According to legend, an old woman named Penh founded the city of Phnom Penh when she discovered four Buddha images on the Mekong River's banks. She placed the items on a nearby hill and a town grew up around them. The settlement became known as the Hill of Penh (Phnom Penh).
Sometime later, during its prime, Phnom Penh had a claim to being the loveliest of Indochina's French-built cities. Today, it sprawls at the junction of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers. Its colonial charm contrasts with its heavy traffic and modern concrete buildings. Visitors usually enjoy the old French villas, street-side cafes, tree-lined boulevards and majestic Khmer buildings in Cambodia's capital.
Phnom Penh's (temple-monasteries) and museums also make for interesting adventures. Many visitors find time for sunset cruises on the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, and shopping at a bustling market place. Otherwise, the city's nightlife has a solid reputation, as does its food and café culture.
The Royal Palace is one of the principal attractions of Phnom Penh and contains the best examples of 20th-century Khmer architecture in the city. The palace has remained the official residence of the kings of Cambodia since 1860. Set among the perfectly maintained gardens you can find the exquisite Throne Hall, the Elephant Pavilion where the king's elephants were kept, the Royal Treasury, and the Chan Chaya Pavilion which was made especially for performances of classical Cambodian dance.
Although much of the palace complex is off-limits to the public, the Silver Pagoda is open to visitors. This remarkable building is the highlight of the compound and takes its name from the floor of the temple, which is completely covered in silver tiles. The internal walls are decorated with frescoes depicting episodes of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903 by 40 Khmer artists. It is also called the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, a tribute to the magnificent baccarat crystal image of the Emerald Buddha that sits in the centre on a gilt pedestal. There are other intricately carved Buddha images on display, notably the life-size solid gold statue that stands in front of the pedestal, decorated with 9,584 diamonds.
Remember to dress conservatively and respectfully when visiting the Royal Palace; bare shoulders or legs are frowned upon within the complex.
The National Museum is a striking and famous example of the Khmer architectural tradition and houses the country's most important collection of ancient Cambodian cultural material and Khmer art. It is made up of four galleries containing relics, sculpture, art, and tools covering history from the prehistoric, the pre-Angkorian, the Angkorian, and the post-Angkorian periods of Cambodian culture. The pieces are arranged in chronological order and the already impressive collection continues to grow as new treasures previously hidden from the Khmer Rouge are discovered. The museum houses original relics and sculptures from the temples of Angkor, making a visit a natural accompaniment to exploring the temples.
The museum was built in 1917 but has expanded over the years to include a beautiful central garden with fountains and greenery, a serene place to rest and relax after touring the exhibitions. Guided tours in English and French cost a bit extra but they are worthwhile as the printed information in the museum is minimal. Photography is not allowed inside the building. The gift shop sells books, souvenirs, and replica sculptures.
When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they commandeered and converted a secondary school into a primitive prison where they detained and tortured anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary behaviour. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 victims were imprisoned in Security Prison 21, or S21, as it was known. The building appears almost exactly as the fleeing Khmer Rouge left it, and serves as a testimony to the crimes and atrocities of the organisation.
It is a tremendously moving experience. The photographs, instruments of torture, and bloodstained walls give a thorough idea of the extent of the pain and horror borne by the Cambodian people. Thousands of victims were transported from here to the extermination camp outside the city, Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), to be killed. There are some first person accounts on display at the museum, despite the fact that of the estimated 20,000 prisoners incarcerated in S21 there are only 12 known survivors.
A trip to Phnom Penh would be incomplete without a visit to Central Market. Phnom Penh's most obvious landmark looks like a Star Wars trading post and its quirky architecture is part of the appeal for tourists. This famous Art Deco building consists of a huge central dome with four wings opening out into large halls. Psah Thmey contains countless stalls run by more than 3,000 merchants. When the market was first opened, in 1937, it was said to be the biggest market in Asia. It has recently undergone years of serious renovation with the newly improved Central Market reopening in 2011.
Merchandise comprises almost everything imaginable including souvenirs, clothes, fresh produce, books, flowers, postcards, antiques, and a lot of jewellery. As many stalls stock the same merchandise it is useful to compare prices to find the real value of goods. One should bargain hard but good-naturedly. Surrounding the structure is a ring of tightly packed vendors selling similar wares. Its central location is walkable from almost anywhere and it is visible from many of Phnom Penh's main roads but, if necessary, all taxis know Central Market.
A pleasant way to spend the evening in Phnom Penh is on the wide balcony of the Foreign Correspondent's Club. This well-located bar, restaurant, and boutique hotel sits on the banks of the riverside overlooking the converging Mekong and Tonle Sap. The spectacular view is best appreciated at sunset, which luckily coincides with the FCC's happy hour. The FCC can be more expensive than its neighbours, but the colonial-chic style and atmosphere of the place gives an invaluable French flair to the night. The FCC sits in the heart of the bustling waterfront district, close to various popular nightlife venues. The club was renovated from a colonial-era French villa and is one of Southeast Asia's most legendary watering holes, famous for being the spot where the numerous journalists covering the last days of Pol Pot's regime converged. Unlike most Foreign Correspondent's Clubs it is not private but members from other clubs do get a discount.
Amuse your inner warrior with one of Phnom Penh's best carnal pleasures: shooting big guns. Whatever one's taste, be it automatic rifles, rocket launchers, or grenades, they are on offer. The city is known for availability of weapon that are probably deemed unsuitable at home. There are about four well-known shooting ranges in Phnom Penh that are generally run by the military. While there are safety measures in place, it is a remarkably casual and free environment. This comes at a cost, at more than a dollar a bullet, ensuring that Rambo instincts are kept in check.
Upon arrival you should be able to see all the weapons on display and read a 'menu' detailing what is available and how much handling each weapon costs. Guides generally recommend that you visit the shooting range first if you plan to also see sites like the Killing Fields, as experiencing Cambodia's violent past has been known to dampen the excitement and fun to be had at the range. Most guesthouses and taxi drivers can recommend a good shooting range, but it is best to check online reviews to ensure you are going to a respected establishment. The Cambodia Extreme Outdoor Shooting Range is a favourite with travellers and has been awarded certificates of excellence by review sites like TripAdvisor in recent years.
It is always wonderful to return from your time abroad with a skill you didn't have when you left home, and Cambodian cooking classes are one of Phnom Penh's most popular tourist attractions. Khmer cuisine distinguishes itself from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine with its delicate use of spices and aromatic herbs, used to create finely-balanced flavours that run the gamut from sweet, to salty, sour, and spicy.
Favourites include the Cambodia Cooking Class operated from Frizz Restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, which prides itself on 'small classes, maximum attention', as space is limited to 16 participants per day. During the full day lesson visitors will learn to prepare a full-course Khmer meal, as well as getting some useful tips about the blending of spices and the decorative aspects of Cambodian cuisine. Included in the price is transportation to and from the restaurant, a visit to the market to buy ingredients, and a full-colour recipe booklet, so you can try your new culinary skills on your friends and family once you return home. You also get to eat the delicious meal you produce in a beautiful riverside setting.
Not to be confused with the Central Market (Psah Thmay), the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) is located south of Mao Tse Tuong Boulevard, and offers tourists a great range of bargains. The market is home to an impressive array of silk scarves, silk hammock, and motorbike parts. Apart from these treasures, it is easy to find curios, souvenirs, jewellery, and almost anything else that may take your fancy. There are some very good tailors who can fit you for custom-made suits and shirts for very reasonable prices, although you will have to wait about three days to collect them. There is also wonderful local food on offer and the fish soup is particularly appetizing.
Like all sizeable markets in Cambodia it can get very crowded and a little overwhelming so it's best to go early or later in the evening. The market is undercover so it is ideal to miss the midday heat which makes it almost unbearably hot inside. If you get tired or need a break head to one of the nearby cafés lining the market for a delicious fruit cocktail. The market got its name from the plentiful Russian tourists who shopped there when visiting Cambodia just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it remains the city's most popular market for tourists.
Phnom Penh's climate can be described as tropical, with hot weather all year round and seasonal monsoons. There are two distinct seasons: rainy and dry. Temperatures during the rainy season (June to October), average between 81°F (27°C) and 93°F (34°C). The dry season (November to March) is characterised by cool months, with temperatures averaging between 70°F (21°C) and 90°F (32°C), and hot months (March to May), which see temperatures range between 81°F (27°C) and 95°F (35°C).
Winter is the best time to visit Phnom Penh, when the weather is cooler and activities will not be disrupted by rain showers. Roads are also better in the dry season, as they're not muddy.
Phnom Penh has a great variety of restaurants, ranging from local cuisine to a burgeoning selection of international menus. Generally speaking, eating out in Cambodia isn't too expensive. The main restaurant areas are Street 51, the Riverfront, and the Wat Phnom area (particularly Street 104). Food sections in markets or roadside food carts are decent alternatives to restaurants, especially for simple Cambodian variations of fried chicken and the like.
Regarding Khmer (Cambodian) cuisine, fare such as Prahok, (pungent, fermented fish paste) can challenging for foreign palates. That said, some local dishes are accessible. The most beloved of these is Cambodia's national dish. Called Fish Amok, it involves coconut milk, chilies, onion, and spinach, all served with rice in banana leaves. For the more adventurous, Khmer staples like deep-fried tarantulas and red tree ants are a must.
Cambodia's French-colonial history comes through in things like baguettes and frog's legs.
Chat Preah Nengkal, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, is an ancient Cambodian agricultural rite that takes place in front of the National Museum, near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The ceremony is held in early May each year where all banks, ministries, and embassies are closed during the event. Cambodians have a number of traditional rituals for forecasting the weather and determining whether harvests will be fruitful. Chat Preah Nengkal is the ancient royal rite marking the start of the rice-growing season. In the ritual, sacred oxen plough a patch of ceremonial ground so that Brahmins can sow some rice seed. Once the seed is sown, the sacred animals are offered a selection of food, including rice, beans, grass, and rice whisky, and the royal soothsayers make predictions for the harvest based on the appetites and food selection of the oxen. Although the Royal Ploughing Ceremony may not be as festive or exciting as some other Cambodian festivals, it is interesting to see this ancient ritual practiced. If you are in Phnom Penh at the time of the ceremony, it is well worth taking part in the event and celebrations. Before the ritual is performed, there is an impressive ceremonial procession, featuring a ceremonial guard and traditional dancers.
The Water Festival or Bon Om Touk is Cambodia's Mardi Gras and Carnival rolled into one. The traditional festival is an exuberant celebration marked by three days of boat races and partying on the southern end of the Tonle Sap, and indeed all over Cambodia.
The three-day festival is the biggest and most spectacular event on the Cambodian calendar. Both locals and tourists flock from far and wide to the capital, Phnom Penh, and other hot spots to enjoy the pageantry, partying, fireworks, and boat races.
Although smaller than the mammoth celebrations in the capital, festivities, and races also happen in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat. The festival heralds the start of the fishing season and coincides with the reversal of the current in the Tonle Sap River, which flows uphill for half the year.
Illuminated floats, celebrations of the full moon, and various feasts support the boat races. Rowing has a rich history in Cambodia as it was a vital component of the ancient Khmer civilization's military prowess. Hundreds of boats compete in this annual festival, decorated with the traditional dragon heads, and each bearing up to 40 rowers. The racing of the pirogue boats is fast, loud, and energetic and the atmosphere at the event is jubilant and celebratory, making the Water and Moon festival one of the most popular times to visit Cambodia.
Travellers should note that in recent years this event has sometimes been cancelled due to low water levels or political tension.
The city is relatively small and is easy to negotiate on foot. Walking in the midday heat can be uncomfortable, though.
For safety reasons, visitors should be aware at all times. More specifically, they should try not to display conspicuous wealth or walk alone at night, as bag snatching is a problem.
Unmetered taxis can usually be arranged through hotels. Bicycle rickshaws (cylos) are widely used, but are best for short distances. Tuk-tuks (motorbikes with small cabins attached to the rear) may be the best option for tourists. That is, English-speaking Tuk-tuk drivers can double as city guides. Passengers should negotiate fares beforehand.
Phnom Penh's public buses are slower than the other forms of transport on offer. Still, they remove the threat of bag or phone snatching, passengers don't need to negotiate prices, and they're cheap.
Renting a car may be unwise, given that roads and traffic are bad.
Phnom Penh is very much a two-day city, with plenty to experience in a short time, but little to keep visitors for longer. The Royal Palace and National Museum are worth a morning to get a sense of the country's rich heritage. As a counterpoint, a trip to the Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields will reveal the terrible atrocities Pol Pot's reign of terror wreaked on the Khmer people.
In a lighter vein, visitors can shop in the lively Central and Russian Markets, enjoy a fun nightlife, or simply watch the sun set over the river. Travel itineraries should also include some of the activities on offer. River cruises are a must, as are trips to the famous shooting ranges, where guests can try out heavy weaponry. Cooking classes are popular as well. Otherwise, Phnom Penh lends itself to leisurely hours on the riverbanks, soaking up the cafe culture and watching the world go by.
Travellers looking to explore the region a little more can head to Sihanoukville's gorgeous beaches, unwind in the resort town of Krong Kep, or see the Mekong's Irrawaddy river dolphins.
The Cambodian genocide during the late 1970s ranks as one of the great horrors of modern history. Under Pol Pot's rule an estimated 1.7 million people (21 percent of the Cambodian population) were either ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, or died of starvation in the communal fields. Choeung Ek was the extermination camp where the prisoners from S21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum) were executed. Also known as the Killing Fields, after the movie of the same name, this football-field-sized area contains the mass graves of about 20,000 people, many of whom were tortured before being executed.
A tall Memorial Stupa has been constructed to commemorate the dead with more than 8,000 human skulls are displayed behind the glass. At the entrance, a handwritten sign in Khmer and English summarises the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. As a reminder of the reality of this great tragedy, human bones are still frequently unearthed by heavy rains in the area, and many of the tour guides have personal stories to tell about their experiences during Pol Pot's reign. A visit to the Killing Fields is harrowing - and not suitable for young children - but it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia.
Ratanakiri Province is Cambodia's version of the Wild West. Situated in the northeast of the country, along the border with Vietnam, it is slightly inaccessible. This does not deter the more intrepid travellers for whom the extra effort is worthwhile for the stunning natural beauty of the region. Visitors travelling to Ratanakiri will discover lush tropical rainforests, volcanic lakes, pristine waterfalls, and abundant wildlife including Asian elephants, monkeys, guar, and many endangered bird species. The province has slightly cooler weather than most of the country. One of the key tourist attractions is Yak Loum, a perfectly round crater lake with crystal-clear waters, surrounded by dense jungle foliage. The lake is great to swim in and a relatively short distance from the town of Banlung. Also close by is a protected area in the form of the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary. There are interesting villages to visit which allow for authentic cultural experiences.
Be aware that the roads in this region are not great; they are very muddy during the wet season and covered in thick red dust that makes everyone appear orange in the dry season. Boats are a popular mode of transport for scenic trips. As a destination for the eco-tourist or adventure seeker Ratanakiri is a paradise.
While this beach town isn't nearly as famous as those found along Thailand's pristine coast, it does make a great tourist getaway. Sihanoukville is the country's only deep water port, making much of the town industrial and unattractive to tourists. But the coastal city is surrounded on three sides by the Bay of Thailand and there are several secluded tourist beaches with all the requisite trappings: dishevelled beach bars, guesthouses, and smiling hawkers. As there isn't much to do in town, it is worth the extra money to stay in the quaint beachside accommodation.
Daytime activities include swimming, fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and boat trips to the nearby islands. There are also several Buddhist temples to be explored in the area and the Ream National Park is only 11 miles (18km) away. Most hotels and guest houses offer transport and day passes for visiting the National Park. Nightly beach barbecues prepare great food and offer cheap beer. The government is said to have plans to develop the area for larger resorts which may well ruin its laid-back beach charm in years to come. Regular daily buses provide a three to four hour journey to and from Phnom Penh, along Cambodia's best road. There is also a ferry connecting to Koh Kong, the Cambodian/Thailand border.
From Phnom Penh, a great excursion is the formerly lavish resort town of Krong Kep. Once a famous high-society destination, called The Pearl of the Orient, Kep is now more of a rustic fishing village; a peaceful and charming destination for those who like to travel off the beaten track. The Khmer Rouge did a number on this town, but the ruined villas of the rich now add to Kep's crumbling mystique. A beautiful coastal road, slivers of beaches, jungled mountains, and the nearby Rabbit Island ensures that Krong Kep continues to draw visitors to its shores.
The Irrawaddy river dolphins inhabit a 118-mile (190km) stretch of the Mekong River. These odd but delightful creatures are in danger of extinction and the Cambodian population was recently estimated to consist of a mere 85 animals. For years the dolphins were killed illegal fishing practices, and hunted by the Khmer Rouge for sport. The dolphins are now protected and have become a symbol of hope for the sleepy north-eastern town of Kratie and the money paid to view them supports the local community as well as the conservation of the dolphins.
The animals themselves are shy and intelligent and their perpetual grins make them very endearing. They are sometimes spotted from the riverbank but many tourists opt to rent small boats to get closer to them. The local oarsmen retain a healthy distance from surfacing animals but viewers can get close enough to recognise individual characteristics and see the famous dolphin smiles. Kratie is accustomed to budget travellers, with a choice of cheap guesthouses and small hotels. All of these offer motorbike drivers for the scenic nine-mile (15km) drive to the dolphins' river home, a tiny fishing village called Kampi where the houses are raised up on stilts to prevent annual flooding.
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