We stepped out of Pochentong Airport and walked the hot and dusty distance to our waiting host and his car. Soon we were driving through a city that would be our home for the next two months. As we sat, silently gazing out of the car windows, we realized we were in a different world. Phnom Penh’s surroundings stood in stark contrast to a modern and progressive Bangkok where we had stopped briefly on our way here.
The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh could easily come as a rude shock for the unsuspecting traveler during the time we first arrived there. Potholed, dirty and dusty secondary streets, chaotic traffic with motorbikes running off in different directions and after hours incidents of theft are enough to keep visitors on edge.
But we also noticed plenty of other things that gave the city a charm of its own: the wide main boulevards, wats and palaces showcasing classical Angkorian architecture, French colonial buildings, a wide variety of dining options including restaurants and cafes serving Asian and European fare and a host of bargain-shopping options. And because Metro Manila, our home metropolis, has its own edgy side too, we more-or-less knew how to go about our business here in relative safety.
Attractions and Landmarks
For us the most attractive and enjoyable sights in Phnom Penh are its Khmer palaces – structures that hearken back to a rich and colorful past. The Royal Palace, built in the 1860’s and showcasing traditional Khmer architecture, is a must-visit.
The Royal Palace is actually a complex of buildings on the western bank of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers that serves as the residence of the king of Cambodia. Major buildings inside the palace complex include the Throne Hall (see picture on top of this page), the Silver Pagoda, the Moonlight Pavilion, the Phochani Pavilion and the Khemarin Palace (the official residence of the King of Cambodia). There are stupas, towering spires, gardens and even a French-style iron building given as a gift by Napoleon III.
Once dubbed a Paris of the East before 1970, Phnom Penh still contains reminders about its French colonial past. There are a few colonial buildings that managed to survive the ravages of war including the aforementioned Napoleon III’s iron building in the Royal Palace complex, given as a gift to the country. French baguettes are served in various stalls, somewhat similar to the Vietnamese banh mi.
Dining on the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap has made a comeback. Most popular among tourists is the Sisowath Quay or Riverside – an attractive boulevard along the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap. With locals the more popular dining places are those along the Mekong just a little distance after crossing the Japanese Friendship Bridge – a place we often visited with our Cambodian friends.
One of the city’s familiar landmarks is the Independence Memorial which commemorates the country’s freedom from French rule in 1953. The memorial is situated in a park which is a favorite public gathering place at night when its fountains erupt in geysers of multiple colors to the tune of communal music. Atop a hill on a small park near Sisowath Quay is the Wat Phnom, a historically important structure and another popular gathering place for locals and tourists.
If art or history is your interest then visit the National Museum of Cambodia located near the Royal Palace. This museum has an excellent collection of Angkorian art dating back to the 12th century.
A more sinister museum is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly the S-21 Prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured more than 14,000 people over a 4-year period before killing all except for 8 prisoners who barely made it out alive. Visiting the school-turned prison was a depressing experience. Some of the iron beds where the tortured victims were found tied were kept in the condition that invading Vietnamese troops saw when they stormed into Phnom Penh to capture the city from the Khmer Rouge.
Dried up blood still marks the floors beneath the beds while pictures on the walls of tortured victims strapped to their beds remind the visitor of the brutal reign of Pol Pot. Many more pictures of victims covered the walls of the prison alongside exhibits of various torture implements used by the Khmer Rouge. We even came across an infamous map of Cambodia made up of skulls which has since been dismantled. About 17 kilometers south of Phnom Penh is the Choeung Ek Killing Fields where remains of Khmer Rouge victims were dug up in mass graves. A Buddhist stupa marks the site; the stupa contains 8,000 human skulls seen through its glass sides.
Dining and Shopping
In the early 2000s, several restaurants serving a wide variety of international cuisine may be found all over the city: French, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Russian, Filipino, Lebanese, Singaporean, Italian, Mexican, Nepalese – you name it. Quite impressive for a city in such a developing country. Locals say that United Nations forces from different countries on peace-keeping missions in the 1990s led to the opening of these restaurants. We ended up trying four different Indian restos and a Sri Lankan restaurant and got to eat at a Greek restaurant for the first time ever – in Cambodia. Restaurants serving Vietnamese and Thai cuisine also abound. We did enjoy Khmer cuisine which shares many similarities with its Thai and Vietnamese counterparts. And like Vietnamese food, Khmer cuisine exhibits French influence including their iced coffee and Asian-style baguette sandwiches.
Because we stayed in Phnom Penh for two months Nina had to do some marketing for our everyday needs. No problem. The 1930s Art Deco covered Central Market near Sisowath Quay and a nearby Lucky Supermarket provided all that we needed for food and groceries. Locals and even foreign tourists also shop at the Central Market for used clothing (including designer clothes from Europe) and for souvenirs and jewelry from Pailin, a border town which at that time still harbored the Khmer Rouge.
Designer clothes also abound at the Russian Market (so-called because Russian advisers in the 1980s used to frequent the place) where they are sold at huge discount prices. It’s hard to vouch for their authenticity but some look to be genuine articles locally manufactured but with small, almost unnoticed factory imperfections. For traditional Khmer clothing and fabrics, we would visit the more modern, multi-story Olympic Market. In recent years a few malls have risen in the city including the Sorya Mall and City Mall. Both are Western-style shopping malls.
We would return to Phnom Penh and Cambodia several more times after our two-month stay, and in the process got to know the country and its people more. However, it’s been a while now since we last visited Cambodia and, while Phnom Penh might have changed a lot by now, we’re sure that reminders of its past will still remain. And rightly so. Especially for a country that has been through decades of tragedy it is paramount that present and future generations never forget.