Of course no trip to Cambodia would be complete without visiting Siem Reap and the nearby temples of Angkor, but if travelers have the time they really shouldn’t overlook the capital city Phnom Penh, once known as the “Pearl of Asia”. And even though it has risen from the darkened ashes of war that took place during the 70’s and 80’s, it still retains much of the look and feel of Asia from several decades ago. If you are lucky enough to get to visit this adventurous city here are ten things, in no particular order, that you should definitely consider exploring while you are there.
1. Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda
Very similar in style to the Royal Palace in Bangkok, this official residence of King Sihamoni has classic Khmer roofs and elaborate gilding. It is close to the center of the city’s action near the riverfront, and within the same grounds you can also visit the Silver Pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, which has a floor covered with more than 5,000 silver tiles. To enter you’ll need to dress appropriately – no bare legs or shoulders. You can rent sarongs and t-shirts at the entrance if needed.
2. National Museum
Very close to the Royal Palace, this museum contains the finest collection of Khmer sculpture in the world. There are four pavilions full of works that span a millennia. No photos are allowed inside, but you can take pictures of some fine works which are located in the central courtyard area for a small fee.
3. Tual Sleng Museum
One of the darkest reminders of the horrors from the Khmer Rouge days, this former high school was turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by Pol Pot’s security forces in 1975. Over 17,000 people were detained and tortured here before being sent to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Every victim was photographed by the regime’s record keepers, and many of these black-and-white photos are displayed throughout the rooms of the museum. Granted, it is not uplifting, but like the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, it is good to be reminded of what we all must try to prevent from ever happening again.
4. Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Like Tual Sleng above, this is a must see, because it is a horrific and important reminder of a dark side of humanity which we must remain vigilant against. The 17,000+ men, women, children and babies who had been sent from S-21 were executed at this former Chinese cemetery located about 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh, sometimes with blunt objects due to shortages of bullets. There is now a Buddhist Memorial Stupa packed full of more than 8,000 skulls that you can view through clear glass panels. These skulls came from the remains that were exhumed from nearby mass graves in 1980, and 49 of the adjacent communal graves still remain untouched.
5. Central Market (Psar Thmei)
This Phnom Penh landmark is an art deco building completed in 1937. The huge dome in the middle is claimed by some to be one of the 10 largest domes in the world. There are four large wings that branch out from the middle, and each contains numerous stalls of goods of all kinds being sold to locals as well as tourists. It’s an excellent place for browsing as well as for taking some good photos of a traditional market in action.
6. Wat Phnom
Its name means ‘hill temple’ for a reason – it’s located on the only hill in town. Although the architecture isn’t as grand as its historical importance, it is still an interesting site to see. Legend has it that the first pagoda on the site was built in 1373 (the temple sanctuary has been rebuilt several times since then) to house four statues of Buddha which had been deposited by the waters of the Mekon and discovered by a wealthy widow named Madame Penh. Today many locals go there to pray for good luck, and many other locals go there to add to the somewhat chaotic atmosphere.
7. Massages and Spas
Yes, there are still unfortunately plenty of less-than-wholesome massage businesses in Phnom Penh, but there are also quite a few legitimate places to get a massage and some really nice spas as well, all for prices MUCH lower than what you would pay at home. One of the best value-oriented places, Seeing Hands Massage, employs blind masseurs which of course is great employment for a truly needy segment of Cambodian society. On the upper end Bodia Spa gets many good reviews, but there are several others to choose from that are also well regarded.
8. Riverfront Bars and Restaurants
The riverfront itself is a nice place for a stroll, especially around sunset, and it can be quite a bit of fun indulging yourself a bit with the many bars and restaurants clustered around the area. And like the massages and spas mentioned above, you can get quite a bit for your money in both quantity and quality.
9. Shopping That Helps Cambodians
There are several shops located throughout the city that sell handicrafts and textiles to raise money for Cambodians in need. Many of the products are produced by cooperatives and are of high quality. These kinds of stores help ensure that the artisans and the disadvantaged get direct access to the profits, so please try to give them your business if you can. Cambodia Handicraft Association, Mekong Blue and NCDP Handicrafts are some of the many great stores to check out.
10. Bon Om Tuk (Water Festival)
If you are lucky enough to be in Cambodia for this 3-day event that takes place every November you are in for a real treat. It’s a celebration of major naval battle victory that took place in 1177, and it likewise denotes the time of the year when the currents of the Tonle Sap River reverse direction due to the rainy season having ended the month before. As many as two million people from all over the country flock to the capital for the massive party, and the most colorful parts of the celebration are the dragon boat races in which over 350 boats participate every year.
All in all, if you find yourself bored in Phnom Penh you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.