If you ignore the high humidity, the packs of eager locals clamouring to offer tuk-tuk and motorcycle rides, the neon signs for massages, clusters of orange-clad, shaven-headed monks and the occasional gilt statue of a temple lion staring out on to the water, then a daytime stroll along Sisowath Quay’s tree-lined boulevard – which lines the Tonlé Sap river – might make you think you were in the South of France. It’s a feeling that intensifies as you pass pâtisseries selling delicate cakes and baguettes, and pause outside chic boutiques, whose windows boast brightly coloured leather handbags. But despite Phnom Penh being a former French colony (between 1863 and 1953), and retaining many remnants of French architecture and culture, you are unmistakably in Southeast Asia.

Significantly more so if you return at night, when the 3km strip comes alive with the sound of people exhorting you to come into one of the many bars and restaurants, the enticing exotic smells drifting from street food stalls, and the thumping beats of dance music from the occasional party boats gliding down the river. Should you wish to eat Mexican, Italian or, of course, French food, you can. You can even have something called a ‘happy herb’ pizza (draw your own conclusions), and enjoy a sophisticated cocktail on a rooftop hotel bar (the Chow Bar atop the luxury Quay hotel was our favourite). And a night out in PP isn’t complete without stopping in at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club – where journalists and diplomats from around the world would gather for a stiff drink and the latest gossip – for a beer and to soak up the 1950s-style ceiling-fanned ambience.

Most people pass through Phnom Penh, if they stop there at all, on their way to Siem Reap, and the temples of Angkor. But it’s worth lingering here for a few days, as not only is there much to see, but you will gain a better understanding of the country as a whole. It still bears the scars left by the Khmer Rouge – the violent, nationalistic, Communist regime which committed devastating acts of genocide during its rule between 1975 and 1979. And in order to get a clearer idea of what Cambodia has suffered, and to make sense of where it is headed, a few unpalatable truths, and sights, have to be confronted.

But the sense now is of a country which wants to put its painful past behind it and look to the future. Asia’s pearl is starting to gleam again. A couple of recently built skyscrapers currently rise above the horizon, with Chinese, Japanese and Korean money being invested in new companies. Construction work is booming, factories are being opened, and boutique hotels are springing up all over (try The TeaHouse for a stylish city-centre stay). The Cambodians’ entrepreneurial spirit can be seen in the roadside stalls that line the major highways, selling fruit, bottles of petrol, lotus seed pods, anything that can make them some extra money. There are also a number of initiatives to help disadvantaged children get on to training schemes – such as in the hospitality industry – by NGOs (visit restaurants such as Le Lotus Blanc, Romdeng, or Friends to see this in action).

But on top of its exciting new direction, Cambodia also has a glorious and noble heritage. A kingdom since 68AD, it is currently nominally ruled by King Sihamoni (the current political party, the CPP, or Cambodian People’s Party, holds the real power), and has a rich legacy of monuments which are well worth visiting. The Royal Palace – where Sihamoni still lives – is a magnificent set of buildings with the distinctive, gracefully curved roofs you find throughout this region, featuring statues of Buddha, stupas (tombs), artefacts owned by the Royal Family, and hand-painted murals. The grounds also contains the Silver Pagoda, whose floor is covered in silver tiles – more than 5,000, weighing 1kg each. The nearby National Museum, an elegant early 20th-century building, displays statues, sculptures, pottery and bronze work dating back to the prehistoric era.

Further down the road, Wat Phnom is a huge and ancient temple situated on top of a hill near Sisowath Quay, which also acts as a bit of a social hub. Locals come here to pray for good luck, people mill around selling cold drinks and snacks, and kids hang around in that way that kids do, but it’s a beautiful structure and worth a look. Just watch out for the mischievous macaque monkeys which loiter, hoping for stray bits of food. A half-day trip out to Udong, Cambodia’s original capital, is also worth doing. Set on two hills are a dozen or so temples and stupas, one of which is said to contain the relics of Buddha himself. Most of the temples have donation boxes, and it is bad form not to offer some cash to each one; change a few dollars into the local currency, riels, and you’ll have a huge wad from which you can dispense largesse. My feeling of being some kind of 1920s-style missionary was amplified after a small boy with a fan attached himself to me, and followed me around the temples blowing a very welcome breeze in my direction.

If you’re after a bit of colonial glamour, the best place to stay is at Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Dating from 1929, it’s one of the city’s oldest, and during the Khmer Rouge regime and civil war, was a base for journalists covering the story. It has also played host to more famous guests, including actor- director Charlie Chaplin, writer W Somerset Maugham, and John F Kennedy’s former wife, Jackie. For a taste of the glamorous 1960s, head to the Elephant Bar and ask for a Femme Fatale, the cocktail the bar staff created especially for Jackie O to match her lipstick. A potent concoction of champagne, cognac and crème de fraise, I could only manage two before feeling poleaxed.

As already mentioned, you can find any type of cooking here, but trying the local Khmer cuisine is a must. Less spicy perhaps than that of other surrounding cultures, its typical traditional dish is the amok curry, a subtle, creamy affair with chicken or fish, and accompanied by rice. I ate by the river at Bopha Titanic, which also did a great beef lok lak (in a sauce made with lemon juice, salt and pepper) and fried water buffalo (very gamey), but there are loads of places offering similar dishes. Food, like most things here, is cheap; a two-course meal with beer or wine will set you back around $10-$15 (between £6-£10). Less appealing were some of the snacks on offer at the street stalls, or at the popular, buzzy markets: fried tarantulas, anyone? I even saw one stall holder grilling baby turtles.

But if you can avert your eyes from such sights, the markets are a fantastic place to come for local souvenirs and hilariously badly-made designer copies. The two main ones are the Central Market – housed in an impressive, domed art deco hall – and (my favourite) the rather more haphazard Russian Market (so called because apparently many Russians used to come here in the 1980s). You have to get your haggling hat on, because this is all part of the fun. They sell everything from clothes, to jewellery, watches, food, silks, wood- carvings, toys and musical instruments and I defy anyone not to come back with at least one T-shirt saying ‘No tuk-tuk today!’ and some terrible imitation D&G sunglasses.

Or was that just me? There’s only one way for you to find out…