When I arrived in Phnom Penh after a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Shanghai, there were just three other commercial jets parked at the terminal, only one of which belonged to the national airline, Cambodia Airways. For a capital city, in the middle of the day, this seemed surprising. During pre-trip research, I’d learned that Cambodia is the least developed of the Southeast Asia countries, with a 2018 per capita GDP of just $4,322, its economy having lagged behind those of neighboring Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Memories of calamitous wars still linger, even though around 65 percent of the inhabitants are under age 30 and hence were not alive when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power. And the past is given daily physical embodiment by the saturnine figure of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office since 1985.
“Cambodia MapHowever, my reading also revealed that economic growth is now starting to accelerate, driven chiefly by Chinese investment and the rapid expansion of tourism. Last year no fewer than 2.6 million people visited Angkor Wat, the 12th-century temple complex built on a 400-acre site outside the northwestern city of Siem Reap. And hotels and resorts are beginning to open in areas of the country that were previously inaccessible to all but the most adventurous of foreign travelers.
A lack of development may be bad for the citizens, but for visitors it can have a plus side. Central Phnom Penh remains a congenial place, with much of its elegant French Colonial architecture intact and little of the unrestrained concrete sprawl and gridlocked traffic found in Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. We have long recommended the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, which opened in 1929; today it is overlooked by the new Rosewood Phnom Penh, a much-lauded 175-room property that occupies the top 14 floors of a 615-foot tower (the city’s second skyscraper).