The capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, is located at the confluence of three rivers - the Mekong, the Bassac and Tonle Sap.
Over the past years, the city has undergone tremendous changes – businesses are springing up constantly and tourism is once again booming. Phnom Penh has managed to retain its charm and character – cyclos that weave through traffic with ease, broad boulevards, old colonial buildings, and above all its people who always have a smile for you.
A visit to the markets and market halls is a must, as they give an opportunity to be acquainted with the country’s local produce and also to buy textiles, antiques, gold and silver jewellery. Note that generally most markets open for daylight hours only, from early morning until early evening.
Central Market (Phsar Thmei)
The distinctive art-deco styling of the Central Market makes it a standout in the architecture of Phnom Penh. Phsar Thmei translates to New Market although Central Market is becoming more common. You will find a myriad of stalls offering t-shirts, jewellery, postcards, flowers, house ware, and electronic goods – in fact just about anything.
So-named because of the prevalence of items from the Eastern Bloc in past times, the Russian Market today is a treasure trove for tourists. Particular items worth seeking out include CD’s, fabrics, jewellery, carved handicrafts and ceramics.
Centrally located, Orussey Market is much more geared towards locals than tourists; hence you will not find as much in the way of souvenirs. A huge array of foodstuffs is on offer including the wet market with fresh meat, poultry and seafood.
A local market that is not at all geared to the tourist but it’s a good market for fresh fruits and vegetables. This is the one visited when doing cookery lessons at the Cambodia Cooking Class.
Silver Pagoda & Royal Palace
A stone’s throw away from the Tonle Sap is the Royal Palace built on the site of the Banteay Kev, a citadel built in 1813.
The Palace grounds contain several buildings: the Throne Room or Prasat Tevea Vinichhay which is used for the coronation of kings, official receptions and traditional ceremonies; the Chan Chhaya Pavilion which is a venue for dance performances; the king’s official residence called the Khemarin; the Napoleon Pavilion and the spectacular Silver Pagoda.
It owes its name to the 5,000 silver tiles weighing 1kg each which cover the entire floor. The emerald Buddha sits on a pedestal high atop the dias. In front of the dias stands a life-size Buddha made of solid gold and weighs 75kg. It is decked with precious gems including diamonds, the largest of which is 25 carats.
The National Museum in Phnom Penh houses the world’s largest collection of Khmer art, a good collection of Khmer sculptures dating from the pre-Angkor period (4th century) to post-Angkor period (14th century).
The museum was built in 1917–20 by the French colonial authorities then in control of Cambodia, in a traditional Khmer style, with French influence.
Set on top of a tree-covered knoll 27m high, Wat Phnom is the only hill in town. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong and discovered by a woman name Penh. The main entrance to Wat Phnom is via the grand eastern staircase, which is guarded by lions and naga (snake) balustrades.
Today, many people come here to pray for good luck and success in school exams or business affairs. When a petitioner’s wish is granted, he or she returns to make the offering (such as a garland of jasmine flowers or bananas, of which the spirits are said to be especially fond) promised when the request was made.
In a small pavilion on the south side of the passage between the vihara and the stupa is a statue of the smiling and rather plump Madame Penh.
Before leaving, it’s worth paying a call on Sam Bo, the 40-something elephant who gives rides around the base of the hill for $ 15. At 4pm he strides along Sisowath Quay picking up bananas at some of the restaurants along the riverside. Sam Bo has his own fan page on Facebook!