Phnom Penh lies sprawling and shimmering on the banks of the Mekong. Rapidly remerging as a tourist destination, modern Phnom Penh is a quixotic blend of chaos and charm, poverty and wealth, which make it a city firmly on the move and one worth seeing now. One of Southeast Asia’s last untouched gems, the city resonates with a vibrant but convenient range of sightseeing destinations that are easily explored by foot, moto or tuk-tuk.
Dozens of cap-wielding, smiling moto (motorbike taxi) drivers congregate at every intersection, and these are perfect for short, mainly solo trips. The more romantic cyclos (three-wheeled cycle-rickshaws) offer an ideal reclining perspective when leisurely travel is preferred, notably for an architectural tour of the old city. Traffic, like the city itself, is chaotic but slow-paced.
Sightseeing in Phnom Penh makes for a heady barrage to the senses. The pavements teem with pungent aromas of chilli, jasmine and gasoline, while monks and landmine victims share noodle stands with businessmen and trendy teens. The crumbling colonial architecture, opulent palaces and modern skyscrapers heighten the eclectic mix of past and present, colonialism and commercialism.
The area encompassing the Central Market east of the riverfront makes for a beguiling walking tour, though the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng are best visited by car or as part of a guided tour. Taxis are plentiful, although meter-less, and prices should be agreed upon before departing.
The dark days of the traumatic Khmer Rouge ‘liberation’, which eradicated a generation, robbed The Pearl of Asia of most of its lustre. However, redevelopment has seen one of Asia’s jewels cater to foreign tourism with welcome arms and warm hearts.
An oasis of calm in the heart of the city, the sumptuous Royal Palace, with its iconic Khmer gilded roofing, dominates the riverside skyline. Hiding behind high protective walls sits a vast compound of ceremonial buildings and verdant gardens, and the Chan Chaya Pavilion and grand Throne Hall. The official King’s residence is the stone showpiece of Khmer architecture.
Inside the Royal Palace complex, the ornate Silver Pagoda houses a floor made of five tons of glistening silver. Although many of the 5,000 lavish tiles are carpeted over for protection they can be seen near the entrance. A the Baccarat-crystal Emerald Buddha sits atop a golden dais, while a 90kg Golden Buddha made from 9,584 diamonds stands shimmering in front.
Discovered by Madame Penh in 1373, the foundation point of the city – literally ‘Hill of Penh’, Phnom Penh’s highest point is the spiritual home for many Khmer. A popular shaded are for people watching and locals, while elephant rides, obese monkeys, numerous vendors and moto drivers give the foot of the hill an almost fairground appeal. The summit sees faithful Khmers pay their respects at shrines and to fortune tellers.
The National Museum of Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia houses the world’s finest Khmer Sculpture collection of Just north of the Royal Palace, the distinctive rust-red roof and traditional design provide the ideal setting for an impressive collection of some 5,000 objects. Predominantly Angkorian artefacts, there are also an excellent range of post-Angkorian pieces that adds context to any trip to the Siem Reap Angkor site.
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Thirty minutes drive from the city centre, the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge sites saw over 17,000 men, women and children horribly executed and buried in massive graves at Choeung Ek. Most had suffered at Toul Sleng and the various open excavations identify the different murder methods. A spine-chilling memorial stupa, made from skulls of victims, rises from where visible scraps of bone still lie embedded in the earth.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
This former classroom turned prison is a haunting reminder of the horrors of genocide practiced by the Khmer Rouge. The detention and torture centre remains untouched from its capture by Vietnamese forces in 1979, with rusted instruments lying on forever blood-stained tiles. Visiting the rooms where unthinkable atrocities took place is a truly chilling experience, enhanced by the photographs of former prisoners looking down like ghosts from the walls.
Located at the intersection of Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, the Independence Monument was erected in 1962 to celebrate Cambodia’s liberty from foreign rule. Reminiscent of Angkor Wat towers, the monument has become a memorial to the war dead and well as autonomy. The site, a short walk from the Royal Palace, is also the scene of vibrant celebrations on political holidays, with Constitution Day (September 24) and Independence Day (January 7) the most spectacular.
The stretch of open-air court between the Independence Monument and the Royal Palace features the distinctly communist style Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument. A quiet and peaceful lunchtime break area, the massive paved grounds host dozens of nightly outdoor aerobics sessions, a glorious spectacle of Khmers of all ages and classes in a dizzying array of limbs and stereos.
Markets in Phnom Penh
Central Market, often called New Market or Psar Thmei in Khmer, is a gargantuan Ziggurat-like yellow Art Deco building that stretches its arms over a huge area close to the Riverfront. Everything from fried insects to fake watches can be found at this landmark Phnom Penh attraction which is the best location for browsing – although good bartering skills are essential.
The Russian Market, so named after the Vietnamese flood of Russian goods in the 1980’s, is one of the few places to buy real designer clothes. Most of the items have barely noticeable faults, such as torn labels, which render them useless for Western sales.
The market is further west than other tourist sites and moto locals only refer to it as Psar Toul Tom Poung. A great place to sample fried insects or deep fried tarantula.
Boat trips in Phnom Penh
Ideally placed at the confluence of three major waterways, a boat trip from Phnom Penh is the ideal way to escape the oppressive summer heat, especially from March to May. Get together your own group and you’ll have better bartering skills than if approaching the river boat touts on your own. Organised trips, including lunch or dinner cruises, are plentiful or you can choose one which allows you to bring your own food and even music along. Most trips leave around 17:00 to be back in time to watch the magnificent sunset behind the city skyline, a truly majestic photo opportunity.