PHNOM PENH CITY
Phnom Penh’s points of interest are largely historical and cultural, but they are only part of exploring the city. Exotic shopping, unique dining, indulgent spas and a fair bit of nightlife complete the Phnom Penh experience.
For the sights, set aside two or three days for the major points. Though it is possible to squeeze the most important sights into a single day, this leaves very little time at each location. Popular sights include the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Khmer Rouge ‘Killing Fields,’ the National Museum, the Russian Market, Central Market and Wat Phnom. Except for the ‘Killing Fields,’ which are about 16km from the city center, all of the major sights are inside the city within a five or ten minute ride of each other.
Other things to do an see include traditional performances (including the very popular ‘Plae Pakaa/Fruitful’ at the National Museum.) And within day trips distance of Phnom Penh there are several Angkorian-era ruins and as well as other historic sites.
Most people hire transportation for half or full day at a time. Consider a cyclo or even a walking tour for a more intimate look at the city. There is also a new ‘Hop on-Hop off’ a/c tour bus the circles past all of the major in-city attractions once per hour, allowing a flexible itinerary. $15 for one day, $25 for two. The same outfit also offers twice daily buses to Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields. Book through your hotel or call 016-745880.
Open: 8:00 – 5:00, open everyday
Location: Street 178 & Street 13, next to the Royal Palace
The distinctive rust-red National Museum next to the Royal Palace was dedicated by King Sisowath in 1920. Over 5000 objects are on display including Angkorian era statues, lingas and other artifacts, most notably the legendary statue of the ‘Leper King.’ Though the emphasis is on Angkorian artifacts, there is also a good collection of pieces from later periods, including a special exhibition of post-Angkorian Buddha figures.
Visiting the museum after rather than before a trip to the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap helps lend context to the Angkorian artifacts. Multi-lingual tour guides are available. Souvenirs and books available. Photography is limited. The museum borders Street 178, aka ‘Artist’s Street’ which is lined with local art galleries and souvenir shops. The Reyum Gallery on Street 178 is of particular note, exhibiting the works of contemporary Cambodian artists.
ROYAL PALACE (Silver Pagoda)
Admission: 25,000 Riel (US$6.25).
Open: everyday, 7:30-11:00 / 2:00-5:00
Location: Sothearos Blvd (riverfront) between Streets 240 & 184
Marking the approach to the Royal Palace along Sothearos Blvd the high yellow crenellated wall and spired Chanchhaya Pavilion stand distinctively against the riverfront skyline. Inside the Palace grounds street sounds are silenced by the high walls and the royal buildings sit like ornate islands rising from the manicured gardens.
The Royal Palace serves as the residence of the King, a venue for court ceremony and as a symbol of the Kingdom. It was first established at its present location when the capital was moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh in 1866 under King Norodom and the French protectorate, though the Palace did not attain its current general form until about 1920. Khmer and European elements as well as distinct architectural echoes of the palace in Bangkok are present in the design of the various buildings.
Attached to the Palace compound, Wat Preah Keo Morokat (the ‘Silver Pagoda’) is unique amongst pagodas. So named for its silver tiled floor, it is where the King meets with monks, Royal ceremonies are performed and it houses a collection of priceless Buddhist and historical objects including the ‘Emerald Buddha.’ And, unlike most pagodas, no monks live at the pagoda. The temple building, library and galleries were first constructed between 1892 and 1902.
Admission: WAT PHNOM
Location: North end of Norodom Blvd. at Street 96, in the center of the roundabout
A small hill crowned by an active wat (pagoda) marks the legendary founding place of the Phnom Penh. The hill is the site of constant activity, with a steady stream of the faithful trekking to the vihear, shrines and fortune tellers on top and a constellation of vendors, visitors and motodups at the bottom.
The legend of the founding of Wat Phnom is tied to the beginnings of Phnom Penh. Legend has it that in 1372 Lady Penh (Yea Penh) fished a floating Koki tree out of the river. Inside the tree were our Buddha statues. She built a hill (‘phnom’ means ‘hill’) and a small temple (wat) at what is now the site known as Wat Phnom. Later, the surrounding area became known after the hill (Phnom) and its creator (Penh), hence the name of the city ‘Phnom Penh’ The current temple was last rebuilt in 1926. The large stupa contains the remains of King Ponhea Yat (1405-1467) who moved the Khmer capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh the early 15th century. Look for the altar of Lady Penh between the large stupa and the vihear. She is said to be of particular help to women.
Location: At the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk Blvds.
The Independence Monument (Vimean Ekareach) was inaugurated in November 9, 1962, celebrating Cambodia’s independence from foreign rule. Renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann was the architect of the monument which is patterned on a lotus flower bud, adorned with Naga heads (multi-headed cobras,) and obviously reminiscent in design of the towers of Angkor Wat.
The Independence Monument now also serves as a monument to Cambodia’s war dead as well as her independence. The Independence Monument sit in the center of the traffic circle at the intersection of Norodom Blvd. and Sihanouk Blvd. and is the site of colorful celebrations and services on political holidays such as Independence Day (January 7) and Constitution Day (September 24.)
Situated on the west side of the Tonle Sap River, Phnom Penh is, before all else, the city at the Chaktomuk on the Mekong River. – the ‘four faces’ – riverine crossroads in the heart of Cambodia with the Tonle Sap River running northwest to the old Angkorian capital, the Mekong River north to Laos and branches south to the delta and the South China Sea.
The River Front
Some of Phnom Penh’s most important cultural sites as well as dozens of pubs, restaurants and shops sit along the picturesque park-lined riverfront overlooking the chaktomuk – the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers. The Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and the National Museum are clustered together between Street 178 and 240 and restaurants and pubs line the riverfront road Sisowath Quay, stretching north from the Royal Palace area all the way to Street 104 near Wat Phnom. Visit the Royal Palace and National Museum and stroll up the riverfront for a drink or a meal or to do some shopping. Just off the riverfront, Street 240 behind the Royal Palace harbors several restaurants and high-quality boutiques and Street 178 next to the National Museum is known as ‘Art Street’ and is dotted with interesting little art galleries and silk shops. Early risers, check out the spectacular sunrise over the river in front of the Royal Palace area.
Short river and sunset cruises along the Phnom Penh riverfront are easy to arrange and offer an interesting view of the city.
A tour cruise typically takes about 1 – 2 hours and runs up the Tonle Sap River along the central riverfront area providing a picturesque view of the Royal Palace and Phnom Penh skyline, and then across the Tonle Sap and up the Mekong River to view floating fishing villages. (Photography: Best lighting in the early morning as the low sun illuminates the riverfront.) Longer cruises are also possible and can be tailored to your requirements – upriver tours to villages and paddies, dinner and party cruises, sunset cruises, trips to Silk Island.
Boat trips can be arranged through your hotel or travel agent or you can deal with the operators directly. Tourist boats are clustered together on the river along Sisowath Quay just north of the Phnom Penh Port. Starting at around $15/hour, depending on the duration and number of passengers.
SILK ISLAND (Koh Dach)
Location: In the Mekong River located about 1-hour boat ride from Phnom Penh. See above for boats to the island.
For those with an interest in Cambodian silks and silk weaving, set aside a half-day for a boat trip to a rural weaving village on Koh Dach (aka ‘Silk Weaving Island,’) a nearby island up the Mekong River. The weaving village is a typical rural Cambodian village, dedicated almost entirely to silk weaving – people operating hand looms under most of the houses, others dying and spinning silk on spinning wheels made of bicycle parts. The area does not receive a lot of tourists. Wander the village to observe the activities, and expect silk sellers to try to hawk their wares.
Phnom Penh City Sights: Khmer Rouge History
From April 17, 1975 until January 7, 1979, the brutal, ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge regime (i.e. the Red Khmer) controlled the whole of Cambodia, then known as ‘Democratic Kampuchea.’ The Khmer Rouge was headed by Saloth Sar, nom de guerre Pol Pot. During their short reign between one and two and a half million Cambodians perished, some killed outright, others dying from disease, malnutrition, neglect and mistreatment.
Some of the horrific remnants of the Khmer Rouge regime can be seen at the Choeung Ek Memorial (the ‘Killing Fields’) and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Though the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979, they retreated to the mountains and border areas, persisting until their final defeat and dissolution in 1998.
Surviving KR leaders are only now facing the court. Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. ‘Duch,’ director of the infamous S-21 prison was found guilty by the ECCC in 2010. Proceedings against other defendants are currently underway. Pol Pot died in 1998, never having faced justice.
CHOEUNG EK MEMORIAL (The Killing Fields)
Hours: 7:30AM – 5:30PM
Location: 15 km southwest of Phnom Penh – Take Monireth 8.5 km past the bridge at Street 271
Many of the Cambodians who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime ended up dumped in one of the dozens of ‘killing fields’ that can be found scattered across the country. The killing fields were essentially ad hoc places of execution and dumping grounds for dead bodies during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979.) After the Khmer Rouge regime, memorials were set up at many of the sites, some containing the bones and remnants of victims gathered from the area.
Prior to 1975, Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh was a orchard and a Chinese cemetery. But during the Khmer Rouge regime the area became one of the infamous killing fields. This particular killing field is the site of the brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom had first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the S-21 Prison (now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum) in Phnom Penh. The Choeung Ek Memorial is now a group of mass graves, killing areas and a memorial stupa containing thousands of human skulls and long bones.
The memorial is about a 20-40 minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh. Guided tours through the area are available and reasonably priced multi-lingual guides are available at the site. There is also a small souvenir shop as well. For sake of historical context, combine your trip to Choeung Ek with a visit to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S-21 Prison) in Phnom Penh. (See below.) Also see David Chandler’s book, ‘Voices of S-21’ for the most systematic and complete account to date of the history and operation of the S-21 Prison.
TOUL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM (S-21)
Hours: 8:00AM-5:00PM, daily. Closed for lunch.
Location: Corner of Street 113 & Street 350
Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school – a set of classroom buildings in a walled compound. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility, administered by Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. ‘Duch.’ Inmates at the prison were held in tiny brick cubicles and systematically tortured, sometimes over a period of months, to extract the desired ‘confessions,’ after which the victim was inevitably executed at the killing field of Choeung Ek just outside the city. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, less than a score of whom are known to have survived.
The Tuol Sleng compound now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Much has been left in the state it was in when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in January 1979. The prison kept extensive records, leaving thousands of photos of their victims, many of which are on display. Paintings of torture at the prison by Vann Nath, a survivor of Toul Sleng, are also exhibited. For more on S-21 check out David Chandler’s book, ‘Voices from S-21.’
In Cambodia it is the women who take charge of trade…
Market is held everyday from six o’clock…
they display their goods on matting spread upon the ground.
Each has an allotted place…
– excerpt from The Customs of Cambodia by Zhou Daguan circa 1300AD
‘Phsar means ‘market’ and a visit to at least one traditional phsar is a must. A typical traditional market is a sprawling ground level affair, open-air but covered, crowded with rows of booths and stalls. If you visit only one or two markets in Phnom Penh, begin with the Phsar Tuol Thom Poung (Russian Market) and Phsar Thmey (Central Market.) Both offer curios, souvenirs and a cultural shopping adventure. Other traditional markets such have fewer items for tourists but can still be culturally and photographically interesting. The markets open and close with the sun but are fairly sleepy between 11:30AM and 2:00PM.
CENTRAL MARKET (Phsar Thmei)
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Location: Corner of Street 130 and Street 63
This distinctive building is a city landmark – a unique Art Deco interpretation of a traditional market. Four arms of the market converge in a soaring dome at the hub, perhaps reflecting the four arms of the chaktomuk (the convergence of the Mekong River.) Prior to 1935 the market area was a swampy lake known as Beng Decho that received the runoff during the rainy season. The lake was drained and the market constructed in 1935-37 during the French colonial period, and originally dubbed the ‘Grand Market.’
The central section of the market building displays an amazing collection of gems and jewelry. Souvenir vendors along the central entrance walk offer curios, statuary, handicrafts, silks, t-shirts, postcards, etc. (‘Phsar Thmey’ is properly translated ‘New Market’, but ‘Central Market’ has caught on in English.)
RUSSIAN MARKET (Phsar Toul Tom Poung)
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Location: Street 450, between Streets 155 and 163
This market became the foreigner’s market during the 1980’s when most of the foreigners in Cambodia were Russians, hence the name ‘Russian Market.’ It is of far less architectural interest than the Central Market but has a larger, more varied selection of souvenirs, curios and silks.
The Russian Market became the foreigner’s market during the 1980’s when most of the foreigners in Cambodia were Russians, hence the name ‘Russian Market.’ It is of far less architectural interest than the Central Market but has a larger, more varied selection of souvenirs, curios and silks. Also unlike the Central Market this is a classic traditional market – a sprawling, single level collection of stalls – and offers a larger, more varied selection of souvenirs, curios and silks. It is also one of the best markets in town for fabrics and has the largest selection of DVDs of all the traditional markets. Most of the DVD vendors are on the south side as are most of the visitor-oriented places, but the rest of the market is well worth exploring. There are some good local food and drink stands in the middle of the market.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Location: Street 450, between Streets 155 and 163
A typical, sprawling, low-slung local market similar to Phsar Chas. Meat, vegetables, fruits and tailors fill the north half while jewelers and electronics stalls are located in the building next door. It’s a very local scene but as the market is only a couple of blocks off the riverfront tourists occasionally find their way to the coffee stalls and noodle shops. There is a comparatively large Vietnamese population living in the area around Phsar Kandal, which and is reflected in the character of the market – the food, the dress and the language.
OLD MARKET (Phsar Chas)
Phsar Chas not at all geared to tourists, carrying such items as fruits and vegetables, hardware, second hand clothes, motorcycle parts and religious items. The late afternoon shopping hour along Street 110 and Street 108 makes for a confusing, dirty, potentially photogenic scene. There has been a market on this site since at the earliest days of the French colonial period (and probably much longer) when it sat next to a now reclaimed river inlet.
NIGHT MARKET (Phsar Reatrey)
Phnom Penh’s new Night Market on the riverfront is aimed squarely at visitors and tourists, offering a wide and varied selection of Cambodian handicrafts silks, art, curios and souvenirs. Currently the Night Market opens only on the weekends, starting up at about 5:00PM and runs until at least 9:00 or 10:00PM. Located in the park between Street 106 and 108 on the riverfront. Stop in as you stroll up the riverfront.
Cambodia has a long and rich tradition of classical dance, shadow puppetry and circus, and it has also become tradition for visitors to attend at least one traditional performance during their stay in Cambodia, most often, the classic ‘Apsara Dance.’ Dozens of restaurants in Siem Reap host classical dance shows every night, but there are only a few places in Phnom Penh offering regularly scheduled performances. In fact, Phnom Penh, in some ways, may be a better place to take in a performance, if your schedule allows. As there are fewer venues, and a much thinner performance schedule, it can have a somewhat more authentic, less canned feeling than what you may find at some of the ‘buffet & dance mills’ in Siem Reap. See Traditional Performances page for more.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF PHNOM PENH
Architecturally speaking, Phnom Penh is a comparatively new city. Prior to the late 19th century the city was but a few pagodas and clusters of wooden structures along the riverfront. Almost every currently existing structure was built after the beginning of the French colonial period in 1863. ‘Chinese shophouse’ style buildings dominate the city, characterized by deep narrow apartments made up of a combined ground-floor business-front and upstairs residence. Standing in distinctive difference, old European influenced colonial period structures are interspersed through the central city. At the height of the colonial period Phnom Penh was reputed to be the most beautiful city in French Indochina – recalling Paris in its manicured parks and picturesque boulevards lined with ornate villas. Though sometimes difficult to see through the grime and disrepair of years of hardship and neglect, much of that beauty still exists.
For more on the architecture of Phnom Penh and a architecture tour map and guide, see here.
Well over 95% of the Cambodian population is Buddhist and in Phnom Penh you are never far from a Buddhist pagoda (wat.) Dozens of pagodas dot the city with one located in almost every neighborhood in town. Though many of the pagodas are comparatively modern, Phnom Penh’s original five wats were established in the 15th century, all still functioning.
Pagoda ground are colorful photogenic places and most are open and welcoming to the general public. But if you visit a pagoda please be respectful of the place and people. Dress conservatively (long sleeves and pants,) respect the privacy of monks and worshippers and ask before taking photos, especially of people. The following short list of pagodas are some of the cities more historic and photogenic wats. See Ray Zepp’s highly recommended book ‘A Field Guide to Cambodia Pagodas’ for an introduction to Cambodian Buddhism and a guide to Phnom Penh’s pagodas.
Significant in part because it is one of the city’s original wats, possibly founded in 1422 by King Ponhea Yat. Wat Botum took its current name in 1865 and its present structure in 1937. Of photographic note: The wat compound is crowded with ornate and colorful stupas, including the towering ‘Buddha’s Relic Stupa’ pictured left.
Location: Located in the heart of the city, on Monivong and Street 174.
One of the city’s five original wats, established in the early 15th century. The main building was destroyed in the 1970s and rebuilt in the 90s. This pagoda has become a refuge for stray and abandoned house pets. If you want to adopt a cat, this is the place to come.
Location: Just southwest of the Independence Monument
Wat Langka is reputedly one of Phnom Penh’s five original wats (1422). First established as a sanctuary for the Holy Writings and a meeting place for Cambodian and Sri Lankan monks, the Wat was named in honor of these meetings.
WAT PHNOM PENH
Location: North end of Norodom Blvd.
Small hill crowned by an active wat (pagoda) marks the legendary founding place of the Phnom Penh. The hill is the site of constant activity, with a steady stream of the faithful trekking to the vihear, shrines and fortune tellers on top and a constellation of vendors, visitors and motodups at the bottom.
Location: Sothearos Blvd. about 200m north of the Royal Palace
Wat Ounalom on the riverfront is reputedly the oldest Buddhist foundation in the city, probably predating the abandonment of the capital at Angkor in the 15th century. The founding date is variously cited as 1422 and 1443. This Wat is the home to the Buddhist patriarch.