Far from the gleaming skyscrapers of modern Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is a dusty and edgy yet somewhat enchanting city of crumbling colonial architecture, wide boulevards and chaotic markets.
It is gradually modernising, with a few contemporary skyscrapers appearing on the skyline and the popular riverside promenade (Sisowath Quay) now lined with lively cafés, juice bars, hostels, hotels and restaurants – many of them filled with backpackers and other travellers. Despite that, however, Phnom Penh still has an edge and atmosphere found in few other Southeast Asian capitals. Some elements of the city are quite charming, such as the ramshackle market stalls and historic temples, while others can prove to be quite the opposite: tiny children gathering recycling from bins to make a few Riel for their family, and amputee beggars vying for tourists’ pockets.
While most visits to the city are trouble-free, always watch your pockets and bags as there is a great deal of poverty in Phnom Penh that gives rise to opportunist theft. At the same time, look after your health by following the usual travel health tips such as avoiding ice in drinks (unless it’s from a trusted source) and always using a good mosquito repellent , particularly from dusk onwards, to protect yourself against malaria and dengue fever.
The main tourist sights of Phnom Penh
Dominating the city centre’s sightseeing attractions is the 19th century Royal Palace, including the fabulous Palace Grounds, Silver Pagoda and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It’s open from 8am, and this is the best time to visit to avoid the heat. You’ll need to wear something decent to cover legs and shoulders, or you can hire a sarong and large t-shirt for a small fee at the entrance.
Another central sight is the National Museum of Cambodia, which features an interesting collection of art from Cambodia’s ‘Golden Age’ of Angkor, alongside statues of Hindu Gods, ancient inscribed tablets and prehistoric burial artefacts. At its centre there is a lovely courtyard with a statue of Yama, the Hindu god of death (or the ‘Leper King’) taken from the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Archaeological Park.
A must-see sight for anyone who wants to better understand Cambodia’s horrific past during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year campaign of terror is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This school, which was converted into the country’s most notorious prison (‘S21′) in 1975, housed more than 14,000 people who were tortured and then killed and buried at the Killing Fields just outside of the city. Only eight prisoners made it out of the prison alive.
You can hire a taxi or tuk-tuk for the 17km trip out of town to the tranquil yet moving Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A glass-sided Buddhist stupa containing thousands of human skulls lies at the heart of the mass graves that were discovered in 1979.
Perhaps one of the city’s most bizarre attractions, which commission-earning tuk-tuk drivers will be quick to tell you about and encourage you to visit, is the Thunder Ranch Shooting Range. Situated near the Killing Fields, it is said to be run by a unit of the Royal Cambodian Army, and for a relatively high fee you can try shooting pistols or machine guns at paper targets. Many tuk-tuk drivers will try to include it in a ‘package’ with the Killing Fields, but if you don’t want to go there just make it clear that you’re not interested.
After a hard day’s sightseeing, treat your aching limbs to a massage – there are plenty of spa places around the main tourist areas, prices are cheap, and the massage is generally very relaxing.
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