The Cambodian capital is known for both its beautiful architecture, both ancient and from French colonial times, as well as its recent violent history. Before the war in the seventies, Phnom Penh was called the Paris of the East, and hailed for its beautiful white facades interspersed with temples (wats) over a millennium old. Though the Khmer Rouge regime is long gone, the roughness of Phnom Penh is just slowly disappearing. The biggest charms of the city is that it has not been westernized to the level that some of its neighboring countries have been, and therein gives a more unspoiled Southeast Asian experience. Here is a look at the top tourist attractions in the Phnom Penh:
This complex of over forty buildings is considered the nation’s Buddhist headquarters. Founded in 1443, this lovely, ornate collection of Pagodas and relic-filled stupas is fun to explore. It is the home of the head of the Cambodian Buddhist brotherhood, as well as a number of other orange-clad monks. Higher accesses offer chances to see lesser-viewed artworks, and lovely views of the Mekong that few take the time to discover. Though damaged by the Khmer Rouge, much of the temple’s statuary has been restored and continues to be visited in holy pilgrimages. Of special note is the stupa containing an eyebrow hair of the Buddha himself, and an inscription in the ancient language of Pali.
This tower was created in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia’s freedom from French Colonial Rule five years earlier. It is modeled after the central tower of the country’s most famed ancient temple, Angkor Wat, and represents a lotus-shaped Stupa that also honors the war dead of Cambodia. The monument sits near a park that contains a number of other important statuary honoring war heroes and peace accords with neighboring nations like Vietnam. It is the center of many festivals held during national holidays, and is often adorned with flowers during celebrations, or enjoyed by the park goers during concerts, outdoor martial arts classes or other recreational activities.
Though Phnom Penh’s most famed foreign occupation was that of the French, there is a notable Russian component to the city that came here during the cold war era of the early eighties. The Russian Market is a notable place to buy many discounted (though often not authentic) designer items at a tenth of US prices. Its handicrafts are equally impressive, and include jewelry, silk and other fabrics, woodcarvings, musical instruments and much more. It is a great place to learn to haggle, as the expected asking price is often much less than the first offer.
The National Museum of Cambodia not only is the nation’s premier collection of the Cambodian cultural history, it also serves as the largest architectural and historical museum as well. Before visitors enter the building, they are greeted with spectacular, rich gardens and the vibrant terracotta pavilion which stretches into four wings full of treasure to discover. Specially featured is the collection of art from Cambodia’s largest ethnic group, the Khmer. It also contains prominent and important statuary pieces for both the Buddhist and Hindu faiths.
This best-known of all the Khmer Rouge’s mass graveyards, or killing fields, has become a monument to honor the victims of the atrocity in Cambodia’s dark history. It has been transformed into a Buddhist Stupa, or spire-peaked memorial of relics, created to honor the senseless murder between 1975 and 1979 of the nine thousand people in this field, and the million people nationwide. This is not a sight for the faint of heart; inside the building is an acrylic glass case with over five thousand of the skulls discovered here.
This hilltop temple in the city is the namesake for the city itself. Legend says that the widow Penh found a tree on the riverbank with four sacred statues of Buddha inside, and created a shrine in that location to protect its holiness. The temple itself is notable more for its historic importance than physical structure, but the park is a pleasant green space and a popular gathering place for locals. For those hoping to capture a little bit of good luck, it may be worth praying for success in business or other ventures the way many Cambodians do here.
With its classic Khmer roofs and lavish decoration, the Royal Palace dominates the skyline of Phnom Penh. Located near the riverfront, it bears a remarkable likeness to its counterpart in Bangkok. The palace has been the home for the royal family during peace times since the 1860’s, when the capital city was moved from Oudong. This complex of buildings has 4 main structures, the Silver Pagoda, the Khemarin Palace, the Throne Hall and the Inner Court. Though half of the compound is considered the king’s residence and is closed to the public, the Silver Pagoda and Throne Hall compounds are popular attractions in Phnom Penh and can be explored freely.
Converted in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge Regime from what was once a high school, Tuol Sleng became Cambodia’s most horrifying prison. Of the more than 17,000 people incarcerated of Tuol Sleng in the four years it operated, there are only a few known survivors. After the Vietnamese army uncovered the prison in 1979 Tuol Sleng was turned in to a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime. The museum is easily accessible and a must-see for everyone interested in Cambodia’s horrific past.
This riverside strip has been an important commercial public region for centuries. Bordering the Mekong River and abutted by the Royal Palace, this area is full of street vendors and shops, restaurants and hotels. It is one of the best locations to watch the boat races during Phnom Penh’s (and much of Southeast Asia’s) famed water festival, which takes place in mid April to celebrate the Buddhist new year. Sisowath Quay has a very westernized, multinational vibe, as it is home to several colonial-style buildings as well as a number of Embassies. For those planning a boat trip to Siem Reap, the ferry terminals leave from here.
From beneath a shining central golden dome, four pearl-white wings full of busy vendors stretch into numerous corridors and a cloud of sounds, sights, and scents. This art deco relic of the French Colonial architectural era was once believed to be the largest market in Asia, and has continued to operate (except during war time) since it completed construction in 1937. No matter what they are looking for, shoppers are likely to find a bargain here. From burned CDs and DVDs to discount tees, from luscious batik and brocade textiles to gold and gemstones, there is something for every taste to find here.