Exploring Cambodia : Part I – What to Do in Phnom Penh
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Exploring Cambodia – Part I
The Capital City: Phnom Penh
Everytime I mention Cambodia, the first thing that comes to our minds was the war, Khmer Rouge, refugees.. but that was a long time ago… it has all changed for the better now.
We started our exploration in the capital city of this country, Phnom Penh. Here are some things we did on our last trip that may interest you or at least inspire your trip planning in the future when visiting the city 🙂
We travelled around Asia for 2 months in Autumn 2017. From Malaysia, we went to Vietnam and continued the journey to Cambodia as it was just next door.
Crossing the Border by Bus:
We crossed the Vietnam-Cambodia border by bus travelling from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), south Vietnam towards Phnom Penh (Cambodia), which was a thrilling adventure! Upon arriving at the Cambodia border post, the bus driver asked us for our passports and USD$30 per tourist visa (VOA – Visa on Arrival) for non-ASEAN region passport holders. Harris didn’t need any visa but I had to get the tourist visa that’s valid up to 15 days.
Then the bus drive asked everyone to get off the bus, go through the Police Border Control building (which was like a ticket office) and wait for the driver to return with our passports and visas. From where we sat, we could see fierce looking camo-uniformed Border Patrol officers with their massive machine guns patrolling the gates which was quite intimidating. Bear in mind that this country was once in military-occupied not very long ago.
We actually felt very uncomfortable because we naturally won’t trust any strangers to hold our passports on such foreign land and its even worse when the Cambodians don’t speak much English except for ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘passport’ or ’30 dollar’. Plus, we were the only ‘tourists’ in the bus, the other passengers were Vietnamese or Cambodian.
Harris has this rule of thumb when travelling; passports must stay with you at all times. We were not amused by the border-crossing part because we were not informed about the procedures. We even thought that the driver could possibly have ran away with the money and passports…hahaha! Luckily he came back with everything in order.
We returned to the bus and continued the journey to Phnom Penh.
Phewhh.. we survived! Hahaha!
Ten minutes drive from the border, we begin to notice that Cambodia was probably one of the poorest and least developed country that we’ve ever visited. But we were excited for everything we’re about to discover there.
We had problems in looking for WiFi/Internet connection when visiting Cambodia, you could find one in places like KFC, major restaurants or your hotel/accommodation but some of them just didn’t work. We would suggest that you to download or save offline-maps on your mobile phone prior to your visit so that you can better navigate the city.
Phnom Penh city was our first stop in this country. The city was located in the southeast region of the country at the intersection of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers.
Visit the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace is one of the must-do in the capital city of Cambodia. The Cambodian Royal family lives in this palace, which was closed to the public. The other parts open to the public are undoubtedly something not to be missed because its something we won’t find in western countries.
The complex was divided into 3 parts, consisting of 9 buildings. The most prominent sections are The Throne Room, the Napoleon III Pavilion, the Phochani Pavilion, the Chanchhaya Pavilion and the Silver Pagoda. We reckon that the best would be the gardens surrounding the Silver Pagoda.
The Palace opens every day of the week from 7.30am to 11.00am and from 2.00pm to 5.00pm (except for official events, where the palace would be closed to the public). The ticket price is $3.00 to which you have to add an extra $2 if you’re planning to bring a camera (prices accurate to 2019).
Walk around Preah Sisowath Avenue
One of the things we enjoyed the most, and a must do in Phnom Penh, was walking along Preah Sisowath Avenue. This avenue is the most important in the city and runs along the Tonle Sap River. The avenue is full of restaurants and shops. This street was one of the most touristy part of the entire city.
Walk to the Independence Monument and the Statue of Norodom Sihanouk
The Independence Monument was built in 1958 to commemorate the independence of Cambodia from France in 1953. It’s located at the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard in the city center.
The Statue was a monument that commemorates former King Norodom Sihanouk. The bronze statue is 4.5 meters high and is under a stupa of 27 meter high. It’s located next to the Independence Monument.
Visit the Museum S-21
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum tells us the Cambodian genocide. The site is a former high school that was used as a Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 until its fall in 1979. From 1976 to 1979, it’s estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured in Tuol Sleng, but the actual number was unknown.
The visit can be heart-breaking as everything that lived within those rooms lived an awful life but its something essential to understand what the country has gone through in its darkest period. You can’t avoid to get the chills when you walk around there, looking at photographs and records of prisoners or the small cells where they were imprisoned.
The museum opens every day from 7.00am to 5.30pm and admission is $6.00 (price accurate in 2019). It’s located on 113th Street of the city.
Visit the Extermination Camps of Choeung Ek
These extermination camps are located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. During the genocide, it’s estimated that around 17,000 men, women and children who had been arrested and tortured in Tuol Sleng were transported here to be… umm… terminated.
We can say that this place is even worse than S-21 and there’s no words that could express the life in there.
In Choeung Ek are the remains of almost 9,000 people killed and buried in mass graves. Most of them were tied, blindfolded and beaten to death to save budgets for bullets. Some of the graves are left intact and you can walk through to see them.
In the middle of the fields is the Stupa Memorial. It’s a beacon for the lost people decades before. There are more than 8,000 human skulls sorted by sex and age.
The fields are open every day from 8.00am to 5.00pm and admission is $6.00.
Go to Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom is the Buddhist temple of Phnom Penh. It marks the central point of the city.
It was built in 1372 and is 27 meters high above ground. Its the tallest religious structure in the city.
Many Cambodians visit the temple to pray and ask for good luck or success. If their wish is granted, they would return to make the offering they’ve promised to the Gods.
Visit the Central Market (Phsar Thmey)
This Central Market is definitely worth a visit when you’re in the area. The Market was located at the intersection between Kampuchea Krom and 63 streets in the Daun Penh district. You could find it on GoogleMaps.
It’s a very striking coloured building with artistic decorated dome. The central market of Phnom Penh attracts many visitors as it houses countless traditional Khmer stalls, which sells everything from old coins and brightly coloured fabrics to traditional handicrafts and medicinal products.
The market opens every day from early morning until late evening.
We went there to get our daily supply of fresh tropical fruits (bananas and papayas), some souvenirs and the authentic Kompot Pepper (Cambodian black peppercorns).
Visit Phsar Toul Tom Poung Market (Russian Market)
The Phsar Toul Tom Poung market, or better known as the Russian market, is another of the most popular places for shopping in Phnom Penh. It’s located on 163rd Street of Phonm Penh, near Mao Zedong Boulevard.
This market is huge and you will find all kinds of stalls. From clothes, sculptures, silks, antiques to fresh products such as eggs, meats, fish and fruits.
We have to mention that the fresh produce sold here are not in the most hygienic conditions. Its something we had also found in other Asian countries. That’s why we were not overwhelmed, but we thought that the conditions here was somewhat worse than in Vietnam.
Exploring the National Museum
It’s the largest cultural history museum and the main Historical & Archaeological museum in the country.
The museum has one of the largest Khmer art collections in the world, which includes sculptures, Khmer pottery, bronzes and ethnographic objects.
It’s located on 13th Street in the center of Phnom Penh, north of the Royal Palace and on the west side of Veal Preah Man Square. It opens every day from 8.00am to 5.00pm and admission is $10.00 (accurate in 2019).
Have dinner at the Night Market
The night market was popular for shopping and dining. But it’s small if were to compare it with other night markets in Asia.
Here you could find stalls selling clothes, crafts and hot foods where you can enjoy Cambodian food for dinner. There is a special area to buy food in which you can eat on the floor on some bamboo mats. Yes, very ethnically authentic! Food prices were okay, not too bad.
The market opens at 5.00pm and closes at midnight.
There you go, Phnom Penh has a lot to offer, loads of things to do and see to enjoy the city. The capital of Cambodia is not as great as the other Asian capitals, it’s a good to visit at least once if you are travelling to Cambodia.
-> If you are travelling to Cambodia you can be also interested in our post: Things to Do in Siem Reap
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