There are relatively few true tourist sites in Phnom Penh, you could whip round them all in one weekend if you so choose. I’ve spread my visits out to really savour each one, obviously. Here’s a list of five sites you’re expected to visit if you’re ever here (not including S-21 & the Killing Fields, as I’ve covered that in another post).
According to legend and Lonely Planet, Wat Phnom came to be when the nearby Mekong River deposited 4 buddha statues on the ‘only’ hill in Phnom Penh. The statues were discovered by Lady Penh and the first pagoda was erected in 1373. The city name ‘Phnom Penh’ apparently translates to ‘hill of Penh’.
Today, it costs $1USD for foreigners to visit Wat Phnom and $2USD to visit the nearby museum (I never made it to the Museum, didn’t even realise it was there until I read the Lonely Planet page just now). It’s a pretty little peaceful area in the middle of a busy city. At the top of the hill, there’s statues and incense galore. The constant buzz of tuktuks and motorbikes is dulled by the trees and greenery. A restful place to catch a breath.
Royal Palace (& Silver Pagoda)
The Royal Palace was built in 1866 and is currently home to His Majesty Preah Bat smdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk. It houses some of Phnom Penh’s most beautiful buildings, including the Silver Pagoda or the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha. There are plenty of resplendent riches on display in the various buildings and the Silver Pagoda boosts of a silver floor, made from 500 solid silver blocks.
Phnom Penh is such a poor city, it was almost a shock coming to the palace. It’s very clean and tidy. The entrance price is a little steep at $10.50USD and there is a strict dress code (no shoulders or knees to be seen and no shawls are allowed for cover). The Silver Pagoda was a little disappointing, with only small slithers of the floor able to be seen through the many floor rugs. Some of the floor was taped together with masking tape. A nice space to see, but maybe not worth the price if you’re on a budget.
The Russian Market is one of many in Phnom Penh, but it was the first market I visited. Apparently, it came by it’s name because of it’s popularity with Russian expats in the 1980’s. It’s great for a souvenir bargain, selling buddha statues, silk scarves, balloon pants, t-shirts, key rings, etc. My purchases so far include an elephant t-shirt and togs. It’s usually best to ask for a discount after getting the first price quote.
I find the Central Market a good place to visit also, it’s bigger and is housed in a five spoke building, fake brands galore. Shoes are hard to find, anything over size 36 seems non-existent…
The Independence Monument is situated at the head of a strip of statues, fountains, Khmer architecture and green grass. It took 9 years to build after Cambodia gained offical independence from the French in 1953. The monument is a gorgeous piece of Khmer architecture. Much to my embarrassment, I most often use it when I’m heading back and forth to town to check I’m being taken in the right direction. There’s fantastic life surrounding the monument, with dancing groups, sports games and food vendors in abundance.
The National Museum is relatively small for a national museum, but the building is beautiful and the artefacts inside are beautiful. The Museum opened in 1920 and was closed during the years of the Khmer Rouge regime, 1975 to 1979.
The entrance fee is $5USD, there’s also an audio guide available for another $5USD. I would highly recommend the audio guide. I didn’t get it on my visit and it turned out the signs explaining the displays were few and far between. There’s a small cafe inside also and an opportunity to buy fish food to sprinkle in the ponds. Turtle(s?) may be spotted if you spend most of your museum visit staring hard at the ponds. There seemed to be a lot of carvings and statues from Angkor Wat that had been rescued from illegal sale and restored, which was interesting. Definitely worth a visit if you’re a history geek.