As Cambodia and Phnom Penh increase in tourism numbers every day, here is your comprehensive guide to some of the most important highlights Cambodia’s capital has to offer.
Built in 1373 to house the Buddha statues found by Duan Penh – who laid the foundations of the shrine – on the shores of the Tonlé Sap River, this temple, at a modest 89 ft (27 m), is the highest point in the city. Today, it has something of a carnivalesque atmosphere with flashing altar lights and elephant rides. Visitors enter this vibrant house of worship through an easterly naga stairway, passing beggars, hawkers, and a bunch of mischievous monkeys.
The temple’s walls are adorned with Jataka (stories from the former lives of the Buddha) murals, although most of them have been blackened by smoke from the incense offerings. There is a shrine dedicated to Duan Penh behind the vihara (temple sanctuary). Nearby, a couple of shrines of Taoist goddesses are popular with the locals, who make offerings of cooked chicken and raw eggs here.
Known locally as Psar Thmei, which actually means New Market, this fabulous ocher-hued Art Deco building was erected by the French in 1937 on former swamp ground. Central Market has an immense central dome is on a scale similar to Hadrian’s Pantheon in Rome. Offering a variety of products under one roof, this one-stop shop is any visitor’s delight.
The food section here is packed with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as delicacies such as peeled frogs and fried insects. Four wings radiate from the main building where vendors hawk gold and silver jewellery, watches, electronic goods, Buddha statues, clothes, and fresh flowers. The market is comfortable to visit at midday as the corridors of merchandise are surprisingly cool.
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
Hidden down a peaceful side street bordered with bougainvillaea, this memorable, if disturbing, the museum was originally a school that was turned into the Khmer Rouge torture headquarters. Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S-21, was the largest detention centre in the country and subjected 17,000 men, women, and children to torture en route to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek; most did not get that far.
When Vietnamese forces liberated Phnom Penh in 1975, they found only seven people still alive at S-21, each having survived because of their skills as artist or photographer. The prison has now been converted into a museum; its former cells and gallery are covered with thousands of haunting photographs of subjects before and after torture. There is an interesting exhibition on the second floor of the main building, which gives important details on the main instigators of the murderous regime, as well as photos and diaries, and poems written by those affected.
The balconies on the upper floors are still enclosed with the wire mesh that prevented prisoners from jumping to an early death. Despite allegedly being haunted, today the place plays host to young footballers on its lawns and a colony of bats in one of the stairwells.
Also known as Toul Tom Pung, Russian Market gets its name because of the many Russians who shopped here during the 1980s, this market is perhaps the best place for visitors looking for good bargains. Under the sweltering tin roofs are a smorgasbord of handicrafts, fake antiques, silk scarves, and musical instruments.
Also on sale is a huge selection of fake designer clothing, as well as genuine items made in local factories. They are sold here at a fraction of their international prices.
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
A former longan orchard, this deceptively peaceful setting was the scene of one of the most disturbing acts of violence in contemporary history. Some 17,000 men, women, and children kept as prisoners in the torture chambers of Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S-21, were brought here to be killed, often by blunted hoes to conserve bullets.
Of the 129 communal graves, 49 have been left intact, and it is still possible to chance upon bone fragments and bits of clothing. Signposts close to the graves tell visitors about the number of people buried there; another one marks a macabre tree against which babies were flung by their ankles and killed. In 1988, however, a fittingly dignified pavilion was erected within the complex in memory of the 9,000 people found here.
Through the glass panels of the pavilion, one can see some 8,000 skulls arranged according to age and sex. A museum in the corner of the grounds offers detailed background information not only on the founders of the Khmer Rouge, but also its victims, who included doctors, politicians, and actors.
Kien Svay or Koki Beach
A romantic picnic spot on a tributary of the Mekong River, Koki Beach is popular with young Khmers, who come here on weekends. The clean sands, stilted huts with thatched roofs, and calm setting make it an ideal place to relax and unwind. Visitors can venture on inexpensive boat trips along the river or swim close to the sandy beach, where a few people can usually be found braving the waters.
There is always plenty of food to be bought from the local vendors who sell a selection of grilled fish, chicken, and fresh coconuts. The beach is also lined with makeshift restaurants specializing in local food. However, it is best to agree on the price of dishes before settling down to eat.
Another popular weekend haunt, Tonlé Bati is a peaceful lake with stilted huts bordering its acacia-shaded shoreline. It is frequented by locals who find it an ideal spot for a quiet picnic or fishing trip. Adding further appeal are the nearby ruins of Ta Prohm and Yeay Peau, two beautifully preserved temples built in the late 12th century under King Jayavarman VII. Ta Prohm’s main sanctuary has five chambers, each containing a Shiva lingam (phallic symbol), as well as a number of bas-reliefs depicting several apsaras.
On weekends, the temple grounds play host to musicians and fortune-tellers catering to visitors. Located a short distance from Ta Prohm, Yeay Peau is named after King Ta Prohm’s mother. Both sites show signs of damage by the Khmer Rouge.
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center
Opened in 1995, the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is the largest zoo in the country. Covering 10 sq miles (26 sq km) of a protected forest of which only a small part is in use, the zoo serves as a rehabilitation centre for animals, many of them endangered, rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. A haven for wildlife enthusiasts, the centre cares for and protects several rare birds and animals that usually inhabit inhospitable parts of the country and are therefore almost impossible to observe in the wild.
These well-nurtured animals are kept in a variety of enclosures, the largest of which houses a group of Malayan sun bears who willingly accept fresh coconuts from visitors. Other exotic species found here include the world’s greatest collection of pileated gibbons and the Siamese crocodile. The centre also has several elephants that have been taught to paint, and many fully grown Asiatic tigers. These are best viewed in the afternoon when they usually come out.
An 11th-century sanctuary formerly known as Suryagiri, the temple of Phnom Chisor is set upon the eastern side of a solitary hill affording wonderful views of the plains below. Within its crumbling interior stand a few surviving statues of the Buddha, while the carvings on the wooden doors depict figures standing on pigs. Best visited in the early morning or late afternoon, when it is cooler, the temple is reached by climbing almost 400 stairs – the path taken by the king of Cambodia 900 years ago.
Directly below the summit is the sanctuary of Sen Ravang, the pond of Tonlé Om, and beyond it the Sen Ravang temple, all forming a symbolic straight line to sacred Angkor. Nearby stand two deteriorating brick prasats (towers) of the 10th-century temple Prasat Neang Khmau. Beside them is an active pagoda where another ancient prasat may once have stood.