Phnom Penh is a graceful capital that was once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’. It is a timeless throwback to an older Asia, a world away from the developing metropolises of nearby neighbours. Situated at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap Rivers, the city retains much traditional and colonial charm. The riverfront area remains one of the most attractive in the region and is perfect for a late afternoon stroll. The tinkle of music from an ancient temple, saffron-clad monks wandering about and street hawkers with bubbling cauldrons remind us of the past. Fast forward to a million motorbikes buzzing around and an explosion in boutique hotels, designer restaurants and specialist shops and the future looks bright. Phnom Penh is back from the brink and it an intoxicating place to spend some time connecting with the Cambodian people.
The Royal Palace
This graceful structure is very much a focus of the city. Standing on the site of the former citadel, it was built for King Norodom in front of the Mekong. Inside its walls are the Throne Hall, the Chan Chaya Pavillion, the Napoleon III Pavillion, and the King's and Queen's residential quarters. Today, only the Silver Pagoda is open. The Silver Pagoda is a gilltering chamber of royal treasures, also known as the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, Inside, its floor is made up of 5,000 silver tiles, each weighing 1kg. Inside are some of the country's most cherished treasures, including a life-size gold Buddha studded with 9584 diamonds, the largest weighing 25 carats. There is also a delicate emerald Buddha made of baccarat crystal, which gives the temple its Khmer name of Wat Preah Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The walls enclosing the pagoda are covered with ancient frescoes depicting episodes from the Ramayana.
Another elegant city landmark, the museum is housed in a terracotta-roofed structure of traditional Cambodian design, which was built in between 1917 and 1920. It offers a charming setting for the world’s finest collection of sculpture from the Angkor period. The intricate sculptures date from both the Angkorian and pre-Angkorian eras, complimented by recent examples of Cambodian art and a wooden Buddha collection. We recommend the the incredible sandstone sculpture from Angkor, as well as the intricate bronzes.
Tuol Sleng and Choeng Ek
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they converted a former high school in the suburbs of Phnom Penh into a detention and torture centre known as Tuol Sleng, or S-21. A genocide museum was established at Tuol Sleng after 1979 and today it remains as it looked when abandoned by the Khmer Rouge. Hundreds of faces of those tortured line the walls inside the old school. 17,000 people passed through the gates of this prison and only seven lived to tell the tale. Tuol Sleng is a profoundly moving experience and not everyone will want to visit. However, it is key to understanding the hell into which Cambodia descended and how far it has come in the years since.
Most of the 17,000 people detained at Tuol Sleng were eventually transported to Choeung Ek, a mass grave site located 15km outside Phnom Penh. Known to locals as the Killing Fields, Choeung Ek serves as a memorial to those killed under the Khmer Rouge rule. An old Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek was turned into an extermination camp for political prisoners. The remains of 8985 people were exhumed from mass graves and are kept in a memorial stupa here. Despite the horrors of the past, it is a peaceful place to go and a tranquil spot to reflect on the tragic events that engulfed Cambodia and its people.
Located on one of the few hills in this pancake-flat capital, the first pagoda was originally built in 1373 to house Buddha statues discovered in the Mekong by a woman named Penh. This gives us the modern name of the city, Phnom Penh or Hill of Penh. Cambodians come to the shrine to pray for luck in love and life, employment and exams, so there it is always a bustling place.
Phnom Penh Markets
The Russian Market is one of the premier shopping destinations in the Cambodian capital. Known as Psar Tuol Tom Pong, it earned its nickname in the 1980s, when Russians were the only tourists in Cambodia. A rambling place, it is bursting with bargains, including handicrafts, carvings, silk and textiles, clothing and footwear, and lots of pirated software, CDs and DVDs, not forgetting enough motorcycle parts to assemble a homemade moped.
The impressive Central Market is one a city landmark. Originally completed by the French in 1937, this striking structure is known as Psar Thmei in Khmer or New Market. The huge dome is wonderfully ventilated, a testament to the design, and this market is loaded with anything and everything available in Cambodia. Buy with caution, as this market has a reputation for overcharging or 'shaving your head' as Cambodians like to call it.