Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Things to do - general

Phnom Penh, once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’, is the capital and largest city in Cambodia. It is now a cultural, commercial, and political center that offers a unique blend of traditional charm and urban bustle.

Today, Phnom Penh is a place of diverse economic and urban growth. A swift wave of development has brought in new highrise buildings–including a 30-storey business center–restaurants catering to every palate, and stylish hotels promising all levels of luxury. Contributing to this development are burgeoning culinary and nightlife scenes that can rival any other in the region.

The alluring capital city also features a wide variety of historical and cultural attractions, along with myriad opportunities to sample local Cambodian culture. Here, classic colonial facades endure alongside sleek new eateries, golden-spired pagodas, and buzzing markets– all evidence of the dynamic energy of Phnom Penh’s city streets.

Phnom Penh’s famous riverfront is lined with trendy pubs, bistros, and restaurants. Stores offering beautiful Cambodian silk products and chic galleries dot the side streets. Add to this a blooming arts scene and a heady dusk-to-dawn nightlife and you’ll understand why Phnom Penh has become such a well-loved and compelling tourist destination.


Around Phnom Penh

The vibrant streets of Phnom Penh are full of colorful sights. The city possesses an exciting range of historical and cultural attractions to tout, along with countless restaurants and nightspots.

For a taste of Cambodian history and royal life, visitors can tour the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda located just next to the palace grounds. A short walk away, the National Museum beckons with room after room of Khmer sculpture, ceramics, bronzes, and ethnographic objects. To get a taste of city life, visitors can walk along Sothearos Boulevard, sampling local foods and patronising a clutch of ‘antique’ shops that sell silver trays, betel boxes, belts, ancient coins, silver or wooden statuettes and famed marble carvings from the province of Pursat.

Visitors may also find it pleasant to take leisurely strolls around Phnom Penh. Boulevards peppered by elegant colonial buildings and a bustling riverfront lined with cafes and restaurants make this a truly beautiful city to see on foot.

For those interested in shopping, ‘Phsar Toul Tum Poung’ also known as Russian Market offers antique pieces, sundry sounvenir items, and factory over-run designer clothing at hugely discounted prices. Visitors who prefer air-conditioned comfort may opt to stop in the city’s modern shopping complexes (Sorya Shopping Centre, Sovanna Centre and the City Mall).

A sunset cruise down Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap river serves as a perfect, relaxing end to an activity-filled day. Catch the soft river breezes and watch as Cambodia’s capital begins to light up and shimmer for the evening.

Country Cambodia
Visa requirements

Visa to Cambodia

Languages spokenKhmer
Currency usedCambodia Riel
Area (km2)678.46

1.Wat Phnom (Wat Phnom Daun Penh): Wat Phnom, the namesake and symbol of the capital city of Phnom Penh, sets prominently atop an artificial 27 meter hill (or 'Phnom') in the northeastern section of the city. Legend has it that Daun Penh, a wealthy widow, retrieved a large koki tree trunk from the river. She had hoped to use it for a house, but inside a hollow of the trunk, she found four statues of the Buddha. She then ordered for a section of her property to be elevated for a small shrine to be erected to revere the statues. This became a sacred site and people started to settle around the hill; eventually, this became the city it now is. It is here that the city gets its name: ‘Phnom’ means hill in Khmer and ‘Penh’ is of course the name of the lady.

Watphom phnompenh

Watphom phnompenh

2.Royal Palace

Royal palaces phnompenh

Royal palace Phnom penh

The Royal Palace of Cambodia is a complex of buildings, even though it is generally understood to be the royal abode of the King of Cambodia. The compound was the citadel of King Ponhea Yat (1393-1463) and rebuilt to its present state in 1886, when King Norodom (1834-1904) relocated the royal capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh. The buildings with beautiful towering spires are a great example of classic Khmer architecture found in Cambodia today.

Along with numerous other interesting buildings, within the 183,135 square meters (421m x 435m) compound is The Khemarin Palace, also known as Prasat Khemarin or the "Palace of the Khmer King." This is officially the residence of His Majesty, King Norodom Sihamoni.
3, Silver Pagoda:

Silver pagoda

Silver pagoda in Phnompenh

The Silver Pagoda, also known as the Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morokat (the Emerald Pagoda) to Cambodians, lies within the grounds of the Royal Palace, which is situated near the banks of the Mighty Mekong.

Originally a wooden structure, the palace was initially constructed in 1892 during the reign of King Norodom, but rebuilt to its present grandeur by King Norodom Sihanouk in 1962. The king spared no effort to make this a true embodiment of brilliant Khmer art. More than 5300 pcs of 1.125 kilo silver tiles are used to cover the floor of the Silver Pagoda, and the silver pieces collectively weigh over six tons.
4. Phnom Penh National Museum: The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh is the country’s leading historical and archaeological museum. It was officially inaugurated by King Sisowat in 1920.

5,Independence Monument (Vimean Ekareach) built in 1958 as a memorial to Cambodia's war dead and to celebrate independence from foreign rule, the monument stands majestically on the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard in the centre of the city. It is designed by the influential Cambodian modern architect Vann Molyvann in the form of a lotus-shaped stupa in the same style seen at the great Khmer temple at Angkor Wat and other Khmer historical sites.

Independence munoment

Independence munoment

6.Phsar Thmey (Central Market) :Phsar Thmey, also known as Central Market, is a unique colonial style building constructed in 1937. The location where the Central Market now sits was once a swamp area and occupied by a lake known as Beng Decho. Today, this beautiful market has become a prominent landmark in Phnom Penh. In the Khmer language, Phsar Thmey literally means ‘New Market’.

7.Phsar Toul Tum Poung (Russian Market):Toul Tum Poung market is often referred to as the Russian market because of its popularity among Russian expatriates during the 1980s. This market is popular to collectors of genuine antiques; also for those looking for good reproductions.

8. Night Market:No shopping experience is complete without the thrills and satisfaction of shopping at night--especially one as a tourist in an exotic destination.The night market in Phnom Penh, located in front of the Phsar Chas (Old Market) near the riverside, is perpetually crowded with tourists in search of a good bargain. At the moment, there are more than 150 stalls selling an array of items from clothing and ornaments to furniture and souvenirs. The entire setting of the Phnom Penh night market is made from natural material, and there are occasionally music performances and entertainment acts.

9.Riverfront
The riverfront offers some of the city’s most interesting sites including dozens of pubs, galleries, cafés, restaurants and shops that sit along one side of Sisowath Quay overlooking the Chaktomuk (the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers).The park-like riverside is a great place to absorb local flavours and watch the locals unwind and enjoy a late afternoon stroll on the esplanade. Early risers may wish to check out the spectacular sunrise over the river in front of the Royal Palace.

River Cruise:The mighty Mekong River is indeed, in more ways than one, the lifeline that runs through the heart of southeast Asia. Rising from the Himalayan mountain of Tibet, it trickles and gradually winds its way through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea. In its course, the mighty Mekong meets the Tonle Sap Lake which is the largest lake in South East Asia and effectively, the heartbeat of Cambodia. The annual pulsation of the flooding seasons has been a huge contribution to Cambodia’s existence for millenniums.
10. Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)
Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school. When the Khmer Rouge came to power it was converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. Inmates were systematically tortured to extract confessions, after which they were executed at the killing fields of Choeung Ek. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, less than a dozen of whom survived. The building now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime.

11.Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields)
Located about 17km south of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was once an orchard and a Chinese graveyard. It was used by the Khmer Rouge regime as an execution ground to put down thousands of people between 1975 and 1979. The site is now better known as the Killing Fields. Mass graves containing thousands of bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former inmates in the Tuol Sleng prison.

12. Ounalom Monastery
The origin of the Ounalom Pagoda can be traced to as far back as the 15th Century. It was built in 1422 by King Ponyea Yat, the last king of the Khmer empire. It is one of the five original monasteries in Phnom Penh that King Ponhea Yat had built.
Street 240's tree shaded avenue harbors a unique collection of quality boutiques and souvenir shops, offering Cambodian silks and silk fashions, Southeast Asian art, handicrafts, curios andfurniture. There are a few restaurants, bars, wine shops, bookstores, and travel agencies interspersed along the way. After visiting the Royal Palace, stroll around the corner to explore Street 240. Most of the shops are concentrated along the couple of blocks between Street 19 and Norodom Blvd. At the corner of Street 240 next to the Royal Palace, the Council of Ministers building sits distinctively, particularly photogenic in the late afternoon. Before heading up 240, consider taking a short detour through the park to Wat Botum to see the towering white 'Buddha Relic Stupa'. As you are walking up Street 240 from the Palace area note the well preserved colonial era villas on the south side of the street.
Boeung Keng Kang 1 (BKK1), bordered by Sihanouk, Norodom, Mao Tse Toung, and Monivong Boulevards, has been considered the city's 'foreigner quarter' since the 80s. The area is the base for many NGOs, embassies, expatriate residences and hotels catering to long-term visitors. The whole of Boeung Keng Kang 1 is dotted with visitor-oriented businesses hotels, restaurants, bars, silk shops, massage spas, travel agents and realtors, with the greatest concentration of businesses at the northern end in the Street 278/282 area, particularly between Streets 51 and 63. Street 278 is lined with restaurants, bars, shops and small hotels frequented by an interesting mix of NGO and IO workers as well as tourists and expatriates. The Street 278 area is well worth a visit and a stroll anytime of day, but especially for lunch or dinner, or even better, in the early evening when the bars are cafés are full and the street is at its liveliest.

Useful information

Getting aroundPhnom Penh's main streets are in good shape; however smaller streets and footpaths are often rutted and pot-holed, clogged with garbage, stagnant water, parked motos, sleeping people, livestock, and building materials. Many smaller streets either lack signage or bear misleading signs, however, Phnom Penh is logically laid out and navigating the city is not difficult if you know where you're going.Motorbikes: (but not self-drive cars) are available for rent, however Phnom Penh traffic is chaotic and dangerous even by Asian standards: public transport (other than motorbike taxis) is safer.Motorbike-taxis: (motodops, motodups or simply motos in local parlance) are ubiquitous and will take you anywhere for a small fare. A trip from Sisowath Quay to Central Market costs about 2,000 riel (50 US cents). Fares are higher at night and with more than one passenger.Taxis: are available at a few locations - most notably outside the Foreign Correspondents' Club on Sisowath Quay. Most taxis do not have meters, and fares must be agreed in advance. Fares vary, due to fluctuating fuel prices; ask hotel/guesthouse staff for assistance (hotels and guesthouses will organise taxis on request). There are a few metered-taxi companies emerging in Phnom Penh. They are very reasonably priced and in high demand. Be prepared to wait for their service, and plan accordingly.Tuk-tuks: The Cambodian vehicle consisting of a motorcycle with a cabin for the passengers hitched to the back. They are cheaper than taxis and offer a scenic experience of the city. Their clientele is almost exclusively tourists, and most drivers in tourist areas speak some English.Cyclos: The three-wheeled cycle-rickshaws. Considerably slower then a motodop, and gradually becoming less common in the city, they are still popular with locals and foreigners alike. The nature of the seat lends itself to a quick and easy way to transport all manner of goods from one place to another, even other cyclos and the occasional motorbike as well.Walking can be a challenge, as cars and motos sometimes do not stop for pedestrians. To cross safely, judge gaps in the traffic and proceed with care - give oncoming vehicles ample time to see and avoid you, or try to cross with the brightly coloured and revered monks. On larger roads, two streams of traffic travel in each direction, totalling four streams of traffic you have to watch for: thus constant 360 surveillance is required when crossing roads. There is almost no street lighting off the major boulevards, and walking there at night is not recommended.Cautions:1. As a huge number of scarred or maimed locals can attest, motorbikes are the least safe alternative. On a motorbike you are exposed to the worst consequences of the city's bad drivers and appalling accident rate.2. To avoid later disagreements, bargain a fare before you leave. Starting to walk away is the best way to produce a reasonable fare.3. Sometimes the only English a driver knows is something like "Yes, no problem" - leading you to believe he knows where he is going when he does not. Most tuk tuk and moto drivers in Phnom Penh come from rural villages. Incredibly, some cannot find Sisowath Quay or Sihanouk Boulevard. Make sure the driver knows where he is going before getting in/on.4. Don't leave bags, phones, etc exposed to snatchers: such thefts from tuk tuks and motorbikes are epidemic in Phnom Penh.5. The tuk tuk drivers outside the Foreign Correspondent's Club are notoriously pushy and aggressive. They may be best avoided: walk half a block and hire someone else.

Culture and history info

First recorded a century after it is said to have taken place, the legend of the founding of Phnom Penh tells of a local woman, Penh (commonly referred to as Daun Penh (Grandmother Penh/Old Lady Penh) in Khmer), living at the chaktomuk, the future Phnom Penh. It was the late 14th century and the Khmer capital was still at Angkor near Siem Reap 350 km (220 mi) to the west. Gathering firewood along the banks of the river, Lady Penh spied a floating koki tree in the river and fished it from the water. Inside the tree she found four Buddha statues and one of Vishnu (the numbers vary on different tellings.)

The discovery was taken as a divine blessing, and to some a sign that the Khmer capital was to be brought to Phnom Penh from Angkor. To house the new found sacred objects, Penh raised a small hill on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River and crowned it with a shrine, now known as Wat Phnom at the north end of central Phnom Penh. 'Phnom' is Khmer for 'hill' and Penh's hill took on the name of the founder, i.e. Phnom Duan Penh, and the area around it became known after the hill - Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh first became the capital of Cambodia after Ponhea Yat, king of the Khmer Empire, moved the capital from Angkor Thom after it was captured and destroyed by Siam a few years earlier. There is a stupa behind Wat Phnom that house the remains of Ponhea Yat and the royal family as well as the remaining Buddhist statues from the Angkorean era. In the 17th century, Japanese immigrants also settled on the outskirts of present-day Phnom Penh.[7] A small Portuguese community survived in Phnom Penh until the 17th century, undertaking commercial and religious activity in the country.

Phnom Penh remained the royal capital for 73 years—from 1432 to 1505. It was abandoned for 360 years—from 1505 to 1865—by subsequent kings due to internal fighting between the royal pretenders. Later kings moved the capital several times and established their royal capitals at various locations in Tuol Basan (Srey Santhor), Pursat, Longvek, Lavear Em and Udong.

It was not until 1866, under the reign of King Norodom I (1860–1904) the eldest son of King Ang Duong, who ruled on behalf of Siam, that Phnom Penh became the permanent seat of government and capital of Cambodia, and also where the current Royal Palace was built. Beginning in 1870, the French Colonialists turned a riverside village into a city where they built hotels, schools, prisons, barracks, banks, public works offices, telegraph offices, law courts, and health services buildings. In 1872, the first glimpse of a modern city took shape when the colonial administration employed the services of a French contractor Le Faucheur, to construct the first 300 concrete houses for sale and rental to the Chinese traders.

By the 1920s, Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia, and over the next four decades Phnom Penh continued to experience rapid growth with the building of railways to Sihanoukville and Pochentong International Airport (now Phnom Penh International Airport). Phnom Penh's infrastructure saw major modernisation under the rule of Sihanouk.[8]

During the Vietnam War, Cambodia was used as a base by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, and thousands of refugees from across the country flooded the city to escape the fighting between their own government troops, the NVA/NLF, the South Vietnamese and its allies, and the Khmer Rouge. By 1975, the population was 2-3 million, the bulk of whom were refugees from the fighting.[9] The Khmer Rouge cut off supplies to the city for more than a year before it fell on April 17, 1975. Reports from journalists stated that the Khmer Rouge shelling "tortured the capital almost continuously," inflicting "random death and mutilation" on millions of trapped civilians.[10] The Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the entire city after taking it, in what has been described as a death march: Francois Ponchaud wrote that "I shall never forget one cripple who had neither hands nor feet, writhing along the ground like a severed worm, or a weeping father carrying his ten-year old daughter wrapped in a sheet tied around his neck like a sling, or the man with his foot dangling at the end of a leg to which it was attached by nothing but skin" John Swain recalled that the Khmer Rouge were "tipping out patients from the hospitals like garbage into the streets....In five years of war, this is the greatest caravan of human misery I have seen."All of its residents, including those who were wealthy and educated, were evacuated from the city and forced to do labour on rural farms as "new people". Tuol Sleng High School was taken over by Pol Pot's forces and was turned into the S-21 prison camp, where people were detained and tortured. Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and therefore killed many people perceived as educated, "lazy", or political enemies. Many others starved to death as a result of failure of the agrarian society and the sale of Cambodia's rice to China in exchange for bullets and weaponry. The former high school is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where Khmer Rouge torture devices and photos of their victims are displayed. Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), 15 kilometers (9 mi) away, where the Khmer Rouge marched prisoners from Tuol Sleng to be murdered and buried in shallow pits, is also now a memorial to those who were killed by the regime.

The Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979, and people began to return to the city. Vietnam is historically a state with which Cambodia has had many conflicts, therefore this liberation was and is viewed with mixed emotions by the Cambodians. A period of reconstruction began, spurred by the continuing stability of government, attracting new foreign investment and aid by countries including France, Australia, and Japan. Loans were made from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to reinstate a clean water supply, roads and other infrastructure. The 1998 Census put Phnom Penh's population at 862,000; and the 2008 census was 1.3 million.

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