Cambodia’s capital city is often visited only as a base for a quick visit to the sobering genocide museums of Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, relics of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. However, today the city’s wide boulevards, pretty riverfront and relaxed vibe impart a quiet, authentic charm.
Visit the city’s Buddhist wats, colonial architecture, and traditional markets to get an insight into Cambodia’s cultural past and present. The riverside area of Phnom Penh is relaxed, with friendly locals taking evening strolls along the promenade while sharing snacks, although the persistent calls from Tuk Tuk drivers to visitors can be irritating. This area is also home to a growing food scene, with quaint little cafes and trendy restaurants.
The three-day Bon Om
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, sometimes held outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, marks the beginning of the rice-growing season. The King (or his appointee) will plow a plot of land using two oxen. After three rounds, the animals choose a type of fodder from a set of trays. The oxen’s choice of food and drink is said to determine the agriculture harvest for the coming season.
The King takes his birthday seriously, and a national holiday is declared on the day. The King celebrates by making offerings to the monks, while banners depicting his image line the streets, and spectacular fireworks light up the sky.
Not far from the riverfront, the 14th-century Wat Phnom sits at the top of a small hill. Worshippers come here to pray for good luck at all times of the day. To beat the crowds and enjoy the temple’s architecture, visit at sunset (or even later).
The 15th-century Wat Ounalom, which has been restored after being damaged during the Khmer Rouge period, is Phnom Penh’s most important temple and the center of Cambodian Buddhism, as it is said to hold an eyebrow hair belonging to Buddha.
Wat Langka, also built in the 15th century, is close to the Independence Monument. Silent meditation sessions, which can be attended by locals as well as visitors, are often held here.
Phnom Penh’s glistening jewel, the Royal Palace, should not be missed. Construction started in 1866 and, although it has undergone several major modifications, it has been inhabited by the royal family ever since. With its manicured grounds and Khmer architecture, it is a pretty place to explore. Make sure you dress appropriately, as the guards are very strict with people with bare shoulders or wearing shorts. Your dress will only be inspected after standing in line and buying your ticket, and you might be turned away if your knees and shoulders are not covered. Merely covering one’s shoulders with a scarf is not acceptable.
As the official residence of the royal family, some sections of the Palace are closed to visitors, but the beautiful Silver Pagoda, with its silver-tiled floor, and Emerald Buddha, are fascinating sights. Photography of the buildings’ exteriors is allowed, but it is forbidden to take photos inside. The forbidden zones are clearly marked, and your guide (many professional ones can be engaged upon entering the complex) will instruct you accordingly.
A popular activity in Phnom Penh is to take a stroll through Phsar Chas, the Old Market. Although Phsar Chas is a relatively small market, a vast array of wares, from trinkets to fabrics and clothes, shoes and jewelry, are sold here. Check out the food section, where colorful fruits and vegetables, large chunks of fresh meat, skinned frogs, live fish and other animal parts are for sale.
The Tuol Sleng Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are a stark reminder of the persecution of millions (estimated to be anywhere between 1.5 to 3 million) by the infamous Khmer Rouge regime, between 1975 and 1979. Followers of the leader, Pol Pot, forced the Cambodian population into an agrarian society in which anyone suspected of having ties with the previous government were brutally executed. This included people wearing spectacles, who were perceived as intellectuals.
During the regime, external communication was impossible, and Cambodia was cut off from neighboring countries. Unlike other historical persecutions, the regime executed (mostly) its own nationals, and little was known about what was going on in the country. Tuol Sleng was a former high school which was turned into one of many prisons during the genocide. The prisoners from this detention center and others were killed at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, a former orchard.
Most travelers visit these sites when in Phnom Penh. Be warned that the displays are graphic and will probably elicit a range of emotions and reactions. Always show respect to the victims when visiting, and try not to be alarmed by seeing bones and rags poking through the soil which may have been unearthed by heavy rain, painful reminders of the many bodies buried in mass graves that have not been identified.
Remember, it is likely that the locals present may have lost some of their relatives to the genocide.
Visiting sites of inhumanity isn’t for everyone, so make sure you are comfortable with where you are going and why.
Cassie Wilkins goes beyond Angkor Wat to discover Cambodia’s most off-the-beaten-track historic sites.