Penh’s points of interest are largely historical
and cultural, but they are only part of exploring the city. Exotic
shopping, unique dining, indulgent spas and a fair bit of nightlife
complete the Phnom Penh experience.
For the sights, set aside two or
three days for the major points. Though it is possible to squeeze the
most important sights into a single day, this leaves very little time at
each location. Popular sights include the
the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Khmer Rouge ‘Killing Fields,’ the
National Museum, the Russian Market, Central Market and
Except for the ‘Killing Fields,’ which are about 16km from the city
center, all of the major sights are inside the city within a five or ten
minute ride of each other.
Other things to do an see
traditional performances (including the very popular 'Plae Pakaa/Fruitful'
at the National Museum.) And within
distance of Phnom Penh there are several Angkorian-era ruins
and as well as other historic sites.
Most people hire
for half or full day at a time. Consider a cyclo or even a walking tour
for a more intimate look at the city. There is also a new ‘Hop
on-Hop off’ a/c tour bus the circles past all of
the major in-city attractions once per hour, allowing a
flexible itinerary. $15 for one day, $25 for two. The same
outfit also offers twice daily buses to Toul Sleng and the
Killing Fields. Book through your hotel or call 016-745880.
Phnom Penh City Sights
(Street 178 & Street 13, next to the Royal Palace - $3.00, 8:00 - 5:00,
The distinctive rust-red National
next to the Royal Palace was dedicated by King Sisowath in 1920.
Over 5000 objects are on display including Angkorian era statues, lingas
and other artifacts, most notably the legendary statue of the ‘Leper
King.’ Though the emphasis is on Angkorian artifacts, there is also a
good collection of pieces from later periods, including a special
exhibition of post-Angkorian
Buddha figures. Visiting the museum after
rather than before a trip to the
Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap helps lend context to
the Angkorian artifacts. Multi-lingual tour guides are available.
Souvenirs and books available. Photography is limited. The museum
Street 178, aka
‘Artist’s Street’ which is lined with local art galleries and souvenir
shops. The Reyum Gallery on Street 178
is of particular note, exhibiting the works of contemporary Cambodian
Royal Palace and ‘Silver Pagoda’
(Sothearos Blvd (riverfront) between Streets
240 & 184 - Admission: 25,000 Riel (US$6.25). Open everyday, 7:30-11:00
/ 2:00-5:00. The Palace grounds are closed during official functions.)
Marking the approach to the Royal Palace along Sothearos Blvd the
high yellow crenellated wall and spired Chanchhaya Pavilion stand
distinctively against the riverfront skyline. Inside the Palace grounds
street sounds are silenced by the high walls and the royal buildings sit
like ornate islands rising from the manicured gardens. The Royal
Palace serves as the residence of the King, a venue for court
ceremony and as a symbol of the Kingdom. It was first established at its
present location when the capital was moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh in
1866 under King Norodom and the French protectorate, though the Palace
did not attain its current general form until about 1920. Khmer and
European elements as well as distinct architectural echoes of the palace
in Bangkok are present in the design of the various buildings. Attached
to the Palace compound, Wat Preah Keo Morokat (the 'Silver
Pagoda') is unique amongst pagodas. So named for its silver tiled
floor, it is where the King meets with monks, Royal ceremonies are
performed and it houses a collection of priceless Buddhist and
historical objects including the 'Emerald Buddha.' And, unlike most
pagodas, no monks live at the pagoda. The temple building, library and
galleries were first constructed between 1892 and 1902.
Palace and Silver Pagoda page for more.
(Intersection of Street 96 and Norodom Blvd. - $1/person)
A small hill crowned by an active wat (pagoda) marks the legendary
founding place of the Phnom Penh. The hill is the site of constant
activity, with a steady stream of the faithful trekking to the vihear,
shrines and fortune tellers on top and a constellation of vendors,
visitors and motodups at the bottom. Elephant rides available. The
legend of the founding of Wat Phnom is tied to the beginnings of Phnom
Penh. Legend has it that in 1372 Lady Penh (Yea Penh) fished a floating
Koki tree out of the river. Inside the tree were four Buddha statues.
She built a hill (‘phnom’ means ‘hill’) and a small temple (wat) at what
is now the site known as Wat Phnom. Later, the surrounding area became
known after the hill (Phnom) and its creator (Penh), hence the name of
the city ‘Phnom Penh.’ The current temple was last rebuilt in 1926. The
large stupa contains the remains of King Ponhea Yat (1405-1467) who
moved the Khmer capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh the early 15th
century. Look for the altar of Lady Penh between the large stupa and the
vihear. She is said to be of particular help to women.
(At the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk)
The Independence Monument (Vimean Ekareach) was inaugurated in
November 9, 1962, celebrating Cambodia’s independence from foreign rule.
Renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann was the architect of the
monument which is patterned on a lotus flower bud, adorned with Naga
heads (multi-headed cobras,) and obviously reminiscent in design of the
towers of Angkor Wat. The Independence Monument now also serves as a
monument to Cambodia’s war dead as well as her independence. The
Independence Monument sit in the center of the traffic circle at the
intersection of Norodom Blvd. and Sihanouk Blvd. and is the site of
colorful celebrations and services on political holidays such as
Independence Day (January 7) and Constitution Day (September 24.)
Situated on the west side of the Tonle Sap
River, Phnom Penh is, before all else, the city at the Chaktomuk on the
Mekong River. - the 'four faces' - riverine crossroads in the heart of
Cambodia with the Tonle Sap River running northwest to the old Angkorian
capital, the Mekong River north to Laos and branches south to the delta
and the South China Sea. (see
Phnom Penh History
page for more)
The River Front
Some of Phnom Penh's most important cultural sites as well as dozens of
pubs, restaurants and shops sit along the picturesque park-lined
riverfront overlooking the chaktomuk - the confluence of the
Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac
Rivers. The Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and the National
Museum are clustered together between
Street 178 and
240 and restaurants and
pubs line the riverfront
Sisowath Quay, stretching north from the Royal Palace area
all the way to
near Wat Phnom. Visit the Royal Palace and National
Museum and stroll up the riverfront for a drink or a meal or to do
some shopping. Just off the riverfront,
Street 240 behind the Royal
Palace harbors several
high-quality boutiques and
Street 178 next to the National
Museum is known as 'Art Street' and is dotted with interesting
little art galleries and silk shops. Early
risers, check out the spectacular sunrise over the river in front of the
Royal Palace area.
Short river and sunset cruises along the Phnom Penh riverfront are easy
to arrange and offer an interesting view of the city.
A tour cruise typically takes about 1 - 2 hours and runs up the Tonle
Sap River along the central riverfront area providing a picturesque view
and Phnom Penh skyline, and then across the Tonle Sap and up the Mekong
River to view floating fishing villages. (Photography: Best lighting in
the early morning as the low sun illuminates the riverfront.) Longer
cruises are also possible and can be tailored to your requirements -
upriver tours to villages and paddies, dinner and party cruises, sunset
cruises, trips to Silk Island (see page 26.)
Boat trips can be arranged through your hotel or travel agent or you can
deal with the operators directly. Tourist boats are clustered together
on the river along Sisowath Quay just north of the Phnom Penh Port.
Starting at around $15/hour, depending on the duration and number of
Regularly scheduled, daily river
cruises and excursions departing the Phnom Penh Floating Port on a
western managed boat. All cruises offer buffet meals (optional), full
bar and lots of extras including live traditional Cambodian music, free filtered water
and exceptionally good service. The Silk Island
Lunch Cruise departs at 12:30PM and returns at 4:30PM,
including lunch buffet and Silk Island tour. A 2.5 hour Sunset Dinner
Cruise departs at 5:30PM daily. Both cruises are $22 with buffet, $14
without the buffet. Book through your hotel, travel agent,
online or call. All boats depart the Phnom Penh Floating Port near
Street 104. You can usually even just show up at the dock just before
Riverboat offering daily sunset (4PM-6PM)
and evening ‘firefly’ (6:30PM-8PM) boat cruises on the Tonle Sap and
Mekong. Music and cold drinks. W.C. on boat.
Mekong Tara Prince
Full day tours and sunset tours along the
Mekong River, departing from Phnom Penh. Also tours of the Tonle Sap
Lake out of Siem Reap.
Phocea Mekong Cruises
River boat located in Titanic Tourism port offering
all inclusive cruises on the Mekong and Tonle sap rivers. Last
booking 24 hours before departure.
Tel: 012-221348 (English, French)
Island (Koh Dach)
Located in the Mekong River located about
1-hour boat ride from Phnom Penh. See page 15 for scheduled and charter
For those with an interest in Cambodian silks and silk weaving, set
aside a half-day for a boat trip to a rural weaving village on Koh Dach
(aka ‘Silk Weaving Island,’) a nearby island up the Mekong River. The
weaving village is a typical rural Cambodian village, dedicated almost
entirely to silk weaving - people operating hand looms under most of the
houses, others dying and spinning silk on spinning wheels made of
bicycle parts. The area does not receive a lot of tourists. Wander the
village to observe the activities, and expect silk sellers to try to
hawk their wares.
Arrange a visit through your guesthouse, travel agent or see
tour/boat operators. CamboCruise (see
above) offers regularly scheduled daily tours to the islands. If you
want to do it yourself boats can be chartered for around $20/hour and
take about 2 hours round trip plus the time you want to spend there. The
boat may stop at ‘Mekong Island’ and some other weaving houses along the
way. Make sure that the boat operator understands that you want to go
all the way to the silk village on Koh Dach.
Phnom Penh City Sights:
Khmer Rouge History
From April 17, 1975 until January 7, 1979,
the brutal, ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge regime (i.e. the Red Khmer)
controlled the whole of Cambodia, then known as 'Democratic Kampuchea.'
The Khmer Rouge was headed by Saloth Sar, nom de guerre Pol Pot. During
their short reign between one and two and a half million Cambodians
perished, some killed outright, others dying from disease, malnutrition,
neglect and mistreatment. Some of the horrific remnants
of the Khmer
Rouge regime can be seen at the Choeung Ek Memorial (the ‘Killing
Fields’) and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Though the Khmer Rouge were
driven from power in 1979, they retreated to the mountains and border
areas, persisting until their final defeat and dissolution in 1998.
Surviving KR leaders are only now facing the court. Kaing Guek Eav,
a.k.a. ‘Duch,’ director of the infamous S-21 prison was found guilty by
the ECCC in 2010. Proceedings against other defendants are currently
underway. Pol Pot died in 1998, never having faced justice.
Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields)
(15 km southwest of Phnom Penh - Take Monireth 8.5 km past the bridge at
Street 271) Many of the Cambodians who perished under the Khmer
Rouge regime ended up dumped in one of the dozens of ‘killing fields’
that can be found scattered across the country. The killing fields were
essentially ad hoc places of execution and dumping grounds for dead
bodies during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979.) After the Khmer Rouge
regime, memorials were set up at many of the sites, some containing the
bones and remnants of victims gathered from the area. Prior to 1975,
Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh was a orchard and a Chinese cemetery.
But during the Khmer Rouge regime the area became one of the infamous
killing fields. This particular killing field is the site of the brutal
executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom had
first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the
S-21 Prison (now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum) in Phnom Penh. The
Choeung Ek Memorial is now a group of mass graves, killing areas and a
memorial stupa containing thousands of human skulls and long bones. The
memorial is about a 20-40 minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh.
Guided tours through the area are available and reasonably priced
multi-lingual guides are available at the site. There is also a small
souvenir shop as well. For sake of historical context, combine your trip
to Choeung Ek with a visit to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S-21 Prison) in Phnom Penh. (See below.) Also see David Chandler’s book,
‘Voices of S-21’ for the most systematic and complete account to date of
the history and operation of the S-21 Prison.
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)
(Corner of Street 113 & Street 350 - $2.00 - Open everyday, including
holidays, 8AM-5PM - Closed for lunch)
Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school - a set of classroom
buildings in a walled compound. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in
1975 they converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility,
administered by Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. ‘Duch.’ Inmates at the prison
were held in tiny brick cubicles and systematically tortured,
over a period of months, to extract the desired ‘confessions,’ after
which the victim was inevitably executed at the killing field of Choeung
Ek just outside the city. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, less than a
score of whom are known to have survived. The Tuol Sleng compound now
serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the
Khmer Rouge regime. Much has been left in the state it was in when the
Khmer Rouge abandoned it in January 1979. The prison kept extensive
records, leaving thousands of photos of their victims, many of which are
on display. Paintings of torture at the prison by Vann Nath, a survivor
of Toul Sleng, are also exhibited. For more on S-21 check out David
Chandler’s book, ‘Voices from S-21.’
Phnom Penh City Sights:
In Cambodia it is the women who take charge of trade...
Market is held everyday from six o'clock...
they display their goods on matting spread upon the ground.
Each has an allotted place...
excerpt from The Customs of Cambodia by Zhou Daguan circa 1300AD
'Phsar’ means ‘market’ in Khmer. A visit to at least one traditional
market (phsar) is a must. If you visit only one or two markets, begin
with the Russian Market and the Central Market. Both offer curios,
souvenirs and a cultural shopping adventure. Other markets such as the Old Market (Phsar Chas) have far fewer items for tourists but can still
be culturally and photographically interesting. The markets open and
close with the sun but are fairly sleepy between 11:30AM and 2:00PM.
Central Market (Phsar Thmei)
This distinctive building is a city landmark - a unique art deco version
of a traditional market. Four arms of the market converge in a soaring
dome at the hub, perhaps reflecting the four arms of the chaktomuk (the
convergence of the Mekong River.)
Prior to 1935 the market area was a
swamp/lake known as Beng Decho that received the runoff during the rainy
season. The lake was drained and the market constructed in 1935-37,
during the French colonial period, and originally dubbed the ‘Grand
Market.’ Phsar Thmey is currently undergoing renovation but most of the
project is complete. The central section of the main market building
displays an amazing collection of gems and jewelry. The souvenir vendors
are all back along the central entrance walk - offering curios,
statuary, handicrafts, silks, t-shirts, postcards, etc. Book and map
vendors sit to either side of the main market entrance. (‘Phsar Thmey’
would be properly translated ‘New Market’, but ‘Central Market’ has
caught on in English.)
Russian Market (Phsar Toul Tom Poung) (see
This market became the foreigner’s market during the 1980’s when most of
the foreigners in Cambodia were
Russians, hence the name ‘Russian
Market.’ It is of far less architectural interest than the Central
Market but has a larger, more varied selection of souvenirs, curios and
silks. Like the Central Market, there are several jewelers and
gold-sellers, but it also carries huge selection of curios, silks and
carvings, it is one of the best markets in town to buy fabric, and it
offers the largest selection of VCDs, DVDs and CDs of the traditional
markets. Most of the DVD vendors are located on the south side near the
corner of the market. Most of what the visitor might want is
same general area on the south side but the rest of the market is
well worth exploring. Food and drink stands in the middle of the market
for hygienically adventurous visitors.
Old Market (Phsar Chas)
Phsar Chas not at all geared to tourists, carrying such items as
and vegetables, hardware, second hand clothes, motorcycle parts and
religious items. The late afternoon shopping hour along Street 110 and
Street 108 makes for a confusing, dirty, potentially
There has been a market on this site since at the earliest days of the
French colonial period (and probably much longer) when it sat next to a
now reclaimed river inlet.
Night Market (Phsar Reatrey)
Phnom Penh’s new Night Market on the riverfront is aimed squarely at
visitors and tourists, offering a wide and varied selection of Cambodian
handicrafts silks, art, curios and souvenirs. Currently the Night Market
opens only on the weekends, starting up at about 5:00PM and runs until
at least 9:00 or 10:00PM. Located in the park between Street 106 and 108
on the riverfront. Stop in as you stroll up the riverfront.
A typical, sprawling, low-slung local market similar to Phsar Chas.
fruits and tailors fill the north half while jewelers
and electronics stalls are located in the building next door. It’s a
very local scene but as the market is only a couple of blocks off the
riverfront tourists occasionally find their way to the coffee stalls and
noodle shops. There is a comparatively large Vietnam-ese population
living in the area around Phsar Kandal, which and is reflected in the
character of the market - the food, the dress and the language.
Architecturally speaking, Phnom Penh is
a comparatively new city. Prior to the late 19th century the city
was but a few pagodas and clusters of wooden structures along the
riverfront. Almost every currently existing structure was built
after the beginning of the French colonial period in 1863.
shophouse’ style buildings dominate the city, characterized by deep
narrow apartments made up of a combined ground-floor business-front
and upstairs residence. Standing in distinctive difference, old
European influenced colonial period structures are interspersed
through the central city. At the height of the colonial period Phnom
Penh was reputed to be the most beautiful city in French Indochina -
recalling Paris in its manicured parks and picturesque boulevards
lined with ornate villas. Though sometimes difficult to see through
the grime and disrepair of years of hardship and neglect, much of
that beauty still exists.
more on the architecture
of Phnom Penh and a architecture tour map
and guide, see here.
Phnom Penh City Sights:
Well over 95% of the Cambodian
population is Buddhist and in Phnom Penh you are never far from a
Buddhist pagoda (wat.) Dozens of pagodas dot the city with one located
in almost every neighborhood in town. Though many of the pagodas are
comparatively modern, Phnom Penh’s original five wats were established
in the 15th century, all still functioning. Pagoda ground are colorful
photogenic places and most are open and welcoming to the general public.
But if you visit a pagoda please be respectful of the place and people.
Dress conservatively (long sleeves and pants,) respect the privacy of
monks and worshippers and ask before taking photos, especially of
people. The following short list of pagodas are some of the cities more
historic and photogenic wats. See Ray Zepp’s highly recommended book ‘A
Field Guide to Cambodia Pagodas’ for an introduction to
Cambodian Buddhism and a guide to Phnom Penh’s pagodas.
Wat Phnom (see above)
Wat Langka is reputedly one of Phnom Penh’s
five original wats (1422). First established as a sanctuary for the Holy
Writings and a meeting place for Cambodian and Sri Lankan monks, the Wat
was named in honor of these meetings. Just southwest of the Independence
Significant in part because it is one of the
city’s original wats, possibly founded in 1422 by King Ponhea Yat. Wat
Botum took its current name in 1865 and its present structure in 1937.
Of photographic note: The wat compound is crowded with ornate and
colorful stupas, including the towering ‘Buddha’s Relic Stupa’ pictured
One of the city’s five original wats,
established in the early 15th century. The main building was destroyed
in the 1970s and rebuilt in the 90s. This pagoda has become a refuge for
stray and abandoned house pets. If you want to adopt a cat, this is the
place to come. Located in the heart of the city, on Monivong and Street
on the riverfront is reputedly the oldest
Buddhist foundation in the city, probably predating the abandonment of
the capital at Angkor in the 15th century. The founding date is
variously cited as 1422 and 1443. This wat is the home to the Buddhist
patriarch. Sothearos Blvd. about 200m north of the Royal Palace.