Once known as the “Pearl of Asia”, Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city of the country of Cambodia, today has a very special charm. In this extremely lively place, centuries-old Asian traditions, French elements from the colonial era and modern Western influences combine in a harmonious way.
Architectural masterpieces from distant centuries, colonial and contemporary buildings allow visitors to Phnom Penh to experience a journey through time and the city’s turbulent history. The culinary world in this special place is similarly diverse.
Explore Phnom Penh’s glamorous and sometimes very dark past and immerse yourself in the city’s lively hustle and bustle. In the tropical climate of Phnom Penh, you can visit numerous historical sites and exotic markets that exert a charm all their own.
Tip 1: Wat Phnom
About 800m north of the central market is Wat Phnom, probably the most famous Buddhist temple (stupa) of Phnom Penh. Not only the temple itself, but the entire complex is considered worth seeing among visitors and locals alike.
Wat Phnom was built on a 27m high hill and is the highest religious building in the city. The round complex, around which there is a spacious traffic circle, has the character of a natural park, where you can relax and unwind.
According to a legend, the wealthy widow Daun Penh had the hill erected and the complex built in 1372 after finding five Buddha statues on the shore. The word “Phnom” means “hill” in English, thus the hill of the widow with the surname Penh was created, Phnom Penh, the nucleus of the present capital of the country.
On the hill you can see a Khmer pagoda (main pagoda), a Chinese pagoda, an altar of Grandmother Penh and a stupa of the last Angkor King Ponhear Yat.
Tip 2: Wat Ounalom
Across Sisowath Quay, within walking distance of the Royal Palace, is Wat Ounalom. The temple is the seat of the Maha Nikaya Order, one of the two largest Buddhist orders in Cambodia. Therefore, it is also considered the most important temple of Phnom Penh.
The temple was founded as early as 1443, but many parts were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge government and rebuilt afterwards. The main stupa is said to contain a hair of an eyebrow of Buddha. Otherwise, the temple complex is very nice to look at and worth a short stop on the way to the Royal Palace.
Tip 3: Choeung Ek – Killing Fields
Killing Fields in Cambodia exist, among others, in Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh. They are a silent and at the same time very eloquent memorial. Here, people commemorate the atrocities committed against the Cambodian people by the Khmer Red between 1975 and 1979.
Magnificent buildings, impressive works of art, whimsicalities and cultural highlights are not the only things to visit on a trip. Sometimes there are also very dark testimonies of a country’s history to see. Cambodia has one of the darkest chapters of modern times with the Khmer Red reign of terror in the not so distant past.
When traveling through Cambodia, you will encounter everywhere the bloody history that the Khmer Red had to answer for. Under their infamous leader Pol Pot, they ruled as totalitarian rulers from 1975 to 1979.
Their ideal was agrarian communism. The population was to feed itself only through agriculture. Thus, they evacuated all city dwellers from Phnom Penh and other larger cities to the countryside, where they had to perform forced labor under inhumane conditions.
Tip 4: Central Market
Between 1935 and 1937, Phnom Penh’s Central Market was built in the Art Deco style. In Khmer it bears the name Phsar Thmei, which actually means “New Market”. The building with the huge dome is home to various stalls inside, selling all sorts of things.
From jewelry, sunglasses, shoes to various clothing items, electronics and more, you can buy almost anything here. The Central Market is, as the name suggests, very central in Phnom Penh and is therefore also a good starting point so that you can orient yourself in the city.
Tip 5: Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is not only the home of King Samdech Preah Bâromneath Norodom Sihamoni and his family, it is also one of the most beautiful complexes in the city and an absolute “must see” for any tourist. The complex is located approximately on an area of 500 x 800 meters and is surrounded by an imposing wall.
While the chambers (or rather buildings) of the royal family naturally remain closed to the public, the rest of the complex is open to visitors. The main attractions for tourists are the Silver Pagoda and the Throne Room of the palace.
The throne room of the royal palace can be found directly to the left of the main entrance. The building, which is just under 100 meters long, was built in 1917 under King Sisowath and ceremoniously opened two years later. Today, the throne room is used for state and coronation ceremonies, and the king also receives high-ranking state guests here. On such occasions, the throne room is closed to visitors, otherwise it can be visited, but without being allowed to take pictures of its interior.
However, the throne room is particularly beautiful from the outside. The artfully glazed bricks shine in magnificent gold and have the typical “peaks”. Like almost all the buildings in the complex, the throne room faces east. So the best photos can be taken in the early morning hours, when it shines in all its glory.
The Silver Pagoda is now considered the most magnificent building and is located on the south side of the complex. And as magnificent as the pagoda itself is, so are its numerous names. The building was first constructed in 1962 under King Sihanouk under the resounding title of “Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot” (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The temple is home to one of the most sacred Cambodian figures, the Preah Keo. This green Baccarat crystal Buddha figurine dates back to the 17th century and was modeled after the Thai Emerald Buddha.
In turn, the temple got its name “Silver Pagoda” from the 5329 fabulous floor tiles made of Cambodian silver, each of which weighs more than a kilo.
Inside the temple, there are also numerous other artistically crafted Buddha statues and art treasures.
From the outside, the silver pagoda features the typical Cambodian temple roofs decorated with nagas (mystical serpentine creatures) and mythological birds. There is also a detailed Angkor Wat replica behind the temple.