There is no doubt about it: Phnom Penh is one crazy city.
Imagine a place where French colonial villas meet gems of Khmer architecture, where a non-stop parade of motorbikes flood the streets and the makings of a modern metropolis collide with small town grit and hospitality. Phnom Penh is all this and much more. Located at the meeting point of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers, this bustling Cambodian capital was once known as the Pearl of Asia and today has a wealth of offerings for its visitors, from history old and new to a diversity of markets, nightlife and of course – gastronomy. When we docked in the middle of the Mekong last night, we had a beautiful view over the city skyline, which was dotted with tall glass buildings and lined with lively restaurants, cafes and bars. Right then, I could already tell that Phnom Penh would be one of the most vibrant destinations so far of our Mekong cruise.
With only one day to experience the city, we had a packed itinerary that would take us through a rollercoaster ride of Phnom Penh’s most popular sights. Disembarking the Toum Tiou I, we were greeted with our ride for the day: a bright pink mini-bus packed with ice cold water bottles, air conditioning and comfy seats. From here, we were whisked off to our first stop of the day: the Cambodian Royal Palace, which still functions as the residence of Cambodian monarch King Sihamoni. Built in the 1860s, this multi-building complex is one of the most recognizable sights in Phnom Penh, with its beautiful classic Khmer design and perfectly manicured gardens, which offer a peaceful escape from Phnom Penh’s city bustle. While half the complex is sealed from the public, we were able to explore two of the palace’s most significant structures: the Throne Room (still used today for important meetings and royal events) and the Silver Pagoda (whose floor is sumptuously covered in over 5,000 silver tiles):
After walking in the footsteps of Cambodian royalty, we continued our day with a visit to the National Museum of Cambodia, the largest museum in the country dedicated to cultural history. Its whimsical terracotta structure houses over 14,000 items, making it one of the biggest collections of Khmer art in the world. Many of the most significant statues discovered at the temples of Angkor can be found here, along with other stone, ceramic, bronze and wood treasures representing over 1,000 years of Cambodian history. My favourite part of the visit however was the beautiful courtyard found in the centre of the museum, complete with tranquil koi ponds, perfectly trimmed shrubs and plenty of flowers:
For lunch, we indulged our senses at a beautiful local restaurant known as the Titanic. With an open-air layout overlooking the Mekong, gentle music drifting in the background and even a Khmer dancer performing while we ate, the ambiance was unbeatable. The food of course was beautifully presented and prepared, with a set menu of Khmer favourites like skewered chicken, curried meats and sweet colourful pudding:
After lunch, we made our way to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, housed in a former high school-turned detention centre, which saw 20,000 prisoners held and executed from 1975-1979. This centre, once known as Security Prison 21 (S21), was one of over 150 prison/interrogation centres found in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It stands today as a memorial for the thousands that were executed, and also as a harrowing reminder of Cambodia’s dark past. Throughout the complex, you’ll find four main buildings holding former cells, galleries of photographs and various memorabilia, including instruments of torture that were once used on prisoners. Because the prison kept detailed records, the gruesome reality of its operation is well known and documented. Outside in the courtyard, we even got the opportunity to meet one of the centre’s few survivors. It certainly wasn’t an easy visit, but nonetheless a moving, powerful and eye-opening experience.
We capped off our time in Phnom Penh with a visit to one of the city’s busiest markets: the Russian Market, so-named for its popularity in the 80s among Russian visitors and expats. Like many of the markets we’ve visited, entering the Russian Market was like launching yourself in a never-ending labyrinth of stalls selling everything from handicrafts and clothing to motorcycle parts and fresh produce. Strikingly, this market seemed much more relaxed and geared towards locals, with a nonchalant attitude emanating from the vendors, who preferred to chat among themselves rather than push visitors to buy their goods. It must have been reverse psychology well at work, because I ended up buying more than I have this whole trip, leaving with a big bag of souvenirs to take home. With this last shopping stop, our time in Phnom Penh had come to an end, and we were treated to a scenic bus ride back to the boat before saying goodbye to this crazy city for the last time.
Tomorrow, we will be leaving Cambodia and crossing the border to Vietnam. While the thought of leaving this amazing country fills me with a heavy heart, I have heard so many incredible things about Vietnam that it’s impossible to not feel a little excited.
Update you soon!