Phnom Penh. City in Cambodia, Asia

Phnom Penh

City in Cambodia, Asia

Red sky Photo © Jonas Hansel

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Phnom Penh

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Bustling Phnom Penh - Phnom Penh
Bustling Phnom Penh - Phnom Penh. Photo by Baron Reznik
Phnom Penh is Cambodia's capital and home to 2.2 million people. Although it can seem bustling and chaotic, it does lack a defining 'capital feel', compared to most of the other major world cities. Sometimes, it can still feel like the wild west with a little bit of French-modernism, due to its former colonization. It also boasts a seedy side, like most southeast Asian capitals, and even though it is indeed an exciting place to visit (never a dull moment in Phnom Penh!) it is also not a place for the faint hearted, easily disturbed or swiftly offended. In a country still suffering from the after-effects of war and the very current effects of poverty, Phnom Penh is an intoxicating mecca for opportunistic and shady characters, both foreign and local.
The city's best museums do a great job of showcasing the city's very painful past and it's perhaps this insight which also grants the city an almost disturbing vibe.

Phnom Penh lies at the convergence of the Tonlé Sap (Wikipedia
	Article) and Mekong River, creating a perfect outlet for many different tourist adventures. Although one may think of Phnom Penh as a place lacking adventurous activities other than jungle-treks, this couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, this capital offers beautiful rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and gun-shooting all within a day's drive. yet culture and history is this city's main draw, apart from the fact that it's the ideal springboard from which to explore the rest of the country. Do make sure to stay here a few days either at the start or end of your Cambodian adventure, and you'll have a few valuable attractions to discover.

Independence Monument, Phnom Penh - Phnom
Independence Monument, Phnom Penh. Photo by Richard Hopkins


Phnom Penh, Killing
	Fields of Choeung Ek - Choeung Ek
Phnom Penh, Killing Fields of Choeung Ek - Choeung Ek. Photo by Arian Zwegers
Phnom Penh is, much like the rest of Cambodia, just barely recovering from its terrible past. After decades embroiled in either civil war, international conflict or brutal dictatorship, it can appear as a beaten and battered city yet those who have visited for years will attest to it being a city fast rolling towards improvement. Much of the city's mess is due to the phenomenal amount of reconstruction and restoration work undertaken by the government, and if there is one southeast Asian city bound for a mind-boggling transformation, Phnom Penh would surely be it.

Its origins are largely unknown, but the Phnom Penh legend (Wikipedia Article) it that the city was created to house objects that Lady Penh found in a tree floating down the river, while she was out collecting firewood. These included four Buddha statues and one statue of the Hindu god, Vishnu. The original shrine, built by Lady Penh to house the revered relics is modern day Wat Phnom, a large hill and temple in the north of the city. Hence, the name Phnom Penh was conceived.

The reasons Phnom Penh became the capital of Cambodia have much more to do with war and less to do with miracles, however. In the 14th century, the Kingdom of Siam (modern-day Thailand) invaded the country in the north and destroyed Angkor Thom (7 km north of Siem Reap), the then capital of the Khmer Kingdom. The administrative capital city was then moved further south to Phnom Penh, where it stayed put for only seven decades. Due to ongoing disputes with Royal contenders, the capital was actually moved quite a few times, and Phnom Penh was finally abandoned in 1505 and reverted to nothing more than a sleepy fishing village. For over three centuries this is exactly as it remained, until the French colonists took over and proceeded to enhance it, restore it and extend it. It was during this time that the city became known as the Pearl of Asia, when it boasted palatial mansions, luxury hotels and modernised infrastructure.

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong and north Vietnamese Army had bases in Cambodia, further destroying the country with raging war. millions escaped the country side and fled to Phnom Penh, believed to be a safer alternative. With the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge (Wikipedia Article), who took to bombing the city, Phnom Penh was an overcrowded hub of maimed, tortured and defeated inhabitants.

Formed in 1968 and led by dictator Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge committed what became known as the worst genocide the world has ever seen. Pol Pot's attempt at social cleansing included exterminating the elite, the educated and anyone not of agrarian background. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 4 million people died. That's 21% of the country's population, executed over a period of 4 years. Due to the lack of weaponry, Pol Pot and his minions created different methods of killing which became popularized in modern culture for its brutality. Being the capital city, Phnom Penh was the site of much extermination. A high school was turned into a torturous prison, and a nearby field turned into the largest Killing Field in the whole country.

Ironically enough, it was the Vietnamese who finally drove out the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979. At the time, most Western countries were still supporting Pol Pot because they saw him as 'the enemy of our enemy, hence our friend'.

Royal Palace of Phnom Penh - Royal
	Palace Phnom Penh
Royal Palace of Phnom Penh - Royal Palace Phnom Penh. Photo by Stephen McGrath

Sightseeing in Phnom Penh

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh was built in the 19th century with French and Cambodian architecture, and costs $ 6.50 USD to enter. It contains the Silver Pagoda and Emerald Buddha (Wikipedia Article) within it. It serves as a home for the Cambodian royal family and thus, not all of it is open to the public. The gardens are a delightfully green place in the midst of the concrete jungle, so a visit is very enjoyable nevertheless. Do dress appropriately or you may have issues gaining entry.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom is the tallest religious structure in Phnom Penh and was built in 1373 as a shrine to the ancient Buddhist and Vishnu sculptures found by Lady Penh. It sits atop the only hill in town and is regarded by locals as the holiest of all the city's temples. the grand staircase, guarded by lion statues, is an impressive sight. the temple was rebuilt about four times during the last seven centuries, and although its spirituality is undoubted, its popularity makes it the busiest in town.

Wat Botum

Wat Botum is a lovely temple found south of the Royal Palace and one block inland from the river-front. Known as the temple of the Lotus Pond, this is one of the city's oldest pagodas and possibly the most ornate. A great photo op at sunset!

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are one of the most disturbing attractions in Cambodia. It was here, in fields just 17 km outside of the city, where thousands were murdered and buried. The large collection of over 8,000 skulls is confronting, and meant as a memorial for those lives lost. your best option would be to hire a tuk-tuk for the half day needed to see this place at length, as a visit necessitates at least three hours, with a further two in travel time. Haggle hard and aim to spend about USD15 for the day.

The Macabre Choeung Ek Mass Graves - Choeung
The Macabre Choeung Ek Mass Graves. Photo by Baron Reznik

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is another incredibly important place in Phnom Penh and one you should visit in conjunction with the Killing Fields. Formerly, S21 prison. Before the Khmer Rouge took over, this was known as Chao Ponhea Yat High School, which was converted to the s21 prison, where over 20,000 people were tortured and murdered. As testament to Pol Pot's insanity, this particular prison was reserved mostly for Khmer Rouge fighters and their family members who were believed to be dissidents of the regime.

In essence, this is where the Khmer Rouge killed the Khmer Rouge. men, women and children were brought here without discrimination. Of the thousands who were incarcerated here, only 8 survived. They were the only ones still alive when the Vietnamese freed the prison and drove out the fighters.

National Museum of
National Museum of Cambodia

National Museum of Cambodia

The country's best and most comprehensive museum showcases the evolution of the country's culture through the last one thousand years. It's home to countless Khmer artefacts which were brought here from the Angkor Archaeological Park, in order to protect them from looting. The pre-Angkor collection is just as impressive, with an extensive collection of ancient pottery and artefacts, all beautifully displayed. English language guides are highly recommended.

Sisowath Quay

Phnom Penh's waterfront is, without a shadow of a doubt, its nicest spot. Well kept and largely devoid of the ubiquitous rubbish one finds in all other city streets, this lovely stretch of promenade is a hive of activity in the evenings, when locals and visitors alike head here for a relaxing stroll or to grab some dinner at one of the many riverside restaurants. Tourist boats head off for sunset cruises at 5pm and this is something we'd highly recommend you do. The cruise lasts an hour and costs only USD5 per person and is arguably the most relaxing activity in town.

Russian Market

The Russian Market is a great place to buy handmade souvenirs, wooden carvings and authentic-fake designer garb. Haggling is an absolute must here so aim for about 50% of the initial asking price. Do be wary of pick-pockets when strolling through these markets, as opportunists little hands take advantage of the crowds. These markets have just about everything you want and nothing you really nee but make for a fantastic spot of retail therapy. You'll find plenty of food stalls here to keep you refreshed and replenished.

Sunset grocery shopping - Phnom
Sunset grocery shopping - Phnom Penh. Photo by Jonas Hansel

Dining & Shopping

Central Market - Phnom
Central Market - Phnom Penh. Photo by Roger Spooner
Phnom Penh has everything a capital city should: plenty of dining and shopping options to suit all tastes and budgets. The Central Market area is ideal if you want to souvenir shop in the evening, and the riverside strip of cafes and restaurants are delightful if you wish to spend a little more but dine in the city's premier joints. Trendy cafes and local food stalls are found in just about every side street in and near the city's tourist centre, with Street 172 being particularly enticing.

Festivals in Phnom Penh

Cambodia has festivals year round, including:
  • Chaul Chnam Thmey (Wikipedia Article), the Cambodian New Year oddly changes dates every year and is usually held in April. It is a three-day festival full of dancing, eating, and merry making.
  • Bon Om Thook, the Water Festival, occurs on the Tonlé Sap and is a celebration with fireworks and boat races.
  • Visak Bochea, Buddha's birthday, occurs May 13th.
  • Pchum Ben celebrates reincarnation and is a very important festival for Cambodians. This festival usually falls in October and is seen as a way to pay respects to the deceased of the family.

Get around Phnom Penh and the rest of Cambodia

  • Most reliably, with good bargaining skills, you have the Tuk Tuk. Driven by colorful characters, these motorcycle-turned-taxis are a great way to get around for just a few bucks. Usually, one can hire a Tuk Tuk for the day and travel anywhere they want for the whole afternoon on a certain set price. Around $ 20 USD a day would be a good, give or take a little.
  • Motorcycles can indeed be rented for around $ 5.00 USD a day, although you will be frequently stopped by police and ticketed in certain areas. This is quite a common scam, whereby the policemen will quite literally make up a law on the spot and try to fine you for it. If you don't give in, and ask to see the law on paper, translated by a professional and stamped by the government, you will be let go. Unless, of course, you have broken an existing law.
  • Tonlé Sap and Mekong River serve as great ways for boat rides to and from different cities. During and just after rain season, it is possible to get a boat all the way to Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park.
  • Buses are also a great way to reach Sihanoukville, Kep and Kampot, the three famous beach hubs on the southern coast.
  • Phnom Penh has a major modern international airport offering cheap flights to many different locations and is also very close to the city. Expect to pay around $15 to the airport from anywhere in the city, if you have great haggling skills. (Even has good wifi!)





Sihanoukville is a beautiful coastal town south of Phnom Penh and has many famous beaches and also a gateway to the many beautiful islands of Cambodia. Cambodia hosts thousands of islands that are mostly undisturbed by mass commercialisation, however this is changing fast. Around 3-5 hours from Phnom Penh, a bus should cost you around $ 10 USD give or take.

Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat and it takes about 7 hours to reach the former Khmer capital and UNESCO heritage site. (Tip: Although more expensive, take the boat up the river Tonlé Sap. Takes around the same time, but twice as beautiful. Only available during high rain season.)

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Author: ChaseHunter. Last updated: Apr 02, 2015

Pictures of Phnom Penh

Central Market - Phnom Penh
Central Market - Phnom Penh. Photo by fototrav

Phnom Penh - Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh - Photo by Sebastian Cem

Traditional Dance - Phnom Penh
Traditional Dance - Phnom Penh. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Knotted Revolver Statue, Old Olympic Circle, Phnom Penh - Phnom Penh
Knotted Revolver Statue, Old Olympic Circle, Phnom Penh - Photo by Pigalle


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