Phnom Penh Revealed
5 Days / 4 Nights
Day 1: Royal Palace and National Museum with leading art expert. Sunset river cruise with dinner.
Accompanied by one of Cambodia’s leading art experts, we explore the stunning Royal Palace complex, home to the Cambodian royal family. We begin at the Throne Hall and Napoleon III Pavilion, a gift from the French emperor in the 19th century. We continue to the Silver Pagoda, named after the 5000 silver tiles covering the floor, each weighing 1kg. Inside is a delicate emerald Buddha made of baccarat crystal, which gives the temple its Khmer name of Wat Preah Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). We leave and continue to the nearby National Museum, home to the world's finest collection of sculpture from the Angkor period. The exquisite building was completed in 1920 and features collections from the pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor periods. We concentrate on the incredible sandstone sculpture from Angkor, as well as the intricate bronzes.
In the late afternoon, we board our own private boat for a sunset cruise and dinner on the river. With our welcome cocktail in hand, we set off on the Tonle Sap River, which famously reverses direction each year, acting as the world's largest natural flood barrier for the Mekong River. We cruise past the Royal Palace compound and around the Chrouy Changvar Peninsular onto the mighty Mekong River. Our boat crew prepare our romantic two-course evening meal under the stars, as we continue past small villages and see fishing boats preparing their catch before we return to Phnom Penh after dark.
Day 2: Living History tour with expert guide. Dance class with classical master.
Accompanied by an expert guide, we start our look at the living fabric of Phnom Penh at the very beginning, Wat Phnom. The city’s first pagoda was erected here in 1373 at the behest of the city’s founder, Madame Daun Penh. We then take a look at some of the iconic buildings of the city, the National Library (Le Bibliotheque), the classic Raffles Hotel Le Royal, the deserted Railway Station and the French Embassy, the site of the final evacuation of foreigners still in the city when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. We head for the former colonial quarter for a look at the gorgeous French colonial-era buildings that have been restored near the Post Office such as Van’s Restaurant and to see the locations used in the film City of Ghosts. We visit Lycee Sisowath, first established in 1873 before sweeping onto The Building, built in the New Khmer Architecture style of the 50s and 60s, to find out more about the current living conditions of the city’s residents. We finish our view of the city at one of highest points and a look at the renovated art deco-styled Central Market.
The glorious arts and cultural heritage of Cambodia is making a determined comeback after its virtual annihilation by the Khmer Rouge. And perhaps this revival and revitalization of the arts is best embodied in the iconic classical dance and ballet master, Em Theay. This is a rare opportunity to meet the lady known around the world as the Tenth Dancer (only one of every 10 dancers survived the Khmer Rouge regime) in person, find out more about her very special talents, her family dynasty and to hear first-hand of the hurdles she had to overcome to breathe new life into what had become a dying art form. We believe this will give you a unique window into the country’s cultural heritage.
Day 3: Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields tour with witness. Lunch at PSE and tour. Painting class with foremost artist.
We come face to face with the horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge with the help of one of its survivors. Tuol Sleng was a former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a centre for interrogation, torture and death. Today it is a museum of torture and serves to remind visitors of the terrible atrocities that came to pass in Cambodia. 17,000 people passed through the gates of this prison and only seven lived to tell the tale. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, photographing all the prisoners and many of these haunting black and white images are on display in the cells. 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.
We then travel out of town to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Prisoners from Tuol Sleng followed this same route to their fate. 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.
We have lunch in the capital at PSE (a French NGO supporting children from the garbage dump) where their Lotus Blanc restaurant serves excellent international and Asian cuisine. We then take a tour of the PSE facilities where both schooling and work/life skills are available to the children and youths as a way of escaping the poverty of their lives spent on the city’s main garbage dump.
Cambodian art is alive and well and embodied perfectly in the differing styles of classical and contemporary work produced by one of the country’s finest painters, Chhim Sothy. Trained in traditional art-forms, Sothy’s intricate style featuring scenes from the Ramayana epic have been exhibited from China to the USA, from France to Singapore. His contemporary abstract work is also gaining a wide audience of appreciative admirers and this is an opportunity to meet Chhim Sothy in person at his workshop, find out more about his special artistic talents and to see first-hand how he creates his much sought-after paintings.
Day 4 Cooking class with Cambodia’s finest chef. Leisure time. Diner at Malis.
We head to the leading restaurant in Phnom Penh for a cookery demonstration with Luu Meng, recognised as Cambodia’s finest chef. We visit the local market to select our fresh produce then decide on which dishes to prepare before learning the secrets of the Cambodian kitchen, a cuisine laced with subtle spices and tempting aromas, from our residence expert. Once we finish the class, we enjoy the fruits of our labour, eating our very own creations, which you can take home, in recipe form and impress your friends with a Cambodian evening.
The afternoon is free to enjoy at your leisure. An option would be to visit the best of the local markets. The Russian Market is a great place to grab some bargains. Or you could use the time to take a closer look at Wat Phnom, the spiritual centre of the city before enjoying a gourmet dinner at Malis.
Day 5 Visit to Phnom Chisor, Phnom Da and Tonle Bati.
We leave Phnom Penh and travel south on National Highway 2 to the hilltop temple of Phnom Chisor. Dating from the 11th century, this was an important place of pilgrimage for the Khmer kings of old. We ascend the mountain to take in the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and explore the temple.
We continue to Takeo where we enjoy a local lunch overlooking the water. We then travel by speedboat along an ancient canal to Phnom Da, a beautiful 8th century temple atop a small mount. An island in the wet season, when this area is inundated with water, it is surrounded by a sea of green ricefields in the dry season. We explore the brick temple on top of the hill and take in the magnificent views. We then follow a forest path to Asram Moha Russei, a curious hermit's shelter carved from sandstone. On our return we take a break at Tonle Bati to visit the beautiful 12th century temple of Ta Prohm. Built by King Jayavarman VII, this temple is surrounded by flourishing flowers and is a tranquil sanctuary.
Depart Phnom Penh.