Once known as the Pearl of Asia for its lovely French colonial architecture then shattered by the Khmer Rouge, more than 40 years on, Cambodia’s capital is in the throes of change.
New luxury hotels are shooting skyward — the Rosewood Phnom Penh will occupy the top 14 floors of the 188m-high Vattanac Capital Tower One in the CBD — while a massive hotel and gaming extension to the NagaWorld casino and resort is also under way. Meanwhile, Hyatt Regency, Shangri-La and Okura Prestige are slated to enter the market by 2020.
Where once travellers would have headed straight for Siem Reap, Jan Musgrave from Travel Managers in NSW says Phnom Penh is now seen as quite a cosmopolitan city, capturing the old and the new.
“Cambodia has the real essence of what you think Asia is all about,” she says.
“It covers some of those old-fashioned, romantic ideologies that we have when we’re going into Asia that perhaps the more traditional destinations have lost now, and it’s got so much history. People are really drawn to countries that still have that sense of identity.”
It would be amiss to visit Phnom Penh and not pay your respects at the Killing Fields and where some 17,000 people were killed during Pol Pot’s brutal genocide, and visiting the harrowing Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. For this reason, Phnom Penh was historically a little off the tourist track.
“Ten years ago nobody would have wanted to go Phnom Penh,” Musgrave says.
“I think it’s probably because of the history of the city and where it’s come from, it just wasn’t an attraction.
“Now you can see that the people are really becoming more invigorated. They’re really starting to embrace their Buddhist culture again and getting that sense of identity that they had before those terrible times.”
Emirates launched a new daily service from Dubai to Phnom Penh last month creating a new stopover options for Australians homeward bound from Europe. And with the rising tide of river cruising popularity, shore excursions are introducing the city to travellers who appreciate its architecture and shopping as much as its history.
“Gone are the days when people go, ‘let’s just go to Europe and spend our 24 hours on the plane’,” Musgrave says.
“Nowadays people are all looking for that stopover experience and they’ve done Singapore, and they’ve done Bangkok and they’ve done Dubai, so they’re looking for interesting stops.”
WHEN TO VISIT
With year-round average temperatures hovering around 30, you’ll never need to pack your woollies for a trip to Cambodia.
“It’s always going to be a hot country but generally speaking from November through to May is the dry season and when you get into that November to February season, that’s the coolest time to be there,” Musgrave says.
Rainfall is heaviest in September and October but expect torrential downpours in afternoon bursts rather than all-day drizzle.
WHEN TO BOOK
The comfort factor of travelling between November to April also means it’s the busiest period and Musgrave recommends booking at least six months out.
“One of the busiest times right throughout Asia is Chinese New Year, which is that two-week block end of January/early February where it is almost impossible to get any accommodation so if that’s your travel time you need to book at least 12 months in advance,” she adds.
“In the off season you can look up to a month in advance and find plenty of availabil