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Phnom Penh City - The Capital of Cambodia

Phnom Penh - Capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia

A mixture of Asian exotica, Indochinese charm and Cambodian hospitality await the visitor to Phnom Penh. Situated at the confluence of three great rivers - known as ‘Chaktomuk’ (four faces) or the ‘Quatre Bras’ (four arms) of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers - Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia and the country’s commercial, economic and political hub of Cambodia. It is also the gateway to an exotic land...the ancient temples of Angkor in the west, the beaches of Sihanoukville and Kep on the southern coast, the ethnic minority people, jungles and wildlife of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces in the northeast and a wide-open, unspoiled countryside of rice paddies, little villages and lost temples across the country just waiting to be explored.

Phnom Penh City has several cultural and historical attractions including the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum, Wat Phnom, Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.

Other historical sites such as the old capital of Oudong and the Angkorian ruins of Phnom Chisor and Phnom Da lie within an easy day-trip of Phnom Penh. . The city also offers a full compliment of visitor services and facilities including accommodations ranging from five-star hotels to budget guesthouses, some of best restaurants and dining in Southeast Asia, a vibrant all-night bar and entertainment scene, and a unique and varied array of shopping opportunities including traditional Asian markets, silk shops, art galleries and stylish Euroasian boutiques.

THE ROYAL PALACE

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh was constructed over a century ago to serve as the residence of the King of Cambodia, his family and foreign dignitaries, as a venue for the performance of court ceremony and ritual and as a symbol of the Kingdom. It serves to this day as the Cambodian home of King Norodom Sihamoni and former King Norodom Sihanouk.

The Royal Palace complex and attached 'Silver Pagoda' compound consist of several buildings, structures and gardens all located within 500x800 meter walled grounds overlooking a riverfront park. Marking the approach to the Palace, the high sculpted wall and golden spired Chanchhaya Pavilion stand distinctively against the riverfront skyline.

Inside the Palace grounds, street sounds are silenced by the high walls and the various Royal buildings sit like ornate islands rising from the tranquil, manicured tropical gardens. Except for the area of the actual Royal residence, the Khemarin Palace, most of the Palace grounds and Silver Pagoda are open to the public. Enter from the gate on Sothearos Blvd about 100 meters north of Street 240. Guide pamphlets and tour guides are available near the admission booth. Guided tours are recommended. Multi-lingual tour guides available. Admission: $6.25/person including camera and video camera fees. Open everyday, 7:30-11:00 / 2:00-5:00. The Palace grounds are closed during official functions.
 THE SILVER PAGODA
Tour guides are available. Souvenirs and books available. Photography is limited. Some guidebooks still mention the museum bats that inhabited the rafters, unseen in the day but occasionally spectacular as they left in droves at sunset. In March 2002 the bats left for good, moving on after renovations to the ceiling. 
  
She built a hill (‘phnom’ means ‘hill’) and a small temple (wat) at what is now the site of what is now known as Wat Phnom. Later, the surrounding area became known after the hill (Phnom) and its creator (Penh), hence ‘Phnom Penh.’ The current temple was last rebuilt in 1926. The large stupa contains the remains of King Ponhea Yat (1405-1467) who moved the Khmer capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh in 1422. Look for the altar of Lady Penh between the large stupa and the vihear. She is said to be of particular help to women. Wat Phnom is the busiest pagoda in town the night of Chinese/Vietnamese New Year’s Eve. 

TOUL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM (S-21)

(Corner of Street 113 & Street 350 - $2.00 - Open everyday, including holidays, 8AM-5PM - Closed for lunch)

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, sometimes over a period of months, to extract confessions, after which they were executed at the killing fields of Choeung Ek. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, seven of whom survived. The building now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Much has been left in the state it was when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in January 1979. The prison kept extensive records, leaving thousands of photos of their victims, many of which are on display. Paintings of torture at the prison by Vann Nath, a survivor of Toul Sleng, are also on display. The museum’s famous and controversial ‘skull map’ is no longer on display.

CENTRAL MARKET (Psah Thmei)

This unique, art-deco building is a Phnom Penh landmark. Prior to 1935 the area was a swamp/lake that received the runoff during the rainy season. The lake was drained and the market constructed in 1935-37. Wet season flooding in the area around the market of the market is a vestige of the old lake. The entrance to the market is lined with souvenir merchants hawking everything from T-shirts and postcards to silver curios and kramas. Inside is a dazzling display of jewels and gold. Electronic goods, stationery, secondhand clothes and flowers are also in ample supply. (Phsar Thmei means ‘New Market’, but ‘Central Market’ has caught on in English.)

RUSSIAN MARKET (Psah Toul Tom Poung)

This market is of far less architectural interest but has a larger and more varied selection of souvenirs, curios and silks than the Central Market. Like the Central Market, it has a good selection of silver, gold and jewels, but also carry of curios, silks, carvings, etc. It also has a good selection of CDs, videos, fabrics, and electronic goods. Most of what the visitor might want is in the same general area on the south side but the rest of the market is well worth exploring.

The 'Silver Pagoda' sits next to the Royal Palace, separated by a walled walkway, but within the same larger walled compound. The Silver Pagoda's proper name is Wat Preah Keo Morokat, which means 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha,' but has received the common moniker 'Silver Pagoda' after the solid silver floor tiles that adorn the temple building. The pagoda compound as a whole contains several structures and gardens, the primary building being the temple Wat Preah Keo Morokat and other structures including a library, various stupas, shrines, monuments, minor buildings and the galleries of the Reamker.

Wat Preah Keo Morokat is unique in several ways. It is the pagoda where the King meets with monks to listen to their sermons and where some Royal ceremonies are performed. It houses a collection of priceless Buddhist and historical objects including the 'Emerald Buddha.' And, unlike most pagodas, no monks live at the pagoda. The temple building, library and Reamker galleries were first constructed between 1892 and 1902 under King Norodom. The equestrian statue of King Norodom was set in place in 1892. Other structures such as the stupas of King Ang Doung Stupa King Norodom (1908), the Kantha Bopha memorial sanctuary (1960) and others were added later. The temple received major reconstruction in 1962 and further renovations 1985-1987, particularly to the Reamker fresco murals. Many of the temple treasures were looted during by the Khmer Rouge 1975-1979, but fortunately the Khmer Rouge chose to keep much of the collection intact for propaganda purposes.

INDEPENDENCE MONUMENT

(At the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk)
The Independence Monument (Vimean Ekareach) was inaugurated in November 9, 1962 to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from foreign rule. Renowned Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann was the architect of the monument. The Independence Monument now also serves as a monument to Cambodia’s war dead. It is the site of colorful celebrations and services on holidays such as Independence Day and Constitution Day.

NATIONAL MUSEUM

Street 178 & Street 13, next to the Royal Palace - $3.00 - 8:00-5:00, open everyday.
The distinctive rust-red National Museum next to the Royal Palace displays over 5000 objects including Angkorian era statues, lingas and other artifacts. Though the emphasis is on Angkorian artifacts, there is also a good collection of pieces from later periods. Visiting the museum after rather than before a trip to Angkor helps lend context to the Angkorian artifacts. The museum building was dedicated by King Sisowath in 1920.

WAT PHNOM HILL

(Intersection of Street 96 and Norodom Blvd. - $1/person)

A small hill crowned by an active wat (pagoda) marks the legendary founding place of the Phnom Penh. The hill is the site of constant activity, with a steady stream of the faithful trekking to the vihear, shrines and fortune tellers on top, and a constellation of vendors, visitors and motodups at the bottom. Elephant rides available. The legend of the founding of Wat Phnom is tied to the beginnings of Phnom Penh.

Legend has it that in 1372 Lady Penh (Yea Penh) fished a floating Koki tree out of the river. Inside the tree were four Buddha statues.

CHOEUNG EK MEMORIAL (The Killing Fields)

(15 km southwest of Phnom Penh - Take Monireth 8.5 km past the bridge at Street 271) From 1975-1979 the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, controlled Cambodia. During their short reign, between one million and two and a half million Cambodians perished, some killed outright, others dying from disease, malnutrition and mistreatment. Many of the dead ended up in ‘killing fields’ that can be found across the country. The memorial at Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh was an orchard and a Chinese cemetery prior to 1975. During the Khmer Rouge regime it became one of the killing fields - this one is the site of the brutal executions of more than 17,000 individuals, most of whom first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in Toul Sleng Prison (S-21) in Phnom Penh.

Choeung Ek is now a group of mass graves and a memorial stupa containing thousands of skulls. It’s about a 20-40 minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh. There are guides available at the site, and a small souvenir shop. Combine a trip to Choeung Ek with a visit to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.