Although overshadowed by the popularity of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s capital is slowly seeing an increase in tourist numbers. Often dusty and chaotic, the city might not showcase the charm of Siem Reap but those who scratch the surface are often surprised at what they find in Phnom Penh. With a host of new dining options, boutique shops, and trendy cafes, the city is undergoing a modern renaissance. Spending a few days in the capital city, visitors will not only uncover the historic side of the country but also experience the true vibe of an emerging capital.
With its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding, the Royal Palace dominates the diminutive local skyline. Hidden away behind protective walls and beneath the shadows of striking ceremonial buildings, it’s an oasis of calm, with lush gardens and leafy havens. As it’s the official residence of King Sihamoni, parts of the massive compound are closed to the public.
The National Museum of Cambodia is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. Located just north of the Royal Palace, the museum is housed in a graceful terracotta structure of traditional design (built 1917-20), with four courtyards facing a lush courtyard garden: the perfect backdrop to such an outstanding array of delicate objects.
Within the Royal Palace compound is the extravagant Silver Pagoda, the floor of which is covered with five tons of gleaming silver. You can sneak a peek at some of the 5000 tiles near the entrance – most are covered to protect them. Rivalling the floor, an extraordinary Baccarat-crystal Buddha sits atop an impressive gilded pedestal. Adding to the lavish mix is a life-sized solid-gold Buddha, which weighs 90kg and is adorned with 2086 diamonds, the largest weighing in at 25 carats.
Occupying the city’s highest point, Wat Phnom is a quiet, shady and incense-infused respite. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four Buddha statues deposited here by the waters of the Mekong. These were discovered by a woman named Penh, hence the name Phnom Penh, literally ‘Hill of Penh’. As well as the temple, you’ll find droves of Khmers praying for luck and a few amputees looking for some sympathy and riel.
While walking down the corridors of the Tuol Sleng Museum, with their checked tile floors and cream walls, it’s not hard to imagine the site’s simple origins as the Tuol Svay Prey High School. However, delving into former classrooms shatters any illusion of normalcy.
Rising amid 129 mass graves (43 of which remain untouched) is a blinding white stupa memorialising the approximately 17,000 people executed here by the Khmer Rouge between mid-1975 and December 1978. Displayed on shelves behind the stupa’s glass panels are over 8000 skulls found during excavations here in 1980 – a moving reminder of Cambodia’s dark past Some of the skulls still bear witness to the fact that their owners were bludgeoned to death for the sake of saving precious bullets.
This Art Deco (called Psar Thmei in Khmer) behemoth, built in 1937, is a city landmark and, on any given day, a veritable anthill of activity. The building is a towering cruciform rotunda with four wings. The eastern entrance is the best spot to find T-shirts, hats, and all manner of trinkets and souvenirs, as well as photocopied bootlegs of popular novels and books on Cambodia.