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14 Things to Do in Phnom Penh
What to do in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has recently revitalized itself as The City of Charm and is growing in chic: old French colonial buildings transformed into fashion houses, restaurants, or boutique hotels; edgy bistros line the riverfront that now has a growing night market; galleries owned by established and budding artists; a vibrant nightlife; and better infrastructure.
An active trading port in the past, Phnom Penh came under French colonial rule from 1863-1953. It became the capital of Cambodia in 1866 and continued to flourish in the 50s and 60s until it was evacuated by the Khmer Rouge in the mid 70s. In the 80s, Phnom Penh once again gained its significance as the center of the country and continued since to experience rapid change and development.
Foreigners touched by the Penh's charm, never leave. The pace of life and the excitement of this rebuilding capital seems to gather them.
Get here soon, or you will miss one of Asia's great bargains as it moves up the cost stairway. Change is happening and development is fast on its way so come come now while it's still a bit unique and VERY affordable.
Phnom Penh Riverside
1. Stroll in Chaktomuk, the Riverside of Phnom Penh
Chaktomuk is the name used by Cambodians for this riverside area in Phnom Penh where the 3 rivers meet, the confluence of the 4 rivers, the Upper Mekong, the Lower Mekong, the Tonle Sap and the Bassac. When you visit Phnom Penh, take a walk here or even better, stay in one of the hotels on the riverside (Sisowath).
As you stroll, take time to visit the Sisowath temple. This temple is very popular to the local Khmer who come and offer lotus flowers, pray and buy some birds which they let free.
The Riverside is full of life and worth a stroll. There are dozens of stores that sell the traditionally woven silk and cotton scarves. There are restaurants spilling out into the street and the range of food is amazing! Have a drink of the local beer, Anchor or Angkor, and enjoy the meeting of the rivers and the constant traffic both in the rivers and the streets.
Experience the night life. There are so many al fresco restaurants and bars where one can enjoy a drink and a pleasant evening.
The Riverside of Phnom Penh
An interesting legend on the Lady Penh
2. Visit the Statue of the Founder of Phnom Penh
The legend on the founding of Phnom Penh tells of an old lady, Duan Penh, living around the 14th century in Chaktomuk. Penh, while gathering firewood on the banks of the Chaktomuk, spotted a floating koki tree. She fished this from the water and inside the tree she found four statues of Buddha and one of Vishnu.
To honor these statues, Penh built a shrine on a small hill at the site where Wat Phnom is now. Because of this, the area around the hill where Penh built the shrine became known as Phnom Penh. Phnom in Khmer means hill. The discovery of the sacred statues was taken by many at that time as a sign that the capital which was then in Angkor be moved to Phnom Penh. That is how Phnom Penh became the capital city.
Duan Penh's statue is at Wat Phnom, one of the oldest temples in the city.
Original Wats of Phnom Penh
3. Visit Phnom Penh's Original Wats or Temples
Phnom Penh is dotted with wats or pagodas or temples but 5 of these are the most historic. Wat Phnom, the oldest is a very important place of worship for the Cambodians who flock to this place everyday to offer flowers and food, light incense and pray.
Wat Langka as the name suggests was built not only as a sanctuary for The Holy Writings but as the meeting place between monks from Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
Wat Botum is very ornate and houses the towering Buddha's Relic Stupa.
Established in the early 15th century, Wat Koh occupies a prominent place at the center of the city.
Considered the oldest Buddhist foundation in the city, Wat Ounalom is home to the Buddhist Patriarch. As it is located on the riverfront, the popular tourist area, you can easily go in and if you're lucky, you can have a peek at some of the Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. You can pray to Buddha, talk to the monks or learn meditation.
Images of the best things to do in Phnom PenhClick thumbnail to view full-size
4. Ride and Feed Sambo, the Elephant
In Wat Phnom, the oldest Wat, you can Ride Sambo, the Elephant. Don't miss this one. If you don't like to ride, just feed him. Sambo just celebrated his 50th birthday last year. He works in Wat Phnom giving tourists a ride as he walks around the temple in the midst of street traffic. Sambo has lived through Phnom Penh's history and the city has given him a special place to stay close to the river. So, you will see Sambo walk to and from work each day.
Sambo, the elephant in Wat Phnom
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
5. Visit the Royal Palace of Cambodia
Spend one full day in and around the Royal Palace and Museum. Built during the French rule, these classic old colonial French buildings grace Phnom Penh's river bank and are just stunning. The Royal Palace is a series of buildings and monuments each housing interesting relics and royal artifacts and showcase Cambodian art and culture.
The Silver Pagoda must not be missed not only for its silver floor tiles but also for the Emerald Buddha. In one of the featured Khmer houses inside the palace grounds, you can try playing Cambodian musical instruments with some of the palace musicians. Dress appropriately (sleeves and pants below the knees) and observe the rules when visiting this place as some of the buildings are sacred places and temples where local people come for pilgrimage and worship.
The Magnificent Royal Palace
6. Have a peek at Cambodian Heritage and Architecture in the National Art Museum
Although Phnom Penh is now seeing many high-rises, it still has some of the old Khmer homes and Cambodians have started to preserve some of these old relics. Many of the buildings still have traditional details typical of the Khmer style.
The National Museum shows well this Khmer architecture. It is also the best repository of Angkorian artefacts and also rare pieces from other periods. Galleries and ateliers where Khmer artists carve traditional stone crafts abound the streets outside. You can buy some original art at incredible prices, too.
But dotting the city are also influencing the Khmer architecture is its colonial past. French colonial buildings abound near the Royal Palace, around the post office square, and Wat Phnom area. Prominent of these are the Royal Palace and Museum, the Post Office, the old Royal Villa and the current office of UNESCO. To visit one, you can go for dinner at Van's which was formerly the Banque de l'Indochine. Look on the ground floor for the old bank vault. And don't miss the domed market structure, Phsar Thmey.
The National Art Museum
7. Watch Traditional Performances - Shadow Puppetry, Apsara Dance and Khmer Music
Phnom Penh has had an active art community under the royal patronage which dwindled during the Khmer Rouge period. There is energy being put into reviving this. There are some traditional performances such as the Apsara dance, shadow puppetry, drama and circus. Sovanna Phum Art Association offers regular performances and proceeds go into reviving these age old art traditions.
Go and watch one of these performances. There are several restaurants and theaters where you can go. Even the TukTuk dirvers know where to bring you.
8. Jog and Dance at the Parks - Or dance and sing with the locals in the evening
Come to Independence Monument in the morning and enjoy jogging with the locals. While you're there, ask one of the monks on their morning begging to bless you. Make sure to take off your sandals, put your hands together in your chest and bow. Don't forget to give some change. Come back to the park again in the evening and just rock yourself with hundreds if not thousands of people dancing to the music. You can just join any of the groups.
The Fountains in Independence Park- A Dazzling Show
9. Shop at the Phsars or Traditional Markets of Phnom Penh
In Khmer, Phsar is a market and Phnom Penh has great traditional markets that are really fun. Some of these, like the Phsar Toul Tompong (Russian Market) and Phsar Thmey (Central Market) are very popular to tourists as they are colourful and filled with better products, too.
You can find the over-runs from the garment factories so Gap t-shirts, J Crew, Aeropostale, Abercrombie, the Children's Place, and Eddie Bauer pants abound. There are endless stacks of silk and hand woven cotton scarves, silk fabrics, cushions, bags and accessories.
Amazingly inexpensive, these two markets are part of every tourist itinerary in Phnom Penh as they not only offer the avid shopper lots of really inexpensive souvenirs but also glimpses of the local culinary culture from deep fried cockroaches to sparrow like Colonel Saunders imitations.
You get even more of this local color in the even more traditional markets (Olympic, Kandal or O Rousey) not frequented by tourists but just as lively and more colorful, as Cambodians buy their everyday needs from these places. In fact, when you take a walk in the city, you often come across street or neighborhood markets. From pots and pans to cloth and shirts and every tropical vegetable and fruit imaginable....they sell them all....at really local prices. But if you are only visiting, try exploring any of the following....AND TAKE YOUR CAMERA!
The Phsars or Traditional Markets
The Vibrant Phnom Penh Market SceneClick thumbnail to view full-size
Van's in Phnom Penh
10. Try one of Phnom Penh's Outstanding Restaurants
800. That is the number of registered restaurants in Phnom Penh. But multiply this number by 3 to include the unregistered ones. And everyday, more restaurants are opening attracting customers with big discounts. Customers are happy but many restaurant owners are complaining.
Recently, the Government approved a decree on standards for the restaurant industry. The Cambodia Restaurant Association welcomes this move as this will bring the restaurants here to international standards. Right now, the food and service in some restaurants are exceptional and training goes on. Have lunch at Friends or dinner at Romdeng. You can see the ones delivering the service identified as teacher or trainee. But, this is not the norm.
Still, the choices for those who are not picky are many. For Khmer food, nothing can beat the ambience and quality at Khmer Surin. For international food, there are several upscale restaurants like Van's located in an old colonial building which used to be a bank, the Bougainvillier in the riverfront, Topaz, Le Residence, Pacharan, Malis, Wine 1 and some of the many restaurants at Naga World. Then, there are the more chic choices: The Quay and Flavours. And the familiar ones like the FCC, Garden Cafe and Comme a la Maison where you can have breakfast that reminds you of your Mom or Grandma.
For those who are traveling on budget, not to worry. For a dollar, you can have a hearty plate of noodles or a big bowl of noodle soup. Bread, here, is one of the best in the world. Thanks to the French.
And, if you want to learn how to cook Khmer food, go to Frizz at St. 240.
TukTuk Ride in Phnom PenhClick thumbnail to view full-size
11. Ride a Tuktuk
This is one of my favorite things to do with guests in Phnom Penh...take them on a tuktuk drive along the Monument through the palace and the river front. If you are lucky, you will see groups doing line dancing in the midst of the multicoloured dancing fountains around the monument.
From the Monument, go through Naga World as there is always a band in the Lobby of this hotel. What is remarkable though is going through the park in front of the hotel. You will see many locals sitting with friends around some snacks singing to the music the band plays inside. What a way to enjoy the evening.
Then, you go through the Royal Palace which is lighted fully during festivals. Proceed to the riverfront and have a drink at the FCC (Foreigh Correspondents Club) to cap the evening. During big feasts, you can sit and enjoy the fireworks.
River Cruise in Phnom Penh
12. Cruise the Rivers
Three rivers intersect in Phnom Penh, the Mekong, the Bassac and the Tonle Sap. In Sisowath, there are many boats and you can rent one of these. There is no fixed price so you need to bargain. They do serve food in some of these boats but you can bring your own as well. It is good to cruise the rivers in the evening as you can take some sunset shots.
The Killing Fields
Your reaction to Killing Fields
How did you feel after visiting it?
13. Visit Choeung Ek Memorial
15 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh stands the Choeung Ek Memorial, a stupa containing the remains of those who were killed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. Popularly referred to as the killing field, brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children took place here. Shown in this place is a short documentary showing how Phnom Penh was evacuated by the Khmer Rouge and how they marched the people of Phnom Penh to the countryside to learn once again the traditional life attached to the land.
Have you seen the movie Killing Fields?
The Killing Fields
You must have seen this movie or heard about it. It won three academy awards. This British film on the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia, featured scenes of the Toul Sleng prison. The film was based on the experience of a Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran and his American journalist friend, Sydney Schanberg. If you have not seen it, watch it. You will have a peek at what Cambodia went through.
14. Visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
Toul Sleng was a high school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and interrogation facility. Its administrator, Kaing Guek Eav or Duch is currently under trial by an international tribunal. The classrooms still have the beds and the torture instruments and the walls are full of pictures of the Khmer Rouge victims and how they were tortured. It is a very sad place to visit.
Read on S-21 - A very lucid tale
David Chandler knows Cambodia really well. He has lived in the place and has interviewed lots of sources for this book which is a reconstruction of S-21, a high school in Phnom Penh converted by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and interrogation center where they tortured everyone accused of being again their ideology. You still can see the torture instruments used and pictures of the victims.
Realities like these are hard to take. Visiting S-21 is a very depressing event. However, these are events that we need to look at and understand so we learn better as Chadler aptly put it, S-21 is within each of us.
Interesting Boutique Hotel in Phnom Penh
Where to Stay in Phnom Penh
There are many places to stay at all levels of budget. You can get good value for $20-40 a night or blow the budget in the 5 Stars like Sofitel, Inter-Continental and Raffles Hotel Le Royal, one of Phnom Penh's oldest. Golden Gate, a family operated hotel, is just one example of clean and efficient spots.
Also check out the Frangipani. The other is Villa Langka. It offers great value for money as very good restaurants and bars abound in Street 278, 282 and the surrounding area. Those strange creatures, the international consultants cluster here in droves. There is Comme a la Maison close by for those who like French cuisine and pastry (baguettes to die for), Khmer Surin which will make you love local Khmer food. The latest addition is La Cita-Rendezvous where you can get bagels and other sandwiches baked right there in their premises.
How to Get Around Phnom Penh
Options for Getting Around Phnom Penh
There are taxis in the airport waiting for you as well as tuktuks that you can rent. There are taxis operating in the city. TukTuks and motodups are still better options, though, as they give you a full view of the exhilarating life in the Penh's sidewalks. Motodups can be riskier but a lot cheaper.
Read this book and understand the experience of Cambodia
This is so much a part of the experience of many Cambodians. Some left the country but many went back to Phnom Penh and picked up their lives once again. The Cambodians are still rebuilding their lives step by step that expecting too much from them is just not fair.
Many in Phnom Penh have similar stories to tell. Some have not been lucky and could not tell their stories but the ones who are here, many still have nightmares. A few don't even want to talk about this moment of their history.