Phnom Penh introduction
With its wide, tree lined boulevards and scenic setting at the confluence of three rivers, Phnom Penh was once the loveliest of the former French cities in Indochina.
Many of its French colonial buildings remain, dotted around this rapidly growing capital in various state of ruin or renovation and beautiful frangipani trees still sprout from the pavements of the boulevards. It is a city which is finally emerging from the horrors of its recent past, rediscovering and reinventing itself as a tourist destination for tomorrow. Traffic in Phnom Penh has been growing at a remarkable pace in recent years but compared to its neighbours Bangkok and Saigon it is still very much a low rise and pedestrian-friendly city.
The focal point of Phnom Penh is the bustling riverside where you can enjoy a stroll along the banks of the Tonle Sap River or sit at a café and watch the world go by. Just back from the riverfront are the main attractions of the city – the National Museum, the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom, from where, fable has it, the city was born. This is also where most of the better hotels are situated.
We highly recommend spending some time browsing or people watching in the local markets. Central Market (aka Psar Thmei) is the most centrally based one and is housed in a prime example of Cambodian art deco architecture. The most interesting market is without a doubt the Russian Market (known locally as Tuol Tom Pong). A ramshackle warren of stalls housed under makeshift roofs and tarpaulins, it is home to an incredible array of wares, from clothing, car parts, food, fake antiques and gemstones to marble statues, wood carvings, shoes and pirate CDs and DVDs. It is also a great place to try some freshly cooked local food, orange juice squeezed in front of you or one of the fabulous Khmer coffees with sweet milk. If you prefer to take refreshment somewhere a little cooler then there are a few NGO-run cafés serving smoothies and cake around the perimeter of the market.
If you have an interest in visiting or supporting local charities there are numerous locally run NGOs and charities that serve the many disadvantaged people of Phnom Penh. You can help by eating at the excellent Friends restaurant, or buying products sold by concerns such as Tabitha and Rajana. If you are looking for a little more exposure then one of the best projects being run is that of PSE (Pour un Sourire d’un Enfant or For the Smile of a Child), which is about five kilometres from the city. They do a fantastic job of helping children out of poverty and away from an existence of living in and off the municipal dump. They also operate an excellent café where you can have lunch and know that all proceeds go towards the work of the charity. If you would like a rejuvenating massage try one of the many Seeing Hands outlets, where blind masseurs earn a good living by providing excellent massages.
As noted in the introduction to Phnom Penh, there is an ever-growing range of excellent boutique shops, spas, cafés and restaurants in the city. One of the best streets to find great examples of all of these is Street 240. The best place for people watching in comfort is the famous Foreign Correspondent’s Club (the FCC) on the river front. From the first floor bar you can watch the sun set over the National Museum behind or the people on the river front below. There are a number of tailors and cobblers we can also recommend where you can get clothes and shoes made well and at incredibly good prices.
The art scene in Phnom Penh is also very active, and perhaps one of the best places to see the work of local and foreign artists is at the Java Café close to Independence Monument. Many of the streets around the waterfront, particularly Street 178, are home to numerous local galleries. Dance enthusiasts can see performances at the School of Fine Arts on Street 70 and can also watch students of Khmer Classical ballet training here. The Apsara Arts Association provides weekly (Saturday) performances at their school on Street 71. The Sovanna Phum Arts Association performs traditional shadow puppet shows every Friday night on Street 360. Check with your private guide for help in arranging any of the above.
The former capital of Oudong sits in the middle of the rice plains 41 kilometres from Phnom Penh. These days it is little more than a long bluff rising out of the rice paddies, divided in to two distinct ridges, on top of which sit a series of stupas and viharas and the battle-marked ruins of a mosque. Oudong is notable too for being one of the last resistance points of Lon Nol’s army against the invading Khmer Rouge. But it is for the superb views across the countryside and a sense of peace and quiet away from the capital that makes this a worthwhile half-day excursion.
Phnom Penh’s modern history tour
Our guide met us at your hotel this morning, and accompany usfirst to Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, a former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned in to a centre for interrogation, torture and death. Today, it is a museum of torture, and serves to remind visitors of the terrible atrocities that came to pass in Cambodia. Over 17,000 people passed through the gates of this prison, and only seven lived to tell the tale.
The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, photographing all the prisoners and many of these haunting black and white images are on display in the cells. Tuol Sleng is a profoundly moving experience, and not everyone will want to visit. However, it is key to understanding the depths into which Cambodia descended, and how far it has come in the years since.
Driving out of the city, you arrive at the infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
Prisoners from Tuol Sleng followed this same route to their fate. An old Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek was turned in to an extermination camp for political prisoners. The remains of 8,985 people were exhumed from mass graves, and are kept in a memorial stupa here.
Staying at the iRoha Garden, Phnom Penh
The iRoha Garden hotel and resort is located in Phnom Penhs quiet embassy district a stones throw away from some of the cities major sights. The hotel has 27 rooms all designed to reflect the nature present around Cambodia with themes such as Mekong, Island and Forest. The hotel itself is set within spacious grounds with a large pool, spa and restaurant serving Khmer and western cuisine.