The challenges facing Cambodia become clear in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, a 45-minute plane ride southwest of Siem Reap. It was the second stop on our itinerary. The wealth and education gaps here are visibly wide: Range Rovers and BMWs crowd traffic-filled streets, while the poverty-stricken live in buildings that were left for ruin during the Khmer Rouge regime. Part of the problem is that change in Cambodia is being driven by the economic elite as opposed to the educated bourgeois (who were completely wiped out). Sedara Kim, an advisor to Cambodia’s office of the Council of Ministers, says the country’s revitalization depends upon quality youth education that balances knowledge and skill; building an effective government based on scientific research; and understanding how 30 years of war still impacts the older generation. Expats are important, Kim believes, because they bring new ideas and collaboration, which are the way of the future. And Kim is optimistic about the future: Despite its obstacles, Cambodia is coming back quicker than other postconflict countries, as evidenced by advancements in Phnom Penh.
Art and Culture: Neighborhood to Explore
The National Museum of Cambodia (227 Kbal Thnal, Preah Norodom Blvd.; cambodiamuseum.info), which preserves the country’s ancient stone, metal, wood, and ceramic treasures, is the centerpiece of a lively neighborhood near the river, filled with restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques. At the museum, two collection highlights to look out for are Reclining Vishnu, a bronze statue found buried at Angkor in 1936, and Jayavaraman VII, a sandstone sculpture of the last great king of Angkor. Bordering the museum is Street 178, a good shopping block, with stops such as Garden of Desire (33 St. 178; 85-51/231-9116; gardenofdesire-asia.com), for its silver and stone jewelry made by Siem Reap–born, Paris-educated designer Ly Pisith, and Bodia Nature (10 St. 178, bodia-nature.com), a natural-beauty-product store with a spa across the street. The Royal Palace (Samdach Sothearos Blvd., bet. St. 240 and St. 184), where Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni lives, is also nearby. Visitors can stroll the grounds. The crown jewel is the Silver Pagoda, which houses a life-size Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds and has a floor made of 5,000 silver tiles.
Hotels: The Classic Vs. The Newcomer
The hotel to book in Phnom Penh is still undoubtedly Raffles Hotel Le Royal (rooms from $240; 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Sangkat Wat Phnom; 85-52/398-1888; raffles.com), which opened in 1929. It has lots of French Colonial character and lovely Khmer and Art Deco touches. There are 140 guest rooms and 35 suites (request a Landmark Suite, such as No. 314, in the historic part of the hotel). Two pretty pools and a green garden out back separate the old main building from a courtyard wing. The hotel is deceivingly large, with five restaurants and bars, including the iconic Elephant Bar. Service quirks add to the charm, making the hotel feel appropriately luxurious in the context of the city.
Hotel Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra (rooms from $220; 26 Old August Site, Sothearos Blvd.; 85-52/399-9200; sofitel.com) debuted in 2011. It’s certainly a suitable alternative to Raffles, though its corporate decor and riverside location, a little outside the city’s center, give it a business-resort vibe.
History Lesson: The Khmer Rouge's Legacy
“If we have ignorance, Cambodian people can’t find justice. If we can’t find justice, these atrocities will repeat,” says Chum Mey, one of only 12 known survivors of Tuol Sleng, or S-21, a Khmer Rouge prison that now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (corner of St. 113 and St. 350). More than 12,000 people were either killed here or taken six miles outside the city to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields (Roluos Village, Sangkat Cheung Aek), where the Khmer Rouge executed nearly two million people. Mey, 84, speaks (through a translator) upon request to Tuol Sleng visitors about his in carceration and torture, and his belief, at the time, that he would die in jail. It is upsetting to listen to Mey’s stories and hard to stomach touring the historical sites. But, as Mey points out, education is the key to preventing future mass-killing horrors—a poignant message in the era of ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Taliban.
Dining Trend: Expat Flavor
Global chefs have started infusing the city with tastes other than those of traditional Khmer cuisine (rice, curry, sauces). At The Common Tiger (20 St. 294; 02/321-2917; thecommontiger.com), South African chef Timothy Bruyns uses local market ingredients in his small rotating-weekly menu, though some dishes, such as the herb-crusted sea bass, make comebacks. His compatriot, chef Amy Baard, runs the kitchen at The Chinese House (45 Sisowath Quay; 85-59/370-8791; chinesehouse.asia). She blends Western techniques with Asian ingredients (think seafood tortellini with coconut curry sauce and creamy amok). Two Venezuelans and a Uruguayan are behind Samai Distillery (9b St. 830; 85-58/925-7449; samaidistillery.com), the city’s first spirits maker. The distillery opens as a bar on Thursday nights, serving its namesake rum in mixed drinks.
Photo Credits: Courtesy Raffles Hotel Le Royal; Courtesy Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra