The capital city of Cambodia is probably most known for one reason, the Killing Fields, and the massive gravesite of the Khmer Rouge Regime genocide can be a difficult visit. The city of Phnom Penh itself has something of a bad reputation, aside from its various locations linked to the Khmer Rouge days, but this is rather unfair and the city has a certain majestic quality as the place where the three mighty rivers of the Tonle Sap, the Bassac, and the Mekong come together. Aside from the waterfront, there are also a number of old time attractions worth giving a day or two.
The Killing Fields
Anyone with a decent understanding of Asian history has probably heard of the Killing Fields, when the Khmer Rouge targeted well educated professionals under the suspicion that they held ties to the former and foreign governments, and forced them work in labor camps where they died from either execution or poor health. Today you can walk around Choeung Ek, which was once an orchard before before it became a place for the Khmer Rouge Regime to bury bodies. It’s not uncommon for people to opt out on this stop, not just because it’s a bit hard to take in, but also because of the valid argument that turning the site into a tourist attraction is perhaps a step too far. The counterargument to this of course is the fact that it’s important not to forget what happened in the past, so it’s up to you to decide where you stand on the issue.
Around The City
Phnom Penh is not just about the Killing Fields however, and an assortment of city attractions help to shed light on what used to be before the dark period, as well as inspire hope for the future of the country. The Royal Palace is well worth a visit, a beautiful structure that shows traditional Cambodian architecture that housed the consecutive Kings of Cambodia before a vacant stretch during the Khmer Rouge period.
The Silver Pagoda is also commonly visited and named after more than 5,000 silver tiles that decorate the temple. Even more beautiful, however, are the jeweled statues you’ll find inside, including the life-size Golden Buddha decorated in nearly 10,000 diamonds and the small green crystal Buddha coined the “Emerald Buddha”. You can also get a flavor for Cambodian art by stopping by the National Museum, another beautiful structure just north of the palace.
For a spot of shopping, head to the Russian Market, but don’t be fooled by the name as there is no Russian merchandise on offer, although you will find almost everything else. The market has a range of touristy souvenirs but if you root around you can find some hidden gems like Khmer textiles, wood carvings, and other local crafts. There is also a wet market where you can find Cambodian fruit and vegetables as well as local snacks like tasty noodle soups and sticky rice treats.
Phnom Penh sits at the intersection of the three mighty rivers of the Mekong, the Tonle Sap, and the Bassac. River cruises and sunset cruises are readily available from Sisowath Quay and you can cruise along the Mekong River for a snapshot of the local countryside around the city. You can expect to see kids splashing around, fishermen, and locals washing clothes or bathing.
As for nightlife, head for the night market along the river (every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) which is a promising outing for tasty street eats and a serene river setting. Next to that, some restaurant have ‘special herb pizzas’ on the menu, we’ll leave that up to you.
Phnom Penh can sometimes be ignored in favor of other big cities in Asia but it is a beautiful mix of old world charm and modern elements, and it is also so much more than just the Killing Fields and the other reminders of the Khmer Rouge Regime era. Nowadays Phnom Penh has a lot to offer travelers who stay here for a few days, from its food, to its shopping, to its spectacular riverfront.