Phnom Penh might be overshadowed by the temples at Angkor but spend time in this Cambodian city and you’ll discover colonial buildings, wide boulevards, pagodas and riverside walks.
Known for its extraordinary Royal Palace and the treasures contained in the National Museum, the best way to discover 21st century Phnom Penh is to explore on foot. Peruse the stalls in the bustling markets full of unusual smells and exotic items, observe monks collecting alms in the early morning hours and admire the dexterity of motorbike riders as they manoeuvre through the city’s chaotic traffic.
If this all gets too much, retreat to one of Phnom Penh’s stylish restaurants, bars and shops which are testament to an emerging city full of confidence and one that is trying to put its troubled history behind it.
One of the better preserved French relics in Southeast Asia, the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh has a lot more to offer travelers than a quick, depressing swing through Tuol Sleng and a run out to the Killing Fields.
Cambodia`s history stretches far back beyond the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. As far as Phnom Penh goes, legend has it that its beginnings stretch back to the late 14th century, when an old woman named Penh found a tree with a handful of Buddha images lodged in one of its nooks. She retrieved the images and had a hill (phnom) built to house them: Penh`s Hill, or Phnom Penh, was born.
Established at the crossroads of the Bassac, Tonle and Mekong Rivers, Phnom Penh remained little more than a large village and didn`t become the permanent capital until the late 19th century during the reign of King Norodom I. On April 17, 1864 Norodom agreed to make Cambodia a French protectorate in an attempt to keep the bellicose Vietnamese and Siamese at bay. In the years following, the construction of Phnom Penh proper began. Interestingly, 111 years to the day after King Norodom I signed his first treaty with the French, the Khmer Rouge entered, took control and totally emptied Phnom Penh.
The Phnom Penh City is situated at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap Rivers, Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, has a population of approximately 1.5 million people. Despite the dilapidation resulting from decades of war, the city retains its traditional Khmer and colonial charm. French villas along tree-lined boulevards remind the visitor that the city was once considered the gem of Southeast Asia. Recent political changes have triggered an economic boom of sorts, with new hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs springing up around the city.
BEST TIME TO GO
Phnom Penh is a year-round destination but the best months to visit are from November to February when the temperatures are more comfortable and there is very little rainfall. The rainy season is from May/June to October/November, when temperatures and humidity are very high, but expect brief downpours on most days before the sun reappears.
HOW TO GET THERE
Phom Penh can be reached by either domestic flights, international flights or overland and speedboat from neighboring provinces. Phnom Penh is a fairly easy city to get around. Though traffic is getting more congested these days, you can still travel the length of the city in less than 40 minutes. Regarding the economical boom these days, the traffic increases significantly. Read More…
THINGS TO SEE & DO IN PHNOM PENH
THE ROYAL PALACE
Situated on the site of the former Citadel, it was built by King Norodom in 1866 on the banks of the Mekong River. Inside its gleaming yellow walls are the Throne Hall; the Chan Chaya Pavilion, specially made for performances of classical Cambodian dance; the Napoleon III Pavilion, offered to King Norodom by Queen Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and the King’s and Queen’s residential quarters. Nowadays, only the Silver Pagoda can be visited.
TUOL SLENG MUSEUM OF GENOCIDE
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they converted a non-descript high school on the fringe of downtown Phnom Penh into a detention and torture center known as Tuol Sleng, or S-21 (Security Prison 21). A genocide museum was established at Tuol Sleng after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and today it appears precisely as it was left by the fleeing Khmer Rouge. The non-descript facade belies the horrors and trocities committed inside. Hundreds of photos of those tortured line the walls inside the old school. Most of the 17,000 people detained at Tuol Sleng were subsequently transported to Choeung Ek, a longan orchard 15 km outside Phnom Penh, slaughtered and buried in mass graves. Known to locals as the Killing Fields after the popular movie of the same name, Choeung Ek also serves as a memorial to those killed under Khmer Rouge rule. Opens Daily 8am-5pm
Wat Nokor is an 11th-century Mahayana Buddhist shrine built of sandstone and laterite. Certain areas of Wat Nokor bear a strong resemblance to the Bayon at Angkor, with the walls in particular being very similar. It was rebuilt and dedicated to Hinayana in the 15th century and, today, there are many Buddha images scattered throughout the complex. There is also small contemporary wat located within its walls.
This distinctive red-brick, pseudo-Khmer style building, constructed by the French in 1917, houses an extensive collection of Khmer sculptures from the pre-Angkorian period (seventh century) to the post-Angkorian period (14th century). In addition, there are bronze objects depicting religious activities or daily life, ancient Khmer ceramics and wooden statues from the Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods. The differing styles of Khmer art are displayed in chronological order and the knowledgeable English-speaking guides can help identify the subtle changes in style. Tours by these guides can be arranged at the entrance to the museum. Opens Daily 8am-5pm.
This delightful pagoda next to the Royal Palace is named after the 5,000 silver tiles on its floor weighing a formidable six tonnes. It houses priceless Buddhas (including the Emerald Buddha, Wat Preah Keo, and a life-sized gold Buddha decorated in thousands of precious gems). The wall surrounding the temple is covered in murals depicting the epic tale of the Ramayana, although very damaged in places. In the grounds are a number of stupas containing the ashes of former kings as well as a model of Angkor Wat. Remarkably the Silver Pagoda was left virtually unscathed by the Khmer Rouge.
This is one of Phnom Penh’s original and most important pagodas, dating from the 15th century and located close to the Royal Palace. It was once home to hundreds of monks and an extensive religious library, but suffered greatly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Many of the religious artefacts were thrown into the river during the Khmer Rouge years, but a few were eventually retrieved. The temple was built to house an important religious relic, an eyebrow hair from the Buddha. The wat is quite a lively place to visit as it is home to many monks and novice monks who peep curiously at visitors. Opens Daily 6am-6pm.
Located 32 km to northwest of Phnom Penh, Phnom Baset features at the top of the hill a brick sanctuary called Prasat Srey Krup Leak (“Temple of the Perfect Woman”). The extraordinary design of the temple resembles a cave and faces the west, which contrasts with many Khmer temples, which usually face east. The site had been used as a place of worship for many years before the Brahmans transformed it into a specifically Hindu-oriented site.
This huge, lotus-shaped monument was built to celebrate independence from the French on 9 November 1953 and is also known as the Independence Monument. Now, it also commemorates Cambodia’s war dead, and is the focus of celebrations and services on holidays such as Independence Day and Constitution Day. The adjacent park is popular with the locals as a site for wedding photos so look out for small groups with ornate umbrellas posing in the bright sun.
Located on the top of a small hill reached by a flight of steps with nagas (mythical serpents) on either side, this temple marks the spot of the foundation of Phnom Penh. It is one of the most important landmarks in the city drawing a constant stream of visitors, who come to pray for good luck. The interior is decorated with frescoes depicting the life of Buddha, and the story of the Ramayana. Opens Daily6am-6pm.
This 1200-hectare animal sanctuary is located about 30 km southeast of Phnom Penh. In recent years, it has been upgraded, and the sun bear enclosure is now one of the best of its type in Asia. There are also other rare species housed here, including tigers, leopards, a lion, and several species of exotic birds. The geography of the sanctuary is quite interesting in itself.
WHAT TO DO
Cambodian artisans are very skilled and there is no shortage of articles to buy when shopping in Phnom Penh. Unique to Cambodia is the krama, a checked scarf made of cotton or silk. Silk is still hand-woven in Cambodia and can be purchases as lengths of material or in the form of scarves, bags or purses. Silver boxes are traditional souvenirs, many in the shape of animals.
There are a number of interesting art galleries, silk dealers and souvenir shops on Street 178. Also look out for shops such as NCDP Handicrafts and Wat Than Handicrafts, both on Norodom Boulevard, selling handicrafts to raise money for disadvantaged Cambodians.
For a taste of the west, head either to Sorya, close to the Central market, Sovanna on Street 271 or City Mall on Monireth Boulevard near the Olympic Stadium. They are all air-conditioned complexes offering clothing, electronic and jewellery shops plus fast-food outlets and supermarkets.
Bargaining is expected in the markets, which are open daily from around 0700 to 1700. Shop opening times vary.
New Central Market (Phsar Thmey):
Around the main buildings are stalls offering Krama’s (red and white checked scarves), stationery, household items, clothes for sarongs, flowers and second hand clothes, usually from Europe and the US. For photographers, the fresh food section affords a lot of opportunities. There are a host of good value food stalls on the structure’s western side, which faces Monivong Blvd. Central Market is undoubtedly one of the best of Phnom Penh’s markets for browsing. It is the cleanest and has the widest range of products for sale. Opening hours are from early morning until early evening.
Tuol Tom Pong Market (Russian market):
More commonly referred to by foreigners as the Russian Market, this is located at the corner of St. 440 and st.163, south of Mao Tse Tung Blvd. It is the best place in town for souvenir shopping, having a large range of real and fake antiquities. Items for sale include miniature Buddha’s, silk, silver jewelry, gems, video, ganja and a host of other goodies. Clothes such as t-shirts, trousers, jackets or shoes are very reasonable. It’s well worth popping in for a browse.
Psar O Russei:
Don’t be confused with the Russian Market, it’s not that one even if it sounds like. The market is located in a huge yellow-bleached house looking like a shopping mall from outside next to Capitol Tours, east from the Olympic Stadium and closed to the Monivong Blvd. It features almost all kind of products focusing on luxury foodstuffs, costume jewellery, imported toiletries, second-hand and new clothes, and some electrical devises. Once you enter it you’ll find a kind of labyrinth with hundreds of small.
Start learning to dive in Phnom Penh at the Scuba Nation Diving Centre, Cambodia’s first 5-star Instructor Development Centre. Teaching takes place in an air-conditioned classroom using the most up-to-date training methods. Practical tuition is in their training pool and diving trips are available to their base in Sihanoukville where their dive boat is located.
A round of golf is a popular activity in any part of the world and the Royal Cambodia Phnom Penh Golf Club is close to the city, just 9km south on the way to Sihanoukville. Surrounded by lush rice paddies and swaying coconut palms, it is in an idyllic setting. Booking is recommended for non-members.
A stroll or Cyclo ride along the park-lined riverfront is a must pubs, restaurants, shops and tourist boats line the way. The view of the confluence of the Mekong
Once you’ve tried the tasty and often intriguing Khmer cuisine, find out how to do it yourself at a fun Cambodian cooking class. The day starts with a trip to the local food market, stacked with a huge array of colorful vegetables and aromatic herbs available; back in the kitchen, cook your own Khmer dish with the freshest ingredients, under the expert eye of a Cambodian chef. One-day courses take place on an open-air terrace, right beyond the Royal Palace.
PHNOM PENH NIGHTLIFE
Nightlife in Phnom Penh is pretty vibrant and there are a large number of bars to choose from. There are only a few live music venues, although some of the international hotels have bands from the Philippines. Most nightlife in Phnom Penh can be found along Sisowath Quay, on Street 104 and also on Street 51 between Streets 174 and 154, known as The Strip.
Culture in Phnom Pench revolves around the traditional Cambodian apsara dancing, which is very slow and graceful. Skills have been retained despite the loss of many dancers during the Khmer Rouge years.
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