Like many other Asian capitals, Phnom Penh is a frantically busy place which seems to be developing at break-neck speed. However, visitors to Phnom Penh will attest that this is also a unique city, with dreamy architecture and a sombre history giving the city seemingly endless depth. Don’t let the traffic scare you off, you will not regret getting to know Phnom Penh.
Its sheer size can be daunting, however there are a few highlights that should not be missed. These are our picks for the most unmissable sights.
1. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The friendliness and positivity of the Cambodian population tends to mask the nation’s sad history, where over one million Cambodians perished under the vicious Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. While development has overturned many sombre sites, several have remained standing as a reminder of the horrors of the past, in the hopes such a tragedy will never again befall Cambodia. Two of the most humbling are the Tuol Sleng prison, where an ex prisoner still gives tours, and the Killing Fields. You’re bound to leave with a deep appreciation for the resilience of the Cambodian people.
2. Royal Palace and Silver Palace
While Phnom Penh can be a mish mash of different architectural styles and qualities, there are numerous grand traditional buildings that are mesmerizingly beautiful. Perhaps most spectacular of all is the Royal Palace, and its neighbor the Silver Palace, located on the riverfront and the jewel in Phnom Penh’s crown. Extravagantly adorned by Khmer art as well as gifts from foreign figures (such as Napoleon!) it is an incredible site. Keep an eye out for the traditional Apsara dancers who often greet visitors.
3. The Central Market
There are several great markets in Phnom Penh, but the pick of them all is the expansive Central Market. Here, you can purchase a unique and dazzling selection of goods – from beautiful arts and crafts to tasty Cambodian spices (Kampot pepper is a particular favorite). For something more unusual, you can sample some Cambodian “delicacies”, such as fried grasshopper or tarantula. There are also many other stalls to enjoy tasty (and less frightening) meals.
4. National Museum of Cambodia
While today Cambodia is somewhat dwarfed by its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, it was once the heart of the might Khmer Empire. Ruling between 800 AD and 1400 AD, the Empire was rich in both wealth and culture. Today, many of the artifacts from this period are displayed in the striking National Museum of Cambodia. It is well worth a visit to learn more about the Empire and how it has shaped modern day Cambodia, and all of Southeast Asia.
5. Silk Island
If the constant hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh begins to wear you down, do not fear – just a short ferry ride away lies Silk Island, a tranquil retreat where you can learn about local life and one of Cambodia’s main exports, silk production. Most of the silk here is produced by hand-weaving, so you can learn about this method while chatting generally about life in Cambodia.