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Phnom Penh

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Welcome to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Legend has it that in 1372, a local widow named Penh discovered four Buddha statues that had been washed up by the waters from the Mekong River. She saw them as bearers of good fortune and erected a temple on the hill to house them, and so the city grew around this structure, known as the Hill of Penh (Phnom Penh).

Once considered to be the loveliest of Indochina's French-built cities, this untidy capital sprawls at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonlé Sap Rivers. Concrete buildings in need of repair, unsealed roads riddled with potholes and a confusion of boulevards crammed with traffic, all make uninviting first impressions. Traces of Khmer and colonial eras can be found in the little details, redeeming those first hasty conclusions. These can be found in the heart of the city where French villas and street-side cafes perch along tree-lined boulevards and the occasional majestic Khmer building catches the eye.

Phnom Penh has a number of Wats (temple-monasteries), museums and other places of interest in and around the city, as well as sunset cruises on the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, and a bustling market place. There has also been a recent boom of new hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs sprouting up through the city and a nightlife that promises fun and flavour.

Information & Facts


Phnom Penh, with a tropical climate, has hot weather all year round, but temperatures are slightly cooler between November and January. The hottest month is April, when temperatures can soar to over 104°F (40°C). The wet monsoon season runs from June through October, bringing strong winds, high humidity and very heavy rains.

Getting Around

Phnom Penh has a limited public transport system, with no bus service. The city is relatively small and is easy to negotiate on foot. Taxis can usually be arranged through hotels, though can also be telephoned or found outside hotels. Taxis are not metered. Bicycle rickshaws ( cyclos) are widely used, but are best for short distances only and motorbike taxis are a popular option. Fares should be negotiated before hand. Car rental agencies are available, as well as motorbike hire, but traffic can be hectic.

Khmer is the official language. French is also spoken, but English is fast becoming popular with the younger generation.

Riel (KHR) is the official currency and is divided into 100 sen. Foreign currency is difficult to exchange with the exception of US Dollars. Most transactions require cash. US dollars and Thai Baht are accepted, although smaller transactions are usually done in riel. A torn US dollar note renders it useless. Credit cards are only accepted in a limited number of tourist-orientated hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and larger towns. There are a few ATMs in Phnom Penh, but they shouldn't be relied upon as a source of money; travellers cheques in US dollars or sterling can be cashed at a limited number of banks and larger hotels, though travellers cheques are not recommended due to limited acceptance.


The nightlife is Phnom Penh has picked up in recent years, with several good quality clubs and bars emerging to join the list of enduring classics like The Heart of Darkness and The Foreign Correspondents Club. The upmarket Elephant Bar at the Hotel Royal and the Riverhouse Lounge are both stylish places to start an evening in the city. The area around the Lake has many bars although the majority are still of the go-go girl variety and are rather seedy, although an interesting experience and worth checking out at least once during a stay in the city. For live music try Memphis Pub which has nightly gigs and Miles Jazz Café with jazz every Friday. Equinox Bar has jam sessions on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Most of Cambodia's artists and musicians were killed during Pol Pots' reign, part of a deliberate attempt to eradicate the country's culture and artistic traditions. That's why it is worth supporting institutions and events that help with the rebirth of these areas of Khmer life. The Royal university of Fine Arts hosts Khmer royal ballet although training and performance sessions are irregular. The Aspara Arts Association holds classical and fold dance sessions every Saturday at 7pm. The Souvanna Phum Theatre has traditional puppetry shows on weekends, while Chatomuk Theatre on Sisowath Quay hosts traditional music and dance on occasions.

Although Phnom Penh is getting safer it remains a fairly dangerous city, hence walking around at night is best avoided. Using motorcycle taxis is a cheap and fairly safe way to get between venues.

For details of what's hot and happening in the city get a copy of the Friday edition of the Cambodia Daily, the fortnightly The Phnom Penh Postand the free and always interesting Bayon Pearnik, which comes out monthly.


The most popular destination for visiting shoppers is undoubtedly Russian Market, a square block of covered stalls between Streets 440 and 450. There is an interesting mix of paraphernalia, pirated gear and religious icons on offer but you must be prepared to bargain hard. Central Market is an art deco city landmark and a good place to buy silk and fabrics, as well a range of souvenirs.

Another good location for traditional fabrics is Mekong Arts on Street 178. To find essentials and grocery items try Lucky Market which is where the city's expats do their weekly shopping. For a Cambodian version of the modern mall experience head to Sorya Shopping Centre, just south of the Central Market. For art galleries and boutiques offering a more high-end selection of goods than the markets, head for Street 240.

When shopping in Phnom Penh remember that cash is king, and both dollars and riel are accepted. Don't try to use credit cards or travellers cheques. And of course, bargaining is expected and essential.


Phnom Penh is a good example of a two-day city, where there is plenty of see and experience in a short time but little to keep one longer. The Royal Palace and National Museum are worth a morning, to get a sense of the country's rich heritage, then as a counterpoint, visit the Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields to understand the terrible atrocities suffered by the Khmer people during Pol Pot's reign of terror. In a lighter vein, enjoy the lively shopping scene in Central and Russian Markets while taking time to watch the sunset on the river at the Foreign Press Club's balcony bar.

Getting around between sights can be a hassle. It's not a bad idea to engage a taxi driver for the day, or for the more adventurous, rely on the services of moto-taxi where you sit on the back of a moped. Walking is an interesting option, but best avoided during the heat of the day and at night. Grab a free copy of the quarterly A Phnom Penh Visitors' Guideas it contains a useful map and good summaries of major attractions.

GMT +7.

Cambodian travel can often be jarring; hard beds, bumpy roads and death defying taxi drivers can leave a body in ill shape. Seeing Hands is a business employing blind masseuses to work out those tourist kinks. Cambodia gives few opportunities to disabled workers and supporting Seeing Hands has its own karmic rewards, but visitors will be even more satisfied by the quality of the massage. The city offers a host of dodgy 'massage' houses and knowing a place is reputable is relaxing in itself. There are three Seeing Hands centres in town, all offering massages for about six US dollars, but don't forget to tip.

It is always wonderful to return from your time abroad with a skill you didn't have when you left home in the first place - and the Cambodia Cooking Class, one of Phnom Penh's most popular tourist attractions, offers tourists to Cambodia the chance to do just that. Khmer cuisine distinguishes itself from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine with its delicate use of spices and aromatic herbs, used to create finely-balanced flavours that run the gamut from sweetness, to saltiness, sourness and spiciness. The Cambodia Cooking Class is operated from the Frizz Restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, and prides itself on a 'small classes, maximum attention' philosophy (space is limited to 16 participants per day). During the full day lesson (9am to 4pm), visitors will learn to prepare a full-course Khmer meal, as well as learning useful tips about the blending of spices and the decorative aspects of Cambodian cuisine. Included in the price, is transportation to and from the restaurant; and a full-colour recipe booklet, so you can try your new culinary skills on your friends and family once you return home.

Phnom Phen's most obvious landmark looks more in style with a Star Warstrading post then most earthly structures. Inside the tall dome is a host of goods, from watches, to jewellery, clothing and food. Much of the market's merchandise is the same, so comparing prices to find the real value is advised. One should bargain hard but good-naturedly. Surrounding the structure is a ring of tightly packed vendors selling similar wares. Its central location is walkable from about anywhere but all taxis know 'central market'.

Choeung Ek was the extermination camp where the prisoners from S21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum) were transported to and executed. Also known as the Killing Fields, after the movie of the same name, about 17,000 people were buried here in mass graves. A tall Memorial Stupa was constructed to commemorate the dead and more than 8,000 skulls are displayed behind the glass. At the entrance, a handwritten sign in Khmer and English summarises the atrocities caused by the Khmer Rouge.

A pleasant way to spend the evening is on the balcony of the FCC. The well-located bar and restaurant sits on the banks of riverside overlooking the converging Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Prices are more expensive then its neighbours, but the colonial-chic style gives an invaluable French flair to the night.

From Sihanoukville, a great destination is the once-popular resort town of Kep. The Khmer Rouge did a number on this town, but the crumbling villas of past French and rich Cambodian tourists add to its ruinous mystique. A beautiful coastal road and nearby Rabbit Island provide present day visitors with a relaxed atmosphere. For the best restaurants in town, and best seafood in Cambodia, try the shack-like buildings near the water and order the crab. Kep is around a 3 hour taxi ride from Sihanoukville, or a 4 hour bus ride from Phnom Phen.

Lakeside is the backpacker hub of Phnom Phen. It is located on the shore of Boeung Kak Lake, a short taxi ride from downtown. The cheapest rooms are available for a couple of dollars but upgrading is a good idea. The guesthouses with the best laid-back atmosphere are spread far into the water with nice decks to lounge away the heat or soak up the night air. Check out the guesthouses creatively named #9 and #10. All the similarities of 'backpakerville' are here: cheap eats, travel agencies and alternative bars with cheap beer and unique cocktail names.

Memphis Pub is a cool venue to hear great cover bands put their spin on old classic rock. It is a thumping place, usually packed with expats and tourists until late. There isn't much Khmer about the style but a taste of home is fun for a night. Memphis is on riverside, making it a central and safe area to stumble home from.

The museum houses the country's most important collection of ancient Cambodian culture and Khmer art. It is made up of four galleries containing relics, sculpture, art and crafts covering history from the pre-Angkor period (4th century) until the present. The pieces are arranged in chronological order and the collection continues to grow as new treasures previously hidden from the Khmer Rouge are discovered. There are also original relics and sculptures from the temples of Angkor.

Irrawaddy river dolphins, once in danger of extinction, are now saving the rural north-eastern town of Kratie. For years the dolphins were killed in now illegal fishing practices and hunted by the Khmer Rouge, but their appeal to tourists is bringing the welcome foreign dollars to the region. Kratie is accustomed to budget travellers, with a choice of cheap guesthouses. All of these offer motorbike drivers for the scenic 9 mile (15km) drive to the dolphins' river home. From the river shore, tourists can rent small boats to get closer. While the oarsmen retain a healthy distance from the surfacing animals, viewers can get near enough to see a similarity between Khmer and dolphin smiles.

Amuse your inner warrior with Phnom Phen's best carnal pleasure: shooting big guns. Whatever one's taste, be it automatic rifles and rocket launchers or grenades, they are all a possibility. It is said that for extra money targets can become live farm animals, although this controversial practice may have stopped in recent times. At about a dollar a bullet, make sure Rambo instincts are kept in check. All guesthouses and taxis can provide a trip to the shooting range, which is located close to the airport.

While this beach town doesn't have much to compare with Thailand's pristine coast, it does make a great getaway from the dusty or muddy (depending on season) rest of Cambodia. Sihanoukville is the country's only deep water port, making much of the city industrial and unattractive to tourists. But there are several secluded tourist beaches with all the requisite trappings: dishevelled beach bars, guesthouses and hawkers. As there isn't much to do in town, it is worth the extra money to stay in the quaint beachside guesthouses. Nightly beach barbecues prepare great food and offer cheap beer. The government is said to have plans to develop the area for larger resorts which will surely ruin its laid-back beach charm in years to come. Regular daily buses provide a three to four hour journey to and from Phnom Phen, along Cambodia's best road. There is also a ferry connecting to Koh Kong, the Cambodian/Thailand border.

This is the principal attraction of the city and contains the best examples of 20th-century Khmer architecture. The Royal Palace is the official residence of King Norodom Sihanouk. Set among the perfectly maintained gardens is the exquisite Throne Hall, the Elephant Pavilion where the king's elephants were kept, the Royal Treasury and the Chan Chaya Pavilion, made especially for performances of classical Cambodian dance. Although mostly off-limits to the public, the Silver Pagoda can be visited. The highlight of the compound, the Silver Pagoda, takes its name from the floor of the temple, which is completely covered in silver tiles. The internal walls are decorated with frescoes depicting episodes of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903 by 40 Khmer artists. Also called the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, the magnificent baccarat crystal image of the Emerald Buddha sits in the centre on a gilt pedestal. There are other intricately carved Buddha images on display, notably the life-size solid gold statue that stands in front of the pedestal, decorated with 9,584 diamonds.

When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they commandeered and converted a secondary school into a primitive prison where they detained and tortured anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary behaviour. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 victims were imprisoned in Security Prison 21, or S21, as it was known. The museum was established after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and today it appears exactly as the fleeing Khmer Rouge left it, and serves as a testimony to the crimes and atrocities of the organisation. It is a tremendously depressing experience, and the pictures, instruments of torture and bloodstained walls give a thorough idea of the extent of the pain and horror borne by the Cambodian people. Thousands of victims were transported from here to the extermination camp outside the city, Choeung Ek.

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