Phnom Pehn Cambodia has an unstable and violent past, which we felt viscerally while in Phnom Pehn. The Royal Palace and Riverside promenade along the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap are among only a few pleasant attractions in this city of two million. The violence and destruction of Pol Pot’s regime 30-some years ago has left Phnom Pehn with a long way to go in re-modernizing. The city remains quite rough around the edges.
The Khmer Empire’s capital was moved here from Angkor Thom in 1423, but then abandoned in 1505 for 360 years while royals fought each other. The seat of government returned again to Phnom Pehn under Siam (Thai) rule in 1866. At the same time, French Colonialists moved in to build up the city with hotels and society buildings, so that by 1920 it was known to be a very lovely city— the “Pearl of Asia.” During and after the Vietnam War it turned very ugly, however. The Khmer Rouge took advantage of the chaos and forcibly controlled the city. A gruesome evacuation turned into the brutal genocide of millions of people. At present hardly any evidence remains of any once beautiful colonial heritage, and it is clear Phnom Pehn is still struggling to fully recover its soul.
The current city is a jumble of noise, poverty, crazy driving, beggars and touts, with a tourist area jammed in along the river. But we did spot several expensive car dealerships showcasing Bentleys and Mercedes.