murder rates were high and only the brave and foolish ventured out after 9:00pm. Those days are largely gone although some neighborhoods can still be dangerous.

The city takes its name from the re-known Wat Phnom Daun Penh (nowadays: Wat Phnom or Hill Temple), which was built in 1373 to house five statues of Buddha on a man made hill 27 meters high. These five statues were floating down the Mekong in a Koki tree and an old wealthy widow named Daun Penh (Grandma Penh) saved them and set them up on this very hill for worshiping. Phnom Penh was also previously known as Krong Chaktomuk (Chaturmukha) meaning "City of Four Faces". This name refers to the confluence where the Mekong, Bassac, and Tonle Sap rivers cross to form an "X" where the capital is situated.

Population of Phnom Penh: The current population in this municipality is about 2,009,264 people or 14 percent of the country’s total population (14,363,519 person in Cambodia, 2007, provincial government data), with 621,948 male and 658,833 female. The population density is therefore 5,343.8 people per square kilometer. The population is Original Khmer 60 percent, Chinese 15 percent, Vietnamese 20 percent and 5 percent other. Three fourths of Cambodia's population live in rural communities, but in recent decades a large number of people have relocated to Phnom Penh to try and make a better life for themselves or attend school or receive technical training.

Visiting Phnom Penh

Among Phnom Penh’s charms are neighborhoods with ocher villas, bougainvillea trees and old stone fences; temples with barefoot, umbrella-carrying monks and flower-laden altars; and palm-lined waterways filled with one-man fishing boats and floating organic debris. If sleaze is you thing, there lots of gambling halls, wooden-shack brothels, and bars where backpackers openly smoke marijuana. The city also has its share of karaokes, Chinese restaurants, pizza joints and high-rise hotels.

Every year Phnom Penh gets closer to pre-war normalcy. The markets are now lively and full of customers and goods. People smile and express hope more than they used to. The National Dance Company has reassembled and performs regularly. And, festivals and holidays that were illegal during the Khmer Rouge years are now celebrated with recklessness and cheer. Susan Spano wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Phnom Penh has a jerry-built air, as if it materialized overnight. In recent years stylish cafes, restaurants and hotels have begun to return to the city center, including the Quay, where I stayed in a room high over a boulevard along the Tonle Sap River.”

Two full days in Phnom Penh is usually enough: 1) one day for visiting the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum and other temples, museums and markets around the city and 2) a second day to visit the Khmer Rouge sights: Tuol Sleng Prison and the Choeng Ek Killing Field. There are several market places selling carvings, paintings, silk, silver, gems, antiques and other stuff. Phnom Penh is also the Cambodia as a whole: the temples of Angkor in the west, the beaches of the southern coast and the ethnic minorities of the northeastern provinces. There are also a wide variety of services including five star hotels and budget guest houses, fine international dining, sidewalk noodle shops, neighbourhood pubs international discos and more.

Phnom Penh is hot and humid year round, with a rainy monsoon season from June to October, cooler at the turn of the year and hot from February to May. September and October are the months of heaviest precipitation.

History of Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has been the capital of Cambodia since the mid-15th century. It was founded where it was because of its access to the Mekong River. Large vessels can navigate to the city up stream from the ocean. After Phnom Penh only shallow-draft boat can continues up river. According to legend Phnom Penh was founded in the 14th century after a huge koki tree was washed by the flood-swollen Mekong river to the top of a hill where a lady named Penh lived. Inside the tree were four bronze Buddhas, believed to have been sent by the gods as a sign that Angkor was doomed and a new capital should be set up here. The lady built a shrine on the hill for the Buddhas and the shrine grew into Wat Phnom temple which now lies at the heart of Phnom Penh. (Wat Phnom means "Hill Temple" and "Phnom Penh" means "the Hill of Penh").

Much of Phnom Penh that you see today was laid by the French after they claimed Cambodia in the 1860s. The French built some fine colonial villas and hotels along neatly organized streets. During the French colonial period Phnom Penh featured wide European-style avenues, manicured gardens and picturesque villas and was regarded as one of the loveliest cities in Southeast Asia.

In the 1950s and early 60s when playboy-king Norodom Sihanou was the dominant political figure, Phnom Penh was regarded as a fun place to be. It has its own film industry and nightlife scene often directed by Sihanouk. Susan Sapon wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “A surprisingly canny politician, Sihanouk led his country to independence from the French in 1953 and sought to maintain its neutrality while war raged in Vietnam, winking at the use of border regions by communist guerrillas and the dispatch of American B-52s to eradicate them. The U.S. bombing campaign, begun in secret in 1969 by President Nixon, ultimately spilled a half-million tons of munitions over Cambodia and drove peasants into the open arms of the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Susan Spano, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2011]

Vann Molyvann, Cambodia’s most revered living architect, but his stamp on the city the 1960s. Matt Steinglass wrote in the New York Times: “It is hard to imagine a crueler fate for an urban planner than seeing his country taken over by a regime with a murderous hatred of cities. As Cambodia's pre-eminent architect and chief urban planner during the 1960's, Vann Molyvann laid out significant portions of Phnom Penh and designed dozens of landmark structures fusing High Modernist design with classical Khmer elements, including the Corbusier-influenced Independence Monument, the stacked-block minimalist Front du Bassac housing development and the National Sports Complex.”

History of Phnom Penh During the Khmer Rouge Period

Before the American bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, Phnom Penh was home to about 600,000 people. After the bombing and during the Cambodian civil war refugees from the countryside poured in and its population swelled to two million.

In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh after a prolonged rocket attack and forced all the city's inhabitants to move out into the countryside. The city was emptied within days; schools, post offices, telephone services, pagodas and businesses were closed; colonial buildings like the French-built Catholic cathedral was destroyed; and banks were dynamited, raining worthless currency on the city streets. See History

After that Phnom Penh was a ghost town with a few Khmer Rouge officials—for four years. The National Museum was left to gather bat guano. Buildings decayed and crumbled. Schools were turned into torture and execution centers. The first ordinary Cambodians to return to Phnom Penh were political prisoners brought to the city to be interrogated, tortured and eventually killed.

When the Khmer Rouge was finally driven out by the Vietnamese in 1979, there were maybe 100,000 living people in Phnom Penh. An East German journalist who visited Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge left told National Geographic there were so many corpses lying around that helicopters flew overhead spraying disinfectants. In 1980 a Soviet diplomat said he couldn't walk in the side streets, the smell was so awful. Even so, people slowly trickled back.

By the late 1980s, Phnom Penh was a quiet place in the day but dangerous at night. Monivong Boulevard was the only real busy street. The primary motored vehicles were 1960s-era Honda motorscooters, and there were few of those. The only hotels that welcomed visitors were the Samakhi and Manorim. A room with a Russian air conditioner and Vietnamese mosquito netting went for $35 night. At night the city was almost absolute black. You could hear occasional gun fire, sometimes from the Khmer Rouge but more often than not from drunk soldiers.

Most people who visited Phnom Penh at this time arrived from Saigon. There were no flights form Thailand and the border between Thailand and Cambodia was closed. Long distance calls were routed through Moscow. A bridge blasted apart in 1972 was still blasted apart in the 1980s. Ships sat rusting in the docks with no goods to carry. Squatter communities established themselves in various parts of the city.

French in Phnom Penh After the Colonial Period

Joseph Freeman wrote in the Washington Post: After the protectorate fizzled out in 1953, the French didn’t exactly leave. If anything, the community grew. Sihanouk, who called for independence and got it, was a Francophile among Francophiles. His preferences kept the relationship in good standing. “In Phnom Penh the French seemed to be everywhere,” Osborne writes in his book about the city, adding that even Sihanouk’s doctor was a French army colonel. [Source: Joseph Freeman, Washington Post, January 23, 2014]

“But by the late 1960s, the French influence was on the decline. As commerce was nationalized, economic opportunities dwindled. In 1970, Sihanouk was deposed while abroad, and Cambodia was increasingly drawn into the Vietnam War. The new government, egged on by one of the high-ranking officials behind the coup, Lon Nol, launched xenophobic campaigns against large ethnic groups in the country, including the Chinese and, most viciously, the Vietnamese. Buildings lost their royal names in an anti-royalist backlash.

“In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over. Though some of the senior leaders in the radical communist movement had been educated in France, this didn’t lead to an enlightened society. Nearly 2 million Cambodians perished from disease, overwork, starvation and execution. Why a movement that targeted the educated classes, turned the country into a prison and eliminated markets and private property held off on demolishing the French buildings is still something of a mystery. During the architecture tour, I asked my guide for his theory. He dryly responded: “Maybe they didn’t have time.”

“By early 1979, the Vietnamese military had ousted the Khmer Rouge. The occupation lasted for 10 years. The French resurgence didn’t really start until the early to mid-1990s. The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and the ensuing United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia ushered in a wave of development money, French nongovernmental organizations and French professionals. Frédéric Amat, author of “Expatriates’ Strange Lives in Cambodia,” came as a journalist almost 20 years ago. He remembers the time well. Sihanouk, the French-speaking royal, came back from exile and reclaimed the throne. Cambodians living in France began to trickle back as well. The community now stands at around 4,700, according to the embassy, a number that includes many Cambodians with dual citizenship. But while Amat says that “a huge number of French are coming every week, every month,” he doesn’t think that France exercises the political or cultural influence that it once did.”

French Influence Lives on in Phnom Penh

Joseph Freeman wrote in the Washington Post: Despite the sprouting of skyscrapers, the arrival of mega malls, the rise of English as a dominant second language and the hurried urban development, Phnom Penh still retains a strong French feel. The French Chamber of Commerce has seen an uptick in small to medium enterprises. According to the French Embassy, the number of French citizens living in Cambodia has doubled over the past 10 years and grown at an average annual rate of 10 percent over the past three. France has one of the largest Cambodian diaspora communities outside the United States, largely because of the refugees who fled there to escape the terror of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. In recent years, many have been coming home. [Source: Joseph Freeman, Washington Post, January 23, 2014]

“In Phnom Penh, I’ve met a lot of French people without going out of my way to meet French people. Our landlord at the time we looked at the apartment was French. A skinny French guy had shown us another apartment weeks before. I ate at French restaurants, bars and cafes every week. Some of them, like the apartment, were in refurbished versions of buildings constructed during the French Protectorate, which started in 1863 and ended under Sihanouk 90 years later.

“Although the protectorate was dismantled six decades ago, the French-Cambodian relationship seems to have continued in a less exploitative form, like the aftermath of a breakup where two people illogically remain friends. I remember what an advocate for the French business community said to me while leaving Van’s Restaurant, which serves pricey but tasty French fare out of the former Indochina Bank building in Phnom Penh. Lamenting the modern development threatening to overtake the city’s architectural past, he gestured to the leafy, elegant courtyard: “To me, this is Cambodia.”

“The French government and Sihanouk’s distant forerunner, King Norodom, agreed to swap protection in exchange for trading rights in 1863. A few years later, the French persuaded the king to move the capital to where it is now. In one of my favorite guidebooks ever written, “Strolling Around Phnom Penh,” the French scholar Jean-Michel Filippi makes a valuable observation. French rule endured for more than half the number of years that Phnom Penh has been Cambodia’s modern capital. As such, French architectural and planning legacies abound. Filippi’s book, which is full of several self-guided walks in different quarters of the city, offers one way of exploring. Acerbic and funny, he begins the first stroll of the French area by condemning a building as an “architectural absurdity” that’s between a “hideous bunker and an architectural piece of nonsense which fulfills the function of a hotel.” He’s good company.”

Development in Phnom Penh

Erika Kinetz wrote in the New York Times: “There’s another revolution going on in Phnom Penh. Once home to the Communist Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, now has its own KFC and other capitalist trappings. Skyscrapers are rising, and foreign money is pouring in. This may be your last chance to see Phnom Penh before this former village at the mouth of three mighty rivers, once called the Pearl of Asia, turns into a booming metropolis. Even today, the city seems to shimmer with the sense that its low-slung buildings, ambling cows and smiling monks are not long for this world. [Source: Erika Kinetz, New York Times, September 19, 2008]

Over the past few years, Phnom Penh has undergone tremendous changes. Numerous businesses have sprung up and tourism is booming. Cambodia introduced liberal investment laws to attract foreign investors. The number of restaurants and hotels have grown considerably and there had been a huge increase in the number of visitors.

Much of the development that has taken places has been rather haphazard and shoddy. In recent years an effort has been made to control development and preserve the character of historical central area. In the late 1990s, $5 million was spent on improving the storm drains, sewers and street lighting.

To relieve traffic congestion and make the roads safer, city officials in the early 2000s: 1) re-engineered the roads to make them traffic flow more smoothly; 2) embarked on an aggressive campaign to crack down on illegal driving; 3) encouraged more people to take public transportation; urged rickshaw drivers to use the side streets so they didn’t disrupt traffic; and introduced separate lanes for buses, motorbikes, cars and pedestrians so they didn’t interfere with one another. The impact of the effort however was unable to keep pace with influx of vehicles that descended on the city.

Additionally in the early 2000s, Phnom Penh was given a serious sprucing up when it hosted a major ASEAN meeting that was attended by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Streets were paved and cleaned up. New Chinese-made traffic lights were installed that had meters that indicated how seconds were left before the light changed.

Today the city is filled with motorscooters and luxury cars. High rise apartments are being built in the suburbs. Double-digit economic growth rates in the late 2000s and early 2010s have triggered an economic boom, with new hotels, restaurants, bars, and residential buildings springing up around the city. The Chinese community has grown considerably in recent years. There are now lots of Chinese restaurants and signs in Chinese almost outnumber those in Thai.

Phnom Penh’s Rise From Ghost City to Boomtown

A luxury building boom transformed Phnom Penh from a ghost town into one of Asia’s fastest growing cities. By the 2010s Phnom-Penh had become a city of glitzy malls, high-rise flats and five-star hotels. All across the city luxury high-rise condos are popping up with names like “The Peak” and “Diamond Island”, complete with billboards promising aspirational taglines such as “Sophisticated Urban Living”. According to the government, Cambodia drew construction investment worth $1.75 billion in the first nine months of 2015, a 13.7 percent rise from a year earlier.” [Source: Agence France-Presse, December 20, 2015]

“A $200 million Japanese-built mall is just one of dozens of new shopping complexes, condominium projects and hotels springing up in Phnom Penh as Cambodia rides a wave of high economic growth rates in recent years. The capital is second only to Laos in East Asia for the fastest rate of urban spatial expansion, according to the World Bank, and its economy is expected to grow at 6.9 percent this year.

“Many of the new entrants into the kingdom’s building market are developers from Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore. The 39-storey Vattanac Capital Tower, Cambodia’s first skyscraper which was finished in 2014, is designed in the shape of a dragon and incorporates Chinese traditional feng shui principles. A few kilometres (miles) away, the local Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation is drawing from the country’s past, building Parisian-style apartments framed by a replica of the Arc de Triomphe on a riverside complex in downtown Phnom Penh.

“But some are worried where the construction frenzy will leave a city once famed as the “Pearl of Asia”. In its French colonial heyday Phnom Penh was regarded as one of the loveliest cities in Southeast Asia thanks to its wide European-style avenues, carefully manicured gardens and picturesque stately homes. Just a few decades later, the buzzing city was reduced to a ghost town when Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge army seized control of the capital and ordered its two million people to evacuate.

“The city has been coming back to life since the radical communist regime was toppled in 1979 but the surge of activity and change to its landscape has intensified in recent years. Silas Everett of The Asia Foundation in Cambodia fears the city’s original charm is fast disappearing with villas and stately buildings from the colonial era being torn down to make room for lucrative new construction projects. “Phnom Penh’s architectural heritage is world renowned… Yet the rate of destruction of these buildings of significant cultural heritage is alarming,” said Everett, mourning in particular the loss of buildings designed by famed Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. And while wealthy Cambodians are lining up for a chance to live in some of the city’s most coveted new addresses, the urban poor are increasingly relegated to the edges of the capital where many were evicted to make way for commercial developments.

Critics of strongman premier Hun Sen, who has ruled with an iron fist for the last 30 years, say he has turned Cambodia into a notoriously corrupt fiefdom where those loyal to him are handsomely enriched. But he remains unapologetic about the capital’s rapid transformation. Phnom Penh, he said during a speech in November, would have been a “coconut plantation” had the Khmer Rouge remained. Instead, he added, “an already dead city survived through the bare hands of our people”. Not everyone has benefited, however.

Economy of Phnom Penh

The main economy in Phnom Penh is based on commercial activities such as garments, trading, small and medium enterprises. The property business has been booming in the past few years. Real estate is now getting very expensive. Two new sub-cities are under construction, where investors from Korea and Indonesia join with Cambodian investors. About $200 million will be sunk into investment project of Camko-city, which is expected to be finished in 2018.

Kandal province around Phnom Penh serves as an economic belt of the capital. Cambodia become the sixth largest garment exporter in the world in 2007 and most of these factories are in Kandal Province. The industry created job opportunities for about a half million Cambodians and generated some $300 million in monthly wages for the employees. Also agricultural exports flourished in 2007, as palm oil, peanuts, rice, pepper and other rural products became ever more popular in the international markets.

Finally, luxury real estate project like the Longing Resort in Kandal province was demolished on July 31, as it expanded its land illegally and in effect constituted menace to the safety of the capital.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated August 2020

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