Jump on a motodop, hail that cyclo and brave the bumpy roads, or ignore the cries
of 'moto!' and simply go by foot. Phnom Penh's architecture, museums, temples and
unique street life are all around.
But where to start? How about where folklore says it all began - Wat Phnom
on the city's largest man-made hill. The pagoda is full of color, the air incense-heavy,
and the grounds busy with tourists, local worshipers, the occasional fortune-teller,
and a crowd of inquisitive monkeys.
Legend has it that Phnom Penh was founded when a wealthy Khmer woman, Daun Penh,
miraculously discovered four Buddha statues in a tree on the bank of the Mekong.
She built a pagoda to house these sacred objects, and the city was born.
Wat Phnom houses many statues of the Buddha, and its walls are lined with traditional
paintings. Two curio museums stand within the temple grounds, and there is always
something to catch the eye at the bottom of the hill where locals and visitors alike
congregate to have their fortunes told, take an elephant ride or pester the resident
Not that the capital city of a country that is 90 percent Buddhist lacks temples:
if Wat Phnom merely whets your appetite for Buddhas, stupas and the smell of incense,
some less-visited but equally attractive pagodas include Wat Botum, built
by King Ponhea in 1422, Wat Langka, another of the city's five original wats,
and Wat Ounalom, which occupies a prime location on the river front about
250 meters north of the National Museum.
A brisk ten minute walk southeast from Wat Phnom is the capital's social heart where
the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers converge. Quiet and serene during the day,
the riverside becomes a hive of activity at night as people crowd to the tree-lined
riverbank to enjoy the fine view or a spot of dinner at the many cafes, restaurants
and bars which line the road.
There is certainly no shortage of places to eat in Phnom Penh. Menus range from traditional
Khmer fare to Italian food, authentic Russian dining, and even Greek zouvlaki.
Other night time options include a visit to one of the city's many bars or a romantic
cruise along the Mekong. You could spend an evening belting out your favorite karaoke
numbers, or simply blow your cash on a night of frivolous gambling at the casino.
So you've left Wat Phnom, made your way down to the riverfront for a refreshing
drink and possibly a meal. What next? It might well be the National Museum,
a resplendent building home to many of Cambodia's architectural and artistic treasures.
Sculptures from both the pre-Angkor and Angkor periods are displayed along with ceramics,
royal barges and dance costumes from the 19th century.
And even if the numerous Buddha statues and broken bowls are not your cup of tea,
the building itself is worth the trip. The distinctive rust-red structure is a fine
example of Cambodian architecture. The grand entrance is guarded by majestic stone
elephants, and the intricately decorated roof reaches toward the sky.
In the center is a tranquil courtyard, where tired legs and overloaded brains can
rest by the side of the lotus pond before heading back inside to tackle the 5,000
To complete the journey from classical old grandeur to tourist kitsch, the Post recommends
a wander around the artists' shops on Street 178 which runs past the museum. There
you can indulge in an eclectic mix of garish paintings of 'rural' scenes, Angkor
busts, fine silks, and Cambodian handicrafts. You can also view some of the more
sophisticated art at several of the shops and galleries.
A short walk from the National Museum is the entrance to the Royal Palace,
whose famous Silver Pagoda is housed within the royal residence's vivid yellow
walls. In front is an uninterrupted view across a park to the river. The area is
known as Chatomuk, or four faces. It is regarded as auspicious as it overlooks
the confluence of four rivers: the Upper Mekong, the Lower Mekong, the Tonle Sap
and the Bassac.
The original wooden palace, which no longer stands, was built on the site by King
Norodom in 1866. Over the next 70 years more buildings were added: today the complex
includes an open air theater, a coronation hall and the Napoleon III pavilion, which
was a gift to Cambodia from the French Empress Eugenie. The gray European wrought-iron
construction almost jars the eye it seems so out of place among the exotic Khmer
The Silver Pagoda takes its name from the 5,000 silver tiles that adorn its floor,
but it is also home to hundreds of royal gifts accumulated over the years. Among
these is a small emerald Buddha, and there is also a more elaborate solid-gold Buddha
encrusted with diamonds, which was created in 1906 to the exact proportions of King
The walls surrounding the square in which the Silver Pagoda stands are decorated
with paintings of the Reamker, Cambodia's version of the epic Indian legend, the
Ramayana. The mural, which has seen an impressive history in the 100 years since
it was painted, is in a somewhat dilapidated state but still has a unique charm.
To reach the next point of interest head south across the park to Sihanouk Blvd,
and look to your right for a view of another distinctive city landmark: the Independence
Monument. At night the dark stone archway with its innumerable Naga heads is
bathed in blue, red and white light, the colors of the country's flag.
The monument was designed in 1958 by the renowned Khmer architect Vann Molyvann.
Discussion over its artistic value leaves many divided: is it an architectural innovation
or just a tawdry lump of brown stone? Whatever the opinion, the monument does serve
two worthy purposes: it commemorates the country's independence from France in 1953,
and honors Cambodia's war dead.
Other buildings designed by Vann Molyvann include the Olympic Stadium, which
is being renovated, and the Chatomuk Theater, which is on the river near the Royal
Palace and is home to visiting shows and local performances.
If you've had enough of the endless Angkor paintings in the streets surrounding
the museum, Phnom Penh's vibrant markets provide an enjoyably hectic experience,
with a wide range of souvenirs available at good prices.
The unique art-deco style of the Central Market (Psah Thmei), which was built
by the French in 1937, makes it one of Phnom Penh's most intriguing buildings.
A wander inside the domed yellow-orange structure reveals silk scarves, table cloths
and kramas hawked alongside fruit and vegetables. Those with no sense of smell and
a strong stomach are encouraged to visit the meat section, where you can buy concertinas
of dried fish, or perhaps the snout or ear of a pig, alongside more appetizing cuts
The Russian Market (Psah Tuol Tumpong) is another way to spend an interesting
hour or so. If you are short of clothing, tourist tat, CDs, or even if you simply
fancy trying your hand at building your own motorbike piece by piece, then this is
Other markets which offer less in the way of souvenirs but an authentic look at the
everyday shopping experience of city residents include Psah Chah, Psah Olympic and
Not far from the Russian Market is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly
known as S-21, which offers a sobering look at one dominating aspect of the country's
recent history. The museum was originally a high school before the Khmer Rouge turned
it into an interrogation and torture facility in the mid-1970s.
The building has been left very much the way it was found when the Vietnamese arrived
in Phnom Penh in 1979, and raw reminders can be seen in the prisoners' cells. Traces
of blood still stain the floor, and black and white photos of many of the victims
line the walls, face after face staring blankly at the visitor, the simplicity of
the display adding to the power of the images.
The infamous Killing Fields (Chhoeung Ek), where prisoners at Tuol Sleng were
taken to after interrogation, lie 15 kilometers outside Phnom Penh. The site is now
a memorial and mass grave for thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Bear in mind that there are also many attractions in the nearby countryside. One
hour north is Udong, a hill that affords exceptional views of the surrounding
flat landscape. In the 19th century the hill was bejeweled with pagodas, canals and
terraces. Little remains of its past, but the handful of ruins offers a glimpse into
the glory of the former capital city.
Other attractions within an hour of Phnom Penh include Tonle Bati, a 12th
century temple popular at weekends, and Phnom Chisor, a well preserved 11th
century Angkorian temple set on a hilltop.