Phnom Penh has been the political and cultural hub of Cambodia for over 140 years. Once referred to as ‘the Pearl of South East Asia’, Phnom Penh is steeped in history. Alongside the beautiful Royal Palace and the grand Independence Monument, Phnom Penh is host to many fascinating museums and beautiful Wats. Let’s look more in-depth.
The Royal Palace was built in 1866 when King Norodom relocated his capital to Phnom Penh from Oudong. Excepting the years under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian kings have lived there since it was built. A dress code applies (shoulders and upper legs must be covered) but it is a fascinating experience and a great way to see how the Cambodian people interact with their own history.
The National Museum can found very close to the Royal Palace, and is home to the best selection of Angkorian artefacts outside of Siem Reap. Indeed, it has the finest collection of Khmer sculpture in the world, dating back over a thousand years. Comprising of four pavilions facing the immaculate garden, the National Museum takes you on a journey through Cambodia’s religious and cultural heritage.
The Independence Monument is found in the east of the city on Sihanouk Boulevard. Built in 1958 to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, it also serves as a war memorial on national holidays. Constructed to resemble the central tower of the Angkor Wat, the Independence Monument serves to display Cambodia’s history and culture with pride.
Situated a stone’s throw from Independence Monument, the statue of the late Norodom Sihanouk stands facing to the east. Erected in 2013, it pays homage to the man who was the ‘architect of Cambodian independence from France’. Although controversial, the statue embodies the new Cambodia; a country that looks forward with great hope, but doesn’t forget its past.
Wat Phnom (Temple on the Hill) is situated on the only ‘hill’ in Phnom Penh. Built in 1373, it is one of the very oldest buildings in the city. City dwellers still come here to worship for success in exams or for happiness in marriage. It is home to a beautiful collection of art and ornaments, with a fascinating mixture of Vietnamese and Chinese influence. After soaking up the history and culture of the place, enjoy a cold drink and watch as the locals play Sey (Cambodian hackey sack), sell their goods, or let their children run riot in the shade of the beautiful trees.
For those of you interested in the dark years of the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are the places to go. Tuol Sleng functioned as a prison and torture chamber for those who the Democratic Kampuchea officials felt were opposed to their regime. After weeks of torture and suffering, the prisoners were transported to Choeung Ek for execution; to save bullets, prisoners were murdered by being beaten to death with shovels or lengths of wood. Although harrowing, both museums are full of information and knowledgeable guides.
Phnom Penh has had a tumultuous history, and you are never far from some fascinating French or Chinese architecture, a scar from the Khmer Rouge regime or a beautiful Wat. Don’t be afraid to jump in a tuk tuk and tour the city to absorb the history and culture of the place.