For many travellers to Cambodia, the capital Phnom Penh is but an after thought to the main attraction of Angkor Wat. While there's no denying the ruins on the outskirts of Siem Reap are the country's premier destination, the capital retains its own particular Khmer charms and is pretty to boot. Here's what we'd do with three days in the city, striving for a mix of history and hedonism -- mix and match to suit.
There's no better way to commence the mammoth effort of trying to get your head around what happened during Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge period than with a visit to Tuol Sleng, or S21. Set within the walls of what was originally a school, education was turned on its head here with some 17,000 Khmer and foreign citizens imprisoned, tortured and executed as the Khmer Rouge hierarchy turned upon and then devoured itself. It's a sombre, emotional place. We've seen visitors in uncontrollable tears and others wandering, glancing around as they discuss happy hour that night. It affects different people differently. Any visitor, with any kind of interest in the Khmer Rouge period, should begin their journey here. Allow at least two hours.
Once you're done at S21 get a tuk tuk off to Phsar Tuol Tom Pong, which is far better known as the Russian Market due to its popularity with Russians, back in the day. Despite its cluttered walkways and low roofs, this is a good market for shopping, browsing and snacking. While true antiques can be found here, there are also some fine replicas, which, in the scheme of things, are what you really should be buying.Afternoon
Once rested, head down to Phnom Penh's riverfront promenade, perhaps via your hotel for a short break if you need it. This part of Phnom Penh is a really beautiful stretch. The area is home to an invigorating mishmash of life that makes Phnom Penh: fresh fruit and iced drink vendors mix it up with postcard sellers and street urchins. Many think this runs along the bank of the Mekong, but it doesn't. You're actually on the bank of the Tonle Sap River, which runs back up to fill the Tonle Sap. If you're lucky enough to be here on the right day, and have enough time, you can watch as the water flows to the South China Sea slows, stops and reverses, beginning the crucial backfilling of Tonle Sap.
Take a wander. Walk along the promenade from in front of the Royal Palace down along the riverfront. If you start early afternoon, walk as far as you can, then backtrack; if you start late, walk till you hit the copse of trees sort of opposite the Bouganinvillea Hotel. There will be some small boats here offering a sunset cruise. That's what you're here for. Depending on the time of the year, the boat may take you across into the Mekong, or you may just dawdle around on the Tonle Sap. Either way, as the sun sets, hopefully to the tunes of Ros Sereysothea you can enjoy the dazzling sunset that backdrops the Royal Palace.
Pol Pot used the Angkor-period monuments as a crutch of sorts, declaring that if the Khmer people made them, then they could make anything. If you aren't heading to Siem Reap -- or even if you are -- you can see what he was on about by visiting the fabulous National Museum. This is where many of the original items from temples were transferred to to protect them from Thai and other looters, and while there are some magnificent pieces on display, there are far more that don't see the light of day, stored in the facility's basement. For someone with an interest in Angkor-period sculpture, a visit is essential and even if you're not, there really are some outstanding works of art here worth a look. While the actual grounds are fairly small, don't take that as an indication that you should hop, skip and jump through. You need to give the National Museum the time it has earned.
One monument and building that has so far resisted the current Cambodian administration's desire to wipe clear its architectural past, it's the New Market, or Phsar Thmei. This almost ochre-whitewashed Czech-constructed masterpiece is like no other building we've ever seen. Sure, it could do with a good scrub, and shopping aside, it's an amazing and totally unlikely building in the heart of Phnom Pehh. While it is given over to proper markets, with everything from dishpans to fresh avocado for sale, prices are high and the vendors ruthless with tourists -- we would say this is one for browsing rather than buying. Be sure to search out the fabulous flower section and the claustrophobic fresh fruit section on the opposite side, under the hessian cloth sunscreens.
Many find Tuol Sleng disturbing for its understated horror. Then they visit the "Killing Fields". Set a longish drive out of Phnom Penh, this was one of the main execution grounds for Phnom Penh proper. This wasn't a one-off location, either, with "killing fields" actually located all over the country -- many if not most Cambodian towns will have an equivalent version of the one here. There's a central construction loaded with over 5,000 human skulls and you can see the ponds (mass graves) nearby that the skulls were removed from. As with Tuol Sleng, this site affects various people differently, and while there has been some controversy given it is actually being managed by a South Korean company, we'd say it is still worth a visit. Many visit in the morning, but we've tended to find the afternoons here a bit quieter and more reflective.
Vann Molyvann is Cambodia's best known architect, responsible for structures such as the National Sports Complex, the Independence Monument and experimental low-cost apartments. If you had to pick a single person as being responsible for why Phnom Penh is as charming as it now is, Vann would be your man. Unfortunately the current bone-headed administration is busying themselves knocking down many of Vann Molyvann's pieces, replacing them with tasteless brass and glass abominations that are best described as comparatively awful. Luckily a great little organisation, Khmer Architecture Tours, runs walking tours highlighting some of the great architectural examples throughout the city remaining, and that's how you're spending this portion of the day.
If you've previously travelled to Thailand and have seen the Grand Palace in Bangkok, you'll notice the similarities to Phnom Penh's Royal Palace immediately. They're not accidental. But then there are the differences: the tattered murals, the French gift, the Euro-influenced royal hall, the cannonball trees, the North Korean guards, all of which make this a very, very different attraction. When the Khmer Rouge ran the show the Palace was emptied and semi-abandoned, and the Royal elephants starved. Allow two hours and get a guide.
What to do with a final afternoon in Phnom Penh? If it was us, we'd wander back towards the riverfront; perhaps do some lounging on the lawn in front of the palace, or soak up the scene at one of the cafes along Street 240 and do a spot of shopping there as well. You may even make it to happy hours at the fabled Raffles' Elephant Bar -- drinks are half price from 4 to 9.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 15th June, 2016.