Things to Do in Phnom Penh
Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government killed and/or starved around 1.7 million of their citizens, roughly 20% of the population. Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), a former high school that served as a torture and detention center, documents their atrocities through films, photos, and artifacts.
The best known of the “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge executed over a million innocent Cambodians, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center sit just outside Phnom Penh. A memorial stupa contains the skulls of around 8,000 victims; bracelets decorate killing sites; and a museum documents the atrocities.
With its distinctive art-deco dome, Phnom Penh Central Market (Phsar Thmey) attracts visitors with hundreds of traditional Khmer stalls, selling everything from antique coins and brightly colored fabrics to traditional crafts and medicinal products. No first-time visit to Phnom Penh is complete without stopping, and shopping, here.
The official home of Cambodian royals is located in the heart of Phnom Penh, where the gilded rooflines of the Royal Palace preside over manicured grounds. It’s a gem of Khmer architecture and one of the city’s most popular sites. Follow in royal footsteps as you explore the intricate Throne Hall, visit the Silver Pagoda, and more.
Boasting a hilltop location overlooking the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom is one of Cambodia’s most-visited temples. Originally built in 1373, the sanctuary was reconstructed in 1998 and now provides a place for locals to celebrate Khmer festivals and make sacred offerings.
A place of magic, where it’s conceivable that almost anything can be found for sale, Phnom Penh Russian Market (Toul Tom Poung Market) is a haven for tourists, displaying a wide variety of goods—most notably, designer brand knock-offs. The Russian Market got its name from the Russian tourists that frequented it in the 1980s; these days, you can hear a wide range of languages being spoken in its stalls.
For those looking for souvenirs, “real designer clothes” at a huge discount and some remarkably fantastic food, you’re in the right place. As factories for such big name Western brands like Levi’s, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are located in Phnom Penh, stock that is deemed unfit to be shipped abroad due to some flaw are then sold at the Russian Market. Stick to the eastern side of the market for clothing; the northern side sells a utilitarian mix of tools and household goods and the other two sides are a mixture of jewelry and watches, antiques and not-so-antiques, pirated videos and various crafts. The middle of the market is the jackpot–-it’s a veritable Mecca of jet-fuel-grade iced coffee, noodle shops and snacks of both the savory and sweet persuasion.
Home to one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world, the National Museum of Cambodia focuses on the country’s ancient history and distinctive architecture. Galleries are categorized by material—stone, metal, wood, and ceramics—and feature artifacts that date back as far as the Neolithic period.
While visiting the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, it’s almost impossible to miss the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo), an impressive, opulent structure. With a floor that’s covered with five tons of silver, a Baccarat-crystal Buddha perched on a gilded pedestal (known as the Emerald Buddha) and a life-sized solid-gold Buddha that weighs almost 200 pounds (90 kg) and is covered with 9,584 diamonds (the largest is 25 carats), a visit to the Silver Pagoda is one that is not easily forgotten. Though they’re hard to get a peek at (they’re covered up for protection), see if you can get a look at one of the more than 5,000 silver tiles that were inlaid during King Norodom Sihanouk's pre-Khmer Rouge reign and are the reason for the temple’s nickname.
Though the temple’s true name is Wat Preah Keo Morokat, which means Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the moniker The Silver Pagoda the more common name. Built between 1892 and 1902 under King Norodom, it’s an interesting structure—it’s actually separated from the Royal Palace by a walled walkway, but it’s still located on palace grounds, in the larger complex. Unlike most pagodas, no monks live here—instead, it’s the pagoda where the King meets with monks to listen to their sermons and where some Royal ceremonies are performed. Be sure to check out the gorgeous Ramayana frescoes that are painted on the walls and see the Buddha relic from Sri Lanka, which is housed in a small gold and silver stupa in front of the life-sized gold Buddha.
A 60-foot (20-meter) tall Angkor-style monument built in 1958, the Phnom Penh Independence Monument was constructed to commemorate the Cambodians winning back their independence from the French in 1953. Renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann designed the monument; the architecture is patterned after a lotus flower and adorned with five levels of Naga heads, which gives it a very distinctive look. Located in the heart of busy Phnom Penh, the Independence Monument attracts many visitors, not only for its unique architecture, but also for its location: it’s in the middle of a busy intersection and the eastern side features a large, open park that is a popular spot for locals to gather and jog or practice tai chi and aerobics.
More than just a monument commemorating Cambodia’s independence, it also serves as a memorial to Cambodia’s war casualties and is a symbol of the end of Cambodia’s war. In remembrance, families place large wreaths at the foot of the monument for war veterans. At night, the monument is illuminated by red, blue and white floodlights, the colors of the Cambodian flag. It’s also the site of celebrations and services on holidays such as Independence (January 7) and Constitution Day (September 24).
With its golden sands and clear water, Nang Yuan Island (Koh Nang Yuan) is the poster child of southern Thailand. Hike the rocky, forested landscape; swim and snorkel in crystalline water; or just relax in relative quiet. Nang Yuan sees only a fraction of the crowds that flock to its neighbors.
More Things to Do in Phnom Penh
Built in 1443, Wat Ounalom is perhaps the most important pagoda in Cambodia’s capital city. Comprised of 44 structures, including a stupa thought to contain an eyebrow hair of Buddha, this impressive attraction was damaged during the Khmer Rouge and later restored. An early morning trip provides a quiet respite from the bustle of a busy surrounding city. In this peaceful setting visitors can hear monks chanting while they wander the pagoda, and even visit with them after Morning Prayer.
Kandal Market, or Phsar Kandal in Khmer, is the “market in the middle,” or “central market” (not to be confused with the other, major Central Market in Phnom Penh). Though Kandal Market does sell goods such as clothes, shoes, bags and jewelry, it’s primarily known as the food market for locals.
There’s no better way to get a real sense of place than by visiting a local market; take a trip to Kandal and immerse yourself in the colors, textures, smells and tastes of Cambodia. From fresh veggies stacked high to jewel-like displays of local fruits (many of which are unrecognizable to westerners) to the large selection of fresh seafood, fish and meat—some of which is still moving—the market can be almost overwhelming to the senses. Fight the slightly claustrophobic feeling and slowly wander the stalls. The men and women who wait patiently for customers will often let you sample fruits and veggies; taste something that looks unfamiliar. You may be rewarded by the sweet flesh of the lychee, but it’s advisable to avoid the big, green spiny fruits—both jackfruit and durian have a smell that’s hard for visitors to stomach.
Take a tuk-tuk to the Royal Palace and begin the day along Phnom Penh’s three-kilometer strip of shops, hotels and eateries. This scenic walk wanders along the river’s edge and visitors can lounge easily at one of the numerous outside tables in popular cafes. Sisowath Quay is an ideal spot to sample local beer, strong coffee and real French baguettes. Travelers can comb through traditional handicrafts at Colours of Cambodia, or purchase a “happy monk” painting at the Happy Painting Gallery next door. Street 178, also known as Artists’ Street, offers local silk and numerous shops that are worth a look.
Sisowath Quay is also convenient to the ferry terminal. Visitors can hop a boat to Siem Reap, where famous temple ruins draw travelers from around the world. Nearby Street 104 offers plenty of backpacker-friendly options, cheap accommodations and crowded, friendly pubs. This well-known walkway is a haven for tourists, so while you may not want to dedicate days to its exploration, the close proximity to many of Phnom Penh’s destinations make it worth an afternoon’s visit.
Lions and tigers and sun bears and elephants and deer and gibbons and snakes, oh my! At Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center (PTWRC), a sanctuary for rescued animals, guests can see a vast array of Cambodia’s wildlife (which is usually very difficult to spot), ranging from the world’s largest captive collections of Malayan sun bears and pileated gibbons to rare animals like greater adjutant storks and Siamese crocodiles. Rescued from poachers or abusive owners, all of the animals at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center—there are more than 1200 animals of more than 100 species—receive shelter and medical care as part of a sustainable breeding program. When possible, the center’s residents are released back into the wild once they’ve recovered and the center does its best to educate the public on issues of wildlife protection.
The variety of animals that you can see here is extensive, including an impressive tiger population. There is also a large population of elephants who enjoy painting as well as eating. The conditions are excellent in comparison to some other organizations and the residents are given room to roam; work by various NGOs has helped with this. As a result, the Center feels much like a zoo (which it is, to some extent) that’s also a safari park, or vice versa. While there is a lot of work being done, there is still plenty left to do and donations from visitors help immensely.
Built in the late 1970s, the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument is a statue located in a large reflecting pool that stands in honor of the former alliance between Cambodia and Vietnam. Located at the Botum Park near the center of Phnom Penh, not far from the Royal Palace, the monument is an interesting piece of history as it was built by the Communist regime that took power after the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and overthrew the leadership of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the ruling party that caused the atrocities that can be witnessed at Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields.
Featuring statues of Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers, along with a woman and baby representing Cambodian civilians, in the "Socialist realist" style developed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the monument is situated in a popular park in the middle of the city. More than its artistic value or architecture, the monument has occasionally become a political focal point for protesters, damaged by hammers, gasoline, fire and even a bomb. The damage has been repaired and the memorial remains an interesting piece of architecture that marks a definitive time in Cambodia’s history.
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