Phnom Penh is a peculiar city. As usual in South East Asia, the Cambodian capital is a mix of perfection, world class architecture and pure chaos. What I liked about it was the fact that Phnom Penh is surprisingly way less popular than cities like, let's say, Bangkok and yet it boasts equally magnificent architecture - such as the royal palace and the temples. Phnom Penh is mainly associated with one of the saddest events in the history of human kind - the Cambodian genocide. But now the Cambodian capital has risen from the ashes and should be looked at and admired as an interesting stop during the journey in this fascinating country.
Phnom Penh - First impressions
Having been to the extremely popular Angkor Wat Temple complex located in the north of the country (take a look at my post about it), it came as a kind of a shock to see how few tourists were in Phnom Penh. Of course, it made it so much nicer to visit - you don't have to waste time in the queues, squeeze through the crowds and deal with con artists at every corner. Another surprising thing was that the temples and the areas around them were kept in an absolutely perfect condition. The architectural style with all the details was so impressive. But just a few steps away, in the food market and in the less well-off streets, the mess and chaos contrasted strongly with the immaculate royal palace grounds.
The piles of dried up sewage taken out onto the streets, rubbish and unbearable stench of rotting meat near the food market were as shocking as the temples were impressive. It is sad to see those conditions, but that's the way life is for many, unfortunately, in Asia. If you're not prepared for to deal with that, it will be difficult for you to travel in that area of the world. However, if you wish to visit it, you should put your prejudice aside and absorb all what Cambodia has to offer. And you can learn a really good lesson from its turbulent history.
Overall, nevertheless, our stay in Phnom Penh was pleasant. The food was good (although not as good as in Thailand), the prices were affordable and the places we've seen were stunning. Do visit Phnom Penh if you have a chance - at least for a day or two - the capital doesn't require a lot of time to be enjoyed. Don't limit yourself only to Siem Ream and Angkor Wat.
Immersing in the chaos - The tuk tuk ride
Having taken a few tuk tuk rides in Bangkok (and fallen a victim to scammers - take a look at my article about all the wrong things that happened in the Thai capital), we were way more careful this time.
We arranged the tuk tuk at our accommodation to make sure that actually the driver was going to get us to the destination - and not take us somewhere out of the city to scam us - we wanted to visit the infamous Killing Fields.
We did expect something crazy but didn't think it would be so intense. For us, I must admit, it was a great adventure, but for those not used to the traffic in Asia, it can be a terrifying experience. When we left the polished city center, the road condition deteriorated quickly as well as the air quality. The trucks that moved past honking their horns seemed to be in a race rather than on a normal road, ignoring all possible rules of the traffic and stirred up clouds of dark brown powdery dust which made breathing almost impossible. The tuk tuk driver seemed to compete with them, turning right and left in a zig-zag in an effort to overtake them. Once we left the main road however, all became pleasant again - the air was better and our driver drove more slowly - probably due to the numerous potholes in the road. That simple tuk tuk ride was an amazing and unforgettable experience - something we will never forget!
What to see in Phnom Penh
Most of the attractions in Phnom Penh are located within the city center - near the promenade along the Tonle Sap river. You can easily walk around them and visit all in one or two days. Take a look at the map of the things we saw:
1. Wat Phnom Buddist Temple
We started our visit in Phnom Penh from the north - slowly moving towards the south. First thing we saw was the Wat Phnom temple (number 1 on the map) which is maybe not the most impressive religious object in the city, but it dates back to the 14th century (although rebuilt a few times). It's also the tallest temple in Cambodia. Surrounded by a beautiful, round park, the white stupa stands out pointing to the sky among the green trees. Nearby is the small, main pagoda where you will notice people praying. It's a nice and quite place - full of spiritual aura - in an otherwise extremely hectic and busy city.
2. Central Market
The characteristic, Art-Deco building is located a short walk south from Wat Phnom. From the ground it doesn't look much exceptional, but from a bird's eye perspective - it's pretty distinctive - the round dome is surrounded by four arms extending far into the city. At this market, you can buy virtually everything - from luxury items such as gold and jewelry to electronics and food. For those who like shopping, this will be a nice experience as the Central Market is different from all other shopping malls you see around the world.
3. Wat Ounalom Temple
This beautiful Temple is the most important for Cambodian Buddhists. Unfortunately, it suffered enormous damage during the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime but today it has been rebuilt and restored to its original state. It's history dates back to the 14th century and the complex consists of a few stupas and temples. What's best - the area is very quiet, with very few tourists and the entry is free of charge.
4. National Museum of Cambodia
The entry fee is around 5 USD. The museum presents the extensive range of artifacts and information about the history of Cambodia. Of course, a visit in this museum cannot compare to walking around the amazing Angkor Wat Comples where you stare the history straight in the eyes, but there are many interesting exhibitions and facts about the country available. Even the building itself is impressive - you won't miss it as it's located right beside the Wat Ounalom Temple and the Royal Palace.
5. Royal Palace
I must say that this was my favorite spot in Phnom Penh. Entry fee is around 10 USD which is high for Cambodian standards but still low considering the prices of historical sites in countries like Thailand or Japan. Although I marked the whole complex as one number on the map, the Royal Palace offers multiple bindings, halls and temples to be admired.
The most impressive is the Throne Hall which was the historical abode of the most important characters in the kingdom. It is in use up to this day - for religious celebrations. I just loved the details, decorations and colors of this magnificent structure.
Next to the Throne Hall, you can find the Moonlight Pavilion which serves as an open air stage and the Silver Pagoda. The Pagoda houses a golden and jeweled statue of Buddha. There are also smaller but not less interesting buildings within the complex - such as offices and royal stupas. This spot is definitely not to be missed while visiting Phnom Penh.
6. Independence Monument
The Independence Monument is one of the main landmarks of Phnom Penh, besides the Royal Palace. It marks the independence from France that Cambodia obtained in 1958. It is in the shape of a closed lotus flower. The monument is a bit further down south from all other attractions - it's nice enough but if you don't have time, I'd rather skip this monument rather than the other attractions described here.
7. The Killing Fields
This is a unique and peculiar place that should be visited only by those who understand what meaning stands behind it. It is the same type of a place as Aushwitz in Europe - it's basically a massive grave for thousands who were killed and starved to death during the merciless reign of the Khmer Rouge. To understand the horror of the unbelievable events that took place in Cambodia, I would recommend that you read the book "First they killed my father" by Loung Ung. You will not be able to put it away. The film based on the book made by Angelina Jolie does not even come close to the quality of the written story. If you only wish to visit this place to take a selfie and tick if from the list - there is no point for you to go there without understanding the history. I described why this kind of places are not for everyone in the article about Aushwitz.
Hostel on the bus
Finishing this post, I'd like to mention about the unusual means of transport we had a chance to try in Cambodia. Whether you travel from Angkor Wat to Phnom Penh or towards the sea, some companies offer something that resembles... a hostel on the bus. The vehicle is a normal coach but instead of seats, there are bunk beds installed inside so you can sleep during your journey as if you were in a hostel. Sounds great doesn't it?
But there are a few downsides to it. The first is that two people can fit onto one such a bed. This means that if you travel alone, you will be forced to sleep with a stranger on the bed without any separation.
Second is safety. The roads around the capital or big cities are fine but the further away you get, the worse the conditions become. You are tossed up and down throughout the most of the journey when the bus gets through the potholes. Of course, no seat belts are required or provided. All travel websites discourage this mode of transport, but nevertheless, it was something different that we'd never experienced before. And every new experience makes the travel so much more memorable!
If you liked this article, you can also download it via the GPSmyCity app - you will be able to gain access to the guide, which will direct you to all the attractions described above, even if you're offline. Download it here.
Author: Tom @ Adventurous Travels
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