Cambodia: Phnom Penh sightseeing (1 Day)

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Founded in 1434, Phnom Penh is situated on the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers. It is a vibrant city with 1.5 million people that was historically known as the “Pearl of Asia”. While there are still numerous French colonial buildings scattered along its grand boulevards, recently Phnom Penh gives an impression of disorganized development where Chinese, Japanese and European developers construct monotone high rises for apartments and offices with boring block architecture. Public transportation virtually does not exist, so the city streets are packed with motorcycles, tuk tuks and expensive new Toyota and Lexus SUVs.

Although few spaces remain for parks and greenery, there is a nice promenade in Phnom Penh along the Tonle Sap river waterfront where local vendors sell street food, flowers and birds. We first stopped by the Tourist Information Center located on the waterfront promenade just outside the Royal Palace for tips on our one-day sightseeing trip.

1. Royal Palace

Occupied by the Royal family since 1860, the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh consists of beautiful buildings with classic Khmer roots and ornate gilding. King Norodom Sihamoni and his mother live at the Royal Palace, so only two courtyards are open for visitors either in the morning (8-10:30am) or afternoon (2-5pm). Dress code is strictly enforced, so all visitors have to cover their shoulders and wear at least knee-length shorts or long pants.

The Royal Throne Hall in Phnom Penh
The Royal Throne Hall in Phnom Penh

Used for coronations, royal weddings and official ceremonies, the Royal Throne Hall is gold-plated with Khmer-style throne, walls, ceiling, and crystal chandeliers. It is topped by a 59m-high tower inspired by the Bayon Temple at Angkor. Visitors are not allowed to walk in, only look inside through the doors and open windows.

Hor Samritvimean
Hor Samritvimean with Royal regalia and gowns on display
A different color dress for each day of the week
Moonlight Pavilion used for the Khmer classical dance performances
Moonlight Pavilion used for the Khmer classical dance performances
Open-air corridor with colorful wall paintings
Open-air corridor with colorful wall paintings
Silver Pagoda located on the South side of the Royal Palace
Silver Pagoda located on the South side of the Royal Palace

The Silver Pagoda houses many Royal treasures including the main green crystal “Emerald Buddha of Cambodia” and other Buddha statues made with gold, silver and precious gems. The floor of the Silver Pagoda was covered with silver titles in the pre-Khmer Rouge reign.

Royal family stupa
Royal family stupa
Royal saddles for riding elephants
Royal saddles for riding elephants

2. National Museum of Cambodia

Housed in a Khmer-style red building with traditional roof, the National Museum has many Buddha statues from 9th to 12th centuries. Many are originals from the Angkor area including precious temple decorations, which can be admired up close in detail. The museum is open from 8am to 5pm and provides a nice place to hide from the midday sun.

Entrance to the National Museum of Cambodia
Entrance to the National Museum of Cambodia
Banteay Srei temple decorations
Banteay Srei temple decorations

3. Wat Ounalop

Wat Ounalom is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Phnom Pehn. It consists of a complex of temples, houses and a stupa that contains what is believed to be an eyebrow hair of Buddha. The temple is nicely restored with a gold-plated pagoda shining in the morning sun, and a functional large Buddhist bell. Upon our arrival, locals treated us kindly with a small Buddha souvenir as a gift and bottles of water, which made a very nice welcome to Cambodia. There were few tourists, so the temple was peaceful, quiet and mostly occupied by monks and local people helping out in the temple.

Gold stupa at Wat Ounalop
Gold stupa at Wat Ounalop
Inside Wat Ounalop temple
Inside Wat Ounalop temple

5. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

A former prison known as S-21, where the Khmer Rouge interrogated, tortured and executed its opponents. About 12,000-20,000 people entered this venue as prisoners, but less than a dozen survived as most people were killed at the Cheung Ek killing field after making forced confessions under torture at S-21. Most rooms have been left in the same state as they were found in 1979, including the metal beds and other instruments used for torture, with the floor titles still stained with dried blood. The museum is a must to visit, but very graphic, disturbing and depressing.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

6. Sunset dinner river cruise

The two hour cruise along the Phnom Penh riverfront took us to the junction of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers where we could enjoy the scenery, sunset and see the contrast between new building developments and slumps in front on the river banks. The relaxing atmosphere was potentiated by nice sounds of live traditional Khmer music on the upper deck and simple buffet dinner prepared fresh on boat. Drinks were a little bit pricy, but overall we have enjoyed this cruise which cost USD 24 including dinner.

Local musicians playing during dinner
Local musicians playing during dinner
Contrast of slums on the riverbank with a new hotel development
Contrast of slums on the riverbank with a new hotel development
Setting sun behind a local boat
Setting sun behind a local boat

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