“A city of white buildings, where spires of gold and stupas of stone rocket out of the greenery into the vivid blue sky.” Such was American visitor Robert Casey’s description of Phnom Penh in 1929, in which he also noted the shady, wide streets and pretty parks. The image bears a remarkable resemblance to the Phnom Penh of today, and life then seems to have been much as it is now, the open-fronted shops and shophouses bustling with haggling traders, and roadsides teeming with food vendors and colourful, busy markets. The capital of Cambodia and the heart of government 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 the towering high-rise developments that blight neighbouring Southeast Asian capitals, although the construction of newer, higher, and more modern buildings is certainly gaining pace.
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Such is the city’s enterprise and energy that it’s difficult to believe 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.
It is testimony to the unflappable good nature and stoicism of the city’s inhabitants that, despite past adversity, they remain upbeat. Many people do two jobs to get by, keeping government offices ticking over for a few hours each day and then moonlighting as moto drivers or tutors; furthermore, the Cambodian belief in education is particularly strong here, and anyone who can afford to sends their children to supplementary classes outside school hours. This dynamism constantly attracts people from the provinces – newcomers soon discover, though, that it’s tougher being poor in the city than in the country, and are often forced to rent tiny rooms in one of the many shanties on the city’s outskirts, ripped off for the privilege by affluent landlords.
Most of the city’s sights are located between the Tonle Sap River and Monivong Boulevard, in an area bordered by Sihanouk Boulevard in the south and Wat Phnom in the north. For tourists and locals alike, the lively riverfront – a wide promenade that runs beside the Tonle Sap for nearly 2km – is the city’s focal point. In the evenings, 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 that dominate the southern riverfront. 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 dramatic, hybrid building set in leafy surroundings housing a fabulous collection of ancient Khmer sculpture dating back to as early as the sixth century. Also near the river are Wat Ounalom – one of five pagodas founded during Phnom Penh’s first spell as the capital, whose austere grey stupa houses the ashes of many prominent Khmers – 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, often referred to as the French quarter, surrounds the hill on which Wat Phnom sits, boasting many fine colonial buildings, some restored, while to the southwest the daffodil-yellow Art Deco Central Market sits close to the city’s business district. To the south of the city, the jam-packed Russian Market is a popular souvenir-sourcing spot while another much-visited sight, though for completely different reasons, is the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum: a one-time school that became a centre for the torture of men, women and children who fell foul of the Pol Pot regime.
Many visitors stay just a couple of days in Phnom Penh before hopping on to Siem Reap and Angkor, Sihanoukville and the southern beaches or to the Vietnamese border crossings at Bavet and Chau Doc. There are, however, plenty of reasons to linger. 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. There are also several rewarding day-trips from the capital out into the surrounding countryside.
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.
The founding of the city
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 Langka, 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. Gold, silk and incense were traded along with 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.
As the nineteenth century dawned, the Vietnamese assumed suzerainty over Cambodia. 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.
Phnom Penh under the French
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 riverbanks 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.
The civil war and the Khmer Rouge
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 laden with armfuls of possessions, the Khmer Rouge set about destroying the city. Buildings were ransacked, roofs blown off; even the National Bank was blown up. For three years, eight months and twenty days Phnom Penh was a ghost town.
Vietnamese and UN control
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, 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 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.
Modern Phnom Penh
The city of today is slowly repairing the dereliction caused nearly three decades ago; roads are much improved, electricity is reliable and many of the charming colonial buildings are being restored. Alongside, 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. On the eastern end of Sihanouk Boulevard, Hun Sen Park and Naga World – a sprawling casino and hotel complex heavily invested in by Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen – dominates the waterfront. It remains to be seen how many other changes this dynamic city will face, but for now at least, the feeling is broadly optimistic.
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.
Every autumn, the river thrums with crowds flocking to the boat races and festivities of Bonn Om Toeuk. 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 locals 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 begins.
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, more than 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. 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.
Boats and their captains can be hired for a late afternoon cruise on the Mekong (around $10/hr, depending on the number of passengers; 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. Try friendly Crocodile Cruises (crocodilecruise.com), which offers free pick-ups and a little more style (and comfort) than other boats; theirs are fitted with cushioned armchairs and loungers.
The Bonn Om Toeuk tragedy
The most important festival in the Cambodian calendar, Bonn Om Toeuk (known as the Water Festival), attracts more than two million visitors to the capital from the provinces each year to celebrate the reversing of the flow of the Tonle Sap River (variable, late Oct to mid-Nov). Many come to support their teams during the three days of boat racing, but most are happy to soak up the atmosphere with their families, eat copiously from the myriad street vendors and scoop up bargains from the sellers who lay their wares out along the riverfront. After dark the town remains just as animated, with free concerts and fireworks.
The sheer volume of people weaving a fragile dance along the riverfront is a spectacle in itself. Given the volatile mixture of millions of exuberant people and zero crowd control, it was almost inevitable that at some point something would go wrong. During the extravagant closing ceremony of the 2010 celebrations panic broke out as the several-thousand-strong crowd poured onto a narrow footbridge, causing a stampede in which 351 died. The following year’s festival was cancelled as a mark of respect.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are Phnom Penh’s most iconic buildings, their roofs adorned with soaring golden nagas and spires that glint enticingly against the sky. Built in traditional Khmer style, the crenellated wall that encases this complex of royal buildings, manicured gardens and relic-stuffed temples is painted pale yellow and white, the two colours representing respectively the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. Nothing now exists of King Ponhea Yat’s palace, built here in 1434, and very little remains of the wooden palace of King Norodom – the great-great-grandfather of the current king, who moved his capital here from Oudong in 1863. Indeed, the current Royal Palace, official residence of King Sihamoni, dates back less than a hundred years, with most of the buildings having been reconstructed in concrete in the early twentieth century. Even so, the complex is well worth a visit for its classic Khmer architecture, its ornate gilding and its tranquil French-style landscaped gardens. The Silver Pagoda – ringed by a mythological muralled wall – is a particular highlight for its elaborate silver-tiled floor and priceless Buddha statues.
When visiting the Royal Palace, you may find that one or two of the royal buildings are either cordoned off or no longer on display. There’s still plenty to see, but if there’s something you’re particularly interested in then make sure to check with the guides at the entrance for the latest on any closures.
The Victory Gate
Entering the pristine outer gardens dotted with topiary trees takes you towards the Victory Gate, which opens onto Sothearos Boulevard and faces the entrance steps to the Throne Hall. This was traditionally only used by the king and queen, though it’s now used to admit visiting dignitaries. Just to the north of the gate, the Moonlight Pavilion (Preah Tineang Chan Chhaya) was built for twilight performances of classical Cambodian dance, as a dais for the king to address the crowds and as a venue for state and royal banquets.
The Throne Hall
The present Throne Hall (Preah Tineang Tevea Vinicchay) was inaugurated by King Bat Sisowath in 1919 as a faithful reproduction of Norodom’s wooden palace, demolished in 1915. As befits a building used for coronations and ceremonies, it’s the most impressive building in the royal compound, topped by a much-photographed four-faced tower. The roof has seven tiers (counted from the lowest level up to the base of the spire) tiled in orange, sapphire and green, representing, respectively, prosperity, nature and freedom. Golden nagas at the corners of each level protect against evil spirits.
The hall’s broad entrance staircase, its banisters formed by seven-headed nagas, leads up to a colonnaded veranda, each column of which is topped by a garuda with wings outstretched, appearing to support the overhanging roof. Peering into the Throne Room from the east door, you’ll find a ceiling painted with finely detailed scenes from the Reamker (see The Ramayana) in muted colours, and walls stencilled with pastel leaf motifs and images of celestial beings, hands together in sompeyar. Unfortunately, since access to the Throne Room is forbidden it is almost impossible to get a proper view of the two elaborate golden coronation thrones ahead. They occupy a dais in the centre of the hall, above which a nine-tiered white and gold parasol, symbolizing peacefulness, heaven and ambition, is suspended; two large garudas guard the thrones from their position on the ceiling.
At the rear of the hall is an area where the king holds audiences with visiting VIPs and where the busts of six royal ancestors are displayed. Anterooms off the hall are used for different purposes: there are separate bedrooms for the king and the queen, to be used during the seven nights after the coronation, during which the royal couple have to sleep apart; another room serves as the king’s prayer room; the last room is used to store the king’s ashes after his death, while his chedi is being built.
The Royal Waiting Room
The imposing Royal Waiting Room (Hor Samranphirum), to the north of the Throne Room, is used on coronation days, when king and queen mount ceremonial elephants from the platform attached to the east side of the building for the coronation procession. A room at ground level serves to store the royal musical instruments and coronation paraphernalia. The pavilion is currently home to a collection of artefacts gifted to the monarch by foreign heads of state.
The Royal Treasury
Just south of the Throne Hall is the Royal Treasury (Hor Samritvimean), also known as the ‘Bronze Palace’, which houses regalia vital to the coronation ceremony, including the Great Crown of Victory, the Sacred Sword and the Victory Spear.
Constructed in 1962 by former King Sihanouk to replace the wooden pagoda built by his grandfather in 1902, the Silver Pagoda is so named because of its 5329 silver floor tiles, each around 20cm square and weighing more than 1kg. It’s also known as Wat Preah Keo Morokot, the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, after the green Baccarat crystal Buddha within. The pagoda itself is clearly influenced by Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo, also home to a precious crystal Buddha to which the one in Phnom Penh bears an uncanny resemblance. Although more than half its contents were stolen during the Khmer Rouge years, the pagoda itself survived pretty much unscathed, and was used to demonstrate to the few international visitors that the regime was caring for Cambodia’s cultural history. A rich collection of artefacts and Buddha images remains, making the pagoda more a museum than place of worship.
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 (see Hinduism’s historical role). 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 that 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.
Dancer, teacher, artistic director and United Nations representative, Norodom Sihamoni (born 1953) – son of the late Norodom Sihanouk and his seventh wife Monineath, and his name made up from the first four letters of each of their names – was elected to be Cambodia’s king by the Throne Council in October 2004 on the surprise abdication of his father. Most of Sihamoni’s life was spent outside Cambodia: from the age of 9 he was educated in Prague where he learned dance, music and theatre; he later studied cinematography in Korea.
In fact, other than his early childhood, the three years he spent imprisoned with his family in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge years was the longest he spent in the country until becoming king. On the arrival of the Vietnamese, the royal family went into exile and for a year Sihamoni acted as private secretary to his father, but from 1980 he was in Paris (where he spent the next twenty years) as a professor of classical dance. From 1992, Sihamoni was Cambodia’s permanent representative at the United Nations, and in 1993 he became its UNESCO ambassador – resigning both positions on becoming king. Sharing his father’s love of cinema, Sihamoni was also director general of a production company, Khemara Pictures, and has a couple of ballet films to his credit. The king is a bachelor and keeps a lower profile than his late father. As yet he hasn’t done anything to excite the media, though he is seen around the country and seems well regarded by his subjects.
Phnom Penh National Museum
Cambodia’s impressive dark-red sandstone National Museum houses a rich collection of sculpture, relics and artefacts dating from prehistoric times to the present. The collection had to be abandoned in 1975 when the city was emptied by the Khmer Rouge; it was subsequently looted and the museum’s director murdered. By 1979, when the population returned, the roof had collapsed and the galleries and courtyard gone to ruin – for a time the museum had to battle to protect its exhibits from the guano produced by the millions of bats that had colonized the roof; these were finally driven out in 2002.
The museum opened in 1918, and, designed by the French archeologist, George Groslier, comprises four linked galleries that form a rectangle around a leafy courtyard, its roof topped with protective nagas. Entrance to the museum is via the central flight of steps leading to the East Gallery. The massive wooden doors here, dating from 1918, and each weighing over a tonne, have carvings reminiscent of those at Banteay Srei. The four galleries are arranged broadly chronologically, going clockwise from the southeast corner; allow yourself at least an hour for the visit.
Wat Botum Park and around
South of the Royal Palace complex, flanking Sothearos Boulevard, the peaceful Wat Botum Park gets its name from the adjacent temple. Within the park is a golden stupa commemorating the sixteen people killed outside the old National Assembly (corner of Street 240 and Sothearos Blvd) building on March 30, 1997, when grenades were thrown into a rally led by the Sam Rainsy party. Further south, the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument – massive sandstone figures of a Khmer woman holding a baby, flanked by two armed Vietnamese liberation soldiers – commemorates the Vietnamese liberation of Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.
The park is a lovely place to stroll just before sunset, when a handful of trainers set up boom boxes and Cambodians pay 1000 riel to join them in a rigorously choreographed, unofficial aerobics class. You will see others taking a gentler, but equally serious, approach to exercise by walking determined laps around the park.
Hun Sen Park complex
Hun Sen Park, now home to Naga World, a gaudy casino, hotel and restaurant complex, lies east of Sothearos Boulevard, and spills into adjacent Koh Pich, or Diamond. Once a quaint offshore farming village, the area now hosts a children’s park, ornamental gardens, a golf course, a water park and a vast exhibition centre. It was on the footbridge linking Diamond Island to the mainland that the stampede occurred during the water festival in November 2010 (see The Bonn Om Toeuk tragedy). Opposite Naga World is Dreamworld, Cambodia’s biggest amusement park, while to the south lies the Buddhist Institute and the enormous National Assembly building. This stretch of road is particularly popular with the city’s rich boys who come here to road-race their powerful SUVs in full sight of the police on guard at the Assembly building.
Sitting amid an elongated strip of grassy park stretching west from Hun Sen Park and Naga World, the Independence Monument (aka Victory Monument) was built to commemorate independence from the French in 1953 but now also serves as a cenotaph to the country’s war dead. The distinctive, dark-red sandstone tower, completed in 1958, is reminiscent of an Angkorian sanctuary tower, its multitiered roofs embellished with more than a hundred nagas. At night it makes a dramatic sight when the fountains are floodlit in red, blue and white, the primary colours of the national flag.
The alleys around Wat Prayuvong, around 300m south of the Independence Monument, are the city’s centre for the manufacture of spirit houses (see Animism, ancestor worship and superstitions) and religious statuary – you can’t miss the brightly painted displays on the roadside. Although everything is now made in concrete, the artistry remains elaborate and the variety is fascinating; a number of artists here also do religious paintings, some on an impressive scale.
Sprawling Wat Langka, one of the five pagodas founded in the city by Ponhea Yat in 1442, gets its name from its historic ties with monks in Sri Lanka. The pagoda vies with Wat Ounalom for importance, and many of the monks here are highly regarded teachers. Within the vihara scenes from the Buddha’s life feature an idiosyncratic local touch – one shows Angkor Wat, while another depicts tourists climbing Wat Phnom.
One-hour silent meditation sessions are held some days at Wat Langka, supervised by English-speaking monks.
Phnom Penh Tour Sleng Genocide Museum
Originally the Toul Svay High School, from 1975 to 1979 the disturbing Toul Sleng Genocide Museum was the notorious Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21, through whose gates more than thirteen thousand people (up to twenty thousand according to some estimates) passed to their deaths. S-21 was an interrogation centre designed for the educated and elite: doctors, teachers, military personnel and government officials. The regime was indiscriminate in its choice of victims; even babies and children were among those detained, and subsequently slaughtered, to eliminate the possibility of them one day seeking to avenge their parents’ deaths.
Beyond the gates, still surrounded by high walls and ringed by barbed wire, an eerie silence descends on the complex of four buildings, juxtaposing harshly against the palm and frangipani trees in the former school playground. Up to 1500 prisoners were housed here at any time, either confined in tiny cells or chained to the floor or each other in the former classrooms.
The French quarter
During the colonial era, Wat Phnom was at the heart of the French quarter, its leafy boulevards graced by several delightful colonial buildings, including the main post office, the National Library, Raffles Hotel Le Royal and the rather grand train station. Many of these survive today and the area is worth exploring to get a taste of their historic grandeur.
In the northeast of the city, set back just a few hundred metres from the riverfront, the imposing white chedi of Wat Phnom sits atop the hill that gave the city its name. This 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 is just 27m high), you can either buy your ticket from the payment booth or a roving guard will inevitably approach you for cash once you reach the top. The nicest way up the hill is by the naga staircase on the east side, passing 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, with a dial that glows in fluorescent colours at dusk.
Horror in the embassy
Screened by high white walls, the French Embassy sits on the western side of Monivong Boulevard, just south of the traffic island. In April 1975, eight hundred foreigners and six hundred Cambodians took refuge here from the Khmer Rouge, whereupon they were held hostage and denied diplomatic privileges. Eventually, foreigners and Cambodian women married to foreign men were released and escorted to the airport. Cambodian men married to foreign women had to remain, never to be seen again.
Psar Thmei (Central Market)
Edged on four sides by busy traffic-clogged streets, the much-photographed Psar Thmei, or Central Market, was designed by the French in 1937 and hailed at the time as Asia’s largest. The original Art Deco design, highlighted by the enormous central dome and unusual cruciform shape, has made it a central, if unlikely, landmark. Reopened in 2011 after extensive renovations, its atmospheric central hall is laid out with stalls selling jewellery, spectacles and watches while its four enormous wings house low-grade electronics, household items, clothing and fabrics along with fresh produce, souvenirs and flowers. It is a smelly and eye-opening experience to stroll around the food stalls here, where every type of meat, fish, fruit and vegetable is on display. It’s a good place for a cheap feed, too; fringing the market to the south are food stands selling local dishes for a few thousand riel.
Chroy Chung Va Bridge and around
As you travel north towards the Chroy Chung Va (Japanese) Bridge, the city becomes less attractive, albeit interesting for its history. The bridge, spanning the Tonle Sap, was blown up in 1973 either by (depending on who you believe) Lon Nol forces attempting to hold off the Khmer Rouge from entering the city, or by the advancing Khmer Rouge forces. Known from then on as spean bak, “broken bridge”, it is now often referred to as chuowa chuoul hauwy, “not broken anymore”. To others it is the “Japanese Bridge”, as it was rebuilt with funds from Japan in 1993.
The traffic island at the northern end of Monivong Boulevard, just before the bridge, contains the curious Tied Gun Monument. In 1999, the government, concerned about the proliferation of firearms, seized all the guns it could lay its hands on and, amid great political fanfare, had them crushed. The remains were melted down and a sculpture of a revolver with a knot tied in its barrel was cast. However, cynics say that only the broken guns were smashed and that the good ones were handed out to the police and military.
Cambodian beer might not be world famous but a brewery tour offers a fun diversion from Phnom Penh’s more conventional sights. Kingdom Breweries, 1748 NR5, 200m north of the Chroy Chung Va Bridge (tours Weds–Fri 2–4pm or by appointment; $6; 023 430 1802, kingdombreweries.com), was established in 2009 as a boutique label. The 45-minute tour gives you an insight into the brewing process – interesting if you’ve never witnessed this sort of thing before – and includes a tasting at the end. The beer’s not bad either!
Around Phnom Penh
Just a short journey from Phnom Penh brings you to a landscape of rice paddies and sugar palms, scattered with small villages and isolated pagodas. The Chroy Chung Va peninsula, the tip of land facing the city centre at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, is home to a collection of villages and feels very removed from the bustle of central Phnom Penh; its western side, facing the Royal Palace, is being transformed into a riverside park. The southernmost tip is now the property of the Sokha Resort group whose newest concrete monolith is rapidly growing. A short way further northeast, reached by a short ferry trip from Phnom Penh, lies Koh Dach, a lush green island in the Mekong, whose inhabitants weave silk and grow a wide variety of produce on the fertile alluvial soil. Wat Champuk Ka-Ek, east of town off NR1, has a remarkable collection of ten thousand Buddhas and can be tied in with a trip to Kien Svay, a popular riverside village about 15km from the city. Phnom Brasat, some 27km northwest of town off NR5, is home to a kitsch collection of pagodas, while further north rise the distinctive hills of the old capital Oudong, dotted with the chedi of various kings; you might want to combine a trip here with a visit to the scant remains of nearby Lovek, its predecessor as capital.
A short moto-ride southwest of the city, the killing fields and memorial at Choeung Ek make a logical, if macabre, progression from a visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Also south of the city, off NR2, the compact Angkorian temple of Tonle Bati enjoys a riverside location, and is a good place for a picnic and a swim. Further south, there are spectacular views from the ancient hilltop temple of Phnom Chisor. Both sites could be combined as a day-trip, along with Phnom Tamau, Cambodia’s only state-run zoo and wildlife rescue centre.
Just 12km from Phnom Penh is the notorious site of Choeung Ek, where prisoners from Toul Sleng were brought for execution. As graphically portrayed in the film The Killing Fields, certain sites around the country – this is the best known – became places of mass murder, where the Khmer Rouge disposed of its enemies: men, women and children – even babies – who had allegedly betrayed the state. Early on, the victims were shot; later, to save on valuable bullets, they were bludgeoned or stabbed to death, and babies killed by being savagely thrown against trees, as loud music blared in the background. As fuel became scarce, victims were dragged out of the city and killed en route, their bodies dumped in the rice paddies closer to town.
Set amid peaceful fields and pleasant countryside, in what was once a Chinese burial ground, the Choeung Ek Memorial now contains the remains of 8985 bodies exhumed here in 1980, when 86 of the burial pits were excavated. Anecdotal estimates suggest that more than 17,000 people may have been slaughtered here, and a further 43 mass graves under the lake at the site remain untouched; there are no plans for these to be investigated since as yet there is nowhere sufficient to house the remains to Buddhist standards. Inside the memorial, a gleaming glass-fronted chedi, skulls and bones are piled on shelves, seventeen tiers high, arranged by age and gender, their tattered clothes below.
An excellent audioguide leads you circuitously around the site, stopping at various key points and finishing up at the memorial stupa. It includes harrowing commentary from victims and a former Khmer Rouge guard. Make sure to wander around the eerily beautiful lake.
Before you leave, drop into the museum, where you can cool off in the air-conditioned “theatre” by watching a dated but informative short video. A raw and emotional declaration close by states, “We are absolutely determined no [sic] to let this genocidal regime to reoccur in Kampuchea”.
A popular theme at Cambodian pagodas is the tale of Preah Vessandaa – one of the previous incarnations of the Buddha – which is often told in tableaux, the figures usually life-sized and garishly coloured. According to the story, an old man, Chuchuk, was given a young woman, Amita, to be his wife in repayment of a debt. The couple were unable to have children, and Amita was snubbed by the other women. Knowing of King Vessandaa’s generosity, Amita persuaded her husband to ask Vessandaa for two of his children. When depicted in temples, the story, usually told in a series of ten or so scenes, tells of Chuchuk’s adventures on the way to the palace. One scene at Phnom Prasith shows Chuchuk dangling in a tree where he has been chased by the hunter Chetabut and his dogs; to escape, the old man lies that he is one of the king’s messengers. As Chuchuk approaches the palace, the king’s children run off, only to be discovered hiding under lily pads by the king, who grants them to the old man. After getting lost on his way home, Chuchuk ends up in the kingdom of the children’s grandfather, who pays a ransom to buy them back. As told in Cambodia, the story ends when Chuchuk spends the money on a feast at which he gorges himself to death – a graphic injunction against the vice of gluttony.
Tonle Bati and Phnom Chisor
35km south of Phnom Pehn, peaceful Tonle Bati is set on the banks of the Bati River in a well-tended grove of coconut and mango trees, where you can swim and picnic as well as seeing the two small but appealing temples. You will be met immediately by a gaggle of young girls selling flowers, who will most likely follow you around until you leave, even if you’re adamant about not buying.
Another 30km south, Phnom Chisor, originally known as Suryadri (“Sun Mountain”),was built early in the eleventh century by Suryavarman I and was once a site of some significance, housing one of four sacred linga installed by the king in temples at the boundaries of his kingdom. A hot and tiring flight of 412 steps ascends the hill from the south, though there is a shady pavilion two thirds up, and refreshment-sellers at the top and bottom. There’s a modern pagoda at the summit and a burgeoning number of sanctuaries scattered about.
The villages east of Phnom Chisor weave very fine traditional hol, a patterned silk sampot traditionally worn during ceremonies. It’s worth buying a piece if you can find someone with a finished length, although this isn’t easy as most is produced to order. UNESCO is helping the weavers here relearn the use of natural dyes, a skill that was lost during the Pol Pot years.
Legends of Yeah Peau
Various legends surround the Yeah Peau temple. One tells how King Preah Ket Mealea fell in love with a young girl named Peau, who gave birth to his son, whom she named Prohm. The king returned to his court but left behind a ring and sacred dagger so that in years to come Prohm would be able to prove his regal descent. Prohm duly went to his father’s court and stayed many years, presumably forgetting his mother, for when he finally returned home he fell in love with her, refusing to believe her when she said he was her son. To resolve the matter, it was agreed that Peau and Prohm would each build a temple; if he finished first she would marry him, and if she finished first he would acknowledge her as his mother. The contest took place at night with the women helping Peau and the men assisting Prohm. In the middle of the night, the women raised a lighted candle into the sky. The men, thinking this was the morning star, settled down to sleep in the belief that they could not be beaten, leaving the women to carry on working and complete their temple first. (This rivalry between women and men is a common theme in Cambodian pagodas, cropping up many times in different guises.)
The legend of Lovek
When Lovek was capital, it was said to house two statues of Preah Ko and Preah Kaew that contained sacred texts, written in gold, recording “all the knowledge and wisdom in the world”. During one of the periodic conflicts between the Thai and Khmer, the Thai army was encamped outside Lovek, which it had repeatedly failed to capture, and was about to make its seasonal retreat in advance of the rains. The story goes that the Thai fired a cannon loaded with silver coins into the bamboo thickets that afforded the city some natural protection. During the rainy season, the Khmer gradually cleared the bamboo in their search for the coins, such that the Thai were easily able to capture the city in the following dry season. Removing the statues to Ayutthaya, the Thai were able to read the sacred texts and so became more knowledgeable than the Khmer. The legend has it that the statues are still hidden in Bangkok and that when they are returned to Cambodia the country will once again have ascendancy over Thailand.
Safety in Phnom Penh
While Phnom Penh is no longer the Wild West town it once was, robberies are not unknown, and there have been instances of bags being snatched from tourists walking around key tourist areas including the riverfront and Central Market. Moto passengers, too, are increasingly becoming the target of bag-snatchers, so you should also exercise a bit of caution when taking motos at night. It’s certainly not worth being paranoid, but taking a tuk-tuk at night may be safer (although bags have been known to be snatched from tuk-tuks too); keep your bag well out of sight of passing motorbikes.
Shopping with a conscience
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.
Cambodian Craft (Aka Chamber of Professional and Micro-Enterprises of Cambodia) This co-operative provides training and support to rural villagers. Their Phnom Penh premises, housed in a beautiful 70-year-old traditional building, hosts regular exhibitions and occasional artisan demonstrations. It’s well stocked with quality silverware, baskets, ceramics and textiles.
Daughters of Cambodia This little boutique, selling interesting jewellery and accessories, doubles up as a spa and boutique and occasionally hosts temporary exhibitions. The shop is run by women who have been rescued from the sex trafficking industry, and profits go towards saving other victims. You can sponsor a girl and or donate directly to the foundation.
Friends ‘N Stuff A branch of the Friends family, the shop sells clothes, bags, jewellery and secondhand books, and has a nail salon.
Mekong Quilts Brightly coloured quilts, cushions and throws in every pattern imaginable, made by impoverished women from the provinces who receive the profits of their work. Mekong Plus, the NGO behind the outlet, provides scholarships and promotes health initiatives in remote villages of the Svay Rieng province.
NCDP (National Centre of Disabled Persons) A retail outlet for quality products made by disabled (primarily land-mine-disabled) people throughout the country. Especially good silk bags, purses and hanging mobiles.
Nyemo Unique soft furnishings, accessories, bags and toys, with profits helping to train and support vulnerable women.
Peace Handicrafts Land-mine- and polio-disabled people produce carefully crafted silk items for sale in their co-operative shop.
Rajana Sales of silk and bamboo crafts and jewellery help to support the NGO's Fair Trade training programmes.
Rehab Craft Women with disabilities and victims of land mines sell a variety of high-quality silver, wood and stone items here, as well as silk scarves and attractive leather goods.
Tabitha-Cambodia Nonprofit NGO-run place selling silks made into garments and soft furnishings, cards, packed coffee and more. It operates by training disadvantaged women to sew. They then work from home and Tabitha buys their output.
Tooït Tooït Supporting parents so that their children can go to school, selling such items as shopping bags, beads and toys made from recycled materials including newspapers, plastic bags and rice sacks.
Watthan Artisans Cambodia (WAC) A co-operative of disabled artisans who produce a range of handicrafts: silk scarves, home furnishings, woodcarvings and basketwork, for example.
Accommodation in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has an increasing number of guesthouses and hotels catering for all pockets and tastes, from basic rooms to opulent colonial-era suites, and no matter when you arrive, you should have no difficulty finding a room – though the very cheapest places fill 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 online or taking a package. Free wi-fi is generally offered in all but the most expensive hotels.
Eating in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has a vast range of places to eat, from cheap noodle shops and market stalls to sophisticated, pricey Western places. In addition many guesthouses have small, if usually undistinguished, restaurants, and on the whole, the food in the city is reasonable. The bustling riverfront and Sisowath Quay are lined with cafés, restaurants and bars serving cuisine from all over the world; the attractive location means that the cheapest single-course meals go for $4–5, and the myriad vendors and beggars can get a little wearing. For a cheaper choice of backpacker-friendly restaurants and bars, head to nearby neon-lit Street 172, or a little more upmarket (but much more laidback than the riverfront), Boeng Keng Kang – broadly Street 278 from streets 51 to 63, but extending to the area around 294 – packed with swish cafés, refined but reasonably priced restaurants and bars. A further clutch of classy cafés and gastro-spots are found on Street 240 between streets 7 and 19.
Phnom Penh drinking and nightlife
When it comes to drinking, foreign visitors and expats in Phnom Penh have three types of option: the seedy, smoky girlie bars that proliferate off Sisowath Quay and along Street 51; sophisticated, trendy cocktail bars, either with a river view or in a prime location along trendy Street 240 and BKK; and lower-key hangouts, often with live music, that may double up as pick-up joints but have an easygoing attitude. Most bars and restaurants promote daily happy hours from late afternoon to well after sunset (although many start much earlier) when you can sink 50c glasses of draft beer, $1.50 G&Ts or $2 cocktails. Otherwise, Phnom Penh’s nightlife is geared to Khmer men 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 pop as well as traditional Khmer music and songs. Ask locals for the most popular spots of the moment; nightclubs usually don’t get going until 10pm and beer girls are usually on hand to pour the drinks. Keep your wits about you and don’t get too drunk or obnoxious; there is sometimes a thuggish element in places frequented by the rich, bored sons of the Cambodian nouveau riche. 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 gay scene, with a few great venues and more popping up every year.
Arts, culture and entertainment in Phnom Penh
After being virtually obliterated by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s artistic and cultural traditions are gradually seeing a revival, thanks largely to the few performers and instructors who survived the regime. See the Phnom Penh Post and Friday’s Cambodia Daily for full details of what’s on. The city is also showing interest in cinema – after the years of repression 2010 saw the launch of the first annual Cambodian International Film Festival (cambodia-iff.com), with screenings of 120 films from thirty countries at theatres and outdoor arenas throughout the city. Now in its fourth year (and held annually in December), the festival is going strong. Galleries, meanwhile, hosting changing exhibitions of art and sculpture, proliferate; check the magazine Asia Life to find out what is coming up.
Shopping in Phnom Penh
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 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. You will also 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, 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 – check around a few stalls before buying, as they will often sell identical pieces.
Phnom Penh orientation
The city of Phnom Penh roughly extends from the Chroy Chung Va Bridge in the north to Yothapol Khemarak Pholimin in the south. The area around the yellow-domed Psar Thmei (literally New Market, although it’s popularly known as the Central Market) where you’ll find most banks, is loosely regarded as the centre.
There are two major north–south routes, Norodom and Monivong boulevards (and to a lesser extent, the easterly Sothearos Boulevard that snakes north towards Sisowath Quay), both intersected by the two great arcs of Sihanouk/Nehru and Mao Tse Toung boulevards, which act as ring roads; together, these four thoroughfares cut the city into segments and can be useful points of reference for specifying locations to taxi, tuk-tuk and moto drivers.
Unique to the capital and increasingly rare, cyclos provide a leisurely way to get around, although they do cost slightly more than motos. To find one, head to the Cyclo Centre Phnom Penh, not far from Sorya Mall, an NGO set up to help cyclo drivers, offering showers, medical care and education. Starting your ride from here is a good way to support the drivers, who rank among the poorest people in the capital. You can also take city tours by cyclo.
Psar Toul Tom Poung
Also known as the “Russian Market” because all its goods used to come from Russia, one of the few countries to provide aid to Cambodia during the Vietnamese occupation. The collapse of the USSR put paid to cheap imports, but ramshackle and tremendous, this market retains its reputation as the place to buy textiles, antiques and silver – not to mention motorbike parts. At the south end of the market you’ll find stalls selling bootleg DVDs, fake designer bags, silver jewellery, Chinese-style furniture, photocopied books, handicrafts and piles of multicoloured silks; book sellers colonize the west, and the north is taken over with hardware stalls, a small food quarter and mechanics workshops. It is charming in its dilapidation, though a high fire risk with narrow exit routes – it’s also meltingly hot.
Top image © saiko3p/Shutterstock