8 Must-Dos in Phnom Penh
Published 22 June 2016
Phnom Penh is often overlooked by time-poor travellers, many of whom rush through, barely noticing its charms as they push on to the bigger draws of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. But linger here a little and you’ll soon be captivated by the city’s vibrant restaurants, glittering palaces and fascinating history. Here are our top things to see and do in Cambodia’s capital:
The Royal Palace
The golden-spired Khmer roofs of the Royal Palace glitter in the sunlight, casting shadows and reflections that bring it to life. Simply put, this regal 19th century complex is like no other, making for a particularly photogenic stop. Visitors can take in the decadent Throne Hall, complete with Khmer-inspired seating, and the Royal Treasury, filled with crowns, spears and swords, but much of the rest of the palace is closed to the public because the Cambodian king still lives here.
The Silver Pagoda
To the south side of the Royal Palace stands the Silver Pagoda, proud and elegant among well-manicured shrubbery. Its floor is inlaid with 5,000 solid silver blocks that weigh five tons, while gold statues adorned with over 10,000 diamonds watch over curious visitors. The star attraction though is a 17th century Baccarat crystal Buddha, known as the Emerald Buddha, which sits atop a gilded pedestal.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Between 1975 and 1979 this former high school was better known as the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21), notoriously used by the Khmer Rouge as a place of torture and execution. Now a museum, the desolate cells consist of little more than a bed and the occasional torturing device, usually accompanied by a graphic photo of how the room was discovered when the Vietnamese army liberated the lock-up in 1979. Not for the easily distressed, this is a compelling and harrowing insight into Cambodia’s turbulent past and a lasting memorial to those who died here.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Those who survived the terrible conditions at S-21 were brought here to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to die. During excavations in the 1980s, almost 9,000 bodies, some still blindfolded, were discovered in mass graves. Despite the horrors that once occurred here, it is now a peaceful, respectful and contemplative place with some pretty gardens and a touching monument to those that lost their lives.
The National Museum
With four galleries, each packed with exquisite Khmer art and sculptures spanning some 1,500 years of Cambodian history, The National Museum is the country’s largest exhibition of cultural artefacts. Housed in a traditional, terracotta-roofed building and set around a pretty courtyard, the location is almost as much of an attraction as the collection itself. Look out for the king’s boat cabin, used by the king when he travels on the Tonlé Sap.
A leafy boulevard alongside the Tonlé Sap River, lined with palm trees and colourful flags, Sisowath Quay is understandably popular with exercising locals and temple-weary tourists out for a relaxing stroll. While away a lazy afternoon people-watching over a chilled beer or snacking on freshly-baked French baguettes in the cafés. As the evening draws in, watch the sunset over the river from the terrace at the colonial-style Foreign Correspondents’ Club, cocktail in hand. Bliss!
From Sisowath Quay, it’s easy to arrange a short boat ride along the Mekong or Tonlé Sap rivers. Informal sunset cruises cost just a few dollars per person and are a great way to observe everyday life on the river. For something more adventurous, sail to Siem Reap by hydrofoil, a six-hour journey across the Tonlé Sap Lake past floating villages, fishermen and abundant birdlife. It definitely beats the bus – although bear in mind it is more expensive.
Perhaps less well known for its cuisine than other Asian countries, Cambodia nonetheless produces some delectable dishes, and there’s no better place to try them than Phnom Penh. Tuck into the super tasty fish amok, a lemongrass and shrimp paste-based curry cooked in a banana leaf, or for the more adventurous (and those with a stronger stomach) perhaps try a duck embryo, which tastes like duck served with hard boiled egg.