Phnom Penh
.: Cambodia

A mixture of Cambodian hospitality, Asian exotica and Indochinese charm await the visitor to Phnom Penh.
Situated at the confluence of three great rivers - known as the 'Chaktomuk' (four faces) or 'Quatre Bras' (four arms) of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers - Phnom Penh is a city of more than 2 million people, the capital of Cambodia and the country's commercial, economic and political hub.

It is also comparatively new travel destination. An adventure destination just a decade ago, the city is now a center of diverse economic and urban development and is quickly morphing an air of edgy chic with bistros and boutique hotels lining the riverfront, smart little silk boutiques and galleries dotting the side streets, a budding arts scene and a heady dusk-to-dawn nightlife.

As the capital city Phnom Penh is fairly young, only rising to the role in 1866, but is still steeped in history and offers several cultural and historical sites. The city was under French colonial control from 1863-1953, flourished in independence in the 1960s, besieged and then evacuated under the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s, repopulated in the 80s, revitalized in the 90s and now undergoing rapid change and development. Much of the central city including the Royal Palace and National Museum (both open to visitors) was built during the French period. You may notice the old French buildings in colonial yellow amongst the Southeast Asian shophouses and classic Khmer pagodas.


The National Museum in Phnom Penh is the most significant public repository of Khmer artifacts in the country,
displaying many important Angkorian artifacts and rare pieces from later periods. Historical sites from the
Khmer Rouge period in Phnom Penh include the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Memorial.

Other historical sites such as the old capital of Oudong and the Angkorian ruins of Phnom Chisor and Phnom Da lie within an easy day-trip of Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is also a gateway to Cambodia...the temples of Angkor near Siem Reap City in the west, the beaches of Sihanoukville and coastal towns on along the southern coast (Kampot, Kep and Koh Kong,) the minority peoples, jungles and wildlife of the northeast provinces and a wide-open,
unspoiled countryside of rice paddies, little villages and lost temples across the country.

 

Wat Phnom, the namesake and symbol of the capital city of Phnom Penh, sets prominently atop an artificial 27 meter hill (or 'Phnom') in the northeastern section of the city. Legend has it that Daun Penh, a wealthy widow, retrieved a large koki tree trunk from the river. She had hoped to use it for a house, but inside a hollow of the trunk, she found four statues of the Buddha. She then ordered for a section of her property to be elevated for a small shrine to be erected to revere the statues. This became a sacred site and people started to settle around the hill; eventually, this became the city it now is. It is here that the city gets its name: ‘Phnom’ means hill in Khmer and ‘Penh’ is of course the name of the lady.

 

Phsar Thmey, also known as Central Market, is a unique colonial style building constructed in 1937. The location where the Central Market now sits was once a swamp area and occupied by a lake known as Beng Decho. Today, this beautiful market has become a prominent landmark in Phnom Penh. In the Khmer language, Phsar Thmey literally means ‘New Market’. Phsar Themey features a stylish Art Décor rotunda with wings extending in four different directions symbolizing the Chaktomouk (Confluence of four rivers). The Dome, symbolizing the economic center, is said to be amongst the largest in the world. The four broad wings constructed without obstructing pillars and the huge beamless dome are very well ventilated by the high ceiling. This market is crowded with activity on any given day, and visitors can purchase almost anything from fresh produces to cooked food, jewelry, watches, shoes, stationery, flowers, clothes including t-shirts and lots of tourist souvenirs.

 

Toul Tum Poung market is often referred to as the Russian market because of its popularity among Russian expatriates during the 1980s. This market is popular to collectors of genuine antiques; also, for those looking for good reproductions. Filled with stalls selling sundry souvenir items (silk scarves and bags, woodcarvings, etc.) and clothing, Toul Tum Poung is a well-frequented market among tourists. Additionally, a handful of air-conditioned "export" shops have cropped up that offer factory over-run designer clothing at hugely discounted prices.

 

The night market in Phnom Penh, located in front of the Phsar Chas (Old Market) near the riverside, is perpetually crowded with tourists in search of a good bargain. At the moment, there are more than 150 stalls selling an array of items from clothing and ornaments to furniture and souvenirs. The entire setting of the Phnom Penh night market is made from natural material, and there are occasionally music performances and entertainment acts. 

 

The mighty Mekong River is indeed, in more ways than one, the lifeline that runs through the heart of southeast Asia. Rising from the Himalayan mountain of Tibet, it trickles and gradually winds its way through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea. In its course, the mighty Mekong meets the Tonle Sap Lake which is the largest lake in South East Asia and effectively, the heartbeat of Cambodia. The annual pulsation of the flooding seasons has been a huge contribution to Cambodia’s existence for millenniums. When in Cambodia, tourists are urged to explore these timeless waterways by taking a cruise up the mighty Mekong and discover the amazements at the center of the Tonle Sap Lake. There is a huge community living on the lake itself. This is definitely a gentle and wonderful way to experience local life that has remained unchanged for centuries. Tourists can stop off to have a cuppa at a floating café in the middle of the lake, watch the small communities along the riverbank, visit remote temples far from the beaten tourist paths and enjoy the river breeze.


Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school. When the Khmer Rouge came to power it was converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. Inmates were systematically tortured to extract confessions, after which they were executed at the killing fields of Choeung Ek. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, less than a dozen of whom survived. The building now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime.

 


Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields), Located about 17km south of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was once an orchard and a Chinese graveyard. It was used by the Khmer Rouge regime as an execution ground to put down thousands of people between 1975 and 1979. The site is now better known as the Killing Fields. Mass graves containing thousands of bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former inmates in the Tuol Sleng prison. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls; many of which are either shattered or had evidently been smashed. It is believed that the Khmer Rouge soldiers kill their victims by smashing them on the head, in order to save on bullets.


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