Humidity was high and a thunderstorm threatened but never appeared. We avoided tuk-tuks as much as possible and walked the streets drenched in sweat. Still, the drivers persisted and some chased after us. Vendors called out and smells accosted us. Phnom Penh enveloped our senses but we were grateful for the adventure.
Here’s the list for our two days in Phnom Penh:
1. Lunch at Friends the Restaurant: the non-profit organisation, Friends International has two restaurants in Phnom Penh (as well as several others in various cities). One of their programs is to train up local youth, many of whom were once living on the streets, in hospitality. The idea is to support the reintegration of youth so they become actively involved in the development of their society.
We went to their Friends the Restaurant on Street 13. It’s in front of the brightly painted centre for Friends International (aka Mith Samlanh), which offers food, shelter, medical care, training and educational facilities for over 1,800 homeless, vulnerable or abandoned children.
We had two waiters: one a teacher and the other a trainee, who timidly repeated our order back to us. We ordered a mix of Asian and Western style tapas to share. The food was delicious and hydrating – it was well worth “eating for a good cause.”
Note: Be sure to check out Friends International’s shop next door, which sells products made from recycled materials. The proceeds go towards supporting their programs.
2. Phsar Thmey (aka Central Market): this beautifully restored art deco market is located in the centre of Phnom Penh. It was constructed in 1937 in French colonial style and its huge domed hall showcases clever geometrical designs that allow for maximum ventilation.
Inside, there’s an abundance of neon sparkles from the jewellery stalls, which contrast with the elegant and simple lines of the ceiling. Several original light poles with black fans stand among the stalls and in the centre, a clock towers above the feverish shoppers below.
Central market is surrounded by souvenir hawkers, shouting at you to buy t-shirts, kramas (Cambodia’s famous checkered scarf) or something else from their colourful array of kitsch items.
Note: Central Market is well worth a visit, but for better prices, head to the Russian Markets in the city’s south-west.
3. Wat Phnom: this Buddhist pagoda is highest place of worship in Phnom Penh. Having said that, it’s not a big climb to the top. A long staircase with naga balustrades and guarding lions front the pagoda, and a little staircase trails down between the trees at the rear.
Wat Phnom, aka the “Mountain Pagoda” was built in 1372 and is still in use today. Incense crowded the entrance. We walked around before returning to the entrance, where we left our shoes and entered. We discreetly looked around, trying not to disturb the worshippers and walked around the pagoda in the customary clockwise direction.
It was dark inside because of the ominous clouds looming outside. Still, the figures of the painted murals danced before us. We marvelled at the central large bronze statue of a sitting Buddha and admired the clothing and scarves donning the surrounding smaller statues. People had stuffed notes of money into the crevasses of their bodies and left folded waterlilies at their feet. These are gifts or offerings from locals who have had their wishes granted.
The site also includes a huge stupa containing the ashes of King Ponhea Yat and a shrine dedicated to Lady Penh, who is said to have first established the pagoda.
Note: you may see people and/or children selling little birds in cages. The idea is that when you release the bird from its cage, you are metaphorically releasing your burden. The birds are trained to return to their cages and will be sold again to the next customer.
4. The Royal Palace: The seat of the Khmer King was built after King Norodom moved the country’s capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh in 1863, and has been The Royal Palace ever since (except for the Khmer Rouge period).
The site showcases Khmer, Angkor and Thai inspired architecture with some European features. There’s lots of gold and painted concrete; the roofs are brightly tiled and the gildings are elaborate. Napoleon gifted one of the buildings in 1876. However, it wasn’t designed to withstand Cambodia’s climate and was being restored when we visited.
We visited in the afternoon as the Palace was closed in the morning – King Norodom Sihamoni, who currently resides there, was hosting a function. It took over an hour to walk around the grounds. We weren’t allowed into the Throne Chamber, but had a peep through the doors and windows.
We tried to get a photo of the Moonlight Pavilion without the groups of Chinese and Vietnamese tourists, but didn’t succeed. Instead, we followed a group of curious monks into the Silver Pagoda. The room was full of gold, silver and jade Buddhas of varying sizes.
Note: to enter the site, you will need to wear something that covers your knees and a T-shirt or blouse that covers your shoulders. This is a place of worship so it warrants respect.
5. Independence Monument: located on the intersection between Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard, the Independence Monument commemorates the country’s independence from France in 1953 as well as its victims of war. The lotus-shaped stupa is modelled on the central tower of Angkor Wat and acts as a roundabout for the constant movement of cars, tuk-tuks and bicycles that surround it.
We walked to the Monument from the Royal Palace, through the numerous connecting parks. We came across multiple signs indicating that you can’t pee on, sit on or vandalise the grass, and indeed it all looked to be in pristine condition.
Note: the park dividing Sihanouk Boulevard also houses the impressive statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk (the current King’s father and national hero).
6. Khmer iced coffee: hop into any local shop where you see plastic chairs around small plastic tables and locals chatting away outside. These places are bound to offer you Khmer iced coffee to have in or take away (you’ll get your take away coffee in a plastic bag!). Just ask for a “kaffe tuk-koh tuk-toek-gok” or simply “kaffe” and you’ll get Khmer coffee with ice and sweet condensed milk. It’s a real energy booster on a hot, sticky day.
We enjoyed a Khmer iced coffee while Dad visited S21.
7. Toul Sieng Genocide Museum: we took a tuk-tuk from the Independence Monument to Toul Sieng Genocide Museum in the south-west of the city. This is not a place I would visit twice, so we left Dad to wander around by himself. However, it’s an important place to visit if you are to truly understand Cambodia’s recent history.
The former high school, sometimes referred to as Security Prison #21 or S21, was used as a prison and torture centre during the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Cambodia. It’s a rough ride going around the rooms and seeing photos of the victims or the instruments used for torture – but there’s no softening the atrocities that occurred.
Prisoners included women and children, as well as anyone deemed a professional – even wearing glasses was seen as a source of intellectualism and these people were rounded up. Some foreigners were also imprisoned there (and eventually murdered), along with an estimated 20,000 people between 1975 and 1979.
Note: You can walk around with the Museum’s audio guide for a more in-depth explanation. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records and many strange things have come out in the Khmer Rouge Tribune, which you’ll find about from the audio.
Photo: Lady Penh with offerings, inside Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh.