Nowadays Phnom Penh is a vibrant and bustling capital city with around 2,000,000 residents with motorbikes and cars and a culture of sidewalk cafes established in recent years.
The city is conveniently located on the banks where three rivers - the Mekong, the Tonle Sap and the Bassac - converge, a location known to Cambodians as Chatomuk, or four faces.
The French influence can be felt today in the city, a legacy of a 90 year period that saw the construction of many lovely colonial era residences for French administrators. However, Phnom Penh’s era of modern development and planning took place after independence in 1953, with the addition of tree lined avenues, gardens with fountains and several distinctive monuments reflecting the city’s new found sense of freedom.
Phnom Penh-its rise early. Be prepared to be awakened by the strains of Buddhist music playing in the street, motorbikes tooting their horns, and a rooster crowing. There is plenty to see; starting with a tour of the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, Independence Monument, Wat Phnom and the market areas where hand woven silks, silver, gems and antiques will compete for your attention. Also worthwhile is a visit to the notorious "Killing Fields" and Tuol Sleng Museum, which chronicle the unfortunate years under the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. The waterfront of the city has been rejuvenated in recent years and now countless al fresco restaurants and bars, with views stretching across the Mekong, have made this area one of the Indochina’s in vogue ‘places to be’.
Outside Phnom Penh is a choice of pleasant half day and full day trips to ancient hilltop temples with far reaching vistas and enchanting countryside waiting to be explored.
What to see in Phnom Penh?
Cambodia’s Royal Palace stands majestically in the city centre just off the riverfront area. Several buildings are open to visitors including the ‘Silver Pagoda’ whose floor is lined with solid silver tiles. Nearby, the National Museum is a fabulous old building filled with art and artifacts dating back to the pre-Angkorian era.
For a look in to the country’s tragic recent history, a tour of Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and the Killing Fields is a sobering reminder of the evils of the Khmer Rouge regime. Although not a joyful tour, visiting these monuments unlocks keys to understanding the development of this still developing country.
An hour or two spent touring the city in a cyclo is one of Global Travel & Tour’s favourite tours. These three wheeled rickshaws allow you to sit in comfort with the wind blowing in your face as your driver pedals you through the streets. Along the way, stop at Wat Phnom, travel past the art-deco Central Market, and cruise the riverfront for a glimpse of the colonial buildings and local lifestyle of the people.
For those interested in architecture, walking tours give you a different view of Phnom Penh. Follow a detailed map or go with a guide and explore the contemporary and ancient buildings of the city.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh?
Phnom Penh does not offer the sheer number of hotels that Siem Reap has, but there are still plenty of choices from small, charming, boutique style accommodation to luxury hotels.
Several small boutique hotels can be found in the city centre. Favorites include FCC Phnom Penh, Amanjaya, andThe Pavillion, each of which offers tastefully decorated rooms, modern amenities, and reasonable prices. In the increasingly bustling capital, these hotels are peaceful retreats and havens of calm. Newly opened, the Blue Lime and Kabiki are small hotels featuring fewer than 15 rooms and located just behind the Royal Palace. This new wave of chic boutique hotels promises to continue as tourists continue to flock to Cambodia.
Amongst our favourite hotels are the colonial era Raffles Hotel Le Royal, and The Quay is a small, modern hotel on the banks of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh. Recently opened, Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra is set riverside amongst landscaped gardens in the old quarter of the city. The Intercontinental is the luxury hotel of choice in Phnom Penh. Although it is just outside the city centre, this hotel has all of the amenities and features that one can expect from the international chain.
Shopping & Dinning
Phnom Penh is a shoppers’ paradise with everything from fake Louis Vuitton handbags to fine silk household items. The crowded Russian Market is the place to test out your bargaining skills, while the art-deco Central Market features more local products mixed in with the souvenirs. For fine home wares and clothes, the shops on Street 240 are filled with luxurious goods and Street 178 is filled with art galleries selling traditional and modern pieces created by Khmer artists.
Several shops are affiliated with charities and by spending your money there; you will help alleviate poverty in the country. Shops such as Smateria, Rehab Craft, and ART Café sell high quality arts and crafts and the proceeds benefit local residents.
You can also dine for a cause in Phnom Penh as many restaurants feature charity connections. Friends is perhaps the area's longest standing establishment of its type serving delectable tapas whilst supporting the country’s street children. The same organization has recently opened Romdeng which serves fresh, traditional cuisine.
For fine dining in the capital, look no further than Topaz. This long standing French Bistro is a favorite of expats and tourists, while the newer 192 is a formidable opponent. The casual atmosphere and great food at the FCCalways draws a crowd, and a few doors down is the Spanish-inspired Pacharan which is always packed full of folks gathering for tapas and paella. For local cuisine, Bopha Phnom Penh, Khmer Surin and Malis top our list!
Phnom Penh – Attractions
The Legend has it that, after a particularly high flood, a wealthy Khmer woman named Daun Penh found a tree on the banks of the Mekong with four statues of Buddha hidden inside. She built a temple in 1372 to house the sacred relics.
Designed by Khmer architect Van Molyvann, Independence Monument commemorates the end of Cambodia’s rule by France in 1953. The naga - or snake - motif is one which can be seen in historic, cultural and modern-day business contexts, as a symbol of the country. The distinctive modern Cambodian architectural style of the monument can also be seen at Olympic Stadium and Chatomuk Hall, located near the Royal Palace along the Tonle Sap River.
Built in 1866 by King Norodom, the Royal Palace is now home to His Majesty Sihamoni, King of Cambodia. Most of the buildings inside the palace walls are closed to the public except on special occasions.
Within the palace compound are the coronation hall; the entrance, which houses an open-air theater for the Royal Dance Troupe, and a balcony for royal appearances; an open-air pavilion often used for entertaining and viewing of the King’s movies; and the King’s private residence, which houses a collection of Cambodian artwork from artists around the world, and his office, where he actively pursues Royal duties. The architecturally incongruous Napoleon III pavilion - shipped and reassembled in Cambodia - was a gift of the French Empress Eugenie in the early 20th century. Outside the southeast wall of the palace is the house of the white elephant traditionally used for special regal occasions including royal births, deaths or weddings.
Located within the Royal Palace compound, the Silver Pagoda is so named because of its floor, which is made up of 5,000 silver tiles. On display inside are hundreds of Royal gifts received by the Royal family over the years. Among the Treasures are a solid gold Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds and weighing 90 kilos and a small 17th century emerald and baccarat crystal Buddha.
The compound also houses Wat Phnom Mondap, containing Buddha’s footprint. The walls surrounding the compound - the oldest part of the palace - are covered with frescos depicting episodes from the Khmer version of Ramayana, the Reamker.
Located just north of the Royal Palace; the National Museum has recently been restored and represents the fines of Phnom Penh’s architecture. On display inside are more than 5,000 works of art, ranging from the 6th to the 13th Century. Treasures include sculptures, 19th century dance costumes, royal barges and palanquins. Visitors can rest by the peaceful, palm-shaded central courtyard and lotus ponds and contemplate one of Asia’s richest cultures.
Toul Sleng Museum
Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school. When the Khmer Rouge came to power it was converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. Inmates were systematically tortured and executed in the killing fields of Choeung Ek. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, seven of whom survived. The building now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Much has been left in the state it was when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in January 1979. The prison kept extensive records, leaving thousands of photos of their victims, many of which are on display. Paintings of torture at the prison by Vann Nath, a survivor of Toul Sleng, are also on display.
Cheung Ek Killing Field
Cheung Ek is situated approximately 15 kilometers south-west of Phnom Penh, and about 30 minutes drives. This area is a place where more than 17,000 civilians were killed and buried in mass graves; many of whom were transported here after detention and torture in Toul Sleng. There are 86 tombs with 8,785 death bodies including men, women and children who were unearthed after the liberation of the Khmers Rouges. Some of those skulls, bones and pieces of clothing are now kept in the nearby massive stupa which houses 8000 skulls exhumed from mass graves.
Phnom Penh has many markets, but the huge yellow-domed New Market or Psar Thmei, located near Wat Phnom, and the smaller Russian Market, or Psah Tuol Tom Pong, are the most popular among visitors because of their collections of silks, gems, silvercraft and antiques.
Built on a hill 40 kilometres north of Phnom Penh - Oudong was the capital of Cambodia before Phnom Penh. While little remains of the canals, terraces, bridges and approximately 100 pagodas created by King Ang Duong, Oudong is still frequented by Khmers who go to pay homage to the remains of former kings. It is a pleasant half-day trip that takes you into the scenic countryside outside Phnom Penh.
Not far south of Phnom Penh is a 12th century temple, Ta Phrom, built by Jayavarman VII. Nearby is Tonle Bati, where there is a small lake with a beach and food stalls that is a popular picnic spot for Phnom Penh residents on the weekends.
Further south on the main road in Phnom Chisor, a fine Angkorian-era temple on a hilltop with extensive views. It was built by Suryavarman I and the central sanctuary houses Neang Khmao, the Black Lady, a venerated Buddha about 300 years old. French Colonial buildings, the confluence of three rivers and a magnificent Royal Palace create a charming city to welcome visitors to Cambodia. Identified by Madame Penh in the 1300’s as a place of religious significance, Phnom Penh has experienced its destiny fluctuate, although not quite as regularly as the ebb and flow of the Mekong River. Starting out as a riverside village, developing into the thriving educational centre of South East Asia in the 1960’s, emptied in the early 1970’s, Phnom Penh today provides an unparalleled glimpse of period architecture, warm people and a firm belief in the future.
Cambodia is a diverse country with mountains and beaches, rivers and jungles. Traveling through the rural areas is a great way to not only experience the variety of natural landscapes, but also unveils the lifestyle and genuine warmth of the Cambodian people.
Kampong Thom is located between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and is an excellent stopover for those traveling overland. Near this sleepy riverside town lie the temples of Sambor Prei Kuk, a collection of 7th century temples. Tucked in the forest, these ancient ruins can be explored on foot or by bike traversing small dirt paths which wind among the temples.