Thanks to our early exit from Vientiane we found ourselves with an extra couple of days to spend in Phnom Penh. Having visited the genocide sites (our reason for stopping off here in the first place), we were faced with two options; kick back by the hotel pool and quench the soaring October heat with a frozen margarita, or venture out to explore what else the city had to offer us. An aptly timed poolside construction project made this decision an easy one so – ducking and diving past the tenacious tuk-tuk drivers clustered outside our hotel – we set out on foot.
Phnom Penh isn’t a huge place – certainly not if you’ve grown accustomed to incomprehensibly huge Chinese cities like Shanghai! – but with a population of about 1.5m, it’s at least twice the size of Vientiane (750k). On our impromptu wander we found a blend of Buddhist and Cambodian architecture (temples, monuments and palace buildings), French colonial influence (municipal buildings and townhouses) and modern development (leisure areas, malls and hotels).
It’s a city where you can wake up in a Western-style boutique hotel, spend your morning visiting some magnificent buildings from a bygone era, stop for an espresso at a cool and reasonably-priced cafe, then sit on a colour-bleached plastic chair on the edge of a public park while an old lady cooks you some fragrant spicy noodles on a camp stove attached to the back of a tuk-tuk. In fact, this was what we ended up doing while in Phom Penh and the transitions didn’t feel too harsh or incongruous. That said, there are still signs of a conflicted city wrestling with modernisation. We visited several cafes and shops devoted to raising funds for disadvantaged people, such as those caught up in and trying to leave the sex industry (the red light district is only a short walk from the Royal Palace grounds!).
Like Vientiane, Phnom Penh is in parts grimy, noisy, smelly and messy; however, unlike the Laotian capital we found it to be quirky, interesting, and full of charm. The presentation of the heritage sites reflected a deep pride in the city and in my view the architecture alone is enough to warrant a stay for a few days. Some of the highlights for us were…
Phnom Penh Royal Palace
The Royal Palace, built midway through the 19th Century, is the official residence of King Sihamoni. As we approached, a flock of pigeons scattered among the crowd of tourists swept up to the sky, circling above the palace gate before coming to rest momentarily on it’s elegant and intricately tiled classic Khmer roof. From the street outside you can see the gleaming gold spires of the striking palace buildings, which rise above the pale gold wall surrounding the palace compound. It’s certainly an impressive sight.
To enter the palace you need to dress modestly, with your shoulders and arms and legs covered (the rules on this are strictly upheld by the staff manning the entrance; we saw a couple of people in just-above-the-knee shorts being turned away). Once inside you can explore the two vast adjacent courtyards containing several magnificent white-and-gold buildings and a display of beautifully manicured gardens. Most of the buildings contained artifacts and treasures such as court costumes, tapestries and royal heirlooms (although many items were lost, stolen or destroyed during the turmoil of the war and subsequent Vietnamese invasion).
The Silver Pagoda
A popular attraction in the Royal Palace is the extravagant ‘Silver Pagoda’ – a somewhat misleading name given that it’s neither silver, nor a pagoda! Also known as Wat Preah Keo, it is a huge palace hall containing hundreds of gold and silver and jewel-encrusted Buddhas, whose name is derived from 5000 silver tiles inlaid on the floor (although these are largely covered for protection).
To the south of the Silver Pagoda is a giant wooden replica of the main temple at Angkor Wat (complete with a moat-like pool teeming with carp) and just beyond this you can find an intricate painted mural that stretches along its inner wall of one of the cloisters. Despite being faded in parts and apparently mid-way through a restoration project, this painting was one of my favourite parts of the Palace – the colour, detail and imagination was exquisite.
Wat Phnom is a Buddhist Temple which sits atop an artificial hill, right at the centre of Phnom Penh. It was originally built some 600 years ago to house and protect four statues of Buddha which legend says were washed up by the waters of the Mekong river and discovered by a wealthy widow, Lade Penh. Aside the temple is a huge white stupa (below). It’s still an active place of worship today, and we found a group of ladies clustered around a shrine, chatting amongst themselves while preparing offerings of food and flowers.
We were told that Wat Phnom was the best place to see the city from on high. However, at 27 metres there weren’t many vantage points that allowed you to see above the trees! That said, while the trees blocked our view, they did provide a thick canopy which allowed us some shelter from the glaring sun, while making our way through the hillside gardens back down to ground level.
Central Market (Phsar Thmei)
There were two markets we were recommended to visit in Phnom Penh: the Central Market and the Russian Market. The Central Market is a large domed Art Deco building of french-design dating back to 1937, which is still operational as a market today. There are 4 ‘arms’ that splay out from the central dome, each of which contains dozens of market vendors selling clothing, watches, jewelry and domestic goods, and we explored and tried-on without feeling any pressure to buy anything. The entrance to the market is crammed with vendors selling touristy t-shirts and cold juice drinks (the fresh coconut water was delicious) and the airy design of the market made it an excellent place to take a break from the heat (you may be noticing a theme here, it was too hot to spend a lot of time outside!). Although watch out if you visit in the rainy season… the market occupies a square that had previously been a lake, and it is prone to flooding!
Phsar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market)
The second we were recommended to visit was the Russian Market, so called because of it’s popularity in the 1980s with Soviets who lived in the area. Unlike the open, airy and geometric Central Market, the Russian Market is a cramped, dense warren of stalls selling everything from handicraft, antiques and art to kitchen hardware and motorbike parts. If you burrow your way to the centre of the market you will find a dingy but vibrant ‘food court’ (some tables and chairs), where people were somehow rustling delicious Cambodian noodles from the most rudimentary of kitchens.
The tasty and extremely cheap meal was important fuel, given it might have taken several hours to find our way out of this shopping labyrinth!
Chasing Monkeys at Post Office Square
We’d sought out the old Post Office, an imposing colonial public building in a sleepy and very French part of the town (complete with cafes and chocolate shops) but no sooner had we arrived than we became distracted by a family of monkeys – fat old ones and cheeky babies – playfully traversing the street on overhead cables, climbing up buildings and harassing the irritable locals. We were immediately and completely distracted!
When the monkeys finally disappeared over the rooftops we took a look around the nearby square. Dating from 1890, Phnom Penh’s original post office is an elegant building which is still in use today, having been renovated several times. It’s fortunate, considering the state of the other once-great buildings in the surrounding area. For example, the Commissariat (Central Police Station from circa 1910), which commands a corner view by the Post Office is sadly at the point of disintegration, shuttered for decades and blocked off by a giant metal fence. It would be great if, as part of the development of Phnom Penh, some funds were earmarked for the restoration of areas like this – before they reach a stage beyond repair.
Modelled on the central tower of Angkor Wat – a lotus- shaped stupa consisting of 5 levels, each decorated with snake-heads – the Independence Monument was built in 1958 to commemorate the country’s independence from France in 1953. In the daytime the monument is attractive but doesn’t really stand out. To see it at it’s best, go in the evening when it is lit up; the resulting shadows demonstrate the beautiful complexity of the design. Walking inside the monument isn’t permitted, but you get a good view from across the street.