Although there are only a handful of dedicated museums in Phnom Penh, many of the historic attractions contain galleries and are a wealth of information regarding Khmer history and culture. Some, of course, are dedicated to the killing fields and the slaughter that accompanied Pol Pot’s reign of terror, so are sombre places for contemplation and reflection. Others commemorate colonial rule on the city and achievements of generations past.
Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda form part of the greater complex of Phnom Penh’s most famous landmark. The complex itself features stunning European and Khmer influences, and its traditional facing to the Mekong, is an iconic skyline best seen and photographed at dawn or sunset. The Royal Palace is the King’s residence and a symbol of the Kingdom.
Building work started in 1866 when King Norodom moved the capital city from Oudong, though the present form wasn’t completed until 1920. Phnom Penh’s palace features a yellow and white throne hall, which reflects Buddhism and Hinduism, the two founding faiths of Cambodia.
The Ramayana is depicted on the ceiling, watching over the royal thrones. A 59m central spire, featuring a four-faced Brahma, is the centrepiece of the hall is still used for important functions.
Present King Sihamoni had his coronation here in 2004.
Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo Morokat)
The Silver Pagoda’s correct name is Wat Preah Keo Morokat, meaning ‘The Temple of the Emerald Buddha,’ in reference to its famous centrepiece. The modern name derives from the 5,329 silver tiles that cover the floor, which weighs over five tonnes. Most of the tiles are covered by carpet for their preservation but some sections can still be glimpsed near the main entrance.
The Silver Pagoda houses over 1,500 quality artefacts, the most notable of which are the Emerald Buddha itself – which is made of jade – and the 2,086 diamond encrusted 90kgs solid gold Buddha in the main hall. Other objects include more contemporary royal gifts such as golden spittoons and gem-embedded cigarette cases. Starting at the east gate, the outer walls are covered by the Ramayana Frescoes.
Other buildings of note inside the complex include the off-limits Royal Residence (If the blue flag is flying the King is in), the Napoleon III Pavilion, the Royal Rest house and the golden-tipped Chanchhaya Pavillion.
The National Museum
The National Museum is modern Cambodia’s greatest treasure. Next to the Royal Palace on Street 13, the admission booth and visitors entrance are located on the corner of Street 13. One-hour guided tours are available in Khmer, Japanese, English or French cost: US$3, cameras: US$1, videocameras: US$3, photography not permitted inside.
Photography is allowed around the exterior and courtyard but not inside the main galleries. Viewing can be divided into four main categories; stone, metal, wood and ceramics. Most of the artefacts are from the Angkor era; including, famously, the statue of the legendary ‘Leper King’, but the museum holds hundreds of ancient Khmer works. Religious sculpture and architecture are the most notable, with the post-Angkorian Buddha collection a highlight, while household items and public documents are also on display. To get there, just look for the rust-red roof of the building, dedicated in 1920 by King Sisowath.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng, or S-21 (Security Prison 21), was the main torture, interrogation and execution centre for the Khmer Rouge. The former school’s classrooms and balconies were converted into cells for all manner of brutality and horror. Nearly 17,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng, only seven survived. Most were grotesquely murdered inside or shipped to the Killing Fields at Chong Ek after having confessions beaten out of them.
The museum remains largely untouched from the day the Vietnamese took control of Phnom Penh, leaving behind open rooms which still show signs of torture on their permanently blood-stained walls. Their photos are still displayed in a timeless and chilling tribute.
Architecture tours of Phnom Penh
A tour of Phnom Penh’s architecture, with its unique combination of French colonial and traditional Khmer designs, is one of the city’s highlights – albeit a rapidly disappearing one. Tours can be done by all methods of transportation in Phnom Penh, but the best way to get up close and personal on your own walking tour. Starting from the riverfront and heading north to Street 130 or onto Wat Phnom and Central market are the most popular routes.
These will take in Chinese shophouses, forbidding official blocks, former transport hubs and crumbling remnants of colonial rule. Phnom Penh was once the most beautiful city in Indochina, likened to Paris for its stately buildings and wide boulevards. Heading southeast from the monstrous art-deco monument of Central Market features more modern European trends, and highlights from the post-independence period of the 1950s and 1960s. Streets 154 and 178 pass chic boutiques, old villas and several notable temples on the way to finishing at The National Museum or the Royal Palace.
Temples in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has dozens of Temples or Buddhist Wats, with most neighbourhoods featuring at least one pagoda. Wat Phnom, 1372, is the most notable and caters well to tourists, with the shaded area a popular picnic venue.
Wat Langka, 1422, near the Independence Monument is one of the city’s founding five pagodas and a historic seat of holy literature, while fellow original Wat Botum is a favourite for photographers. Wat Koh, nowadays an animal shelter, and Wat Ounalom, the oldest Buddhist foundation in the city, are both easily included on an Architecture Tour.
Pagodas are a welcoming, civil place for all members of the public but please ensure you respect the local customs and people. Long sleeves and pants are mandatory when entering temple grounds, and permission should be asked before taking any photos – especially of people. It can be highly offensive to photograph monks or nuns – try talking to them first.
For more on art galleries see shopping in Phnom Penh.