Cambodia – Getting to know Phnom Penh

The heart of Cambodia in more ways than one, Phnom Penh is the country’s capital city, its political and commercial centre, and also strategically located at the confluence of three important rivers – the Mekong, Tonle Spa and Bassac. During the last few decades, the city and its people have staunchly overcome atrocities at the hands of the Khmer Rouge to become prosperous and lively, boasting bustling bars, world class restaurants and an emerging art scene

Cambodia Phnom Penh Travel Guide

What to do in Phnom Penh

A must for all visitors to Phnom Penh is the National Museum, which houses an impressive collection of Khmer sculpture.

The Royal Palace dominates the city’s skyline – its walls enclose the Silver Pagoda, famous for its 5,000 silver floor tiles!

Of the city’s many pagodas, Wat Phnom is the most notable, situated on the exact site where a lady named Penh founded the city.

Tuol Sleng (also known as S21) was the Khmer Rouge’s primary interrogation and extermination centre during the late 1970s. The tiny prison cells and spartan interrogation rooms offer an insight into what life was like for the 14,000+ people who entered this prison (of which, incidentally only seven survived). The museum also displays haunting black and white photographs of many of the prisoners. While it makes for rather harrowing viewing, a visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum is an integral part of understanding what happened during the Khmer Rouge period.

Around Phnom Penh

Head out of the city on two wheels, cycling through the countryside to visit Phnom Oudong. Sitting atop a small hill, this set of stupas and shrines, in varying states of ruin, are the remnants of the ancient capital of Oudong, and the King’s main residence from 1618 to 1866. Views of the countryside can also be enjoyed from the hill top.

Discover Cambodia’s varied wildlife and learn more about conservation efforts at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, an hour south of Phnom Penh. Supported by Wildlife Alliance and the Free the Bears Fund, this wildlife sanctuary assists in the recovery and rehabilitation of animals rescued from the wildlife trade and is home to over 1,000 animals ranging from big cats to monkeys, sun bears to reptiles, who are housed in large natural enclosures.

Visit the village of Daem Po, where the villagers run a ‘Rice Bank Project’ aimed at ensuring that even the poorest farmers in the region can obtain good quality rice seeds, in turn improving the day-to-day life for their families. The village welcomes a small number of tourists each year to learn about the project and also to experience a little bit of daily life, by joining them harvesting and planting in the fields, and around the village preparing food and eating together.

Legend has it…

…that Phnom Penh was founded back in the 14th century, when a local woman named Penh discovered a small number of Buddha statues washed up on the banks of the Mekong. Having retrieved the statues, she housed them in a shrine on a nearby hill (‘phnom’ in Khmer) and the town became known as Phnom Penh – which translates as ‘Hill Of Penh’.

Awful memories

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched the entire population out of city into the surrounding countryside – many were never to return. The Tuol Sleng Museum and the extermination camp at Choeung Ek offer a look into Phnom Penh’s dark history, as the places where tens of thousands of Cambodians were tortured or beaten to death by the Khmer Rouge before being buried in mass graves. Today, Phnom Penh has rather remarkably emerged as a vibrant capital city with an enduring and humbling energy.

A rough ride through history

Phnom Penh’s turbulent past has seen it endure rival ruling interest from the Thais, Vietnamese and French. It peaked as a powerful trading centre in the 16th century, but was then burned to the ground in 1772!

There are several aid-organisation-run restaurants in Phnom Penh, which serve to fund social programs throughout Cambodia, the most well-known of which is Friends. The staff are former street children who are being trained to find work in the hospitality industry. Dine at Friends, and as well as enjoying great food, you’ll be helping to get kids off the streets and provide them with invaluable work experience.

The Champey Academy of Arts is a dance school set up to train orphans and children from poor families in the art of traditional Khmer dancing, providing them with a future career. The centre is located near the National Museum, and can easily be included in a morning or afternoon tour. Any visitor to the training centre will confirm that the children enjoy their new found skill!

Inside the Silver Pagoda sits a 90kg gold Buddha decorated in 9500 diamonds

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Photos of Phnom Penh

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