Located in the country’s south, where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet, the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is best known for both its beautiful architecture (ancient and French colonial alike) and its recent dark history. Before the civil war in the late 60’s – the early ’70s, Cambodia was nicknamed the ‘Paris of the East’ and the ‘Pearl of Asia’; famed for its white facades that are interspersed with temples (wats) that are more than a millennium old.
Despite its dark chapters in history, Phnom Penh has grown to be a thriving city and significant tourist destination. From immersing yourself into Khmer culture to exploring the city’s heritage, these are the top 5 things to in Phnom Penh.
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Dominating the skyline with its classic Khmer roofs is the Royal Palace. Since the 1860s, the Royal Palace has been the home for the royal family. The complex has four main structures; the Silver Pagoda, Khemarin Palace, Throne Hall and the Inner Court. While half of the compound is closed to the public (as it is considered the King’s residence), the Silver Pagoda and Throne Hall are popular attractions that visitors can explore freely.
National Museum of Cambodia
The largest architectural and historical museum, that showcases Cambodia’s cultural history is the National Museum of Cambodia. Before even entering the museum, visitors are greeted with the sight of luscious green gardens and a vibrant terracotta pavilion that stretches into four wings that are filled with many artefacts to explore, including Khmer art and important Buddhist and Hindu state pieces.
Phsar Thmei (Central Market)
Once believed to have been the largest market in Asia, and the perfect place for shoppers looking for a bargain is Phnom Penh’s, Central Market. Built in 1937, the market has something for everyone, from CDs and DVDs to t-shirts, batik and textiles and gold and gemstones.
Cyclo City Tour
Travel the city how the locals do – in the seat of a cyclo! These iconic vehicles were introduced to Cambodia in 1936, and remain one of the best and most economical ways to see the city. You can go on a tour of Phnom Penh, with the cyclo drivers navigating you through some of the busiest streets and to major landmarks.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre
While it’s not an ‘enjoyable’ experience, understanding Cambodia’s history is an important part of visiting the country. Tuol Sleng was once a high school, however, in 1975, it was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge Regime. In the four years that Tuol Sleng operated, over 17,000 people were incarcerated. After the prison was uncovered by the Vietnamese Army in 1979, Tuol Sleng was converted into a historical museum, memorialising the actions of the regime.
Choeung Ek (more commonly known as the Killing Fields) was used as a mass grave site by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Now serving as a memorial, the site features a Buddhist Stupa, which was created to honour the victims of the regime.
You can visit Cambodia’s capital on one of our Avalon Waterways Mekong river cruise.