Glorious architecture, a tangible sense of history and a diversity of attractions make this a small city with big ideas.
Run your fingers over finest handspun silk and come face to face with survivors from Cambodia’s dark ages in a day. Be blown away by the landmark gold-spired pagoda or art deco inspired market before cooling off in the shade by the city’s legendary birth place. Add a lively riverfront, thriving arts scene and dusk-til-dawn nightlife and Cambodia’s capital pretty much has it all.
HOW TO GET THERE
Phnom Penh’s International Airport has direct flights from Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and other hubs in the region. From Arrivals, it’s a 30 minute drive into the city.
• The bejeweled wonders of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
• Get a shopping fix at the visually stunning Central Market
TOP THINGS TO DO IN PHNOM PENH
Marvel at the Royal Palace
Built in 1866 by the great grandfather of the current king, the Royal Palace is a prime example of the splendor of Khmer-style architecture which has been wonderfully preserved. A 60 metre tower topped with golden tiles, the Throne Hall, which served as residence of the royal family and foreign dignitaries, is a highlight.
Be dazzled by the Silver Pagoda
Within the Royal Palace compound, the Silver Pagoda takes its name from its floor which is made up of some 5,000 silver tiles. This gleaming sight is surpassed only by the Emerald Buddha, made of Baccarat crystal and thought to date back to the 17th century. Being one of precious few places in Cambodia where bejeweled artifacts from the glory days of the Khmer civilization are on display makes this a must-see.
Cambodia’s past at S21 and the Killing Fields
No trip to Phnom Penh would be complete without a visit to S21 or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which lays bare the horrors which occurred under the Khmer Rouge during the 70s. Of the 12 known survivors, one or two remain to tell visitors their tale, and their accounts make up the audio tour of the Killing Fields, which lie some 7kms south of the city, set amidst timeless pastoral vistas.
Get some retail therapy at the markets
The Russian Market or Phsar Toul Tom Poung is a Phnom Penh institution popular with visitors and locals alike. A favourite for souvenirs, this Aladdin’s cave is also a great place to find clothing, DVDs, and electronics. Its rabbit warren-like rows and alleys have their charm, emanating a riot of colours and lively hubbub reminiscent of an Arabian souk, but its steaminess can challenge even the most experienced traveller. Retire to one of the cafes, bars, bistros or restaurants overlooking the market for a unique perspective on the hustle and bustle taking place beneath this patchwork of tin roofs.
A breath of fresh air by comparison, the Central Market or Phsar Thmei (which by the way translates as ‘New Market’) is truly a sight to behold. Upon its opening in 1937, the art-deco building designed by a French architect, was believed to be the biggest in Asia. You can’t miss its iconic dome, with four wings branching out each teeming with a selection of anything from gold and silver jewellery, antique coins, counterfeit watches and electronics, sunglasses, second-hand books to flower bouquets and silk scarves or kramas.
Meet the locals at Psar Kandal
Forget about the Night Market, get a taste of real Cambodian life at Psar Kandal (which by the way translates as Central Market where the more well-known ‘Central Market’ is in Khmer known as ‘New Market’. Confusing? Yes, but this is Cambodia!). Anyway, Psar Kandal is just behind the Riverside, between Streets
Make time for Wat Phnom
Built in 1434 to house sacred Buddhist relics, this pagoda sitting atop the highest point in Phnom Penh marks the city’s founding place. Ascent the grand staircase guarded by lion and mythical nagas (serpents) balustrades to gain access to the temple sanctuary, which stars an impressive bronze Buddha. The walls are bedecked with sweeping murals of the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana.
Phnom Penh has an eccentric charm. Seen from the river, palm trees and the spires of Khmer royal buildings rise over French-era Phnom Penh shophouses and villas. This city really grows on you.
Take time to explore Phnom Penh!
Before civil war broke out it was one of the finest cities in the region, nicknamed ‘The Pearl of Asia’. Now, Phnom Penh is regaining this reputation: yellow-ocher buildings, squares and cafes, and tree-lined boulevards give it an appealing atmosphere.
The city is located at Chaktomuk (which means ‘Four Faces’), at the confluence of two arms of the Mekong, the Bassac and the Tonle Sap rivers.
The horrible past is visible in Tuol Sleng, the Genocide Museum, a schoolhouse-turned-prison where up to 17,000 victims of Pol Pot’s excesses were tortured before being led to the , one of many killing fields in Cambodia. Grisly, but an absolute must if you want to try understand Cambodians today.
It has been a long road to the peaceful and growing Phnom Penh of today. With the country now stabilised, Phnom Penh is steadily being restored to former glories as the Cambodian economy recovers. Despite ongoing high unemployment, the streets are lively, and there is an unmistakable optimism in the air.
Today Phnom Penh is a charming, relaxing and harmonious city, offering visitors peaceful moments of a sunset at the riverside as well as its dusty, motorbike-choked labyrinthine alleys and busy markets.
Traces of the city’s former splendor are visible at the Royal Palace, a stone showpiece of classical Khmer architecture, enclosing the Silver Pagoda, a jewel-encrusted wonder.
The National Museum houses the world’s finest collection of Khmer artifacts. Throughout the city, you’ll see not only faded glory of aged French colonial architecture, but restored historical structures as well.
Phnom Penh has a pace of its own, and you’ll find a lot to catch your eye, whether it is the glut of luxury vehicles, the sprawling local markets, the interesting architecture or its friendly and open-minded citizens.
Colours & Sounds
So, apart from the obvious attractions, what else could you do in Phnom Penh?
Well, our first choice would be: just wander around and take in the sounds, the colours and the fragrances of Phnom Penh. See buddha statues made by skilled workers right on the street, smell coffee being grinded right before your nose, enjoy the colours of flower markets.
Also very colourful: a traditional wedding of which you can see many during ‘wedding season’ (basically, the dry season). In other words: explore and enjoy this city!
To be honest Phnom Penh’s Night Market along Sisowath Quay (the Riverside) and Street 108 is not something to write home about. Nevertheless, it can make for BLABLABLA. The night market runs every day from around 6pm till 11pm.
For a taste of traditional Khmer culture, head to the Sovanna Phum Arts Association on #159B, Street 99 (corner of Street 484). Experience a unique performance at their theatre, every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30pm. Performances include shadow puppet theatre, classical apsara dancing, folklore and mask dance.
For current events (live music, dance performances, movie showings, exhibitions and more), check the listings at What’s On Phnom Penh.
See? Lots of things to do in Phnom Penh. Stay another day!
Just a stone’s throw from the city, journey back in time to sites imbued with Cambodia’s renowned and manifold past amidst verdant rice paddies and endless horizons, or cruise across the waterways to marvel at the making of exquisite handicrafts on Silk Island.