Phnom Penh, dynamic and lively, is the heart of Cambodia. This sprawling capital, sprawled along the banks of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers, is a city of wide central boulevards and lean alleys where the modern and the old collide. The Royal Palace complex is a must-see in the city, but for anyone wishing to explore the history of Cambodia in the 20th century, Phnom Penh is also an essential stopover, as it is home to two of the most sober sites in the country. The battlefields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21 prison) both provide a glimpse into the reign of terror that this nation suffered during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Travelers to the main attraction of Angkor Wat in Cambodia also benefit immensely from a stop in the capital as the magnificent Angkor National Museum is here.
1. Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
The highlight of Phnom Penh is the magnificent Royal Palace; the seat and residence of the Cambodian royal family since the 1860s. The complex’s spire-roofed pavilions are an excellent example of classical Khmer architecture. The Throne Room area and the Silver Pagoda – located in well-kept gardens – are open to the public for viewing. The throne room was built in 1917, replacing an old wooden structure.
The silver pagoda is famous for housing the statue of the Emerald Buddha and a gigantic 90-kilogram gold Buddha statue studded with thousands of diamonds. The silver pagoda has escaped the brutal destruction of the Khmer Rouge reign and therefore still contains beautiful artifacts. The interior fresco on the ceiling depicts the Cambodian epic poem, the Reamker, which is based on the story of the Indian Ramayana.
2. National Museum, Phnom Penh
The traditional Khmer building that houses the national collection was built in 1920. Inside, the dazzling array of ancient Khmer art, with over 1,800 exhibits, is a must visit for anyone interested in the Cambodian history. The main highlights of the museum’s galleries are the head of Vishnu excavated near the vast temple complex of Angkor Wat; the incredible Angkorian collection, with statues from the temples of Koh Ker and Angkor Thom; and the large exhibition of pre-Angkorian objects which retrace the Funan and Chenla periods in Cambodia.
3. Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is a grim reminder of the terror of the Khmer Rouge whose brutal regime, which intended to transform Cambodia into a socialist agrarian society, ruled the country between 1975 and early 1979. In less than four years , it is estimated that between one and three million Cambodians have been killed under the authoritarian command of Pol Pot. Many died as a result of famine and disease, but also hundreds of thousands of Cambodians – intellectuals, educated people such as teachers and doctors, opponents of the regime and simply anyone suspected of being an opponent – were murdered. Here in Choeung Ek, an estimated 17,000 people have died. The victims came from S-21, the Khmer Rouge high security prison which is now the Tuol Sleng museum. There are 129 mass graves here, 86 of which were excavated, unearthing the remains of 8,985 people. In the center of the area is a commemorative stupa that contains more than 8,000 skulls. A visit here is an entirely disappointing experience that will help you understand this tumultuous period in Cambodia’s modern history. Choeung Ek is located near Boulevard Monireth.
4. Tuol Sleng Museum, Phnom Penh
It was here in the Khmer Rouge Prison S-21 that some of the regime’s worst torture atrocities were committed. More than 17,000 people passed through these doors between 1975 and 1978, accused of having betrayed the revolution in one way or another. Almost all the prisoners brought here were once members of the Khmer Rouge themselves, who were turned on during one of the regime’s many internal purges.
The visitor experience is made even more visceral by the photographic evidence displayed hanging on the walls of sparse cells next to empty beds. S-21 was extremely well managed by Comrade Duch (the prison director) who ensured that detailed records were kept. As the prison was hastily abandoned when the Vietnamese took Phnom Penh in 1979, the detailed notes and photographs survived.
5. River Boat Cruises, Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a river town and one of the most relaxing ways to see the city is by water. There are regular sunset cruise departures from the riverside between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., which run along the Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers, or you can also hire a private boat nearby to go out on the water. any time of the day (you I want to put on your trading hat if you want to hire a private boat). It’s a great way to get away from the busy streets on one-hour clogged motorbikes and soak up the gentler pace of local river life.
6. Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is decidedly flat. The only elevation of the landscape here is the 27 meter high mound which houses the temple of Wat Phnom. It is believed that the first religious building at this location was built in the 14th century and has been rebuilt several times, with the current main temple sanctuary dating from 1926. It is one of the most important Buddhist temples in the city and it is often run by locals leaving offerings here and praying in the various shrines that surround the main shrine.
7. Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh
The most important temple complex in Cambodia, Wat Ounalom is the seat of Buddhism in the country. A stupa in the complex contains one of the hairs of the eyebrows of the Buddha. The wat was first located here in 1443 and although it suffered considerable damage during the Khmer Rouge era, with many of its statues and religious iconography destroyed, it still flourishes today hui. A special note for visitors is a beautiful statue of Buddha on the third floor of the main building which was reassembled after being broken into pieces by the Khmer Rouge and a statue commemorating Huot Tat, the fourth patriarch, who was murdered by Pol Pot , the 2 Sol.
8. Russian Market, Phnom Penh
The chaotic and bustling Russian market of Phnom Penh is buzzing with local life and also offers excellent shopping opportunities. You’ll find everything here, from sticky souvenirs (many made in neighboring Thailand rather than locally produced) to beautifully crafted local wooden handicrafts and Cambodian silks, as well as packages of stalls selling extremely cheap clothing. This is not the place for midday shipping, as temperatures are skyrocketing in the market, so plan an early morning visit. The market opens at 6 a.m. It’s also the perfect place to put on your bargaining cap and test your negotiation skills. The real name of the market is Psar Tuol Tom Pong, but has earned its nickname because of the number of Russian foreign residents of Phnom Penh who used to shop here.
9. Psar Thmei, Phnom Penh
The distinctive domed building that houses the central Psar Thmei market was built in 1937 in an Art Deco style and overlooks the central city of Phnom Penh. There are excellent opportunities to soak up a slice of local life here with the wide range of local market produce on display and lots of noise. Everything is sold here, from fresh fruits and vegetables to jewelry and clothing, and the market is bursting with energy from morning to early evening. It is an ideal place for aimless wandering, and avid photographers will find many colorful scenes to capture.
10. Independence Monument, Phnom Penh
The lawn that cuts the Sihanouk and Norodom boulevards shelters the monument of the independence of Phnom Penh, built to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from French colonial rule in 1953. The sandstone structure represents an Angkorian temple, finely decorated with nagas ( multi-headed snakes). In addition to commemorating the independence of the nation, the monument is now also a memorial to the dead in Cambodia. A short walk from the monument is the green section of Wat Botum Park, where you will find the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument, built in 1979 after Vietnamese forces defeated the Khmer Rouge.