One of Phnom Penh’s most popular attractions
The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda sit side by side on Sothearos Boulevard and between them form one of the most popular attractions for first time visitors to Phnom Penh.
Anyone with an interest in Cambodia history should pop by to meander through the palace grounds—or at least those bits open to the public—surrounded by their high and intriguing butter yellow walls. The Silver Pagoda likewise is well worth a look, and while those familiar with Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok will see the commonalities between the two, the Phnom Penh version is by far the lesser of the two.
As is often the case with palaces, some of the gates have very specific purposes. The eastern Victory Gate leads directly to the entrance of the throne hall and is used only by royalty and VIPs. This is the gate through which former king Norodom Sihanouk’s body was taken for a six-kilometre procession to the crematorium through the capital’s streets in February 2013, following the customary three months during which his embalmed body lay in state in the Royal Palace. Three days later, mourners gathered around the northern or funeral gate, which is only opened after the death of a monarch. The west or executing gate was used to escort condemned prisoners exiting the palace to be killed. The southern gate is reserved for use by commoners and it is through this gate the public reaches the Silver Pagoda.
As far as palaces go, the Royal Palace is a relatively new affair, dating back only to the mid 19th century. Previously the capital was in Oudong but in 1865 the royal family moved their residence to the new digs in Phnom Penh and the following year the city was inaugurated as the country’s capital. A little more than 100 years later, the same palace became a prison as it was here that the king and his family were held as prisoners by the Khmer Rouge.
The first building you’ll visit is the Throne Hall, on the top of which you can see four pale, almost clown-like faces, which represent the all-seeing king. This is a common motif in Khmer architecture, inspired by the four faces of the Bayon temple at Angkor. The hall itself is painted vivid yellow, a symbol of Buddhism, and white, for Hinduism, the two main faiths of Cambodia. The central door of the five at the front of the throne hall is reserved for royalty and VIPs. Inside, there is a 1913–painted ceiling mural telling the story of the Ramayana. The thick carpet was a gift from China in 1993 and matches the lotus-bud floor tiles.
The enormous gold thrones are only used for coronations, with the king on the front throne and the queen, when there is one, on the rear one. The queen’s throne is taller as it is built upon a golden stage made of boats and nagas. It has three stairways, one for her and one for each of the two Brahmin priests who look after her during the ceremony. To the left of the throne is a gold bust of King Sisowath (1904-1927) and to the right stands that of King Monivong (1927-1941). Visitors are not permitted to enter the throne hall but they are allowed to gaze in through the doors—photography from the doorways is not permitted.
At the October 2004 coronation of the ballet-dancing son of former king Sihanouk, King Norodom Sihamoni, both thrones were left empty as he does not have a queen, and he sat in the ornate chair in front of the throne. Normally a coronation is lavish and runs for seven days, but due to the kingdom’s lack of money, at the request of Sihamoni it was cut to just three. Note the new parasol, which belongs to Sihamoni for the entirety of his rule.
The small white building to the right of the hall is a resting room that was once used by royalty to catch their breath before climbing onto an elephant to head out into the world. Royal sermons and classical dances would be held in the front pavilion that looks over the park between the Royal Palace and the river. The king’s residence at the rear (and out of bounds to just about everyone) was built in the 1930s. If the blue royal flag is flying, he is in residence.
On the far right sits the royal guesthouse. Following the death of former king Sihanouk’s father, his mother moved from the residence to this building. Today it is used as a guesthouse for special guests of royalty. To the left of the throne hall sits another small building. The downstairs section contains a small clothing display, including copies of the clothes Sihamoni wore during his coronation. At the rear, note the seven mannequins wearing seven days’ worth of colours.
Behind and to the left of this building en route to the Silver Pagoda is the oddest building: a grey, mostly cast-iron gift from France which was initially constructed in Egypt. It was shipped to Cambodia in 1876 as a gift from Napolean III. When we last visited in 2019 this building was covered in scaffolding and it wasn’t clear if it was being demolished or restored.
Like Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, the Silver Pagoda has murals running around its outer wall telling the story of the Ramayana. The murals here, however, originally painted in 1903-4, are in poor condition and were probably not helped by a Khmer-Polish restoration project begun in 1985 but halted five years later when the money ran out. If you want to follow the full story, start at the east gate and follow the murals for their full 642 metres.
Within the grounds are a collection of royal stupas, with the one for Norodom Sihanouk sitting on the far side of the Silver Pagoda. The pagoda itself is named after the five tonnes of tiles—5,329 of them each weighing 1,125 grams—covering the floor. Most of the area is covered in carpets, but a small area near the entrance is exposed. The centrepiece is the large jade Buddha statue—referred to as the Emerald Buddha—sitting atop a dizzying array of goodies.
Standing in front of it is a tall, solid-gold Buddha weighing 90 kilograms and encrusted with 2,086 diamonds. The gem above the forehead weighs 25 carats and another on the chest is a hefty 20 carats. It was made in 1904 during the reign of King Sisowath. All up, some 1,650 artefacts are on display, ranging from platinum cigarette boxes with emeralds the size of quail eggs to gold spittoons. It’s the kind of place whose ostentatiousness will make republicans squirm, and come out all the stronger in their beliefs.
After the pagoda, there is a small air-conditioned interior display of royal palanquins, which is odd but kind of cute. They mostly look pretty uncomfortable. Finally there are the elephant stables where the king once kept his white elephant. The Khmer Rouge starved it to death.
There is a dress code for visiting the palace—as there is for visiting the temples, despite many rumours to the contrary. It is simply that both men and women should cover their knees and shoulders.
In the past we hired a guide and had a good experience, but on our latest visit the guide told us a number of “facts” which were clearly incorrect, which made for a very disappointing experience. The price remains the same—US$10 (on top of the $10 admission)—a lot for a sole traveller but more reasonable if you can rustle up a few people to share the cost with. A walk through with a guide should take around 45 minutes to an hour. At the end of the tour you are welcome to walk back through to take more photos and have another look around without a guide.
Note the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda can get extremely congested with multiple (often very large) groups standing beside each other using microphones in different languages. It is a less than ideal scenario. Bide your time and wait for a break in the waves of tourists before entering any of the structures as they can become very uncomfortable and unpleasant when packed with keen–elbowed tourists.
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.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Phnom Penh