Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital and is found in the south where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet. As the battered nation gets back on its feet after years of conflict this moderately sized city is starting to take shape.
The French architecture, Buddhist influences and royal splendor add some charm to this otherwise rugged third world capital. Reminders of recent genocide, such as the nearby Killing Fields give this Phnom Penh an undeniable if uncomfortable personality of its own.
Phnom Penh can be dangerous and security, although fine during the day, is an issue at night. Guns are widespread and hold ups still quite common – take a little extra care. There are not too many attractions, but what exists is interesting and makes a tempting weekend stopover before flying on to Cambodia’s trump card – the magnificent Angkor Wat.
Back to Top Attractions Entering and leaving the Phnom Penh’s major attractions involves running the gauntlet of frenzied beggars and moto drivers.
The most famous landmark of the city is the Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace. This relatively new complex is worth seeing but it feels a little artificial and lacks soul. The highlight would be the treasures within the Silver Pagoda. Impressive is the Emerald Buddha, but more memorable is the silver-tiled floor. Rather annoyingly there are extra entrance fees for cameras and camcorders but photography is not allowed in the best areas.
Around the corner is the intriguing National Museum. The museum houses a complete display of Khmer artifacts including superb multi-armed statues of Shiva, bass reliefs and later colonial pieces. A great appetizer for those heading on to Angkor. In the evening the museum’s swarms of resident bats often trail off the roof into the sunset.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek is a uniquely Cambodian experience. It is here that the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of people and dumped them in mass graves. This somber site has a stupa holding 9000 skulls, mass graves and a tree on which queues of children were smashed to death. This is not a cheerful visit and it can feel creepy or even tasteless, particularly as its becoming a tourist spot. Nevertheless, powerful and humbling.
Note: watch out for snakes weaving in and out of the grass.
Even more disturbing and sometimes sickening is Tuol Sleng Museum. This is a truly terrible yet gripping place. The museum is the former genocidal prison camp of Phnom Penh. The former school was converted to hold hundreds and has been kept much as it was. Photos bring a personal dimension lacking at the Killing Fields. Thousands of helpless faces peer desperately from the past, grisly tortured corpses lie splattered over racks, and the nightmarish paintings come straight from hell. Absolutely gross. But essential viewing for those with a strong stomach.
Sitting on a mound in the centre of a roundabout is Wat Phnom. This temple is the historic birthplace of Phnom Penh. There is not much history left as it’s been continuously rebuilt but it’s still reasonably enjoyable. Wat Phnom draws tourists, worshipers and crowds of vendors, touts and beggars. Very touristy.
Wat Ounalom near the Royal Palace was built in 1443 to house an eyebrow hair of the Buddha himself. It was smashed up by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 but has since been restored to at least some of its former glory.
The Independence Monument seems to be listed in every guide as an attraction. The truth is it’s just a glorified roundabout. Certainly not worth visiting – to do so would be trespassing anyway. If you’re really keen you can view it from across the road, or ask your bemused driver to do a couple of extra circuits.