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Phnom Penh History

The modern capital of Cambodia still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest periods of late 20th century history. Brutalised under the Khmer Rouge after 1975, the city’s population was forcibly displaced, sent on death marches or to the Choeung Ek killing fields just outside of the city, where murder and genocide became commonplace.

Everyone in Phnom Penh was affected by this tragedy and its rawness remains to this day. Locals still talk of the horrors of the S21 torture camp, housed in the former Tuol Sleng High School, which is now a museum and monument to the fallen.

Prior to the city’s annexation by Pol Pot and his henchmen, Phnom Penh played a key role in the Vietnam War, swelling with refugees from the conflict and providing cover for North Vietnamese fighters. U.S. bombs rained down around the city as Cambodia became the focus of a secret bombing campaign by the Americans.

It wasn’t until the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power and into hiding in the north of Cambodia that their reign of terror began to come to an end. Cambodia’s recovery, though, has been slow and painful and it remains a poor country struggling with many political issues.

Phnom Penh only become the administrative centre of Cambodia in the 1860s and was soon developed by the colonising French into the city it is today. There remains a distinct French influence despite the best efforts of the Khmer Rouge to destroy Phnom Penh, although the uniquely Cambodian Royal Palace, built at this time, still stands.

Today’s Phnom Penh is a fast–changing town. The influx of Chinese money has seen rapid development, especially along the Mekong waterfront. Such development has been tempered, however, by complaints of worker exploitation in the country’s vital garment industry.

2014 saw ageing Khmer Rouge leaders, including Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s number two, jailed for life for their involvement in the genocide of the 1970s. The wounds of the past are finally being healed, although they will never be forgotten.

Did you know?
• Phnom Penh only became the Cambodian capital in 1865.
• Only 7 people survived the torture chambers of Tuol Sleng. 17,000 were imprisoned during the Khmer Rouge’s rule.
• Phnom Penh only had 50,000 residents left by the time the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979.

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Featured Hotels


Juliana Hotel

This long-established, resort-style hotel is located at the heart of the city, making it a great base for exploration as most of the major sights are just a few minutes away. The 97 rooms are contemporary in design with Khmer silks and textiles accenting the décor throughout. The swimming pool is surrounded by lush gardens and the hotel's Vanda restaurant serves Asian and Western food and is famed for its barbecued seafood buffet.

InterContinental Hotel

Located in the new business centre of the city, the InterContinental is the first 5-star business hotel in Phnom Penh. With 346 rooms, it's the ideal place for those visiting for work as it has a range of meeting rooms. Its good selection of restaurants offer pan-Asian, Western and Chinese cuisine as well as a popular patisserie.

La Maison D’Ambre

With a superb location on the corner of Sisowath Quay, La Maison D'Ambre has quickly become one of Cambodia's hottest hotels, especially thanks to its river views. Its 10 luxury rooms are individually decorated, while the rooftop bar, Fifth Element, is a huge draw for those after a cool drink at the end of a day. A tree-lined pool and private dining terrace round out a compelling package.

Cozyna Hotel

It's the location of this hotel that makes it such a winner. Right on the main quay, with great access to sights and the city's best nightlife, it's perfect for those on a tight budget. The rooms are simple, but clean, and the staff friendly.

Sunway Hotel

A longstanding favourite, the Sunway Hotel has an excellent location in an upmarket part of Phnom Penh, close to Wat Phnom. The 138 rooms are all large and stylish, some with balconies. The restaurant serves local and international cuisine with special themed nights and there is a patisserie in the lobby. With its own fitness centre and spa, this hotel remains popular.

Raffles Hotel Le Royal

This is a beautifully restored French colonial hotel featuring a blend of Khmer, art deco and French styles. Established in 1929, it boasted an impressive guest list in its heyday including Charlie Chaplin and Jacqueline Kennedy. This sophisticated Phnom Penh hotel has 208 rooms, five restaurants and bars, a pool and spa. The Raffles high standards of service are combined with modern comforts throughout.