It became the capital of Cambodia in 1867. The city was occupied by the Japanese in World War II. The cultural and commercial center as well as political capital of Cambodia, it was severely stressed and battered by the civil war in the 1970s. The onset (1970) of fighting between government forces and the Khmer Rouge drove refugees from the war-torn countryside to Phnom Penh. Its population swelled from c.500,000 in 1970 to c.2 million in early 1975, when it was evacuated after falling to the Khmer Rouge. By the time the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979, the city had become virtually a ghost town, with no more than 50,000 residents and its universities and cultural institutions no longer in operation. It gradually revived through the 1980s; Phnom Penh Univ. reopened in 1988. The transportation center of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is the focus of four highways radiating out to the provinces. It is the terminus of the country's only two railroads—one extending to the Thai border and another to the deepwater port of Kompong Som on the Gulf of Thailand. There is an international airport in nearby Pochentong.
Phnom Penh was once known as the Pearl of Asia. After years of conflict, the city is again building a name for itself as one of the great destinations in the region. Its main attractions include the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, as well as the nearby National Museum with its collections of art, sculpture, and more. The capital is also a place for contemplation.
Visitors are welcome at the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Genocide Museum and Choeng Ek Killing Fields for a thought-provoking introduction to the Pol Pot era. The city also has a plentiful supply of pagodas and nearby sites to visit, such as Tonle Bati Lake and its ancient temples and Phnom Tamao Animal Sanctuary.
Phnom Penh is also becoming a very popular place to live. Shopping centers now abound, including the Paragon Center, Soriya Market, and various tourist-friendly street markets, such as the Central Market and the Russian Market. And there is no shortage of places to eat delicious food and have a drink, especially on the riverfront where new trendy bars and restaurants are springing up all the time. At the end of the day, you can hire a boat and drift out into the river to watch the sun set over the pagodas and stupas before going to bed.