Founded in the mid-14th century by the Khmers as a monastery, Phnom Penh replaced Angkor Thom a century later as the country's capital. Perhaps the name doesn’t mean much to worldwide travelers but with the glimmering spires of the royal palace, the fluttering saffron of the monks’ robes, and the luscious location on the banks of the mighty Mekong, this is one of Asia’s undiscovered gems. This classic city is now on the move and expects to attract more tourists from across the globe which possibly changes the character of its own. Come what may, the city will never fail to captivate.
Things to do in Phnom Penh:
Where to go in Phnom Penh:
Wat Phnom is Cambodia's ‘Church on the Hill’. Legend has it that sometime in the 14th century, a woman named Penh found sacred Buddhist objects in the nearby river and placed them here on the small hill that later became a temple. The temple itself is a standard Southeast Asian wat, with Naga snakes on the cornered peaks of the roof and didactic murals of the Buddha's life done in Day-Glo allegories along interior walls. Don't miss the central ceiling, which, unlike the bright walls, is yet to be restored and is gritty and authentic.
The hillside park around the temple was once a no-go zone peopled by armed dealers and pimps, and in the evening you should still be careful, but now it's a laid-back little park.
Independence Monument Built in the late 1950s to commemorate Cambodia's independence from the French on 9 November 1953, this towering obelisk is crowned with Khmer Nagas and is reminiscent of Angkor architecture and Hindu influence. The area is at its most majestic when all lit up at night.
National Museum This important storehouse holds artifacts and statuary from all regions of Cambodia as well as a beautiful and informative collection of Khmer pieces. From the entrance, begin on your left with a room of small pre-historical artifacts. A clockwise loop around the central courtyard walks you through time, from static, stylized pieces of stiff-legged, standing Buddhas, to contra-posed and contorted forms in supplication. There are good accompanying descriptions in English, but this is not a bad place to have a knowledgeable local guide.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are the two ‘must see’ spots. Built in the late 1860s under the reign of Norodom, the sight is comprised of many elaborate gilded halls, all with steep tile roofs, stupa-shape cupolas, and golden temple nagasdenoting prosperity. The grand Throne Hall at the center is the coronation site for Khmer kings and the largest gilded cathedral in the country. The French built a small exhibition hall on the temple grounds, a building that now houses the many gifts given to the monarchy, among them cross-stitch portraits of the royal family and all manner of bric-a-brac.
The Silver Pagoda is just south of the palace. The floors of this grand temple are covered with 5,000 blocks of silver weighing more than 6 tons. The temple houses a 17th-century Buddha made of Baccarat crystal, and another made almost entirely of gold and decorated with almost 10,000 diamonds. That's not exactly what the Buddha had in mind perhaps, but it's quite beautiful. The temple courtyard is encircled by a covered walkway with a contiguous mural of Cambodia's history and mythology. On the southern end of the complex is a small hill covered in vegetation. There's a large Buddha footprint and a small temple that provokes very devout practice in Khmer visitors.
The Killing Fields and Choeung Ek Memorial Originally a Chinese cemetery before becoming the execution grounds for the Khmer Rouge during their maniacal reign under Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979, the site is a collection of mounds, mass graves, and a towering monument of catalogued human skulls. The monument is 17 stories high, reminding visitors of April 17, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. As a sign of respect, you take your shoes off before mounting the steps to view the monument up close. Human skulls, arranged by age and gender, are arranged at eye level, while other bones are placed on higher levels. The Killing Fields are often visited in conjunction with a tour of Tuol Sleng.
Toul Sleng, Museum of Genocide Was formerly a high school with the grounds being just as they were in 1979 at the end of Cambodia's bloody genocide. During the violent recent history in Cambodia, the two-story compound became one of the most notorious concentration camps, essentially a torture chamber before people were slaughtered in the Killing Fields. A visit here is a visceral revisit of some horrible events, too much for some visitors. From 1975 until 1979, an estimated 17,000 political prisoners, most just ordinary citizens, were tortured at Tuol Sleng and died, or were executed in the nearby Killing Fields. If you don't come with a guide, you'll certainly want to hire one at the entrance, although you're free to roam the grounds on your own. There are some written accounts in English, paintings done by a survivor, and gory photos of the common torture practices in the prison, but perhaps what is most haunting is the fear in the eyes of the newly arrived; one wing of the buildings is dedicated to these very arrival photos. This sight is a bit overwhelming, so be prepared.
Central Market Built in 1937, this is a city landmark and, on any given day, a veritable anthill of activity. The building is a towering rotunda with busy wings extending in four directions. The eastern entrance is the best spot to find T-shirts, hats, and all manner of trinkets and souvenirs, as well as photocopied bootlegs of popular novels and books on Cambodia. Goldsmiths and watch-repair and -sales counters predominate in the main rotunda, and you can find some good deals. Spend some time wandering the nooks and crannies, though, and you're sure to come across something that strikes your fancy, whether that's a chaotic hardware shop, a cobbler hard at work with an awl, or just the cacophony and carnival-barker shouts of salesmen and haggling shoppers. Be sure to bargain for any purchase. The Russian Market in the south end of town is comparable and equally worth a visit.
How to go to and in Phnom Penh:
By Air: All major airlines in the region connect here. Vietnam Airlines runs daily flights from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.Pochentong Airport is just a 15-minute drive from the city center and a cab costs around $7, a ride on the back of a motorbike just $2. Buy tickets from the taxi stand outside the departure terminal under the archway to your left.
By Boat: Speedboats connect with Phnom Pehn with Siem Reap and leave every morning from the main dock on the north end of town. Tickets are available just about anywhere in town. The price is $25 from most hotels or the Capitol Guesthouse.
By Bus: Phnom Pehn is a hub for buses throughout the country. A tourist bus to Siem Reap takes 6 to 7 hours and costs $5.
Phnom Penh's downtown is accessible on foot, and it's easy to find your way because the streets are arranged in a numbered grid. For sites farther afield, like The Killing Fields or any temples, you'll need wheels. Metered taxis are everywhere in town.Motorcycle taxis (called motodups), can be hired anywhere and cost about $1 for short trips in town.
The city temperatures range from 15° to 38 °C and experiences tropical monsoons. Monsoons blow from the Southwest inland, bringing moisture-laden winds from the Gulf of Thailand and Indian Ocean from May to October. The northeast monsoon ushers in the dry season, which lasts from November to March. The city experiences the heaviest precipitation from September to October with the driest period occurring from January to February.
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