Sisowath Quay, hugging the river for nearly 4km from the Chroy Chung Va Bridge to Chatomuk Theatre, is the heart of the tourist scene in Phnom Penh, with a weekend night market and a plethora of Western bars and restaurants close to the Royal Palace and National Museum. From Street 106, midway along, the quay forms a broad promenade extending almost 2km south, and there are plans to extend this walkway by a further 4km, all the way to the bridge at Chbar Ampov. Every autumn, the river thrums with crowds flocking to the boat races and festivities of Bonn Om Tuk, the water festival. For the rest of the year, the riverfront is fairly quiet by day, when it’s a pleasant place to walk, and gets busier in the late afternoon when the inhabitants of Phnom Penh come out to dah’leng, a term that means anything from a short stroll to an all-day trip out of town. At about 5pm, the pavements around the public garden by the Royal Palace turn into a huge picnic-ground as mats are spread out, food and drink vendors appear and impromptu entertainment springs up. Many will also head across the road to the shrine with the statue of a four-armed Buddha. The story goes that many years ago a crocodile-shaped flag appeared in the river and on Buddhist holidays it would miraculously appear on a flag pole. Now, the spirit of the flag, Preah Ang Dong Kar, has a permanent home here and people make offerings asking for wealth and happiness – at the same time helping the flower and incense vendors to make a living. Boats and their captains can be hired for a late afternoon cruise on the Mekong ($10 per hour; look out for the signs at the north end of the promenade), where you can sup a beer (bring your own) and watch the sun set behind the Royal Palace.Read More
In the northeast of the city, just a few hundred metres from the riverfront, Wat Phnom, where the hilltop sanctuary from which the capital got its name once stood, is one of the principal pleasure spots for the inhabitants of Phnom Penh, drawing the crowds especially at weekends and on public holidays. Before climbing the hill (which, even at a mere 27m high, is sufficient to dwarf anything else in the capital), you’ll be directed to one of the payment booths to buy your ticket. The nicest way up the hill is by the naga staircase on the east side, passing some bronze friezes (depicting scenes of battle) and dancing apsaras (reproductions of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat) on the way. The sanctuary on the summit has been rebuilt many times, most recently in 1926, and nothing remains of the original structures; the surrounding gardens were originally landscaped in the late nineteenth century by the French, who also installed a zoo (of which nothing remains) and the clock on the south side of the hill, restored for the Millennium, now sports a dial that glows in fluorescent colours as night draws in.
This taste for the luminous bizarrely continues inside the vihara (which, before entering, you must take off your shoes) where a neon disc revolves behind the sitting Buddha, visible through the haze of burning incense. Over the years, the smoke has darkened the wall paintings, making it hard to make out the depictions of the Jataka stories. A constant stream of Khmer pass through the pagoda, paying their respects and trying to discover their fortunes by holding a palm-leaf book above their heads and, without looking, inserting a small pointer between the pages; the page thus picked out contains the prediction, although sometimes it takes three attempts to get an acceptable fortune.
Behind the vihara is a small shrine to Daun Penh, the woman credited with founding the sanctuary here; the shrine contains her genial image, much revered. The large white chedi contains the ashes of King Ponhea Yat. On the north side of the hill just below the summit is a busy shrine to Preah Chao, a Taoist goddess whom people come to ask for good luck, health or success with their business; her helpers, Thien Ly Than (who can see for 1000 miles) and Thuan Phong Nhi (who can hear sounds 1000 miles away), stand close by. Judging by the elaborate offerings on the altar, requests are obviously granted – it’s not unusual to see whole cooked chickens, surrounded by their cooked innards and unlaid eggs offered on plates. Resident monkeys are very good at stealing the offerings, and feeding them is said to be a good way of acquiring merit for the next life, as is releasing the tiny birds which hawkers sell from cages all around the hill – you may spot a Cambodian buying up the entire cage – although it is rumoured that the birds are trained to fly back to their cages once released.
For thirty years, Sam Bo, the much loved 50-year-old elephant at Wat Phnom, gave rides around the base of the hill, was fed endless bananas and posed placidly for countless photos. However, at the time of writing, the authorities announced that Sam Bo was a disruption to the traffic, and had to move elsewhere. For now she is lodging by Naga World complex, but where she will end up is uncertain.
The rather sombre concrete chedi that fronts Sisowath Quay belies the fact that Wat Ounalom is one of Phnom Penh’s oldest and most important pagodas, dating all the way back to the reign of Ponhea Yat in the fifteenth century – though there’s little evidence now of its age. In the early 1970s, over five hundred monks lived at the pagoda, which also housed the library of the Institut Bouddhique, subsequently destroyed, along with many of the buildings, by the Khmer Rouge.
The pagoda gets its name from its role as repository for an ounalom, a hair from the Buddha’s eyebrow, contained in the large chedi behind the vihara; you can gain access if you ask at the small bookshop near the entrance on Street 13. Within the chedi are four sanctuaries, the most revered being the one facing east, where there’s a fine bronze Buddha. The monks use the vihara, which dates from 1952, in the early morning, after which time visitors can enter. Unusually, it’s built on three floors, and houses a commemorative statue of Samdech Huot Tat, the venerable fourth patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism, who was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Despite its unappealing exterior, the dark-grey chedi is worth a quick look for its crypt, in which hundreds of small cubicles hold the funerary urns of Cambodian notables, most of which are adorned with bright plastic flowers and a photograph of the deceased.