Phnom Penh, one of Southeast Asia’s most mesmerizing and fast-changing capitals, boasts eclectic architecture bearing witness to the turbulence of Cambodia’s recent history.
In the past 60 years the country cast off French colonialism, suffered one of the worst genocides in history in which the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the city of Phnom Penh, emerged from a Vietnamese occupation, and, finally, installed a democracy.
Travelers can ensconce themselves at the grande dame of Phnom Penh hotels, the colonial-era Raffles Hotel Le Royal (from $160), but the 21st century has seen the rise of boutique hotels tucked between frangipani-shaded Buddhist temples and vibrant cafés.
Entrepreneurs have scrambled to restore decaying French remnants and the city’s modernist-meets-Asia 1960s buildings, and are now snapping up recent structures with their own quirky features.
Unobtrusively located near the yellow-walled Royal Palace — a complex of ornate buildings including the residence of Cambodia’s chief of state, King Norodom Sihamoni — the Pavilion (from $50) is one of a handful of hotels with guest rooms in a French colonial-era building.
The surrounding historical quarter is Phnom Penh’s most genteel, yet the streets fizz with energy; teenagers frequent the bubble-tea shops, local restaurants sun-dry their beef streetside, and wine shops and cafés lure in the expatriate crowd.
Within the Pavilion grounds the atmosphere is hushed; pad across painted tiles from the 1940s in the lobby decorated with Asian objets d’art, and curl up on a daybed by the pool, surrounded by tropical gardens. At sunset, take a cruise on the hotel’s rice boat along the Mekong River to view floating fishing villages.
In the same area, the Pavilion’s owners have also opened Plantation (from $65), a former colonial mansion with two modern wings of hotel rooms. The art historian who oversaw the mansion reconstruction tasted the plaster to determine its age.
Bright, sunny guest rooms with accents of citrus-colored silk pillows and throws overlook a lush courtyard and pool, ringed by private cabanas and coconut and acacia trees.
Nearby, the National Museum offers a collection of ancient tablets inscribed in Sanskrit and artifacts from a prehistoric burial site; in the evening the museum hosts folk dance performances.
La Maison d’Ambre (from $100), which overlooks the city’s namesake, Wat Phnom (“hill temple”), was originally a 1960s office building. Its curved, white concrete facade has been faithfully restored to its “New Khmer Architecture” roots.
Hidden behind La Maison’s grand exterior are a dozen polished suites. Each pays homage to a global city featured in a popular film: The Casablanca suite features turquoise, navy, and cream Moroccan-style textiles, lamps, and artwork.
Sip on a cocktail in the chic orange and purple rooftop bar, or step outside and explore, wandering past gem shops and fresh sugarcane juice stalls to reach gritty Phsar Chas (“old market”), where locals have shopped for decades.
The Sangkum (from $60) is a beautiful example of the fast-disappearing “golden age” style. Situated in a residential area a few blocks north of Wat Phnom, the villa hotel has been renovated and now features details of New Khmer Architecture, including open communal areas to encourage airflow, claustras — decorative concrete screens — and colorful tiled floors. Guest rooms hark back to the era too, with an eclectic range of 1960s Cambodian rosewood furniture.
Originally the residence for the U.S. Embassy, the columned White Mansion is an imposing hotel located in the historic area near the Royal Palace on Street 240, the main shopping street in Phnom Penh. Guest rooms are decorated with ebony lattice paneling, granite floors, and fresh flowers and include minibars stocked with complimentary nonalcoholic beverages.
A dramatic sweeping staircase still descends into the lobby; it’s easy to imagine diplomatic whispers over cocktails in the cavernous space. At the hotel’s gift shop, pick up woven silk clothing handcrafted by a cooperative of artisans with disabilities.
This article, written by Samantha Brown, appeared in the August/September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.