Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, is located to the south of the country and is filled with both fascination and history. With the country being a French colony for 78 years, Parisian architecture and culture is seen throughout and it was once referred to as the ‘Pearl of Asia’. It is a gorgeous city, located on the banks of the Bassac, Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers.
From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, led by the infamous Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia. You can find out more about the story through taking tours through the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum (S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields in the city. They are sobering trips, as you understand the terror that took hold of the country during these years. These memorials are far from easy viewing but an important part of Cambodia’s history.
The heart wrenching sites are essential to understand how impressively the country continues to rebuild from recent history. The yellow art deco building has incredible architecture that houses the Central Market is great for a bargain for anything from souvenirs to electronics. If you enjoy a foreign market then be sure to also explore the Russian Market, named in the 80s in reference to the largest foreign group in Cambodia.
If you’re looking for examples of classic architecture then the Royal Palace, complete with its magnificent Silver Pagoda, needs to be on your checklist. It has similarities to the Grand Palace in Bangkok and is a photo opportunity near the National Museum.
The unique temple of Wat Phnom is also a great place to visit. The beautiful pagoda has fabulous murals and is a peaceful place that the locals see as the heart of the city, and comes with a lovely story. It is the legend of a widow, Daun Penh, who built a shrine on a hill to four Buddha statues that she found in a koki tree. After some time this became a sanctuary for prayer and blessing. In 1437, year of the snake, and King Ponhea Yat named the city after the prominent stupa, which now contains the ashes of that royal family. It is now the centre of celebrations during the New Year.
In early evening, 5-7pm, you should head to the river front for the Foreign Correspondent’s Club’s Happy Hour. Boasting great views across the Sisowath Quay – which is great for a quiet walk – and Tonlé Sap River, you can relax with a drink in the rooftop bar. After sunset, the city’s atmosphere changes, the lights come on and everyone clinks beers in riverfront bars.
There are always more restaurants opening across the city, and Phnom Penh is the best culinary spot across Cambodia. Kampot pepper crab is a national dish that originated from a nearby riverside town and is a baked or fried crab with a spicy peppercorn sauce. Other common dishes include sticky rice with mango and local dish ‘amok’ which features fish steamed with coconut in banana leaves.
There is always a stopover when flying to Cambodia, usually in Bangkok, and the journey takes around 13-14 hours. Tourist season is after the monsoon season in November and January, before the hot and humid summer.
Not many cities in the world have a recent history as harrowing as the one you can explore in Phnom Penh. Monuments to those that died during the Khmer Rouge regime are all around but it is also a redeveloped, vibrant city with things to see and do.
Be sure not miss the Royal Palace and various temples as you hop in a tuk-tuk and explore this compact place, filled with colonial architecture and ancient neighbourhoods. On the banks of three rivers, it also boasts a surprising beauty that is worthy of a few nights during your travels.
Things to do in Phnom Penh
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The capital of Cambodia is a beautiful city, somewhat haunted by a traumatic and harrowing past. Many tourists and travellers visit the city to learn about this past, and find it both sobering and upsetting – so make sure you’re prepared emotionally before setting out on such quests.
When exploring the city you’ll want to wear something cool, comfortable and sensible. Light, but sturdy shoes are important, as there is a lot of walking involved when sightseeing.
It’s also highly important to pack respectful clothing. A lot of historical sites in the city are either religious or memorials of lost citizens – so it is imperative you dress to respect this. Don’t wear offensive slogan t-shirts, and keep shoulders covered with a sarong or cardigan.
Generally, the best time to visit Phnom Penh is between the months of October and December. During this time you’ll find the city is dry and cool (compared to national averages and the hotter months). You’ll be thankful for the cooler temperatures when you’re out and about exploring the city’s many historical sites.
During the rest of the year expect temperatures to rise, and rain to increase. The rainy season falls during May and October. It wouldn’t be advisable to visit during this time if you plan on spending a lot of time outdoors because your chances of getting rained on are extremely high!
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