Phnom Penh is a lovely, laid-back old city. Once the jewel of French Indochina, it still has a particular crumbling grace and beauty not found in other Asian capitals. It is divided up by a few major thoroughfares—Monivong and Norodom Boulevards going north-south and Pochentong and Sihounouk boulevards going east-west. These, along with major wats, markets and monuments, form the skeleton of Phnom Penh from which the city grows. Whether you are off to explore cultural highlights, take in the nightlife, eat a hearty meal, or just find a place to sit and watch the bustle of the city, most places can be found if you know the nearest landmark.
North and Wat Phnom At the end of Norodom Boulevard in the northern part of town,
Behind Wat Phnom a cluster of restaurants, including Le Deauville and Anthony's Pizza, offer more up-market dining. To the east is the French Quarter, boasting some of town's most impressive surviving colonial architecture. Not far from here,
Also in this area is
Central Phnom Penh and Psar Thmei
There are also several bars around the market, including Kim's Kiwi Bar and
East – the River and Beyond The cool breeze off the Tonle Sap makes it an ideal place for open-air restaurants and bars. A two-kilometer strip beginning at the
This area is not wanting for cultural landmarks either. Squarely in the middle of this strip, the imposing pagoda is called
Cross the river, using the impressive Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, and you enter two of Phnom Penh's outlying districts. Prek Leap begins on the other side of the river in a flurry of signs for Khmer-style restaurants. This restaurant strip is very popular with more affluent Khmers. Chinese and Khmer food are the staples but the chief attraction is the entertainment. Karaoke, stage shows, comedy acts and more are available for the amusement of diners. Just before Prek Leap, a turnoff to the right will take you to Chruoy Changvar, the peninsula that can be seen across the water from the riverside in Phnom Penh. This area is almost rural, with cattle and goats wandering about and banana and mango trees lining the dirt roads.
South – Independence and Baccarat The southern area of town is anchored by the massive Hotel Cambodiana Phnom Penh and
West – Shopping, Shooting and History West of Monivong Boulevard, the most famous landmark is one of the most tragic reminders of Cambodia's turbulent history.
Phnom Penh in a small space offers a lot to see and do. Every section of the city can provide you with good restaurants, good shopping, and interesting sights. It is easy to navigate especially with the help of the friendly Khmer people, who are reason to come to the city.
There are no more than a handful of real tourist attractions in Phnom Penh and with a bit of dedication these can all be seen in course of one or two days. Those who stay in Phnom Penh for longer do so to soak up the anarchic energy of a city on the fast track from devastation to who knows where.
At less than five kilometers from end to end, Phnom Penh is not a large city. Independent travelers can easily reach the sights within the city limits by one of the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis that swarm around the tourist hot spots. Guided tours in air-conditioned mini-buses or taxis are available from Capitol . Alternatively, take one of the newly refurbished red and black pedicabs (cyclos) and enjoy the commentary from one of the English-speaking drivers as you cruise through the city traffic by pedal power.
Phnom Penh Highlights A full day's sightseeing in Phnom Penh might start with a typical Khmer breakfast of fried noodles at one of the busy street stalls which line Sothearos Boulevard just north of the Royal Palace. From here you can watch the sunrise over the Tonle Sap River (if you get up early enough) and enjoy the sight of hundreds of Phnom Penhoise doing their morning tai chi together on the riverfront. The Royal Palace opens its door to the public at 7am, and it is best to get in early, thus avoiding the crowds and catching the opportunity to photograph the Silver Pagoda in the warm soft light of morning.
Exiting the Palace grounds you will find yourself on Street 240 facing south. Heading through the park on the other side of the street you come to Wat Botum, a typical example of a Cambodian Buddhist temple full of friendly young monks who will eagerly show you around, if only to practice their English.
For souvenir and handcraft shopping the Russian Market is your best bet. Some distance to the south of the city you will need to catch a motor cycle taxi or pedicab, which will cost around USD0.50 from the Palace. Whichever way your driver takes you to the market, you will definitely have to pass by the huge red sandstone Independence Monument commemorating Cambodia's independence from France in 1953. Those in search of culinary adventures might enjoy a lunch of fried spring rolls or a bowl of noodle soup from one of the market stalls. If you want to eat in a restaurant, though, you will need to head back north to the center of town for lunch.
The National Museum, with its shady internal courtyard and large breezy rooms, is a great place to muse over artifacts from Cambodia's history while sheltering from the afternoon heat. Of course, no visit to Phnom Penh is complete without climbing the steps to the top of Wat Phnom, the temple which is the symbol of Phnom Penh. After a long day's sight-seeing, you probably deserve a drink, and in the north of town there is no finer place than the Elephant Bar at the five-star Hotel Le Royal. While there are plenty of moto-taxis that will drive you the 500 meters along Street 92 to the hotel, why not go in style-on the back of Sam Bo, a friendly elephant who hangs out at the bottom of Wat Phnom offering rides to tourists.
Remembering the Horrors of History No one should visit Cambodia without taking at least one moment to consider the horrors of the country's recent past. Embroiled in civil war for more than a quarter of a century, Phnom Penh is only just beginning to adjust to the idea of a lasting peace. Though there is a veneer of normality in the city, you do not have to look far to see reminders of a more violent past-the abandoned check points on the streets; the burnt out houses; or the heavily armed security forces.
Unfortunately for those interested in finding out more about Cambodia's recent past, there is no museum of modern history in Phnom Penh, but there are a number of relevant sites which are worth visiting. The major memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge is at the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek-a former concentration camp just outside Phnom Penh, where tens of thousands of dissidents and undesirables where put to their deaths from 1975 to 1979. In Phnom Penh itself is the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school, which was converted by the Khmer Rouge into prison and torture center. Today it stands as a memorial and a research center dedicated to documenting the atrocities of the Pol Pot era.
Other relevant sites of interest include the French Embassy and the Hotel Le Royal, both of which feature in the film, The Killing Fields, as enclaves for foreigners and terrified Cambodians during the last days before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975. Commemorating the demise of the Khmer Rouge is the Vietnamese-Cambodian Soldiers Monument which stands in honor of the liberation of Phnom Penh by a Vietnamese-backed force in 1979.
Though the war is over and the process of disarmament has begun, access to military hardware in Cambodia is still incredibly liberal, even by third world standards. Light arms are bought and sold in the markets and security forces carry assault rifles, which are often left lackadaisically on a bench or by the roadside while their owner enjoys a midday nap. An ironic flip side to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge is that tourists can test fire military weaponry at a shooting range near Phnom Penh where under-paid soldiers have converted their deadly past into a lucrative tourist attraction.
Together these two tours give those new to the city a glimpse of the glory and violence of Phnom Penh's history, as well as the struggles and beauty of its present.
Bustling modern-day Phnom Penh is a city rich with the legacies of kings and conquerors, both foreign and Khmer. Legend has it that Phnom Penh was founded when a woman called Penh discovered five images of Buddha inside a log washed up on the bank of the Mekong River. In 1373, Wat Phnom was built to house them. The town that grew around it became known as Phnom Penh. With phnom in Khmer meaning hill, the name literally means Hill of Penh.
Famous for Angkor Wat, its ancient capital, Cambodia has a long history. Around the first century BC a dynasty known to Chinese traders as Funan ruled. Impressive ruins from this great trading empire still stand at Angkor Borei & Phnom Da.From the sixth century, Funan's influence waned, and a new short-lived group of civilizations with a strong Indian influence called Chenla emerged along the Mekong and lower Tonle Sap Rivers.
In A.D. 802, Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a god-king and the Angkorian Empire was born. Construction of the first of the magnificent temples of Angkor began that same year and continued for almost six centuries. At its peak, the Angkorian Empire expanded to conquer most of the region, including large tracts of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. For reasons that remain unclear, Angkor eventually weakened--perhaps because of neighboring Thailand's rising might, frequent incursions from Thailand and Vietnam and distance from major trading ports. The elegant National Museum has a fine exhibition of artifacts from this period and preceding dynasties.
Oudong, 40 kilometers north, usurped Phnom Penh as the capital between 1618 and the mid-19th century, but it was Phnom Penh that was the seat of government when the French arrived in 1863. Their influence is obvious in many of the grand colonial buildings that dot the city, especially in the French Quarter around the Old Market. Colonial rule brought stability. During this prosperous time, in 1892, King Norodom constructed the stunning Wat Preah Keo (Silver Pagoda), paved with 5,000 blocks of silver.
In 1941 the current king, Norodom Sihanouk, was crowned at the age of 19. Believing that he would be easily manipulated, he was the choice of the French, but by 1952, King Sihanouk was spearheading a royal crusade for independence, which was granted in November 1953 and commemorated by Independence Monument. The years that followed were some of modern Cambodia's most prosperous. Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father to lead his ruling Sankum Reastr Niyum party as a politician.
War in Vietnam and growing leftist insurgency at home destroyed this "oasis of peace." In 1970, while Sihanouk was in France, General Lon Nol staged a coup and seized power. That same year, South Vietnamese and United States soldiers invaded Cambodia in an unsuccessful attempt to rout Viet Cong troops hiding there. The ensuing destruction only generated support for Cambodia's own communist insurgents, nicknamed the Khmer Rouge by Sihanouk. Cambodia quickly became the focus of world media attention. Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol, but when the Pol Pot-led communists took Phnom Penh in April 1975, he found himself held prisoner in the Royal Palace. Most of the rest of the population was herded into the countryside. There, thousands starved to death.
Both Khmers and foreigners took refuge in the French Embassy compound in the days following the communist victory, but the Khmer Rouge demanded the French expel the Cambodians or they would slaughter everyone inside. Khmers fled the embassy, many never to be seen again, while foreigners were evacuated. With the country to themselves, Khmer Rouge leaders implemented their radical Maoist doctrine, purging everyone they believed "bourgeois." Teachers, doctors, artists, monks--even hairdressers--were slaughtered in the name of the revolution. As the regime's leaders grew more paranoid, thousands more, including loyal party members, were tortured at a high school-turned-prison called Toul Sleng (S-21). Survivors of Toul Sleng were then taken to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields, where they were killed and buried in mass graves.
On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese troops took Phnom Penh and installed the government of the People's Republic of Kampuchea. The defeated Khmer Rouge fled to the jungle, where a guerilla war continued until 1998. In 1989, the Vietnamese withdrew. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) soon arrived to prepare for democratic elections, which were held in 1993. The appointment of two prime ministers, Norodom Ranariddh (Sihanouk's son) and Hun Sen, proved to be intolerable to both sides, and in 1997, fierce fighting between factional troops broke out. When the dust settled, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party were ascendant. He won the 1998 elections and currently remains Prime Minister.
Today, Cambodia is considered relatively stable, and despite tremendous poverty there is also progress. Phnom Penh still carries evidence of its tragic recent past, but also of mighty ancient cultures and French colonial glory. Modern shops and restaurants peek from between beautiful, if crumbling, examples of French architecture. Cyclos and horse-drawn carts share roads with luxury cars. Cambodia is still dependent on foreign aid, but the kingdom was admitted into ASEAN in April 1999 and tourism is helping it to regain its economic feet. The ancient arts, such as dance, shadow puppetry and weaving, have been revived with the help of the handful of surviving exponents.
Cambodia has been ravaged by war, and although no one is forgetting the past, the country is also keen to modernize and to grow through the 21st century and beyond.
Phnom Penh is one of Asia's smallest capital cities and, perhaps, the most compact. Virtually all hotels and other accommodations lie in the central city area-taken as being no more than two kilometers in any direction from the Royal Palace. Every type of hotel is available, ranging from cheap hotels to the most luxurious five-star properties.
The city is less than 15 minutes from the airport, and the fixed fare is USD7 by taxi to anywhere in the city. Although there are few taxis roaming the city, travel is easy via the numerous motos-simple motorbikes with an enlarged seat that can access most of the city within ten minutes at cheap prices. A more sedate method of transportation are cyclos-pedal-driven seats with some degree of rain protection. Most hotels have either limousines or other transportation for short or long hire. Walking is often an option, but care should be taken at night.
Visitors are pleasantly surprised to find the city's heat ravel is easy via the numerous motos, simple motorbikes with an enlarged seat that can access most of the city within ten minutes at cheap prices. A more sedate method of transportation are cyclos-pedal-driven seats with some degree of rain protection. Most hotels have either limousines or other transportation for short or long hire. Walking is often an option, but care should be taken at night.
Visitors are pleasantly surprised to find the city's heart-the area around the Royal Palace that lies adjacent to the river-to be almost parkland in character. There are a number of impressive state buildings and temples in this historical area such as the National Museum and the Silver Pagoda. From here, the city spreads in two main directions to the west and south, with a small northern spur centering on the venerable Wat Phnom.
All the city's hotels enjoyed a bonanza in the early 1990s with the presence of UNTAC, the United Nations' peacekeeping force. Since then, they have had to withstand three major shocks to occupancy--the 1997 uprising, the Asian currency crisis and direct international flights into Siem Reap Airport. Previously, all visitors to Angkor Wat needed to pass through Phnom Penh. This has led to a general reduction in room rates and quite a few hotel closures, particularly those in the mid-range. Rates still remain comparatively high for such a small city. The visitor has many choices and hotels are rarely full. There are some excellent hotels at all price levels and visitors can look forward to a safe and secure stay in this unusual corner of the world.
Riverside Surprisingly, there are few hotels located on what is considered to be Phnom Penh's biggest and best landmark. The Riverside Hotel is the most northern and although basic, is good value and close to Wat Phnom. The most southern is the Hotel Cambodiana near the Royal Palace. It is one of the largest and plushest hotels and is where many business people stay. Moored at the back of the hotel is the Naga Floating Casino. Next door is the MiCasa Hotel Apartments that is also top of the range and highly regarded. The nostalgic Renakse Hotel is sadly in need of renovation but has the advantage of overlooking the Silver Pagoda. There are a few smaller and lower-priced hotels located around the riverfront restaurant area. These have smaller rooms, but still boast a great location. One of the best is the Sun Shine Hotel.
Wat Phnom This Buddhist temple gave the city its name and sits in an amphitheater of trees a little more than one kilometer north of the Royal Palace. There are some sizable modern hotels close by, such as the Sharaton and the Sunway. The former has no connection to the hotel chain of a similar name and doubles as an entertainment center; whereas, the latter is one of the city's best luxury hotels. Journalists huddled at the Hotel Le Royal as the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. It is known as one of Asia's most historic hotels, but some find it hard to justify the high tariffs.
Independence Monument This imposing edifice to peace is found a little to the southwest of the Royal Palace and is surrounded by embassies and non-governmental organization offices. There are a number of small and medium sized hotels close by, of which the Golden Gate, Goldiana and Royal Phnom Penh hotels are the best known. The first two are pleasant mid-range options with a clientele that includes business people and aid workers. The Royal Phnom Penh is an elegant hotel with landscaped grounds and even its own golf driving range. Central Market There are two main thoroughfares running north to south in the middle of town, Norodom and Monivong Boulevards. Mooning is to the west and passes close to Psah Theme--the Central Market. Near this market are many similar hotels, mainly of six to eight stories. Several have closed their doors due to lack of business. Of those remaining open, the Asie is a very reasonable choice for a low tariff. The New York Hotel was refurbished in 2000 and now offers large, modern rooms for just a little more. The Monorom Holiday Villa is one of the best. An international chain runs it, and the quality and service make that apparent. Olympic Stadium Not far to the southwest of the city center lies the currently disused Olympic Stadium that is slated to become the centerpiece of a major commercial development. It also marks the outer limits of the central city and few hotels lie beyond it. Nearby are the Juliana and Royal Palace hotels. The former has an attractive garden setting and the latter is one of the few hotels possessing a central atrium. Slightly beyond the stadium is Phnom Penh's largest hotel, the Inter-Continental. This is one of the few truly international hotels in town. Its Angkor Wat theme and five-star facilities and service make for a luxurious stay.
Whatever the purpose of your stay, you will be able to find the right place at the right price.