Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, located at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers. From the many historical sites, impressive Buddhist temples and interesting museums that you come across here, you will learn about the rich history and culture of the city and the country.
Phnom Penh has been serving as the national capital since French rule was established in the country in 1863. Cambodia eventually gained independence from the French in 1953. The country went through a dark period in the 1970s under the Khmer Rouge, a totalitarian political party, who put millions of innocent citizens to death. Educated people like teachers, doctors and lawyers were the main victims of these mass killings. In Phnom Penh and other places in the country, you will come across several memorials and monuments that stand as reminders of this dark past. Though most tourists visit the country as they are intrigued by these monuments, remember to appreciate how the country has bounced back and rebuilt itself.
The Royal Palace complex with its well-manicured gardens is Phnom Penh’s most popular attraction. The palace is the residence for the King and the royal family and hence some parts are closed to the public. Along with the palace, the complex also includes the grand Silver Pagoda and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and at every turn, you will be greeted with impressive Khmer architecture. Near the Silver Pagoda, you will find walls covered with murals that depict scenes from the Ramayana. This is a fine example of how Khmer culture practises a fusion of Hinduism and Buddhism. Note that visitors are expected to dress appropriately, such that their knees and elbows are covered.
The National Museum of Cambodia, located near the Royal Palace, displays thousands of cultural artefacts that date as far back as the 4th century. It showcases an extensive collection of Khmer statues, ancient tablets bearing Sanskrit inscriptions, ceramics, pottery, traditional attire and various other artefacts. The museum also hosts a Cambodian cultural performance everyday by the Cambodian Living Arts’ theatre show. The colourful and lively show is a beautiful representation of Cambodian culture and definitely worth watching.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum narrates a horrifying history from the times of the Khmer Rogue. It was once a school which was then converted to a prison (S-21 prison) where thousands of innocents were tortured. Today, you can see numerous photographs on the walls that have captured the atrocities that took place, the small cells for the inmates and even instruments that were used for torture. The visit will surely give you chills and plenty to think about.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are located around 17 km away from the city and are another reminder of the dark days under the Khmer Rouge. The site was once a Chinese cemetery, which was later turned into an extermination camp. The prisoners from the S-21 prison were sent here to be killed. Even today, there are bones sticking out of the ground and in the memorial monument in the centre, you can look at thousands of skulls arranged in a glass case.
A cruise along the Mekong river is a highly recommended activity and a trip to the Koh Dach island (Silk island) is quite popular. Koh Dach island in the Mekong river is famous for traditional silk weaving industries and lovely agricultural fields. You can also go on a romantic dinner cruise or even take a half-day journey to reach the city of Siem Reap. There are also short tours that will present beautiful views of the city’s skyline as you float past iconic landmarks like the Royal Palace, its pagodas, the National Museum.
Phnom Penh is a great place for shopping and the markets are the spots to hit. The Phnom Penh Night Market is where you can taste the best of Cambodia’s street cuisine and also pick up souvenirs. The Russian market is one of the city’s largest outdoor markets and you can find almost anything you want here. The Central Market or Psar Thmei is an indoor market housed in an art deco style building with a massive dome. This is one of the busiest markets and it also has a wide range of products to choose from. If you get tired browsing through the numerous stalls, head over to the aromatic food section and recharge! The list of markets doesn’t end here, and if you wish for more options, there’s always the Olympic market and the Old market to drop by.
Phnom Penh must be added to your itinerary, and not just because it is the country’s capital. As you explore Phnom Penh, you will get in touch with the history and culture of Cambodia and experience life in this lovely chaotic city. The numerous monuments from the Khmer Rouge period will definitely cause shivers at what Cambodia has gone through and will make you respect and admire what its people have overcome.
Follow our blog for your daily dose of travel inspiration, information and tips. We try to publish atleast one article each day. Check this space for all the latest posts.