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Grim but pleasant Cambodia
Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Picture: Rob Dunlop

Destination fever in Cambodia is usually reserved for the temple capital of Siem Reap and the beach resort town of Sihanoukville. Yet it is the country's humble capital, Phnom Penh, which is worth slowing down for. This is a city that will move you.

The political upheavals of a country aren't typically on the radar when you visit. But Cambodia's was radical. And its legacy is very apparent.

Phnom Penh is front and centre in Cambodia's tragic past. During the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979, when almost one-fifth of the population was brutally murdered, the whole city was marched out into the countryside to work. Teachers became farm labourers.

One of the empty primary schools became the Tuol Sleng prison. Now a museum, photographs and documents reveal the atrocities.

Prisoners were moved in and out of Tuol Sleng but mostly they ended up about 15km away in an old Chinese cemetery and orchard. They joined more than 17,000 men, women and children who were slain and buried in mass graves - known as the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

Only seven prisoners survived, including a painter, who escaped a tortuous death by providing a steady supply of flattering images of the regime ruler, Pol Pot.

As I walk along grassy paths of Choeung Ek, clothes and teeth are revealed from recent rain. Gut-wrenching stuff.

A 17-storey glass memorial houses 9000 recovered skulls.

But life goes on. This is the a land of smiles. Elsewhere in the city, remnants of an earlier time, the French colonial period (1863-1953) are on display, in the form of stylised architecture, pastries, baguettes and cafes.

Along Tonle Sap River, which flows to the Mekong River, Sisowath Quay offers up wicker chair bistros and the multi-storey Foreign Correspondents Club with rooftop bar.

And frogs' legs abound too. Except at the roadside stalls, the frogs are intact, skewered and barbecued; stuffed with garlic, lemongrass and chilli. Fried tarantulas are another favourite.

The city's most popular market is the busy Russian Market, named after the most frequent foreigners that come hunting for curios.

Positioned along the river is the Royal Palace where the King of Cambodia lives and where you can freely wander around the manicured lawns, gardens, pagodas and pavilions. National treasures are also on display, such as the jewelled Buddha statues.

While a sunset cruise finishes off a visit to the city nicely, with palace spires glowing, it's not without reflective thought.