In recent years, the riverside city has undergone a facelift with new shopping malls, luxury residences and fine-dining spots popping up.
Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, is an attractive riverside city of just over two million people, characterised by broad boulevards and with plenty of sights to interest the visitor. Until recently rather shabby and run-down owing to the long years of war and four years of Khmer Rouge abandonment, the future now looks bright, with new shopping centres, luxury residence complexes, enormous hotels, and fine-dining restaurants opening often.
All of the more important tourist attractions are located beside, or within walking distance of the Phnom Penh riverside, an area which also has many of the best restaurants bars and cafés in town.
Once a Funan-era settlement, the city was re-founded in the 1430s, with the decline of Angkor and the shift of power eastwards. The legend relates how a woman named Penh found four images of the Buddha on the shores of the Mekong River, and subsequently built a temple on the tallest hill in the area in which to keep them. The city that later grew up around the hill became known as Phnom Penh, or 'Penh’s Hill'.
In 1772, now a major centre of commerce, Phnom Penh was completely destroyed by the Thais. The city was soon rebuilt but grew little until 1863, when the French took control. A relatively prosperous period ensued. Growth continued until the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975, forcing the urban dwellers into the countryside and leaving the city virtually abandoned.
Phnom Penh can be quite hot between late February and early May. September sees a lot of rain, but really the city is fine for visits all year-round.
Singaporeans and citizens of most other ASEAN member states can visit Laos for 30 days without a visa. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months and that you have a return or onward ticket. Visitors from most other countries can get a 30-day visa on arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport for US$20. It is also possible to apply online for an e-visa for US$25.
Cambodian riel, although most transactions above 5000 riel are made in US dollars. Credit cards have become widely accepted and most good hotels, restaurants and boutiques will accept Visa, JCB, MasterCard and sometimes Amex. Cash advances on cards are possible in some banks in Phnom Penh. ATMs are widely available in Phnom Penh.
The airport is 10km (6 miles) from the centre of Phnom Penh, and the journey into town takes around 20 minutes. The average fare to Phnom Penh centre is about US$10 by taxi or US$5 by tuk-tuk. Motorcycle taxis, or motos, normally wait at the airport, and this can be a viable way into town if you arrive alone. The fare is less than US$5. In Phnom Penh, the moto is the best way to get around as taxis can be hard to find sometimes. Expect to pay US$1 for a short journey, and US$2 for longer ones. Always agree the fare beforehand.
Parts of Phnom Penh are a little risky after dark, and at any time of day basic precautions should be taken to avoid falling victim to the many pickpockets found in markets and tourist areas. Use a money belt, lock valuables in your hotel safe, and don't flaunt electronics and jewellery. Hard drugs are readily available, including cocaine, heroin and opium, all very much illegal. Beware of strangers offering free drinks in bars. Druggings and robberies have been reported. Be particularly careful of water and ice; only consume water that comes from carefully sealed containers or has been boiled thoroughly. Heat exhaustion and prickly heat can result from dehydration and salt deficiency, so drink lots of fluids, avoid intense activity when the sun is strongest, and rest frequently during the day. Travellers' diarrhoea is quite common, though usually not serious; be sure to avoid dehydration problems by replacing the fluids your body will lose.
|How are you?||Tau neak sok sapbaiy jea the?|
|Fine, thanks||K'nyom sok sapbaiy|
|Goodbye||Leah suhn heuy|
|What's your name?||Lok tch muoh ey?|
|My name is…||K'nyom tch muoh…|
|Where are you from?||Niak mao pi patet nah?|
|I come from…||K'nyom mao pi…|
|Where is…?||Noev eah nah…?|
|Bus station||Kuhnlaing laan ch'noul|
|How much is…?||T'lay phonmaan|
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Sisowath Quay offers wonderful views over the junction of the Sap and Mekong Rivers, but to really understand the unique confluence of waters at Phnom Penh you should also see the Bassac River. This is best viewed from the Monivong Bridge. The confluence of the four rivers, known in Khmer as Chatomuk or ‘four faces’, is remarkable for a unique phenomenon, the reversal of the Sap River. From May to October, during the rainy season, the increased volume of the Mekong forces the Sap to back up, and finally reverse its course. Then, in mid-October, as the Mekong diminishes, the flow of the Sap is again reversed.
The National Museum, housed in a red Khmer-style pavilion built in 1917, holds an impressive collection of Khmer art including some of the finest pieces in existence. It’s a good idea to purchase a copy of the museum guidebook, Khmer Art in Stone, at the entrance desk. This identifies the most important exhibits, including a 6th-century statue of Vishnu, a 9th-century statue of Shiva, and the famous sculpted head of Jayavarman VII in meditative pose. Particularly impressive is a bust of a reclining Vishnu, once part of a massive bronze statue found at the Western Mebon Temple in Angkor.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace, built in 1866, is the official residence of King Norodom Sihamoni, who ascended to the throne in 2004. Certain areas within the palace, including the king’s residential quarters, are off limits to the public, but much of the complex is accessible. The Silver Pagoda, within the grounds, was built by King Norodom in 1892, and so-named because its floor is lined with more than 5,000 silver tiles. The pagoda is also known as Wat Preah Keo, or ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’. It houses two priceless Buddha figures, one of which, the Emerald Buddha, dates from the 17th century.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Not for the faint-hearted, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a chilling sight. The pictures of those killed stare out at the visitor from the museum walls, and primitive instruments of torture and execution are on display, as is a bust of Pol Pot. Here, during his years in power, around 20,000 people were tortured and subsequently murdered. Everywhere there are crude shackles. Initially those executed were people the Khmer Rouge perceived as supporters of the former authorities, but by the time Tuol Sleng was liberated, in 1979, nearly all those suffering torture and execution were Khmer Rouge officials.
Wat Ounalom, the headquarters of the Cambodian Buddhist sangha, was founded in 1443. This extensive temple suffered badly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. To the west of the main temple stands a stupa said to contain an eyebrow hair of the Buddha. Within the temple are several Buddha figures smashed to pieces by the Khmer Rouge, but since reassembled. Also on display is a statue of Samdech Huot Tat, head of the Cambodian sangha when Pol Pot came to power and subsequently killed by the Khmer Rouge. The statue was recovered from the nearby Mekong in 1979 and reinstalled.
Wat Phnom, built on a small mound in the north of the city is the most important temple in the capital. The main temple sanctuary has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 1926. There are some interesting murals from the Reamker – the Khmer version of the Indian Ramayana – and in a small pavilion to the south is a statue of Penh, the temple’s founder. Although dedicated to Theravada Buddhism, the temple also houses a shrine to Preah Chau, who is revered by the Vietnamese community, an image of Confucius, and a statue of the Hindu deity Vishnu.
For a not too taxing walk around Phnom Penh’s major sights head for the National Museum of Cambodia, housed in a red pavilion. The museum contains a fine collection of Khmer art.
Immediately south of the museum lies the Royal Palace, built in Khmer style with French assistance in 1866. Just beyond the entrance gate stands the Chan Chaya Pavilion, formerly used by Cambodian monarchs to review parades and to give performances of classical Khmer dancing. Dominating the centre of the larger, northern section of the royal compound is the Royal Throne Hall, built in 1917. Inside, the walls are painted with murals from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana. Exiting the main northern compound by a gateway in the south-eastern corner, you can proceed to the North Gate of the celebrated Silver Pagoda.
Leaving the Silver Pagoda walk south along Sothearos Boulevard and you’ll pass the extensive Wat Botum Park on the right. In the centre of the park stands a statue in heroic Socialist-Realist style depicting two soldiers – one Vietnamese, the other Cambodian – protecting a Cambodian woman and child. This is the Cambodia-Vietnam Monument.
Continue to the southern end of the park and turn west along Sihanouk Boulevard, and you’ll reach the Independence Monument built to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. To the southwest is Wat Lang Ka, a flourishing example of the revival of Buddhism in Cambodia. Saffron-robed monks abound and painted murals gleam from the restored vihara walls.
National Museum of Cambodia, Royal Palace, Chan Chaya Pavilion, Silver Pagoda, Cambodia-Vietnam Monument, Independence Monument, Wat Lang Ka.
Although Phnom Penh is not the place to go for upmarket designer clothing and accessories, it is one of the best places in Southeast Asia for bustling markets full of colour and life. The Psar Char, or Old Market, at the junction of 108th and 13th Streets is a densely packed hubbub of noise and action offering a wide selection of clothing, jewellery, dry goods and fresh vegetables. A short walk to the southwest brings you to the Central Market (Psar Thmay). You can’t miss this large bright yellow Art Deco building. If you’re looking to take an iconic kramaa (Cambodian scarf) back with you, this is the place to get one.
The O Russei Market, which sprawls between 182nd and 166th Streets, is full of imported perfumes and liquor, as well as clothing and jewellery. The Olympic Market, just south of the Olympic Stadium and not far from the O Russei is where you’ll see the locals buying their every day commodities.
The highlight of any shopping tour in the city has to be the Tuol Tom Pong Market (Russian Market), and to be found in the southern part of the city just beyond 432nd Street. A warren of tight stalls selling all manner of local handicrafts, paintings, temple rubbings from Angkor and other curios. If you’re looking to have any clothes made up then this is a great place to buy fabric. Bargaining here is an absolute must and it’s also a lot of fun.
Old Market, Central Market, O Russei Market, Olympic Market, Tuol Tom Pong Market.
Slowly, but surely, as the troubles of the past recede, Phnom Penh has become quite the gourmet destination with great Khmer cuisine going toe to toe with some excellent international restaurants. But as usual in Southeast Asia, the street stalls and markets offer some fabulous possibilities.
For breakfast why not try one of the Blue Pumpkin cafés dotted around town, excellent coffee and perhaps a bowl of Cambodian kuthiew, a hearty broth of white noodles, vegetables and your choice of meat. After a bit of shopping in one of the local markets head off for lunch on Sisowath Quay where there’s a great choice of restaurants all overlooking the Tonle Sap River. For Khmer food try the Khmer Borane Restaurant at 389 Sisowath Quay, where the lok lak, a fried beef dish with a lemon, salt and pepper dip, is delicious.
Before sunset, grab a sundowner at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia (FCCC). From the balcony high over Sisowath Quay you’ll get a fabulous view of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers converging and all the busy little fishing boats going about their business. Once dusk has settled jump in a moto for the short trip to Malis on Norodom Boulevard. For a real traditional taste of Cambodia try the restaurant’s amoc, a subtly-spiced baked fish curry steamed in banana leaves with coconut milk, lemongrass and turmeric, which is also the national dish.
Blue Pumpkin Café, Khmer Borane Restaurant, Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia, Malis.