Phnom Penh is often only a day trip for tourists on their way to either the Cambodian Coast or Angkor Wat/Siem Reap. But like any capital city in Southeast Asia, Phnom Penh actually has a lot to offer especially as it emerges as a vibrant energetic place to live for young local artists.
About Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a relatively recent city despite the fact that its origins are traced back to the 14th century. According to a legend, a certain Lady Penh which found in a hollow trunk four bronze and one stone Buddha statues. She then decided to build a shrine to honour the Buddhas on an elevated hill (Phnom in Cambodian). Wat Phnom then gives its name to Phnom Penh.
In the 15th century, Phnom Penh became the capital of the Khmer Kingdom following the abandon of Angkor. Traders established a settlement from the 16th century along the Tonle Sap river, a confluent of the Mekong River.
The modern city however mostly developed in the 19th century under the French colonial time. It further expanded in the 1950s and 1960s under Prince Sihanouk and is now embarked into a rapid modernization with skyscrapers surging everywhere around town.
Phnom Penh is now a blend of traditional and contemporary architecture with new hotels, trendy bars, and restaurants as well as art galleries opening all across the 1.5 million metropolia.
Royal Palace (Photo: Luc Citrinot)
1. Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Impossible to avoid the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda for any visitors coming into the capital city.
Facing the Tonle Sap riverfront, the Royal Palace was built in the 19th century following traditional patterns of Khmer classical architecture. To be noted is a European iron pavilion which was given by France shaped in typical Napoleon III-style.
The Royal Palace contains a series of buildings opened to visit showing royal regalia, costumes, historical pictures, carriages, and furniture.
On the south side of the royal gardens is the Silver Pagoda which got its name from the fact that the floor is covered by 5000 tiles made of silver. The pagoda has a precious collection of antique Buddha images including the famous Emerald Buddha made of crystal, Frescoes of the monastery are also remarkable and show the high skills of Khmer painters.
Go there: in the city centre and easily accessible by taxi, tuk-tuk, private moto taxi, and public buses…
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (Photo: Luc Citrinot)
This is a unique promenade in the Mekong region with a two-km-long riverwalk along the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers. This is where the life of Phnom Penh is at its best with youngsters, sellers, couples, elderly people and joyful kids go all along. This is also a place where people gather and where visitors can make their first local friends as people are generally talkative and curious.
Also, it’s a great place to enjoy snacks and admire the old French style houses reminiscent of the French Riviera houses. Stop at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, a masterpiece of Khmer architect Vann Molyvann, which created an elegant modern architecture integrating Khmer traditional motives to buildings inspired by Le Corbusier.
Go there: easily accessible from anywhere as it is located in the city centre. There is a public boat service linking the riverwalk to various districts of the city.
Tonle Sap (Photo: Luc Citrinot)
3. Cambodia National Museum
Another not-to-be-missed monument in a Phnom Penh itinerary, the National Museum was created by French to host the treasures of Angkor Wat as well as showing art and handicraft from the Post-Angkorian period.
Opened in 1920 after three years of construction, the museum displays 14,000 objects with world-famous sculptures of the Pre-Angkorian and Angkorian periods. Stroll around the beautiful gardens and go then behind to the School of Fine Arts where exhibitions of young students are often organized.
Go there: easily accessible from anywhere as it is located in the city centre.
National Museum (Photo: Luc Citrinot)
4. Wat Phnom and Daun Penh Avenue
The temple is considered the cradle of Phnom Penh with its stupa dominating the town at a height of 27 meters. The temple is one of the most sacred in the Cambodian capital. It was restored and rebuilt in 1926.
On the southwest corner of the temple is a small shrine dedicated to Lady Penh. Around the temple is the Art Nouveau monument to King Sisowath, which is also evocating the 1907 treaty with Siam which fixed borders between the latter and Cambodia. This included the transfer of Siem Reap and Battambang provinces.
From Wat Phnom starts the most elegant street of the capital. Daun Penh Avenue is divided by a garden in its centre and is lined with many French-style grand structures, such as the Ministry of Finance (formerly the Colonial Administration offices), the National Library or the imposing Le Royal, Phnom Penh last grand-style colonial hotel. At the end of the avenue is also Phnom Penh City Hall which used to be a convent and seat of Cambodia bishopric.
Go there: Wat Phnom and Daun Penh Avenue are in the city centre and easily reached by taxis or motorcycles.
King Sisowath monument and Memorial to French Siam treaty (photo: Luc CItrinot)
5. Vattanac Capital Tower and Rail Station
The modern building is the city’s first true skyscraper at a height of 188 meters and stands at the end of Kossamak Avenue, just opposite to Phnom Penh rail station. The last 14 floors are now home to a luxury hotel with its sky bar being a top attraction to visitors who have a sweeping view all over the city on the 39th floor.
There is also a small luxury shopping mall in the lobby of the office tower. Facing the tower is the art deco style rail station built in 1932. It was the first structure built in reinforced concrete in the city.
Go there: The tower is easily reachable by tuk-tuk, motorcycle, taxi or by train from the airport.
Phnom Penh view from Rosewood Hotel sky bar (Photo: Luc Citrinot)
6. Central Market
Phsar Thmey or Central Market is a grand Art Deco structure built in 1937 in the shape of a dome by French architect Jean Desbois. It was the largest market in Asia when it opened.
Today, the market is a popular destination for foreign tourists who can find any type of souvenirs, from tee shirts to Cambodian scarfs Krama, from silver or gold jewel and cutlery to Cambodian silk.
Locals will also go to the central market to buy food, daily life clothing, books, and electronic goods. It is still today Phnom Penh largest traditional markets.
Central Market (Photo: Luc Citrinot)
7. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields
Although many Cambodians try to forget about the brutal Khmer Rouge regime which killed 25% of the total population, equivalent to approximately two to three million people, two sites in Phnom Penh remind visitors about the cruelty of the human mankind.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located in the original prison S21 – previously a school- where thousands of people were tortured and murdered. This is an extremely emotional place to see which is not to be recommended to sensitive people.
Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields) is located 13 km south of the city centre. The open-air site was used for torturing and executing 20,000 people including children and woman.
Go there: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located 4 km south of Wat Phnom in the vicinity of the Russian market while the Killing Fields is located 13 km or 19 km when including a stop at Tuol Sleng Museum.
8. Street 93 in Boeung Kak for art
Young talented Khmer artists have invaded the walls and house facades of Street 93, transforming this greyish derelict area into colourful art pieces. Although gaining in popularity, the area is a normal place where people are living, park their car in front of the painting and even dry their laundry. However, it is still fun to explore and discover and they are now regular art events organized in Boeung Kak.
Go there: Boeung Kak is located northwest of Wat Phnom, some four km away. It is easily reachable by motorcycles, tuk-tuk or taxis.
9. Koh Dach, Silk Island
An hour by boat from Phnom Penh, the small island located on the Mekong River is a relaxed quaint island famed for its villages of silk weavers with villagers creating colourful pieces of silk with traditional motives. The island can also be reached by car and ferry. A few guest houses and restaurants are available along the sandy banks of the Mekong River.
Go there: The island is an hour away upstream of Phnom Penh by ferry. It takes an hour and a half by car to cover the 25 km distance from the city centre. It is also a popular bicycle ride.
10. Oudong Mountain and Kampong Luong
Surrounded by small mountains and tropical jungle, Oudong used to be from 1618 a royal residence until King Sisowath settled the new capital in Phnom Penh. On a top of a hill is the necropolis of Cambodian kings with a series of stupas dominating the green hills. From the top, there is a wonderful view over paddy fields and small villages showing traditional rural Cambodia. During the weekend, Oudong is invaded by a crowd of joyful Cambodians often picnicking around the necropolis. Others come to worship ashes of Lord Buddha.
On the way from Phnom Penh, visit Kampong Luong village, where silversmith craftsmen create delicate objects since centuries. Khmer silversmith is recognized by UNESCO as intangible heritage.
Go there: Oudong is located in Kampong Speu province, 45 km northwest of Phnom Penh. It takes up to one hour and 20 minutes to reach the royal necropolis. Regular buses link Phnom Penh to Oudong.
11. Angkorian temples of Ta Phrom and Phnom Chisor
South of Phnom Penh stands two “small-scale” Angkor Wat. Driving first to Tonle Bati lake. Many Cambodians enjoy the tranquil Lake to swim during the weekend. Nearby is Ta Phrom, a magnificent temple constructed at the same time as the Bayon and Angkor Thom in Siem Reap. Delicate carvings of Apsara dancers and a reclining Buddha bas relief can seem there.
Phnom Chisor in Takeo Province. Built in the 11th century, this Angkorian style temple is built on a top of a hill dominating the lush greenery landscapes. The temple complex is fairly well preserved and surrounded by a gallery with porches. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu Beautiful sandstone carving can be observed on the lintels.
Go there: Ta Phrom and Tonle Bati are located some 30 km away south of Phnom Penh taking on average an hour by car and a bit more by public buses. Phnom Chisor is another 25 km further to the south and it takes on average 45 minutes to reach the hill temple. Public buses serve both destinations.
Ta Phrom in Takeo Province
How to get to Phnom Penh?
The city is easy to reach with its airport welcoming over 25 airlines from Asia and the Middle-East, while rail services have been re-established three years ago linking Phnom Penh to its airport as well as to the border of Thailand and to Sihanoukville in the south.
Highways link Phnom Penh with Ho Chi Minh City, to Thailand via Siem Reap or Battambang as well as to the Cambodian Coast. They are many bus lines offering daily departures to all the destinations mentioned above.