9:00 Sitting on the banks of the mighty Mekong river, Cambodia’s capital was known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ during the French colonial period. Temples and monks litter the city landscape, while mopeds piled high with all manner of loads – fruit, pigs, families – speed past in a never-ending cycle of activity. It’s also home to an undeniably dark history, which you can get a sense of with a trip to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek (admission about £1.25), a short tuk-tuk ride south-west of the city. A visit here is upsetting, but provides a valuable insight into the hell this country went through when the Khmer Rouge came to power. A stupa housing skulls that bear the cracks of bludgeoning (a preferred method of murder to save bullets) is a chilling tribute to the genocide’s victims, about 17,000 of whom were executed here. The purpose of the memorial is to ensure the world doesn’t forget what happened at the Killing Fields – and, after seeing it for yourself, it’s likely to stick in the memory.
12:00 That was intense, so wind down with the serene spirituality of Wat Ounalom (Samdech Sothearos Blvd, admission 60p). The most important temple in Phnom Penh, it’s the centre of Cambodian Buddhism. Established in 1443, it consists of 44 structures in a huge garden, and is even said to contain hair from Buddha himself.
13:00 Cambodia is great for markets, so whizz down to the Russian Market (south of Mao Tse Tuong Boulevard) where you’ll find weird, wonderful and exotic goods to scare family members with on your return.
14:00 You must be hungry by now, so jump in a rickety tuk-tuk and whizz over to locally owned Friends Restaurant (13 Street). It collaborates with local NGOs, so your business benefits the community. Try the creamy, coconut-infused fish amok for about £3. But watch out for the monkeys that clamber the walls, as they, too, are partial to this delicacy.
15:00 Another haunting insight into the reign of the Khmer Rouge can be found at Tuol Sleng (Street 131, admission £1.20). It was at this former school that thousands of innocent Cambodian citizens were imprisoned, tortured and massacred by the regime in the Seventies. The scale of the horror is harrowing, but the faces of Toul Sleng’s victims deserve to be remembered.
18:00 Breathe a sigh of relief as the weather begins to cool, and the mood is set to change dramatically. Sovannah Phum (Street 99, admission £3) is home to traditional Khmer dancing, with its rich mixture of hypnotic, almost ballet-like gestures. Shows also include Cambodian Shadow Puppet performances (shadow-puppets.org).
20:30 Spend a kitschy but enjoyable evening on the Kanika Floating Restaurant Bar (Sisowath Quay), which provides incredible sunset views of the Royal Palace as you cruise down the Mekong river. Admission is free, and with Western and Asian dishes available from £4, it’s an absolute bargain.
23:00 Luckily, one of Phnom Penh’s friendliest and best value hotels, California 2 Hotel, lies on the same quay. For £15 per night including breakfast, with comfy beds, wifi and air conditioning, it’s a steal. Have a beer with popular American owner Jim, who will give you the lowdown on life in the city.
2:00 Sleep off those beers before hopping in a tuk-tuk for more sightseeing. Don’t forget to grab the free bottles of water Jim offers before you leave, as they’ll come in handy. Swing by the Lotus Blanc Restaurant (Stung Mean Chey), an NGO-run training establishment for hundreds of poor students, where the delicious £3 mango salad provides a pick-me-up.
14:00 Now make your way to the glimmering spires of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (between Street 240 and 184, admission about £4). This peaceful complex shows off some stunning examples of Khmer architecture, so enjoy wandering the landscaped gardens at leisure. Keep an eye out for the medieval Buddhist artwork surrounding the palace interior – one particular painting stretches out nearly half a kilometre.
18:00 It’s been a busy one, hasn’t it? Slow things down with a trip to NGO-run Romdeng Restaurant (Street 74, #174). If you’re feeling adventurous, try the £2 fried tarantulas. If not, try the rather gentler pumpkin curry wrapped in a banana leaf for £3.50.
21:00 A refreshing drink is on the cards, so dive into a rip-roaring slice of modern Cambodia, the Heart of Darkness (Street 51, #26) to quench that thirst. Undoubtedly the most popular club in town, you can expect a crowd that’s up for a party.
02:00 Swig down the last drops of your Angkor beer and smile – you’ve just nailed Phnom Penh.
A return flight from London Gatwick to Phnom Penh, via Seoul, starts at £675 with koreanair.com