Capital of Cambodia and the heart of government PHNOM PENH is a captivating city of great charm and vitality, crisscrossed by broad tree-lined boulevards and dotted with old colonial villas. Situated in a virtually flat area at the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Bassac and Mekong rivers, the compact city hasn’t yet been overwhelmed by towering high-rise developments, and imparts a sense of openness and light. Phnom Penh throbs with enterprise and energy, which makes it difficult to comprehend that a generation ago it was forcibly evacuated and left to ruin by the Khmer Rouge. Inevitably, and in spite of many improvements, some of the scars are still evident: side roads are pot-holed and strewn with rubble, some of the elegant villas are ruined beyond repair, and when it rains the antiquated drainage system backs up, flooding the roads.
For tourists and locals alike, the lively riverfront – a wide grassy promenade that runs beside the Tonle Sap for nearly 2km – is the city’s focal point. In the evenings, Phnom Penh residents come here to take the air, snack on hawker food and enjoy the impromptu waterside entertainment; the strip also shows the city at its most cosmopolitan, lined with Western restaurants, cafés and bars. Three key tourist sights lie close by. Arguably the most impressive of the city’s attractions is the elegant complex housing the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The palace’s distinctive four-faced spire towers above the pitched golden roofs of its Throne Hall, while the adjacent Silver Pagoda is home to a stunning collection of Buddha statues. A block north of the palace is the National Museum , a dark-red building set in leafy surroundings housing a fabulous collection of ancient Cambodian sculpture dating back to as early as the sixth century. Also near the river are a number of lesser attractions, including Wat Ounalom , one of five pagodas founded during Phnom Penh’s first spell as the capital, and bustling hilltop Wat Phnom , one of the city’s prime pleasure spots, whose foundation is said to predate that of the city. The old French administrative area surrounds the hill on which Wat Phnom sits, with many finecolonial buildings , some restored. Also on many tourist itineraries, though for completely different reasons, is the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum south of the centre; a one-time school that became a centre for the torture of cadres who fell foul of the Pol Pot regime.
South of the centre, the area around Independence Monument is a plush residential district and contains further monuments and a restful park. Two disparate attractions lie in the far south of the city: a short moto ride from the centre is the disturbing Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, with its sobering evidence of the paranoia and inhumanity of Pol Pot and his followers; fifteen minutes’ walk further south, Psar Toul Tom Poung has the best souvenir-shopping in the country.
Many visitors stay just a couple of days in Phnom Penh before hopping on to Siem Reap and Angkor, or to the Vietnamese border crossings at Bavet and Chau Doc. There are, however, plenty of reasons to linger longer. The capital has the best shopping in the country, with a vast selection of souvenirs and crafts, and an excellent range of cuisines in its many restaurants. In addition, Phnom Penh offers a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of the traditional culture which the Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out, including classical dance and shadow puppetry.
If you do linger, there are several rewarding day-trips from the capital out into the surrounding countryside. The most obvious is an excursion to the Angkor-era temples of Tonle Bati, featuring well-preserved wall carvings, and Phnom Chisor, stunningly located on top of a hill. Especially poignant if you’ve visited the Genocide Museum is a trip to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, where a memorial stupa contains the remains of some of those murdered here. Among other possible day-trips are the old capitals of Oudong and Lovek, while a smattering of rural villages and riverside pleasure spots make a striking contrast to the historical treasures and bustle of Phnom Penh.
Cambodian legend – passed down through so many generations that the Khmers regard it as fact – has it that in 1372 a wealthy widow, Daun Penh (Grandmother Penh), was strolling along the Chrap Chheam River (now the Tonle Sap), when she came across the hollow trunk of a koki tree washed up on the banks. Inside it she discovered five Buddha statues, four cast in bronze and one carved in stone. As a mark of respect, she created a sanctuary for the statues on the top of a low mound, which became known as Phnom Penh, literally the hill of Penh; in due course, the hill gave its name to the city that grew up around it.
Phnom Penh began its first stint as a capital in 1432, when King Ponhea Yat fled south from Angkor and the invading Siamese. He set up a royal palace, increased the height of Daun Penh’s hill and founded five monasteries – Wat Botum, Wat Koh, Wat Lanka, Wat Ounalom and Wat Phnom – all of which survive today. When Ponhea Yat died, his sons variously took succession, but for reasons that remain unclear, in the sixteenth century the court had moved out to Lovek, and later Oudong, and Phnom Penh reverted to being a fishing village.
Little is known of the subsequent three hundred years in Phnom Penh, though records left by missionaries indicate that by the seventeenth century a multicultural community of Asian and European traders had grown up along the banks of the Tonle Sap, and that Phnom Penh, with easy access by river to the ocean, had developed into a prosperous port, trading in gold, silk, incense, and in hides, bones, ivory and horn from elephants, rhinoceros and buffalo. Phnom Penh’s prosperity declined in the later part of the century, when the Vietnamese invaded the Mekong delta, and cut off Phnom Penh’s access to the sea.
The eighteenth century was a period of dynastic squabbles between pro-Thai and pro-Vietnamese factions of the royal family, and in 1770, Phnom Penh was actually burnt down by the Siamese, who proceeded to install a new king and take control of the country.
Late in the eighteenth century, the Vietnamese assumed suzerainty over Cambodia, and from 1808 all visits to Phnom Penh had to be approved by them. In 1812 Phnom Penh became the capital once again, though the court retreated to Oudong twice over the next fifty years amid continuing power-struggles between the Thais and Vietnamese.
In 1863, King Norodom (great-great-grandfather of the current king, Norodom Sihamoni), fearful of another Vietnamese invasion, signed a treaty for Cambodia to become a French protectorate. At the behest of the French, he uprooted the court from Oudong and the role of capital returned decisively to Phnom Penh, a place which the recently arrived French described as “an unsophisticated settlement made up of a string of thatched huts clustered along a single muddy track, the river banks crowded with the houseboats of fisher-folk”. In fact, an estimate of its population at the time put it at around 25,000. Despite Phnom Penh regaining its access to the sea (the Mekong delta was now under French control) it remained very much an outpost, with the French far more concerned with the development of Saigon.
In 1889, a new Senior Resident, Hyun de Verneville, was appointed to the protectorate. Wanting to make Phnom Penh a place fit to be the French administrative centre in Cambodia, he created a chic colonial town. By 1900, roads had been laid out on a grid plan, a law court, public works and telegraph offices set up, and banks and schools built. A French quarter grew up in the area north of Wat Phnom, where imposing villas were built for the city’s French administrators and traders; Wat Phnom itself gained landscaped gardens and a zoo.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Phnom Penh grew prosperous. The road network was extended, facilitated by the infilling of drainage canals; the Mekong was dredged, making the city accessible to seagoing vessels; parks were created and communications improved. In 1932, the city’s train station was built and the railway line linking the capital to Battambang was completed. Foreign travellers were lured to Cambodia by exotic tales of hidden cities in the jungle.
The country’s first secondary school, Lycée Sisowath, opened in Phnom Penh in 1936, and slowly an educated elite developed, laying the foundations for later political changes. During World War II, the occupying Japanese allowed the French to continue running things and their impact on the city was relatively benign; in October 1941, after the Japanese had arrived, the coronation of Norodom Sihanouk went ahead pretty much as normal in Phnom Penh.
With independence from the French in 1954, Phnom Penh at last became a true seat of government and an educated middle class began to gain prominence; café society began to blossom, cinemas and theatres thrived, and motorbikes and cars took to the boulevards. In the mid-1960s a national sports venue, the Olympic Stadium, was built and world celebrities began to visit – Le Royal, the city’s premier hotel, played host to Jacqueline Kennedy.
The period of optimism was short-lived. Phnom Penh started to feel the effects of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, when refugees began to flee the heavily-bombed border areas for the capital. The civil war of the early 1970s turned this exodus into a flood. Lon Nol’s forces fought a losing battle against the Khmer Rouge and, as the city came under siege, food became scarce despite US efforts to fly in supplies.
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. At first they were welcomed as harbingers of peace, but within hours the soldiers had ordered the population out of the capital. Reassurances that it was “just for a few days” were soon discredited, and as the people – the elderly, infirm and the dying among them – left carrying such possessions as they were able, the Khmer Rouge set about destroying the city. Buildings were ransacked, roofs blown off; even the National Bank was blown up in the Khmer Rouge’s contempt for money. For three years, eight months and twenty days Phnom Penh was a ghost town.
With the Vietnamese entry into Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, both returnees and new settlers began to arrive – although many former inhabitants either could not or would not return, having lost everything and everyone. Those arriving in the city took up residence in the vacant buildings, and to this day many still live in these same properties. During the Vietnamese era, the capital remained impoverished and decrepit, with much of the incoming aid from the Soviet Union and India finding its way into the pockets of senior officials. By 1987, Vietnamese interest was waning, and by 1989 they had withdrawn from Cambodia.
The UN subsequently took charge of Cambodia, and by 1992 the country was flooded with highly paid UNTAC forces. The atmosphere in Phnom Penh became surreal: its infrastructure was still in tatters, electricity and water were spasmodic, telecommunications nonexistent and evening curfews were put in force, but the city boomed as hotels, restaurants and bars sprang up to keep the troops entertained. Many Phnom Penh residents got rich quick on the back of this – supplying prostitutes and drugs played a part – and the capital gained a reputation for being a free-rolling, lawless city, one which it is still trying to lay to rest.
The city of today is slowly repairing the dereliction caused nearly three decades ago; roads are being rebuilt, the electricity is reliable and many of the charming colonial buildings are being restored. Alongside them, an increasing number of skyscrapers, high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls are steadily peppering the horizon, particularly along Monivong and Sihanouk boulevards. With tourism firmly in its sights, the municipal government has set out elaborate plans to continue smartening up the city, ranging from dictating the colour in which buildings will be painted – creamy yellow – to evicting squatters and makeshift shops from areas designated for development. Boeng Kak lake, for example, once a popular backpacker area, is now all but filled in and deserted to make way for a vast private development of hotels, apartments and luxury amenities. On the eastern end of Sihanouk Boulevard, Hun Sen Park and NagaWorld – a sprawling casino and hotel complex heavily invested in by Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen – dominates the waterfront.
Aspirations of car-ownership are attested to by the increase in traffic, and exercise – or hat prahn – is an important part of daily life now for many, who congregate in the city’s parks in the late afternoon sun to join in impromptu aerobics classes or to march determinedly in laps, stretching their arms as they go.
Not so long ago the Cambodians abhorred banks, preferring instead to buy gold, but now even monks can be seen queuing for the ATM. Corruption is still rife; however, with a firmly re-established middle class, the city seems to be facing the future with renewed optimism.Read More
Phnom Penh addresses
Phnom Penh addresses
Thanks to the French, who laid out the city on a grid system, Phnom Penh is remarkably easy to navigate. The major streets all have little-used official names, which have been changed periodically to honour particular regimes or sponsoring countries; the current names have been around since the mid-1990s. The rest of the streets are numbered and generally pretty easy to find. North–south streets have the odd numbers, with the low numbers nearest the river; even-numbered streets run east–west, with the low numbers in the north of the city. Signage is improving though, and areas of town are even acquiring district names that are posted above the road.
Individual buildings are numbered, but are almost without exception difficult to locate, as the numbering doesn’t run consecutively, with the same number often being used more than once on the same street – Street 76, for example, boasted three no. 25s on the last count. Cruising until you spot your destination may be the only option unless you can call ahead for directions.
The famous Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana, addresses the moral themes of good versus evil, duty, suffering and karma through the story of Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu. A popular theme in Cambodian art and culture, its many episodes are depicted in temple carvings, pagoda art, classical dance and shadow puppetry. A simplified Cambodian version, the Reamker, also exists, more often portrayed in dance than in visual art.
At the outset of the story, ten-headed, twenty-armed Ravana, king of the rakasa demons, is terrorizing the world. As only a human can kill him, Vishnu agrees to appear on earth in human form to re-establish peace, and is duly born as Rama, one of the sons of Emperor Dasaratha. In due course, a sage teaches Rama mystical skills which come in handy in defeating the demons which crop up in the tale and in stringing Shiva’s bow, by which feat Rama wins the hand of a princess, Sita.
The emperor plans to name Rama as his heir, but the mother of one of Rama’s half-brothers tricks her husband into banishing Rama to the forest; he is accompanied there by Sita and another of his half-brothers, the loyal Lakshmana. After Rama cuts off the ears and nose of a witch who attacks Sita, Ravana gets his revenge by luring Rama away using a demon disguised as a golden deer; Lakshmana is despatched to find Rama, whereupon Ravana abducts Sita and takes her to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama enlists the help of Sugriva, the monkey king, Sita’s whereabouts are discovered by Hanuman, son of the wind god. Rama and the monkey army rush to Lanka, where a mighty battle ensues; ultimately Rama looses the golden arrow of Brahma at Ravana who, pierced in the heart, dies ignominiously.
Although the tale as told in Cambodia often ends here, there are two standard denouements. In one, Sita steps into fire and emerges unscathed, proving she has not been defiled by Ravana, after which the couple return home to a joyous welcome and Rama is crowned king. In the alternative, sad, ending, Sita is exiled back to the forest, where she gives birth to twins. When they are 12, the twins are taken to court and Rama is persuaded that he is really their father. He begs forgiveness from Sita and she calls on Mother Earth to bear witness to her good faith. In a moment she is swallowed up by the earth, leaving Rama to mourn on earth for 11,000 years, until he is recalled by death to Brahma.
Alhough you may be approached by older people who learnt French at school, they represent the fortunate few who survived the murder of the educated during the Pol Pot era, when the number of French-speakers in Cambodia was drastically reduced. In the aftermath, the emphasis began to switch to English, as the arrival of UNTAC and the NGOs gave rise to a demand for English-speaking interpreters. Nowadays computers, tourism and Cambodia’s membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose working language is English, are driving the rush to learn the language.
English is now taught in state schools, though cursorily at best, so parents who can afford it send their children to supplementary English-language classes at private institutions immediately after school hours, with adults piling in to take courses after the children leave at 5pm. At 1000–1500 riel an hour, these lessons are an expensive business for many, but the outlay is regarded as a good investment, comprehension of English being perceived as essential to getting a decent job. Thanks to massive demand, any establishment with a few desks and chairs can set itself up as a language school, and the shortage of qualified teachers means that the instructor is often only a couple of study books ahead of their students. Classes are advertised on signs and banners in Phnom Penh and all major towns; the place to glimpse them being conducted in the capital is Street 164, parallel to and just north of Charles de Gaulle Boulevard, near Psar Orussey.
Although learning by rote is the norm in Cambodia, many students in the cities now have a reasonable understanding of English; elsewhere though, teaching is at best rudimentary and it is still possible that you’ll encounter giggling children rattling off the well-worn phrase “Hello, what is your name?” before running off, without any expectation of a reply.
Getting back on track
Getting back on track
There are currently no passenger trains in Cambodia, but work is in progress to change that. The French introduced train travel to the country in the 1930s, building a line that ran between Phnom Penh and Battambang and all the way up to the Thai border at Poipet. In the 1960s a line was built down to Sihanoukville with funds from France, China and West Germany. But the Khmer Rouge’s lust for destruction extended to the travel infrastructure, and when the service resumed after the civil war, trains were forced to run with an empty flatbed carriage in front that would activate any mines planted by the Khmer Rouge the night before, a practice that continued well into the 1990s. Years of neglect led to disrepair and degradation. The service to Sihanoukville ended, and the trains between Poipet and Battambang dried up completely. The daily service between Battambang and Phnom Penh finally ground to a halt in 2009.
The Australian rail company, Toll Holdings, began a massive reconstruction programme on the track between Phnom Penh and Kampot in June 2009. The track was reopened for freight transport in October 2010, the first phase of a $141-million project that will one day connect Cambodia with Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. Lines should be running south as far as Sihanoukville and its port, and a northern line resuming the Phnom Penh–Battambang–Poipet link soon. Once freight is being transported safely along these routes, there are high hopes for the service to be made public, although this will take a few years yet.
Unique to the capital, cyclos remain popular and offer a leisurely way to get around, although they do cost slightly more than motos. The Cyclo Centre Phnom Penh is an NGO set up to help cyclo drivers. They offer showers, medical care and education, and can be found at 9 Street 158, not far from Sorya Mall (T023/991178). You can’t book for a trip, but if you turn up here there are usually cyclos around and starting your ride from here is a good way to support the drivers, who rank among the poorest people in the capital. Alternatively you could contact Khmer Architecture Tours who organize a cyclo trip around the key post-1953 architectural sights on the second Sunday of each month (www.ka-tours.org); tours cost $12 and last two to three hours.
There’s no shortage of accommodation in Phnom Penh, with an increasing number of guesthouses and hotels across the city catering for all pockets and tastes, from basic rooms to opulent colonial-era suites. No matter when you arrive, you should have no difficulty finding a room, although the very cheapest rooms fill up quickly. If you intend to stay for more than a couple of nights, it’s worth asking for a discount at guesthouses and mid-range places. With deluxe accommodation you’ll often get a better deal by booking through a travel agent or taking a two to three-night package.
The former backpacker area around Boeng Kak lake has now all but disappeared along with the water. The lake has been gradually filled by private developers and at the time of writing a small sliver to the east remained, along which a few guesthouses and homes still cling. But filling the lake with sand has led to flooding along the bank, leaving the area forlorn and increasingly abandoned. Most of the budget accommodation is now in little clusters to the south of Psar Orussey, and on Street 258 in the centre of town. There are also several cheap places with coveted locations close to the riverside. Recent years have seen increased competition in the mid-range bracket, with plenty of centrally located hotels along Monivong Boulevard and in Boeng Keng Kang, broadly around Street 278, near the NGO residential area. This is now the hottest location in town, with cosmopolitan restaurants, cafés, spas and boutique shops springing up all around it. Deluxe hotels in Phnom Penh rival those of any country, with the pride of place going to Raffles Hotel Le Royal; even if you’re not staying there, it’s worth a visit to admire the stunning colonial building or to enjoy a cocktail in its famous Elephant Bar.
If you are staying for a month or more, you could consider one of the serviced apartments offered by several hotels around town. Comprising bedroom, sitting room, bathroom and kitchenette, these go for around $700–1000 per month.
Phnom Penh has a vast range of places to eat, from noodle shops and market stalls, where you can fill up for a few thousand riel, to sophisticated Western places where prices for a main course rise to $15–20. In addition many guesthouses have small, if usually undistinguished, restaurants.
On the whole, the food in Phnom Penh is of a reasonable standard, so you’re unlikely to go far wrong if you pick somewhere to eat at random. The bustling riverfront and Sisowath Quay are lined with cafés, restaurants and bars serving cuisine from all corners of the world. The attractive location means you need to pick carefully if you’re on a budget, with the cheapest single-course meals going for $4–5. Boeng Keng Kang, broadly Street 278 from streets 51 to 63, is packed with swish cafés, refined but reasonably priced restaurants and bars, and the atmosphere is more laidback than the riverfront (where the myriad of vendors and beggars can get a little wearing). For fine-dining on imported meat and wine, there are some noteworthy French restaurants as well as some fancy fusion establishments; even though they’re expensive in Cambodian terms they cost a fraction of what you would pay in the West.
A great place to fill up and try a selection of traditional Khmer dishes is at one of the markets; try the Central Market and Psar Kabkoh; the latter is a few blocks southeast of Independence Monument and dozens of sellers cook into the early evening. Most Cambodians come here to buy takeaway meals, but small plastic stools are ubiquitous and should suffice as a dining room. For sop chhnang day, where you cook meat and vegetables in a pot of stock at your table, there are plenty of establishments to try on Monivong and Sihanouk boulevards.
In addition to sit-down meals, stalls and roadside vendors sell simple noodle and rice dishes for roughly 3000 riel to take away, while fresh baguettes and rolls are sold in the markets in the morning and are available all day around the city from hawkers with handcarts.
Cafés and coffee shops
Phnom Penh’s busy café society of the 1950s and 1960s vanished during the war years, but there has now been a massive revival, with many attached to galleries, shops or internet centres.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking for foreign visitors and expats in Phnom Penh falls loosely into three categories: the seedy, smoky girly bars that proliferate off the Sisowath Quay and along Street 51; the sophisticated, trendy cocktail bars, either with a river view or in a prime location in downtown Boeng Keng Kang (BKK); and the lively, more low-key hangouts that often have live music and may double up as pick-up joints, but with an easygoing attitude. The rest of Phnom Penh’s nightlife is geared to Khmer men only and revolves around girlie bars, karaoke, dance halls and local discos. Under the strobe lights, you’ll hear a deafening mix of Thai, Filipino and Western popas well as traditional Khmer music and songs – such as those by Cambodia’s pop idol, Sin Sisamouth. Ask locals for the most popular spots of the moment; it makes for a fun night especially if, after a few drinks, you want to have a go at the elegantly flowing rhom vong, in which the men and women dance side by side, couples one behind the other, a bit like a double conga; the chain slowly progresses around the floor, hands gracefully weaving in and out. These venues are at their best after 10pm; entrance is usually free. Beer girls will be on hand to pour the drinks and for pay-as-you-go dances. These places are usually OK for foreigners, as long as you don’t get too drunk or obnoxious. Bear in mind too that there is sometimes a thuggish element in places frequented by the rich, bored sons of the Cambodian nouveaux riches. Step on their feet while dancing or stare at their female companions and you may have a real incident on your hands. Phnom Penh has an emerging and increasingly blooming gay scene, with a few great venues and more appearing.
Phnom Penh is the best place to shop in Cambodia, with traditional markets selling everything from beautiful silk sampots – the word for both the traditional Khmer skirt and a sufficient length of fabric to make one – which a tailor can then make up into garments of your own design, to myriad hand-crafted wooden, stone and silver-crafted trinkets. Contemporary woodcarvings and marble statues make bulky souvenirs, but are so evocative of Cambodia that it’s hard not to pick up one or two, and you will see hundreds of intricate (usually low-grade) silver pots in the shape of animals on sale, which tuck more neatly into backpack or suitcase. Jewellery is sold in abundance too, gold and silver, set with stones and gems in all imaginable designs and colours, and there are wonderful antiques and curios to be discovered, both originals and replicas of old wooden pagoda statues and a huge assortment of decorative boxes and trunks. Haggling is an essential part of market shopping, with prices starting ludicrously high, and it’s worth checking around a few stalls as they will often sell identical pieces.
If you can’t bear the hassle of the market, there are an increasing number of classy boutiques selling clothes, jewellery and soft furnishings particularly around BKK and Street 240, and Sihanouk Boulevard, near Lucky Supermarket, has several designer stores, including Lacoste, and a branch of the high-street store Mango will be opening there soon. Street 178 is known as “Art Street”, as dozens of little warehouses sell an array of paintings and small sculptures, created for the tourist market. Alternatively, head to Sorya, Golden Sorya or Paragon malls, where you can find everything from underwear to sportswear.
Ethical shopping is possible too. Numerous NGOs, other organizations and some private individuals have shops and outlets that directly help street children, women at risk and/or the disabled and other disadvantaged groups.