(Sothearos between Streets 240 & 184 - $3.00/person, $2.00/camera, $5.00/video cam. Open everyday, 7:30-11:00 / 2:30-5:00)
Marking the approach to the Royal Palace along Sothearos Blvd the high yellow crenellated wall and spired Chanchhaya Pavilion stand distinctively against the riverfront skyline. Inside the Palace grounds street sounds are silenced by the high walls and the royal buildings sit like ornate islands rising from the manicured gardens. The Royal Palace serves as the residence of the King, a venue for court ceremony and as a symbol of the Kingdom. It was first established at its present location when the capital was moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh in 1866 under King Norodom and the French protectorate, though the Palace did not attain its current general form until about 1920. Khmer and European elements as well as distinct architectural echoes of the palace in Bangkok are present in the design of the various buildings. Attached to the Palace compound, Wat Preah Keo Morokat (the 'Silver Pagoda') is unique amongst pagodas. So named for its silver tiled floor, it is where the King meets with monks, Royal ceremonies are performed and it houses a collection of priceless Buddhist and historical objects including the 'Emerald Buddha.' And, unlike most pagodas, no monks live at the pagoda. The temple building, library and galleries were first constructed between 1892 and 1902.
Intersection of Street 96 and Norodom Blvd. - $1/person)
A small hill crowned by an active wat (pagoda) marks the legendary founding place of the Phnom Penh. The hill is the site of constant activity, with a steady stream of the faithful trekking to the vihear, shrines and fortune tellers on top and a constellation of vendors, visitors and motodups at the bottom. Elephant rides available. The legend of the founding of Wat Phnom is tied to the beginnings of Phnom Penh. Legend has it that in 1372 Lady Penh (Yea Penh) fished a floating Koki tree out of the river. Inside the tree were four Buddha statues. She built a hill (‘phnom’ means ‘hill’) and a small temple (wat) at what is now the site known as Wat Phnom. Later, the surrounding area became known after the hill (Phnom) and its creator (Penh), hence the name of the city ‘Phnom Penh.’ The current temple was last rebuilt in 1926. The large stupa contains the remains of King Ponhea Yat (1405-1467) who moved the Khmer capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh the early 15th century. Look for the altar of Lady Penh between the large stupa and the vihear. She is said to be of particular help to women.
Short river cruises and sunset cruises along the Phnom Penhriverfront are easy to arrange and offer an interesting view of the city. A cruise typically takes about 1 - 2 hours and runs up the Tonle Sap River along the central riverfront area providing a picturesque view of the Royal Palace, National Museum, parks and Phnom Penh skyline, and then across the Tonle Sap and up the Mekong River to view floating fishing villages. (Photography note: Best lighting in the early morning as the low eastern sun illuminates the front of the Royal Palace.)
Tourist boats of varying size and quality wait along the riverfront, usually between Street 144 and Street 130, and at the Passenger Port near Street 104. Just look for the cluster of boats and advertising placards. From about 4PM-5:30PM you can get a sunset cruise for $4-$5/person on a shared tour boat. If you want a private boat, or arrive anytime other than the sunset hours, boats run about for $10-$15/hour for a whole boat and offers a standard tour itinerary. Bring your friends and split the price. Prices go up for larger boats.
The River Front
Some of Phnom Penh's most important cultural sites as well as dozens of pubs, restaurants and shops sit along the picturesque park-lined riverfront overlooking the chaktomuk - the confluence of theTonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers. The Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and the National Museum are clustered together between Street 178 and 240 and restaurants and pubs line the riverfront roadSisowath Quay, stretching north from the Royal Palace area all the way to Street 104 near Wat Phnom. Visit the Royal Palace and National Museum and stroll up the riverfront for a drink or a meal or to do some shopping. Just off the riverfront,Street 240 behind the Royal Palace harbors several restaurants and high-quality boutiques and Street 178 next to the National Museum is known as 'Art Street' and is dotted with interesting little art galleries and silk shops. Early risers, check out the spectacular sunrise over the river in front of the Royal Palace area.
Pagoda and the National Museum are clustered together between Street 178 and 240 and restaurants and pubs line the riverfront roadSisowath Quay, stretching north from the Royal Palace area all the way to Street 104 near Wat Phnom. Visit the Royal Palace and National Museum and stroll up the riverfront for a drink or a meal or to do some shopping. Just off the riverfront,Street 240 behind the Royal Palace harbors several restaurants and high-quality boutiques and Street 178 next to the National Museum is known as 'Art Street' and is dotted with interesting little art galleries and silk shops. Early risers, check out the spectacular sunrise over the river in front of the Royal Palace area.
The Architecture of Phnom Penh
Prior to the late 19th century Phnom Penh was a few pagodas and a string of wooden and bamboo structures along the riverfront. It was not until the beginning of the French colonial period that the modern form of the city began to develop. Almost every existing structure has been built since the 1860s. At the height of the colonial period Phnom Penh was reputed to be the most beautiful city in French Indochina - recalling Paris in its manicured parks and picturesque boulevards lined with ornate villas and public buildings. Though sometimes difficult to see through the grime and disrepair of years of hardship and neglect, much of that beauty still exists just barley hidden beneath. And the history of the city can be seen in the architecture: classic 19th/early 20th century French Colonial buildings, typically in yellow, never far from the riverfront where the early city was centered; early/mid-20th century Art Deco structures such as Phsar Thmey reflecting European trends; Post-Independence ‘Golden-era’ Khmer architecture from the 1950s and 60s displaying a modern, distinctively Cambodian direction; and much later, the gaudy wedding cake villas of the 90s and the mixed styles of the last decade...For more on the architecture of Phnom Penh and a architecture tour map and guide, see here.
Phnom Penh City Sights: Khmer Rouge History
From April 17, 1975 until January 7, 1979, the brutal, ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge regime (i.e. the Red Khmer, the KR) controlled the whole of Cambodia, then known as 'Democratic Kampuchea.' The Khmer Rouge was headed by Saloth Sar, who went by the nom de guerre Pol Pot. During their short reign, between one and two and a half million Cambodians perished, some killed outright, others dying from disease, malnutrition, neglect and mistreatment. Some of the horrific remnants of the Khmer Rouge regime can be seen at the Choeung Ek Memorial (the ‘Killing Fields’) and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Though the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979, they retreated to the mountains and border areas, persisting until their final defeat and dissolution in 1998-99. Surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are only now facing a court for their crimes. Some are currently standing before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), including the infamous Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. ‘Duch,’ director of the infamous S-21 prison. Pol Pot died in 1998, never having faced justice
Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields)
(15 km southwest of Phnom Penh - Take Monireth 8.5 km past the bridge at Street 271) Many of the Cambodians who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime ended up dumped in one of the dozens of ‘killing
fields’ that can be found scattered across the country. The killing fields were essentially ad hoc places of execution and dumping grounds for dead bodies during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979.) After the Khmer Rouge regime, memorials were set up at many of the sites, some containing the bones and remnants of victims gather from the area. Prior to 1975, the Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh was a orchard and a Chinese cemetery. But during the Khmer Rouge regime the area became one of the infamous killing fields. This particular killing field is the site of the brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom had first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the S-21 Prison (now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum) in Phnom Penh. The Choeung Ek Memorial is now a group of mass graves, killing areas and a memorial stupa containing thousands of human skulls and long bones. The memorial is about a 20-40 minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh. Guided tours through the area are available and reasonably priced multi-lingual guides are available at the site. There is also a small souvenir shop as well. For sake of historical context, combine your trip to Choeung Ek with a visit to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S-21 Prison) in Phnom Penh. Also see David Chandler’s book, ‘Voices of S-21’ for the most systematic and complete account to date of the history and operation of the S-21 Prison.
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)
Corner of Street 113 & Street 350 - $2.00 - Open every day, including holidays, 8AM-5PM - Closed for lunch)
Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school - a set of classroom buildings in a walled compound. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility, administered by Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. ‘Duch,’ who is currently on trial for his actions at S-21. Inmates at the prison were held in tiny brick cubicles and systematically tortured, sometimes over a period of months, to extract the desired ‘confessions,’ after which the victim was inevitably executed at the killing field of Choeung Ek just outside the city. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, less than a score of whom survived. The Tuol Sleng compound now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Much has been left in the state it was in when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in January 1979. The prison kept extensive records, leaving thousands of photos of their victims, many of which are on display. Paintings of torture at the prison by Vann Nath, a survivor of Toul Sleng, are also exhibited. For more on the S-21 check out Chandler’s book, ‘Voices from S-21.’ See page 32 for more on books.
Central Market (Psah Thmei)
This unique, art deco building is a Phnom Penh landmark. Prior to 1935 the area was a swamp/lake known as Beng Decho that received the runoff during the rainy season. The lake was drained and the market constructed in 1935-37. Phsar Thmey is currently undergoing a refurbishing project - the interior reconstructed, a new bright yellow paint job, new stalls are being constructed, etc. Many of the vendors have moved to temporary buildings on either side of the market building. The souvenir vendors are in the temporary building on the south side of the market. Even with the construction, Phsar Thmey is still well worth a shopping visit. (Phsar Thmey means ‘New Market’, but ‘Central Market’ has caught on in English.)
Old Market (Psah Chas)
A local market not at all geared to tourists, carrying such items as fruits and vegetables, hardware, second hand clothes, motorcycle parts and religious items. The dinner rush hour at the food stands along Street 110 and Street 108 makes for a confusing, dirty, potentially photogenic scene.
Night Market (Phsar Reatrey)
Phnom Penh’s new Night Market on the riverfront is aimed squarely at visitors and tourists, offering a wide and varied selection of Cambodian handicrafts silks, art, curios and souvenirs. Currently the Night Market opens only on the weekends, starting up at about 5:00PM and runs until at least 9:00 or 10:00PM. Located in the park between Street 106 and 108 on the riverfront. Stop in as you stroll up the riverfront.
A typical, sprawling, low-slung local market similar to Phsar Chas. Meat, vegetables, fruits and tailors fill the north half while jewelers and electronics stalls are located in the building next door. It’s a very local scene but as the market is only a couple of blocks off the riverfront tourists occasionally find their way to the market coffee stalls and noodle shops. There is a comparatively large Vietnamese population living in the area around Phsar Kandal, which and is reflected in the character of the market - the food, the dress and the language.