Phnom Penh, not so long ago, was known as the Pearl of Asia. An exotic location capable of conjuring up notions, such as the powerful perfume of the jasmine flower. Or perhaps, images of the remarkable royal palaces and perplexing pagodas.
Phnom Penh only enters historical records after becoming the Khmer capital during the 15th century AD. Previously, called Chaktomuk (which means the Four Faces), a name denoting the four rivers which converge at this point. Here the Tonle Sap and the Mekong rivers join the lower Mekong and the Bassac River.
Lady Penh saw this discovery as a blessing from the Gods and showed her devotion by raising land to make a small hill on the west bank of the Tonle Sap. She adorned the hill with the Buddhist and Vishnu statures and finished it off with a shrine right on the top. This area is now known as Wat Phnom, and its surrounding region is known as Daun Penh, named after her. Phnom Penh later became the new capital, (Penh translates to “hill” in Khmer).
Nowadays, Phnom Penh is thriving with development and buzzing with life. A city of contrasts, its also a shoppers paradise, with its blend of genuine Khmer handicrafts, bargain-priced market wares, export outlet stores and the best of designer brands setting up shop, you’ll find all you expect and more.
- Cool Season – Nov – March (23c – 29c)
- Hot Season – March – May (27c-37c)
- Rainy season: May – October (24c-33c)
Though Phnom Penh is quickly developing, it still holds true to its beloved Khmer culture. Some of the most beautiful pagodas in the country are located in Phnom Penh, with Wat Ounalom being the oldest. Monks are often seen in their recognizable saffron gowns.
Weddings and funerals are more public affairs than in the west, where elaborate tents are set up in the streets. Weddings are a very colourful affair held over several and require several changes of traditional wedding outfits. Authentic Khmer food is plentiful, and it is well worth sampling street food and snacks from the carts dotted around the city.
Things to Do
Pay your respects to the victims of Cambodia’s surprisingly recent genocide. The Khmer Rouge era was a dark time in Cambodia, and S21 and Choeung Ek are significant sites in order to commemorate those lost under the regime.
Sisowath Quay is on the riverfront in Phnom Penh (known as the Riverside). The street is lively and houses a number of restaurants, bakeries, ice cream shops and bars, many perched up high in order to take in the spectacular views of the river (especially at sunset). On the river side of the road is a paved walkway that is perfect for strolling and taking in the sites..
The ornate Royal Palace is located close to the riverfront and houses many Khmer antiquities. The grounds are also home to the Silver Pagoda, decorated by over 5000 pure silver tiles. Its surrounding gardens and lawn are popular with families, and vendors sell bird seed in order to feed the many birds that call the grounds there home. See the video above!
Opened in the 1920’s and designed to be reminiscent of a Khmer temple, the National Museum is home to over 14000 culturally significant artefacts including sculptures, bronzes, and ceramics.
Visit a local market
Shopping at a local market is a wonderful cultural experience. The most popular markets for visitors include Psar Reytrey (Night Market), Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market – great for souvenirs), art deco Central Market (clothing, jewellery, seafood bbq), Psar Orussey (homewares, fabric) and Psar BKK (Boueng Keng Kang – great for second hand designer bags, shoes and clothing). Jet’s container night market is a wonderful new addition and is buzzing at nighttime with bars and restaurants.