At the intersection of the Mekong, Bassac, and Tonle Sap rivers, Phnom Penh is the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Blood-stained from the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regimes, it was the French that built the city up and gave Phnom Penh its current je ne sais quoi quality. French-style cyclos still cruise its broad boulevards past colonial buildings and parks; yet, pagodas pop up frequently nodding to its deep Asian heritage. The Riverfront area is absolutely the best place to spend time strolling on the esplanade. Absorb local life by popping into galleries, shops and cafes as you look over the meeting of rivers.
Make sure you capture these highlights that shed light on Cambodia’s fascinating culture and deep history, while also venturing into locally-run shops, restaurants and NGO’s for a full view of place.
Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
Along the riverfront, the Royal Palace peaks over the skyline with its iconic Khmer-style roof. As the official residence of King Sihamoni, most sections of the huge palace compound are closed to visitors – but you can enter the throne hall and a few of the buildings surrounding it, including the Silver Pagoda.
The extravagant Silver Pagoda also known as the “Temple of the Emerald Buddha” if translated from its Khmer name, is made of Italian marble and five tons of shining silver. Most notable is the temple’s Baccarat-crystal Buddha… as well as its solid-gold version, adorned with 9,584 diamonds.
Quick Tip: There is an extra fee for bringing a camera/video camera, although photography is not permitted inside. A modest dress code must also be adhered to in respect of Cambodian customs – its best to cover your knees and elbows. Stay away from the complex on Sundays if you can help it, as Khmers from the countryside come to pay their respects, making it extremely crowded.
Just north of the Royal Palace, the National Museum is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. Not only will give you an understanding of Cambodia’s history – it is also quite an enjoyable stroll as well. The museum is housed in a terra cotta building facing an alluring courtyard garden.
Quick Tip: Photography is prohibited in the museum.
English, French and Japanese audio-guides are available.
Legend has it that Phnom Penh was founded after a woman found Buddha statues inside a log floating in the Tonle Sap River – a sure sign that Phnom Penh was to replace Angkor as the capital I guess! A Pagoda was first erected on the hill-top where the city got its name and is now considered its founding location. Wat Phnom has an excellent museum inside the hill that focuses on Phnom Penh’s social history, along with some interesting daily items from centuries ago.
Vimean Ekareach (Independence Monument)
Built in 1958, the Monument has dual symbolism, representing both Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, and honoring the country’s patriots who have perished for their country. It’s a great starting point for walking to nearby sites as well. While in the area – check-out the monument of legendary king, prime minister, and statesman – the late Norodom Sihanouk (who passed in 2012). Then, stroll through Wat Botum Park to view local life as Phnom Penh resident’s play sports and socialize.
Quick Tip: Outdoor concerts often frequent Wat Botum park – so check to see if one is scheduled while you’re in town!
Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Rescue Centre
Founded in 2000 by the Prime Minister Hun Sen, around 1,000 animals have been rescued from trafficking and poaching and now reside at Phnom Tamao due to injury or young age. The expansive grounds include lush landscapes and ancient temples, making it an interesting day trip from Phnom Penh. I was particularly touched by a recent video that has been shared on their website – A Baby Elephant Gets a New Limb.
Quick Tip: behind-the-scenes tours are available with all proceeds going toward the zoo, where visitors help feed and wash rescued elephants, visit baby animals in the private nursery, and learn about positive reinforcement training used to teach Chhouk (featured in the video) to use his new prosthetic foot!
Known as the National Sports Complex, the Olympic Stadium is a great example of 1960’s Khmer architecture. Make your visit during the late afternoon – when various sporting events are held including football, pétanque and badminton. It’s another great way to view local life in city.
Tuol Sleng Museum – “S-21”
In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into Security Prison 21 or S-21. It is to date, the largest center for detention and torture in the country, taking over 17,000 civilians and foreigners in only 5 short years. Disturbing black-and-white photographs of men, women, and children who were tortured (and later killed) line the walls.
Quick Tip: Hiring a guide to visit S-21 is certainly worth it in order to get a true understanding of the place. Ask your hotel concierge, go through a tour operator or grab one of the local guides at the entrance for a nominal fee.
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Between 1975 and 1978, those who were previously tortured at S-21, were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek. In order to save precious bullets for warfare – most of them were clubbed to death. Over 8,000 skulls are displayed behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, erected in 1988 on the horrific site. The museum here provides explanations of the Khmer Rouge regime and the ongoing trial.
Quick Tip: The entry fee includes an audio tour available in several languages
with accounts from a survivor and former executioner.
Vann Nath Gallery
The late Vann Nath who died in 2011, is famed worldwide for his depictions of Khmer Rouge torture scenes at S-21. After escaping from the prison with only seven others, he continued to paint these vivid, remembered scenes for the duration of his life. Many of his later works can be viewed here at his family-owned restaurant Kith Eng.
Quick Tip: There are no true hours of operation here – it’s best to pass by to see if his wife or family members are around to let you in. You can also view some of Vann Nath’s most famous paintings at the Tuol Sleng Museum.
Romeet Contemporary Art Space
This non-profit space showcases the creations of emerging and established Cambodian, contemporary artists and is certainly worth taking a peak inside.
This landmark market boasts what some consider one of the 10 largest domes in the world. Meander through its four large wings where vendors sell textiles, antiques, gold and silver jewelry, fabrics, food and more.
Quick Tip: Get acquainted with local cuisine by sampling your way
through the fresh food section.
Psar Tuol Tom Poung (Russian Market)
For more traditional handicrafts and antiquities – head to the Russian Market. Serious bargaining is required, but with effort, come away with traditional wood carvings, silks and musical instruments among other treasures.
Held each weekend if the weather’s right, this market is popular with Phnom Penh’s residents and should be on the top of your list for evening, local immersion.
Friends – The Restaurant
For a vibrant atmosphere and creative dishes, head to Friends. I love this restaurant particularly because it is a training restaurant for youth run by Friends International, a leading social enterprise that helps to build futures for the most marginalized children and communities. Their programs are internationally recognized, with accolades such as the Skoll Award for Social Enterprise 2007, and Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2009.
Also run by Friends International, Romdeng serves Cambodian food that ranges from almost forgotten recipes from the provinces to contemporary creative fare. Their outdoor dining makes it the better choice for dinner.
Friend’s Alliance has recently started selling their bright and fun Cambodian Cookbooks! It’s a great way to support the cause if you can’t make it out to their restaurants or a (useful) keepsake from your trip.
Khmer Architecture Tours
For those particularly interested in architecture, this local non-profit company is the perfect choice to learn from the locals while supporting them. Run fully by Cambodian architects and local students, they have two options run every Sunday: Central Colonial Phnom Penh by Cyclo and 1960s New Khmer Architecture. They also offer private tours, seven days a week.
The Life of Rith – Interactive Khmer Class
The teachers at LINK (Language Institute of National Khmer) will walk you through the life of a typical Khmer during this short, but entertaining course. Designed for newly arrived expats and tourists alike, it is taught entirely in Khmer, but uses interactive methods and visual displays to help you understand the aspects of everyday life of the Khmer people. With your teacher, you will follow Rith, a typical citizen from primary school to the end of his life. The course includes a visit to a Buddhist temple and a local market. It’s a unique experience that is well worth the $10 fee and the less-than two hours relinquished from the rest of your trip.
Quick Tip: Advanced booking is required and there is a maximum of 10 participants per course. If the life of Rith is too childish for you, they also have a similar course called Real Life of Phnom Penh which removes the storytelling contect.
I love this quirky, edgy charity that works with street kids in Phnom Penh through hip-hop culture. The mission of Tiny Toones Cambodia is to provide a safe, positive environment for at‐risk youth to channel their energy and creativity into arts and education, empowering them to build self‐confidence in their daily lives, aim for better employment possibilities, and feel supported to pursue their dreams. It was started by Cambodian-American, Tuy Sobil (nicknamed K.K.). After K.K. was deported from the United States after the 9/11 anti-immigration policy tightened, he formed a crew that utilized music and dance culture as a means to escape poverty and drugs on the street. Now his charity helps other at-risk children from Phnom Penh’s slums, giving them a safe, positive outlet, as well as education and job-training. The Tiny Toones Dance and Music troupe now performs all over the world to raise money and awareness for the cause. Check them out – they are really good!
Tiney Toones has partnered with DragonFly Tours to offer 14-day trips to Cambodia with proceeds going toward their projects. Click here to learn more.
They also welcome volunteers who have skills to share with their children in the area of arts, dance, music and educational courses. View their volunteer page for more information here where you can download their detailed application form.
Daughters of Cambodia
This fair-trade NGO is the girly counter-part to Tiny Toones, with a similar vision to lift oppressed youth out of the darkest corners of Phnom Penh. Daughter’s of Cambodia is located in the red-light district and invites girls to escape sex trafficking by giving them work and tools for their self-advancement. Their approach is an honorable one that does not follow the typical aid model of dependency. It provides them with a respectable occupation, training them to develop skills so that they can better their lives. In addition to running a boutique hotel, craft operations center, café and retail shop, they also provide their workers with medical services, therapeutic creative classes and educational opportunities. Their alternative approach certainly can benefit from those who have business and creative skills to offer through volunteering.
Sunrise Children’s Villages
Sunrise Children’s Villages (SCV) are located in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. SCV started in September 1993, following the first visit by Geraldine Cox from Australia. Since that time, three centers have been created. Sunrise Children’s Villages provide education, medical care, and a home for orphaned, abandoned, vulnerable and disadvantaged Cambodian children. Sunrise Children’s Villages have a robust reintegration policy in place, and where possible through support and close monitoring, creates environments where children under their residential care can be safely reintegrated back into a natural family home. This concept is extremely important in a country where childcare can lead to exploitation of children and corruption.
SCV does not have a short term volunteer program (you can read more about this admirable philosophy here.) However, they do welcome day visitors to their schools to learn more about their programs.
So there you have it – my little list of the top things to do,see and taste in order to get closer to Journeying Beyond the Bucket List while in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. No matter what you choose, do it with intention and thoughtfulness! For simply acting with intent will bring a sense of accomplishment to any small task.
Feature Photo Credit: Leonardo Corradini/istock/Thinkstock