Lara Dunston, The Guardian, November 20, 2013
WHERE TO STAY
Phnom Penh's hotel scene has seen rapid expansion in recent years, providing plenty of options, from stylish boutique hotels in converted villas to flashpacker hostels. If a great pool is your priority, you'll struggle to top the one in the frangipani-filled gardens of The Plantation (doubles from £41), which also has a winning central location. Brand-new, gay-friendly Rambutan makes a great base in the fashionable BBK1 district, with all its many bars and cafes on your doorstep (doubles from £34). At the other end of the scale, there's Eighy8 Backpackers – a clean, smart hostel that is renowned for its pool parties (dorm beds £4.40pp, double room from £12.50).
DAY ONE: MAIN ATTRACTIONS
Legend has it that in 1373, landowner Madame Penh found four Buddha statues washed up from the Mekong river. She took this as a sign to erect a pagoda to house them, on a knoll that would be called Phnom Penh (Mount Penh). Start your stay in the city by climbing the staircase, guarded by mythical naga serpents and lions, to see her statue and have your fortune read at Wat Phnom (Street 94, admission 60p).
To understand Cambodia and appreciate its people's resilience, there's no escaping its tragic recent history, in which over two million Cambodians (around 25% of the population) died in Pol Pot's failed programme of agrarian socialism. His Khmer Rouge regime ruled with terror from April 1975 until the 1979 Vietnamese invasion, and Phnom Penh residents were forced to relocate to the countryside and work in forced labour projects.
Hire a remork (half-day £9) to visit Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial (admission £3), 17km south of the city. A heart-wrenching audio tour describes the brutality; a Buddhist stupa contains 8,000 skulls and mass graves, littered with bones and clothing fragments.
Back in town, visit Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (Street 113, admission £3), a former school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into Security Prison 21 or S-21, torturing over 17,000 people who were sent to the Killing Fields.
Have the remork drop you at Friends, a training cafe for former street kids ran by NGO Mith Samlanh, which serves light Asian tapas (dishes from £2).
Around the corner, the National Museum of Cambodia (Street 178 & 13, admission £3), in tranquil gardens, offers more uplifting history lessons on the Khmer Empire, with exquisite relics, art and sculpture from archaeological sites across Cambodia.
Behind it, the Royal Palace (Samdech Sothearos Boulevard, admission £1.80), dating to 1866, is a complex of splendid regal buildings, including the gilded Chan Chaya Pavilion and the Silver Pagoda, covered in 5,000 silver tiles with a diamond-encrusted gold Buddha and magnificent mural depicting a scene from the Reamker, a Cambodian take on the epic Hindu poem Ramayana. Afterwards, stroll across to the lively waterfront promenade, Sisowath Quay, for Phnom Penh's best people watching: balloon-sellers, street food vendors, saffron-robed monks and mass dancercise classes.
For sunset, make a beeline to the Foreign Correspondent Club (also at Sisowath Quay) for requisite sundowners, while savouring views of the fast-moving Tonlé Sap flowing into the Mekong. Dine on delicious Cambodian food at another training restaurant, Romdeng (Street 174, mains from £3.50), in an atmospheric colonial villa decorated with vibrant paintings. Staff will dare you to try fried tarantulas. Just as "authentic" but tastier are the trio of prahok (fermented fish paste) and stir-fried red ants, beef and basil – not as daunting as they sound.
DAY TWO: URBAN ATTRACTIONS
Phnom Penh's gritty streets are graced with fine buildings from the French colonial era, charming shop-houses, secret Chinese temples, and striking modernist structures, and are best appreciated by cyclo (the bicycle rickshaws )on an excellent tour with an architect from Khmer Architecture Tours (from £4–9, around three hours).
The cyclo tour ends at Noodle House (number 32, Street 130), where the cook makes handmade dumplings and pulled noodles to order (from 90p). Service is slow but it's worth the wait. The more culinary adventurous could head to the handsome art deco Phsar Thmey (central market) for home-cooked curries or stir-fried noodles from one of the many stalls.
Khmer Empire crafts were so celebrated that Siamese invaders abducted artisans, along with musicians and dancers, and took them to Thailand. Today, silk weaving, stonemasonry, lacquering, woodcarving and silverwork are being revived by Artisans Angkor (Street 13). Visit their beautiful showroom opposite the colonial-era Phnom Penh post office.
To see contemporary applications of traditional workmanship, take a remork to leafy Street 178, "Art Street", where among shops selling gaudy paintings of Apsaras and Day-Glo sunsets, there are a handful of gems. At Garden of Desire (number 33), the jewellery of Pisith Ly, who lost his family to the Khmer Rouge, is crafted from silver, stones, wood and metals, and laden with meaning. Adjacent Senteurs d'Angkor (33B) offers candles, soaps, spices and spa products in hand-woven baskets made from natural ingredients. Daughters of Cambodia (number 65) has jewellery, crafts and kids toys made by women rescued from sex trafficking, while Confirel (number 78) has foodie souvenirs like palm sugar, Kampot pepper and palm wines. Cambodian designer Romyda Keth's Ambre (number 37 is filled with affordable, feminine fashion.
Parallel Street 240 is shopping central, with cafes, restaurants and wine bars tucked between boutiques. At Waterlily (number 37), jewellery and accessories are made from recycled buttons and beads, while non-profit Mekong Quilts (number 47–49) has handmade bedding.
Get a fair-trade coffee or try a Phnom Penher smoothie (£1.80) with dragon fruit, lemongrass, ginger, lime and honey at laneway cafe ARTillery (Street 240 ½, between streets 19 and 7) or try Java Café (56 Sihanouk Boulevard) for locally roasted coffee and house-baked cakes. In the galleries upstairs and behind the cafe Java Arts shows contemporary Cambodian art and hosts engaging events, such as the recent Strip All Night, where cartoonists create a 24-page comic in 24 consecutive hours.
Nearby, Meta House (37 Sothearos Boulevard) hosts art exhibitions and nightly screenings of films about Cambodia or by Cambodian artists, experimental video art, and live music – anything from classical piano recitals to DJs spinning Cambodian sounds from the 60s – in the upstairs cafe-bar. Cambodian Living Arts (admission £7/3.50 adults/children) perform slick hour-long shows of traditional drama, opera, and Apsara and folk dancing at the National Museum, while Sovanna Phum (number 166, Street 99, admission £6/3 adults/children) puts on wonderful one-hour shadow puppet shows, accompanied by a live Khmer orchestra.
Dine on contemporary east-meets-west cuisine at one of the new restaurants helping Phnom Penh earn its reputation as a cosmopolitan hot spot, such as buzzy Fox Wine Bistro (104 Sothearos Boulevard, 090 625 656,) and Deco (Corner Streets 57 & 352), in an art deco villa. Afterwards, sip cocktails (from £3) to live jazz or join the swing dancers at Doors (number 18, Streets 47 and 84), packed most nights with boisterous expats, locals and tourists.
DAY THREE: BEYOND THE CITY
Rise early for a ferry trip and bike ride around Koh Dach (Silk Island) on the Mekong river before it gets hot. Allow three to four hours, including a leisurely cycle around the sleepy island of lanes lined with traditional stilted houses, many belonging to silk-weaving families, and some of the friendliest people you'll meet in Cambodia.
Take the one-hour trip by taxi or remork to Udong, Cambodia's capital from 1618 to 1866. Lunch on local dishes, such as grilled catfish and bamboo shoot salad (from £2), from the food stalls at the base of Phnom Udong, before hiking up the stupa-covered hill for sweeping views. Nearby, the massive pagodas at the Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Centre are worth a peek.
Alternatively, be a Bear Keeper for a Day, as part of a fantastic behind-the-scenes experience offered by NGO Free The Bears (from £30, including transport, lunch, tour), and see other rescued Cambodian wildlife, including gibbons, elephants, lions, and tigers at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. On the way back, visit Angkorian temples Ta Prohm and Yeay Peau, near Tonle Bati lake.
Return for a final sunset cocktail at one of Phnom Penh's rooftop bars, such as Le Moon, The Fifth Element or Eclipse Sky Bar, and dinner at Malis (136 Norodom Boulevard, dishes from £4.50), for the country's finest Cambodian cuisine by chef Luu Meng.
• Travel agents and hotels can help arrange independent excursions while a local tour company, such as Backyard Travel, can organise guided bespoke tours with any combination of the above
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk