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December, 18th. 2023 | Guest post by: RJ Fisher from walkaboutmonkey.com
Phnom Penh, once Southeast Asia's proud cosmopolitan poster-boy and dubbed the "Pearl of Asia". Then, shattered and abandoned after years of political unrest, civil war and interior oppression. Now, back on the rise again and claiming her seat at the tourism industry table.
The vibrant city is rich in history, but is also finding its way into the modern era. Cultural landmarks on the riverfront sit side by side with brand new high tech office buildings and hotels. Although not yet on par with neighboring peers Bangkok, Saigon and Singapore, Phnom Penh is on a steady course to become the next metropolis of Southeast Asia. High time for you to visit before the remaining small town charm fades away and becomes just another memory.
Get a Glimpse of Cambodia's Regal Past: 2 hours activity
Aah, the Royal Palace. What a beautiful display of traditional Khmer architecture. We are kind of spoiled with palaces sightseeing in Southeast Asia and therefore not easy to impress. However, when visiting the Royal Palace we were oohing and aahing with everyone else.
These days, the king only resides in the palace for special occasions, noticeable by the flying of the blue flag. Visitors are welcome to explore the impressive buildings and stroll through the manicured gardens.
After your palace visit, make your way to the Silver Pagoda, situated right next door. The temple derives its name from the 5.329 solid silver floor tiles and houses an impressive collection of Buddha statues. The most prominent are the emerald Buddha and a 90kg gold Buddha dressed with almost ten-thousand diamonds.
Entrance to the palace grounds is possible every day from 9am to 5pm (except when the blue flag is out). Entrance fee is US$ 6.50 for the palace and the Silver Pagoda is free of charge.
Learn about Religious Culture and Heritage: 1 hour activity for each temple
Phnom Penh is literally teeming with Buddhist temples (“Wats” in Khmer language). They are everywhere and most of them are easy accessible and open to visitors. Two of the most revered temples are situated within walking distance of Phnom Penh's tourist areas.
Wat Ounalom is regarded as the center of Buddhism in Cambodia. It's the most important temple in Phnom Penh and has a religious educational an administrative function. The temple complex dates back to the 15th century and is home to various structures, including stupas, shrines, and even a library. One of the stupas is said to house an original hair of Buddha’s eyebrow. Wat Ounalom is a must-visit for anyone interested in Cambodia's rich history and religious heritage.
Wat Langka also holds great significance to Cambodians. Many official, religious and cultural events and ceremonies throughout the year are hosted in the temple's Viharn (prayer hall). Next to unique architecture Wat Langka is also famous for its large Bodhi tree, which is considered sacred by the local population. Every Sunday at 8.30am, you can participate in meditation sessions hosted by English-speaking monks.
Art and Artifacts Unveiled: 2 to 3 hours activity
The National Museum in Phnom Penh is absolutely stunning, both inside and out. The impressive red sandstone building with tiered roofs and detailed carvings is another perfect example of the delicate Khmer architecture. I remember well sitting in the well-maintained green gardens that surround the museum just admiring the beauty of the structure. We never wanted to leave.
Inside, a collection of over 14,000 pieces and artifacts is exhibited. Sculptures, carvings and statues depicting religious and mythical creatures. Ancient bronze and metalwork, ceramics, pottery, textiles, scripts and writing. All in all, the complete collection describes Khmer history in great detail.
The museum opens every day from 8am to 5pm. Admission fee is $10 ages 18y and up, $5 for ages 10 to 17y. Children under 10y are free.
Tranquility in the Heart of the City: 1 to 2 hours activity
Escape the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh at Wat Phnom, a serene temple perched atop a hill near the riverfront. As you ascend the staircase adorned with mythical serpent heads, you'll find a peaceful sanctuary surrounded by lush greenery. It provides a perfect retreat from the urban pace. The only ones likely disturb you is the cheeky monkey family that lives on the hill. "Cheeky" is an understatement, be forewarned.
Wat Phnom is a landmark of great historical significance to Phnom Penh. In 1372 “Grandmother Penh” had a temple and shrine built on a hill (phnom) near the riverbank for the Buddha and Vishnu statues that she found in the river. When Phnom Penh became the capital of Cambodia it was named after the temple and lady Penh.
Green Getaway: Half to whole day activity
Phnom Penh can be a hectic place. So, if you need more time-out from the bustling city, you found it. Koh Dach, or "Silk Island" is the perfect getaway for an short escape. Just a few kilometers from Phnom Penh, the Mekong river island is an oasis of green tranquility. The Island is famous for its traditional silk weaving and many other artisanal handicrafts like woodcarving and pottery.
Silk Island is within easy reach from Phnom Penh. Just arrange one of the tuk-tuks on the city streets or get on one of the river cruise boats from the riverfront at Sisowath Quay. Better yet, do as we did. Rent a bicycle and cross the river by ferry. Cruising the rural surroundings of Silk Island and relaxing for a few hours on the river beach turned out to be a Phnom Penh highlight.
Remembering Cambodia's Recent History: 2 hours activity
Former secondary school, turned into security prison S-21, turned into a museum about the Cambodian genocide from 1976 to 1979.
Suspected subversives were locked in the prison and tortured into confessing to whatever the charges and subsequently killed. The museum displays interrogation rooms, cell blocks and artists impressions of the atrocities that took place. Also, thousands of portrait photos that were used to administratively register the prisoners are exhibited.
Our visit to the genocide museum left quite an impression, an emotional roller-coaster ride and a place to deeply appreciate the resilience of the Cambodian population.
The museum opens daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission is $5 and an extra $3 for the audio tour, which we highly recommend.
Pay your Respects to the Victims of Genocide: 2 to 3 hours activity.
After the killings the victims’ corpses were transported to a mass grave on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The Choeung Ek memorial site serves as the prominent symbol of almost 20,000 mass graves, scattered throughout Cambodia, confirming at least 1.4 million deaths.
A Buddhist stupa displays thousands of excavated human skulls behind glass panels. The grounds at Choeung Ek are green and peaceful now. However, many bodies still lie buried in the shallow graves. And of courses there's the tree where infants had their heads bashed against so they would not grow up to take revenge for their parents’ executions.
Another place in Phnom Penh to contemplate, remember and honor. The Choeung EK memorial is open to visitors every day from 8am to 5:30pm. Admission is $6 and includes an audio tour.
Art Deco Marvel: 2 to 3 hours activity
Phsar Thmey is the largest and most significant indoor market of Phnom Penh. In fact, it used to be the largest of its kind in the whole of Asia when first constructed in 1937. The building sure is impressive, not only by its size, but also by its beautiful art-deco architecture.
The center dome hosts jewelry, imitation watches and small electronics vendors, while each of the four wings has its own specific items theme. Clothing, household goods, decorations, small furniture, souvenirs, trinkets and knickknacks, it's all up for sale. Annexes outside the main building are reserved for fresh, dried and street food.
It's a must-visit attraction when in Phnom Penh, but the Central Market might not the best place for shopping. As the market targets mainly tourists, prices are inflated to the point that it becomes outrageous. Visit to take in the sights, but opt to buy your souvenirs elsewhere.
Designer Brands Heaven: 2 to 3 hour activity
Markets are aplenty in Phnom Penh, but this one is rather special. Contrary to what the name implies, you cannot buy a Russian here. The market earned its nickname in the 1980's when it was popular with Russians that were practically the only foreigners to visit Phnom Penh at that time.
Cheap clothing is the main product at the Russian market. Phnom Penh has a large textile and clothes production industry with many global clients. Overstocks from renowned Western brands are sold here for deflated prices next to a large selection of accessories and souvenirs. Despite it being a tourist market, many locals also like to shop here for household goods. Or maybe they come for the excellent food stalls in the center of the market.
After sunset when the indoor market closes, the area around the market is transformed into a wet market with plenty of street food vendors offering local delicacies. Reason enough to stick around after dark to experience some of that couleur locale.
The Place to be: As long as you like activity
The riverfront boasts many of Phnom Penh's historical landmarks including the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and Wat Ounalom. However, it's also an attraction in itself. The promenade spans almost 3 km offering fantastic views of the Tonle Sap and Mekong river intersection. It features well-maintained parks and open spaces for leisure strolls.
It's the place to be at any time of day. From late afternoon, locals, tourists and expats gather here for exercise, picnics or just to enjoy the slightly cooler temperatures. At night the area comes alive with numerous restaurants, cafes, and bars that offer a diverse range of cuisine and entertainment. Moreover, the riverfront is also the designated venue for cultural events, festivals, and performances.
For more Cambodia travel experiences, check out the Cambodia page of walkaboutmonkey.com for insider tips and local food recommendations by a Dutch expat in Cambodia. All personally tried and tested!
We are Jacob and Taylor. Travel is our passion and we love sharing our experiences here at The Travelling Souk. Our hope is that you would be inspired by this little blog to try something new, embrace an adventure, and live life to the fullest.