History played out in threes
These three monuments represent three periods of Cambodian history. The Angkor-inspired Independence Monument, the monument to the much loved King Sihanouk and one to the Vietnamese involvement in the country. All are easily reached on foot from the Royal Palace.
The Vann Molyvann-designed Independence Monument was built in 1958 to celebrate independence from the French five years earlier and as a memorial to Cambodia's war dead. It's styled in the shape of an Angkor Wat-inspired, lotus-shaped stupa, and is best viewed from one of the roads that surround it.
Sadly, it is now being overshadowed by the ugly, imposing buildings towering nearby—many would argue deliberately as Molyvann, who enjoyed the patronage of former King Norodom Sihanouk, is part of an establishment that represented a threat to the hegemony of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Sitting in the centre of Phnom Penh's largest and arguably busiest roundabout, the monument is a favourite among tourists and Khmers alike for photographs. The park that runs east towards the river from the monument is a popular spot for Khmer wedding photos—look for the wedding parties with their golden umbrellas posing in the afternoon light. It’s also a regular haunt for walkers, runners, dog walkers, strolling families, early evening games of badminton, and groups of kids who get together to stare at each others’ motorbikes and catch up on gossip. As a small window into Cambodian culture and way of life, there are few more pleasant ways to catch a glimpse.
While you are in the area, cross the road to the south (carefully) and take a quick wander through Wat Langka. Really of only passing interest to the typical traveller, the temple is an historically important temple for Cambodians and a popular one for VIP ceremonies of various kinds.
Just east of the Independence Monument, the King Norodom Sihanouk Memorial was unveiled in October 2013 to coincide with the first anniversary of his death, this US$1.2m new addition to Cambodia’s public monuments makes for an interesting detour.
Considered by many Khmers as a hero king and the father of the nation, King Norodom Sihanouk’s first reign was a turbulent one, yet the mass mourning following his death in 2012 demonstrated that public affection for the King Father remains high, and you’ll see his picture in government buildings, banks, offices and plenty of private homes. The new memorial is popular with Cambodian visitors and likely to be a focal point during the public holidays reserved for his birthday and death.
Wearing a plain suit and a benign smile, the 4.5 metre high bronze statue of the King Father is simple and personal, in style if not in size. The statue is shaded by a traditionally styled gold coloured stupa, 27 metres tall and set in the long narrow park that runs down the centre of the boulevard. The memorial is best approached from the riverside end, as the supersized monarch looks out to the water. To avoid causing offence, take your cue from those around you—removing your shoes at the base of the steps shows respect.
The memorial would be an appropriate addition to a visit to the Royal Palace (about seven minutes’ walk away) or following a wander around the National Museum, as the royal cremation took place in the garden out front.
Last but not least, to the northeast of here, heading towards the Royal Palace, the Cambodia-Vietnam Soldiers Monument was built to a Vietnamese design in 1979 by the victors over the Khmer Rouge. Following demonstrations two decades later, the area surrounding the monument was dubbed Democracy Square.
Today it is still used for political gatherings—when the government grants permission, of course—although the most common events are the evening shows that take place toward Street 268. It is sometimes used as a focal point for expression for the resentment of Vietnam and the Vietnamese that stands constantly ready to be inflamed in Cambodia. In July 2007, a bomb was left at the base of the monument, though it did little damage. The square features fountains lit up at night with laser lights during holidays and on special occasions.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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