Phnom Penh does have an eccentric charm. Seen from the river, palm trees and the pagoda-like spires of Khmer royal buildings rise over French-era shophouses and villas. In the 1950s and 1960s this was one of the finest cities in Southeast Asia. The riverine city’s yellow-ocher buildings, squares and cafes, and frangipani-lined boulevards give it the atmosphere of a French provincial town. The city is located at what the French called Les Quatre Bras (the Four Arms), where two arms of the Mekong meet the Bassac and Tonle Sap tributaries. The city’s original name, Chaktomuk, means Four Rivers.
Phnom Penh has witnessed rapid and bizarre changes of fortune. After Angkor fell to the Siamese in the 15th century, Cambodian King Ponhea Yat founded a new capital at Chaktomuk. This city was soon abandoned as well, and from the mid –17th to mid-19th centuries the Cambodian capital to Phnom Penh in 1866. The city is largely a French colonial era, and Phnom Penh quickly became an important commercial centre. The city was and still is the only major port on the Mekong above the delta; it is navigable by ships of 7,000 tons. From Phnom Penh, smaller vessels can navigate upriver to Siem Reap or Kratie.
In the late 1960s prosperous Phnom Penh had a population of perhaps 600,000. Almost two-thirds of the population consisted of Vietnamese and Chinese merchants and workers. The Chinese, Vietnamese, and Khmer ethnic groups occupied their own distinct neighborhoods. Business and trade congregated in basket making or silver smithing. By 1975, swollen with refugees from civil war, the city had a population of over two million.
On the 17 April 1975, Phnom Penh became a ghost town, emptied out by the Khmer Rouge within 48 hours. During the 1975 –1979 reign of terror, the city’s inhabitants were mostly solders and prisoners. By 1978 there were only 15,000 – 30.000 people in the city. The Khmer Rouge painted over all signs in Phnom Penh – traffic signs, advertising signs, markers of any signs. Wrecked cars lay where they were abandoned in 1975. All shops and hotels were closed. A number of buildings were blown up or demolished, including the Catholic Cathedral and the National Bank. Up to two-thirds of the city’s houses were damaged. The plumbing system was destroyed.
Traces of the city’s former splendor are visible at the Royal Palace, enclosing the Silver Pagoda. The National Museum houses the world’s finest collection of Khmer artifacts. The proud achievements of the Khmer culture are offset by the horrors of the Tuol Sleng Holocaust Museum.
The Royal City
The southern sector of Phnom Penh close to the Tonle Sap River exudes a strong royal Khmer presence, with a wealth of Cambodian traditional architecture. The city was once rich in temples; many were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge, but some are being reconstructed. This tour starts at Wat Ounalom, opposite the Phnom Penh Tourism Office.
Wat Ounalom is a Mahanikai Buddhist temple and highly respected institute of learning, with 50 monks in residence; before 1975 there were 500 monks here. This is the residence of the supreme Patriarch of the Mahanikai sect. The temple was founded in the 15th century; a large number of its buildings were destroyed under Pol Pot, including the library. The temple has since been partially restored. The compound contains two residences and a three-floor building which functions as a temple; the interior are stark and bare. On the ground of floor is a marble Buddha from Burma – smashed by the Khmer Rouge, but pieced together again in 1979. On the second floor is a brass statue of the patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism, Somdech Huot Tat, who was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The statue, made in 1971, was flung into the river, but retrieved in 1979. On the third floor the walls depict scenes from the Jataka Tales.
From Wat Ounalom you can skirt round past the National Museum. The Museum is notable not only for its outstanding exhibits but also for its superb traditional-style architecture. To do justice to the place, you really need several hours. In this area is the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) where students often work on reproductions of famous Khmer artifacts. The souvenir and gift shops in the surround blocks are especially good for paintings, wood sculptures, and crafts. The school of Fine Arts has its own retail outlet.
Back on Samdech Sothearos Boulevard you can cruise past Chan Chaya Pavilion, which doubles as a front gate to the Royal Palace and a public events podium. Above the pavilion is a huge portrait of King Sihanouk. At the southern end of the palace grounds, you can drop in and visit the Silver Pagoda. Skirt the walls of the palace and head south to Wat Botum.
Wat Botum is known as the ‘ Temple of the Lotus Blossoms” the original site was a small island surrounded by a lotus-filled pond. This temple is the centre of the Thammayut (royalist) sect of Buddhism in Cambodia. The royalist sect has been revived since the return of Sihanouk; about 85 monks now reside at Wat Botum. In July 1992, more than 150 bonzes (monks) were ordained here. At the front of the temple is an unusual cluster of stupas with Bayon-style four headed tops; the ceremonial stupas hold the ashes of members of the royal family.
Opposite Wat Botum in a park is the Liberation Monument, carved from Angkor marble by the staff of the School of Fine Arts in 1989 to commemorate the 1979 liberation of Phnom Penh by Vietnamese troops. Process south and turn onto Preah Sihanouk Boulevard to see some of the best-preserved colonial mansions and manicured gardens in Phnom Penh. Over the boulevard to the west is the Independence Monument, looming like a kind of Cambodian Arc de Triomphe. Also called the Victory Monument, this Khmer-style prasat (tower) was built in 1958 to commemorate independence from France, but has since assumed the role of a war memorial. Wreath-laying ceremonies honor the dead. Like the towers of Angkor Wat and the four-headed spires of the Bayon, the monument is a national logo.
From the Independence Monument you can detour about 300 meters south to the Prayuvong Buddha factory. In the grounds of Wat Prayuvong, a neighborhood of workshops produces statuary and “spare parts” used in repairing temples smashed by the Khmer Rouge. The workshops turn out stupas and Buddhist artifacts, including gaudy cement Buddhas, Bayon heads, nagas, and mythological figures. You can walk around the various workshops and watch the artisans at work.
Back on Preah Sihanouk Boulevard, head east past the naga fountain and along Samdech Scothearos Boulevard to the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana. The Cambodiana is a peculiar structure: it looks like the architect decided at the last minute to cap a European building with a pseudo-Khmer tile roof. Drop into the foyer to see the huge wooden model of the Bayon. A small gift shop sells books on Cambodia. High tea at the Cambodiana is held between 14.00 and 17.00 -stuff yourself with sandwiches, pastries, fruit, and drinks for around $7-10 live classical music will ease your digestion. A plunge into the swimming pool will set you back $5. Khmer-style roofing also caps the nearby Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which looks like a converted Wat, and Chaktomuk Theater.
The locals turn out for a stroll at the day past the tiny slope-roofed pavilion fronting the Tonle Sap River, opposite the Royal Palace Gates. At sunset impromptu picnickers frequent the place; police pursue food vendors up and down Sisowath Quay. Cyclo drivers arrive for river baths, and roving photographers work the crowds. This is an excellent place to mingle. There are two shrines for offerings of garlands of jasmine and coconuts spiked with incense sticks and lotus buds. North of the pavilion are many sidewalk vendors. For drinks, try a beer stall on the banks of the Tonle Sap. For a more refined drink, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia (FCCC) top-floor bar is a colonial-era throwback, with swishing fans and elegant furnishings. The bar affords great views over the river.
EXCURSION FROM PHNOM PENH
Around Phnom Penh are a number of destinations within day trip range – nothing too special but a chance to get into the countryside and receive a blast of oxygen after the fetid air of Phnom Penh. With the exception of Choeung Ek, the sites described here are picnicking destinations, popular with the weekend escape crowd.
There are killing fields all over Cambodia, skull and bone cairns that stand as stark memorials to Khmer Rouge atrocities. At Choeung Ek, 15 km to the southwest of Phnom Penh, an estimated 17,000 people ware killed, most clubbed to death to save ammunition. Many were taken from the interrogation centre at Tuol Sleng. There are over 120 mass graves in the area. Half have been disinterred. A stupa like tower of glass panels was erected in 1988 to house the gristly remains, with shelf after shelf of skulls . . .
Koki Beach, about 12 km east of Phnom Penh on the Saigon route, is a popular weekend and public holiday destination. Residents of Phnom Penh decamp to river and rent huts raised on stilts for a day of picnicking, tacking, or romance. Cafes here sell grilled fish and chicken. Most of visitors rent a tilt hut to take a nap, ward off the heat or counter the floodwaters of the monsoon season. You can hire a boat to tour the lake, water borne vendors come alongside to sell food. Crowded on weekends, with lots of food vendors, but nothing much happening during the week.
The trip called Mekong island is actually Oknhateyn island about one hour by boat from Phnom Penh. The island is a theme park with Cambodian culture sample - village, handicraft production, zoo, traditional dance and music ensembles, and restaurant. Another, longer trip organized by Phnom Penh tourism is to Koh Dach, a silk weaving village northeast of Phnom Penh, a boat ride up the Mekong to Koh Dach take three hours round trip. You can also visit the fishing villages and see river life along the way.
Udong, 40 km northwest of the capital along Route 5, is the site of an ancient capital, in a cluster of king’s tombs. This is another popular picnic site, affording great views of surrounding area. Udong was the seat of Cambodian kings from 1618 to 1866. Almost all the buildings of the former royal city was razed when Lon Nol launched air strikes against Khmer Rouge hideouts in the 1970s; another sites were later blown up by the Khmer Rouge. A Khmer Rouge prison was located here. A memorial to the Victims was erected in 1982, with torture devices and bones from mass graves on display, as well as murals depicting Khmer Rouge atrocities.
About 33 km south of Phnom Penh on Route 2 is a turnoff that leads several km to Tonle Bati.
This is popular picnic spot, with a lake and two temples, Ta Prohm and Yeay Peau. On weekends the place is full of footstalls and picnic guests.
12th-century Ta Prohm Temple looks similar to Angkor temple. Some attribute the handiwork to king Jayavarman VII, who ruled in Angkor from 1181. According to legend, the temple was built by Ta Prohm. While traveling through Tonle Bati, an Angkor king fell in love with Yeay Peau, the beautiful daughter of a fisherman. The king passed three months with her and she became pregnant. Upon leaving, the king gave her a ring with instruction to send the child she bore to Angkor. When her son, Prohm, duly presented the ring at Angkor, he was welcome at his father’s palace and given an education the king later sent him back to govern Takeo province. Prohm built a temple similar to those he’d seen at Angkor, and named it after himself. For his mother, he built Yeay Peau temple.
Some 20km south of Tonle Bati is a hilltop ruin dating from Angkor period. The turnoff to Phnom Chisor is 55km south of Phnom Penh; temple is about 4 km from Route 2. The main sanctuary what’s left of it is an 11th century structure dedicated to Brahma. This spot is quite isolated, so do not go alone. The temple is reached by a staircase on the northern side of the hill. From the top are expansive views over the countryside you can see 2 other temples ruins to the east. Leave the hilltop by the southern staircase.
The town of Takeo is 75 km south of Phnom Penh on Route 2. It can also be reached by Route 3; the trip is 87 km from Phnom Penh, but the road is in better shape. This is stretching the limits of a day trips from the capital because the travel time alone is six hours round trip by taxi. About 20km east of Takeo is the modern village of Angkor Borei, which is thought to have been the site of Vyadhapura, the latest capital of Funan Kingdom. South of town is a hill called Phnom Da by French archaeologists, which are displayed at Phnom Penh’s National Museum. The Phnom Da style was identified as the first stage of pre-Angkorian art. On top of Phnom Da is a small building made from heavy basalt blocks.