Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, in Asia. Cambodia is similar in some respects to the neighboring country of Thailand, yet drastically different in other ways. Similarities include some cuisine, the climate and weather, and ubiquitous tuk-tuks. However Cambodia has had a much darker history than its bordering countries, and the scars are still visible today. Phnom Penh and the surrounding area is an ideal introduction to Cambodia and a base from which to explore.
Phnom Penh means Hill of Penh, named for a woman named Daun Penh. The legend says she discovered statues of the Buddha inside a tree floating in the River. Penh built a shrine to house the relic she found, and the city grew up around the shrine. Today you can visit the site now known as Wat Phnom.
Phnom Penh is an interesting city to explore. As well as the expected Buddist temples there are many architectural beauties from the French Colonial era. Find the stylish Raffles Le Royal, established in 1929. The hotel welcomed the likes of W. Somerset Maugham, Charles de Gaulle, and Charlie Chaplin and it's a pleasant spot for a drink today.
For something more modern, go to Legend Cinemas. The theater shows Western movies for $3 USD and sometimes 3D films for $4 USD.
Phnom Penh is a small city with plenty of green spaces. Cambodian people spend lots of time outdoors. The waterfront is lovely for a morning walk and you can see watch tai chi practitioners going through their movements with fans. For more rural lifestyles, 20 minutes outside of Phnom Penh, the city flows into lush countryside. Life in the fishing villages and rice fields seems untouched by time. Children play with homemade drums made out tin cans, a sack, and chopsticks. People cook the traditional way, grinding rice flour by hand. Fishing is equal parts net and bamboo traps. Houses are built on high stilts to raise them above the regular flooding of Cambodia’s rivers. Floating houses drift along the rivers sailed by traders selling right from the boats.
Phnom Penh is not the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia. The ruins of Angkor Wat near the city of Siem Reap are the main reason people travel to Cambodia. However, Siem Reap itself doesn't have much to offer tourists, and for that reason, many holidaymakers use Phnom Penh as a base traveling out to Angkor Wat from there.
The ruins of Angkor Wat are an extensive complex of temples and buildings which have been reclaimed by the forest. You will probably recognize the site from numerous films and documentaries. Today it is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, yet tourists have a surprising amount of freedom to explore and clamber around the complex.
Cambodian cuisine is not famous around the world, but it shares many flavors with neighboring Thai food. You can eat well for little cash in Phnom Penh. Food carts line the streets, and you could easily spend the day nibbling corn cob, slurping noodles, or eating fresh fruit. That's not all, however. Try the fried tarantulas, the boiled frogs or and grasshoppers at one of the markets. The unusual food provides a great travel story when you come home, and they are rather tasty.
The recently immigrated Chinese and Vietnamese populations have also left their mark. You can find Chinese noodles and Vietnamese spring rolls everywhere.
The days of colonial Indochina means there are many French recipes in Phnom Penh, but they have subtly changed over the years to give a uniquely Cambodian feel. The chocolate croissants are particularly lovely.
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While it does not make for a cheery trip, a visit to Tuol Sleng is a must. A whole generation of educated people were wiped out during the Khmer Rouge which has repercussions up to this day. Situated in the middle of Phnom Penh the former school was turned into a torture camp. The camp was left as it was found when liberated, complete with torture devices and photos of the thousands of victims.
A visit to Cheoung Ek 15 km from the city is another must-visit. The mass burial site is known in the west as The Killing Fields. A shocking display of thousands of skulls and bones sits in a peaceful garden with flowers. It's easy to forget what happened here, but if you look down when walking around you will likely see bones and tattered clothes that are the remains of victims eroding through the soil.
Cambodian people are warm and welcoming. You would be forgiven for expecting a country with such a violent recent past to have a sensitive population suspicious of outsiders, but this is not the case. The citizens of Phnom Penh are eager to welcome visitors. Partially this is because income tourism generates is a vital part of the economy. But, it's also the nature of the locals to be hospitable to guests.
Cambodians are more reserved than Thai people and are more likely to know smatterings of French than English. They are pleased people want to travel to Cambodia to visit the extraordinary wonders of their country - of which they feel very proud.
From 1863 the French ruled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia forming what was called Indochina. The French planned to make Phnom Penh into a provincial French town. The architects did a great job, and Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia during the heydays of Indochina in the 1920s.
While Cambodia is now independent, remains of French colonization are everywhere. Brightly colored French style buildings like the Post Office at Wat Phnom. Many buildings have shutters and ornate balconies that are reminiscent of Paris. And the food in Phnom Penh has a distinctly French flavor. French baguettes are sold on nearly every street corner as sandwiches.
Visit the French Cultural Center, which has a vast French library, plays French films, and arranges showings in French by performers from around the world.
Cambodia has about 4000 aid organizations who are helping to right the wrongs of the past. Tourists can help too, and yet still feel like they are on holiday. For example, a few restaurants linked with Friends International serve a traditional dish of stir-fried beef with basil, and... red tree ants. Brave tourists pay money for the meal that goes to a good cause and earn bragging rights forever - if they can finish the food. There are also beautifully made souvenirs from Nyemo, an organization which helps vulnerable women and their children. And perhaps most famously, there are several schools which were set up to help children affected by the leftover landmines that still around today. Some people arrange to teach while on holiday or even pay a small entrance fee to see their collection of disarmed landmines. All the money goes towards the children.
Phnom Penh has some of the best value massages in the region. The massages are far cheaper than in Thailand and a different style than in Vietnam. The city has plenty of options. There are luxury treatments in fancy hotels such as Raffles, and smaller but charming boutiques run by locals where an hour of aromatherapy massage will set you back around $10 USD.
Perhaps the best massages are those on small huts beside the streets or even open air during dry weather. Find out where the locals go, and that's sure to be a sign of affordable but quality massages.
The city of Phnom Penh is not a magnet for shopping addicts because although items are quite cheap, there isn't much variety. But wandering around the Phnom Penh market is still fascinating. Expect to find stalls of colorful fruit, local delicacies to eat, clothes and trinks to buy - all provide photographic possibilities for visitors. The most exciting market is the New Market locals call Phsar Thmey in the city center. This art deco market was revamped recently and looks brilliant. The interior stalls are more authentic with fresh ingredients where locals buy their groceries, gold and jewelry shops, and stalls with bolts colorful of silk.