Phnom Penh Pictures Guide, Cambodia

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh seen from Royal Palace Park near the Tonle Sap riverside.

Phnom Penh Attractions…or not

Tonle Sap riverside promenade, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Tonle Sap river and its pleasant promenade – Preah Sisowath Quay – seen from a pricey bar in downtown (?) Phnom Penh.

street dining in phnom penh, cambodia

Cheap eats near the Tonle Sap.

The capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is situated at the meeting point of three waterways, the Mekong River, the Bassac River and Tonle Sap. With a rapidly growing economy stimulated by other ‘Asian tigers’, the already busy town is growing into a chaotic and not very attractive metropolis.

This is a large city and 95% of it is a grubby shambles of dangerous wiring and crumbling old buildings competing with unfinished concrete blocks and all surrounded by a sea of plastic trash and fuming traffic. The Royal Palace riverside area is the 5%.

If you wish to visit Phnom Penh – not a must-do as far as we’re concerned after four quite dull days there – try to stay near the river somewhere between Wat Phnom (the main temple) and the Independence Monument (the designer of that monstrosity is clearly an engineer possessing zero artistry).

This area is within walking distances of all Phnom Penh’s main attractions, except for Prison 21 and the Killing Fields which can be reached via tuk-tuk if you really want a depressing day out.

The Royal Palace complex

Wat Preah Keo Morokat, the

Wat Preah Keo Morokat, the ‘Silver Pagoda’ in the Royal Palace complex. Photo by plusgood.

Wat Preah Keo Morokat means ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’ but is also known as the ‘Silver Pagoda’ because its interior and floor are covered by the thousands of solid silver tiles, precisely 5329 of them!

The top of the rather short list of Phnom Penh attractions is the Royal Palace and Gardens with the star sight being the Silver Pagoda and its gold and jeweled Buddha statues.

Khmer art including sculpture, ceramics and ethnographic artifacts can be seen at the National Museum of Cambodia, the country’s largest historical and archaeological museum.

Don’t miss the lively  series of traditional music and dance performances on most nights of the week in a small open-air theatre in the grounds of the National Museum. The shows last an hour from 7.30pm and are in Cambodian language but with English/French summary on a screen behind.

Wat Phnom is the city’s biggest temple and a calm and colourful place housing modest buddhas and wall art, while Wat Ounalom sports an ornate exterior and peaceful interior. It’s near the Royal Palace.

Some tourists take a dusty hour-long tuk-tuk ride out to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center where there are bears, birds, monkeys and a lonely tiger and lion, animals confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade. The ones that can be returned to the wild are, while the others are cared for.

Wat Phnom

wat phnom interior, phnom penh, cambodia

Wat Phnom is conveniently located on Phnom Penh’s only little hill, at one end of our recommended ‘accommodation zone’ near the Tonle Sap river. The original pagoda was built in the 14th century to house four Buddha statues washed up by the Mekong River and discovered by a woman called Penh. Hence the place is called Phnom Penh, the ‘Hill of Penh’. Today people come to the temple to pray for good luck and success.

 The temple is artistically OK but hardly exciting, novel or capable of making it into the top 100 Southeast Asia temples greatest hits. That’s what happens when you execute an entire generation of artists, skilled workers and intellectuals just over 30 years ago.

Prison 21

Prison 21, phnom penh, cambodia

Prison 21 (previously known as Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and Memorial), a torture and execution facility of the Khmer Rouge.

In the background is a large gallows used for both hanging and/or drowning (in water-filled pots) and cellblocks. These cells were packed with two million subversive ‘KGB/CIA’ agents pretending to be teachers, students, artists, intellectuals, doctors, mechanics, engineers, mothers, philosophers,  mathematicians, scientists and so on. These prisoners were generally beaten or tortured to death as the Khmer Rouge wanted to save on bullets.

If you really wish to know about the staggeringly horrific Khmer Rouge era  start with the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, aka Prison 21, and move on to the Killing Fields later out at Choeung Ek if you can handle more death  and destruction.

Personally I found this record of genocide more affecting than  a trip to Auschwitz, probably due to the impact of the massed victim photos but partially the complete lack of rationale for this mass slaughter of their own people.

Pol Pot and his mad band of sadists and torturers killed at least one quarter of the entire population of Cambodia over 5 years from 1975-1979 for no apparent reason except that they were urban folk and ‘suspected agents of the CIA/KGB’.

Thousands of photos of the detainees are pinned up in Prison 21, staring, blank, uncomprehending, days before cruel death.

Even today Cambodian society is missing a generation of skilled workers, thinkers, artists.

National Museum of Cambodia

The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

The National Museum of Cambodia. What a fantastic building, mainly strewn with statues but few outstanding pieces and requiring less than an hour to view.

The recently restored National Museum of Cambodia houses a few thousand works of art – mostly statues – (where’s the fine art?) and is located just north of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The architecture of this museum is magnificent and as much a pleasure to walk around the outside as it is to go inside and see the selection of artefacts in  spacious galleries. Display information is lacking, with little in Cambodian language and almost none in English.

Central Market and Phnom Penh riverside

Central Market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Central Market, Phnom Penh.

A weirdly art-deco building mainly offering expensive jewellery in the centre, stereotypical souvenirs  in the wings (how many T shirts saying ‘I love Cambodia’ do you need anyway?) and messy, smelly food produce  on the outskirts.

A traditional Cambodian ensemble playing in front of a shrine on Phnom Penh's riverside, Cambodia

A traditional Cambodian ensemble playing in front of a shrine on Phnom Penh’s riverside, Preah Sisowath Quay.

Preah Sisowath Quay at night, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Preah Sisowath Quay looking towards the junction of three rivers – Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bissac – in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia  Weather

The best time to visit Cambodia is during the cool, dry months November – February. November- mid December especially benefits from pleasant, dry, warmth and vegetation that is still verdant after the rainy reason, but obviously the Christmas/New Year period will be crowded and pricey.

Cambodia has a tropical climate and four seasons

Hot & rainy, June-August
Cool & rainy, September, October
Hot & dry, March-May
Cool & dry, November-February

The most uncomfortable time to visit is the ‘green’ season June – August, when it’s hot, wet and humid. Going in the late wet season is not a bad idea from September and October with less heat, less crowds and lower prices. At this time the beauty of Angkor is reinforced by lush greenery.

So that’s about it for Phnom Penh. Maybe I missed something spectacular but as far as Cambodian cities are concerned I’d rather hang out in Siem Reap.

Tourists short of time should certainly visit Angkor Archeological Park and direct international flights are plentiful. Possibly check out Cambodia’s beaches via Sihanoukville (note: not Sihanoukville beaches, places nearby!)  if it’s Christmas or New Year time, the best season. But Phnom Penh scores about 2 out of 10 for tourist interest as far as I’m concerned.