Cambodia's capital city is an electric urban center brimming with bright lights, an exciting food and drink scene, and sights rich in historical and cultural significance. Not to mention, the city itself is an architectural hodge podge of modern sky scrapers, old-style French buildings, temples, stupa, and much more. We were really lucky to enjoy this city twice during our time in Cambodia. Here are some of the highlights:
The museum is open either in the morning, or in the afternoon (closes from approximately noon - 1pm for lunch), so plan accordingly. Located near the bank of the river, in the city's centre, this museum's building and well-manicured grounds are their own exhibit! Inside the temple-esque structure visitors tour a history of Cambodia from days before the construction of the ancient Angkor temples, through modern times. Artifacts housed here include a diverse collection of Buddha, Shiva, Ganesha, and Vishnu, along with ancient-to-modern jars, jewelry, decorations and art. Placards are in Khmer, English and French, and multi-lingual guides are available for a fee. We opted for a self-guided tour and saw the entire museum in approximately two hours, including a rest in the foyer, where trade winds and fans offer excellent respite from the heat and humidity. I recommend seeing the museum for additional history and perspective into ancient Khmer settlements, and reflections on modern Cambodian culture.
Adjecent to the National Museum, the Royal Palace cannot be missed - literally, it is a striking, white-washed complex of buildings accessorized with golden paint, mirrors, stupa and grand gates. You won't have any trouble finding this place, it finds you. Anyway, the palace also has split opening hours and I strongly suggest going as early as possible to avoid the crowds and the blazing heat. Inside the palace complex you can tour temples, cast your eyes on emerald and golden Buddhas, gaze up at ornately decorated stupa, see a model of Angkor Wat, and more. Visitors should take care to dress modestly, including covered knees and shoulders. Tickets are reasonably priced and include a visit to the Silver Wat.
Wat Phnom was built on the highest hill in the city and overlooks simply beautiful gardens and a well-kept traffic circle near the city center. It is quite the urban oasis and visiting it costs a mere $1. We also visited the Wat early, to avoid crowds and heat, and enjoyed it very much. And, with its central location, you can combine a visit to Wat Phnom with lots of other activities!
This was my favorite sight in Phnom Penh. During the terrifying years of the Khmer Rouge, a secret prison called S-21 operated, where Khmer Rouge officials tortured prisoners into "confessing" fictitious crimes, which ultimately meant execution of tens of thousands of men, women, children, and babies. The museum tells the chilling tale of life at the prison; and includes original furniture, paintings, photographs of victims upon arrival and after being tortured. The museum also functions as an education center as survivors give talks for the public, and concluding exhibits highlight the importance of celebrating diversity and stopping hate before it dominates; the latter points were particularly relevant to us as our visit here coincided with the bigoted rhetoric, uttered by a dangerous ideologue, dominating headlines back home in the US.
Entry costs $6, including the audio tour, $3 without. Do the audio tour.
Phnom Penh lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, which means sweeping waterways and oversized riverbanks...and stunning sunsets. There are many tourist sunset cruises, including some of the boozing variety. Our favorite sunset activities, however, took place on land. For starters, sunset at the Royal Palace is brilliant. The sunlight's gentle orange and yellow rays sink behind the palace, illuminating the architecture from behind and highlighting the complex's orange and yellow tones. The park in front of the temple doubles as a picnic and outdoor games spot as locals and tourists gather for the nightly light show.
No sunset would be complete without a beer in hand. Fortunately, Phnom Penh has myriad rooftop bars to choose from, several of which line the river offering views not of the sunset, but of the day's last light as it dances off the windows and buildings on the opposing riverbank. We liked the FCC and the Panorama Mekong Hostel & Restaurant, for their bird's eye, two-for-one specials.
Cheers, Phnom Penh!