As a latecomer to the Southeast Asian tourism scene, Phnom Penh has a lot of catching up to do. But while it lacks the polished infrastructure of a city like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, it more than makes up for with its authentically Southeast Asian atmosphere.
Emerging from what has to be one of the darkest periods in its history, Phnom Penh has made great strides in cleaning up its act and becoming a viable travel destination for the masses. Once you've planted your feet on the ground and taken a tour of the Killing Fields, it's hard to believe that things were so dreadful here a mere 30 years ago.
Despite these tragedies, Cambodians aren't dismal or grim at all. Tourists may come home from the Genocide Museum with a heavy heart, but all it takes is a trip to the colorful colonial district or to a comedy club in Prek Leap to wash it all away. Cambodians are, after all, a group of optimistic and fun-loving people, and they'll welcome you to their city with a warm smile and plenty of enthusiasm.
The Central Market is the centerpiece of modern Phnom Penh. By day it floods with shoppers, people-watchers and curious tourists who are still trying to get their bearings. In the evening, the action shifts to the bars and clubs that line the periphery.
North of the city center is the historic high ground where Phnom Penh was founded. Wat Phnom is here along with a great deal of colonial architecture. The colonial quarter to the east follows the river and plays host to French restaurants and nightclubs.
West of Wat Phnom is this lake area, which appeals to budget travelers with affordable cafés and accommodation. The lake is a popular picnic and leisure destination, though it mainly draws locals.
Immediately east of the central downtown area is this stretch of riverside real estate dominated by charming, colonial houses. Many have been converted into partially open-air restaurants, while others are cozy inns.
This district is east across the Friendship Bridge. It is technically an independent community, though it's wholly dependent on Phnom Penh. This is where locals go for evening entertainment including dinner-and-comedy shows. A moto ride out here is highly recommended at least one evening during any tourist's stay.
The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum are north and west of the city center. This is an area that would be of little interest to tourists were it not for the turbulence and tragedies that struck just a few decades ago. Today, a visit to this district is a critical part of any holiday in Phnom Penh.
Victory Monument looms over the southern district, marking what may be the city's most international district. A few of Phnom Penh's finest international restaurants are here alongside the burgeoning NGO quarter with its charity-driven cafés. In an odd contrast, this is also where you'll find the city's casino.