Nestled along the banks of the Mekong River, Phnom Penh awaits, not just as Cambodia’s capital but as a living testament to a captivating blend of tradition and modernity. Picture this: vibrant markets buzzing with the rhythm of daily life, ancient temples echoing with whispers of history, and locals who welcome you into their world with genuine smiles. In this guide, we invite you to explore the charm of Phnom Penh—an intimate journey through its rich tapestry of culture, flavors, and hidden gems, ensuring that every step you take is not just a stroll but a dance with the heart of Cambodia.
Must-Visit Landmarks in the Heart of Cambodia
Phnom Penh is the city that never sleeps! Bustling with life, this sprawling capital is located along the banks of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers. The streets are a mix of old and modern, with grand boulevards and narrow alleys. The Royal Palace complex is a must-see, but anyone interested in learning about Cambodia’s past should visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum. These two sites offer an insight into the horror of the Khmer Rouge rule. And if you’re planning to visit Angkor Wat, make sure to stop by the National Museum of Angkor in Phnom Penh.
Royal Palace – The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is amazing – it’s been the home of Cambodia’s royal family since the 1860s and the architecture is incredible. The Throne Hall and the Silver Pagoda are both open to visitors, and the Silver Pagoda is especially worth checking out since it holds the Emerald Buddha statue and a massive 90-kilogram Gold Buddha covered in diamonds.
Cambodia National Museum – This awesome traditional Khmer building that houses the national collection was built in 1920. Inside, you’ll find an amazing display of ancient Khmer art with over 1,800 objects. If you’re interested in Cambodian history, it’s an absolute must-see. Interestingly, there are some really cool highlights like the Vishnu head found near the huge Angkor Wat temple complex, statues from the temples of Koh Ker and Angkor Thom, plus a great exhibit of pre-Angkorian pieces that track Cambodia’s Funan and Chenla periods.
Killing Fields – Choeung Ek is a pretty grim reminder of the horrifying Khmer Rouge regime that held power from 1975-1979. In those four short years, it’s estimated that 1-3 million Cambodians died due to famine, disease, and the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rule. It’s believed that 17,000 victims were killed at Choeung Ek, many of them coming from the Tuol Sleng Museum.
Tuol Sleng Museum – At S-21, one of the worst prisons of the Khmer Rouge regime, it was here that some of the most brutal torture took place. Between 1975 and 1978, over 17,000 people were sent here after being accused of going against the revolution. Most of these prisoners were actually former Khmer Rouge members who had been targeted during the regime’s many purges.
Exploring Phnom Penh’s Vibrant Street Markets
Shopping is an important part of life for Cambodians – they hit up the markets every day for groceries and other stuff. That’s why you’ll find plenty of markets, big and small, in Phnom Penh. If you’re in the city, here are some of the best markets to check out.
Central Market – Set up back in 1937, Phsar Thmei is a one-of-a-kind Art Deco take on a traditional market, with a beautiful dome at the center. You can find just about anything here – from jewelry and trinkets to furniture, food, souvenirs and handmade crafts. Everything is sold around the central dome, and it’s quite a popular spot for tourists, though prices are a bit higher for them.
Russian Market – This place, which is known locally as Phsar Toul Tom Poung, is really popular with tourists looking to haggle for some bargains on the various handmade crafts and goods on sale. You can find all sorts of stuff, from wood carvings and silks, to musical instruments, mini Buddhas, clothes, accessories, dodgy CDs and DVDs, plus fruit and veg, household items, motorbike parts and much more. It’s like a massive web of stalls!
Phnom Penh Night Market – The Night Market, also known as Phsar Reatrey, is a super popular spot with the Khmer youth. It’s an outdoor evening market with lots of stalls selling clothes, accessories and food, plus a stage with live music, singers, and dancers. It can get pretty lively on weekends and is a great place to hang out before heading to dinner or drinks on the river.
Phsar Chas – If you’re looking for the real deal when it comes to market life, you gotta check out Old Market (also known as Phsar Chas). Forget all the touristy stuff, here you’ll find tons of fresh fruit, veggies, meat, fish, and chickens. Plus, you might even catch some locals trying to haggle for a good deal.
Culinary Adventures: Sampling Authentic Khmer Cuisine
Because of its abundance of rivers and lakes, Cambodian cuisine is particularly well-known for its freshwater fish and seafood dishes like salmon, squid, and prawns. Meat dishes like beef, pork, chicken, duck, and other poultry are widely available but tend to be pricier than the fish. For the more daring, they also serve up things like locusts, fried tarantula, cooked scorpions, and grilled snake. Rice is the most common staple food in the country, and they also have glutinous sticky rice, manioc, taro, and sweet potatoes. And of course, no meal is complete without some veg: fresh or stir-fried in curries, soups, and stews. Herbs, spices, rhizomes, dried fruits, flowers, and leaves are used to add flavor and make the food look good.
Amok – Amok trey is Cambodia’s national dish, and it’s super delicious – a fragrant and spicy coconut fish curry steamed in banana leaves that gives it a mousse-like texture that almost melts in your mouth. Plus, there’s the added yumminess of a blended spice paste called kroeung. If you don’t eat fish, you can substitute it with chicken, tofu, or snails.
Kuy teav – Cambodia’s noodle soup is a popular breakfast snack that you can buy from street vendors. It usually consists of rice vermicelli and beef or pork bones, which makes for a flavorful broth. Topped with fried shallots, green onion, garlic and bean sprouts, the soup is usually served with pork or beef balls. Yum!
Nom Banh Chok – Num banh chok is a type of noodle you can eat for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. It’s made with fermented rice, then cooked in a sauce of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, turmeric and fish. The whole thing is simmered in coconut milk, then topped with raw vegetables and herbs like banana blossom, cucumbers, water lily stems, mint and basil. Yum!
Samlar Machu – Samlar machu is a dish made up of any meat, fish or seafood, as well as veggies, cooked in a sour soup. Depending on the season, you might find water spinach, shallots, scallions, tomatoes, kaffir lime leaves, hot basil, cilantro, and lemongrass. Some recipes might even throw in a pineapple.
Practical Tips for a Seamless Phnom Penh Experience
As you step into the enchanting realm of Phnom Penh, it’s not just about landmarks and streets; it’s about immersing yourself in the ebb and flow of daily life. From mastering the art of bargaining at bustling markets to finding the coziest corner eateries, we’ve got your back. Join us in uncovering the secrets of Phnom Penh—the kind that won’t be found in travel brochures but in the laughter of locals and the whispers of ancient walls. Get ready to blend in, stand out, and experience this city not just as a tourist but as an honorary resident.
Prices are in USD – Pretty much everyone and everything takes U.S. dollars, no idea why. Got a meal at a restaurant? Better pull out some U.S. dollars. Need a tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat? You guessed it, U.S. dollars. Even when you barter for a sarong at a temple, you’ll still need U.S. dollars. It can be weird though, ’cause sometimes when you pay with U.S. dollars, they’ll give you change in Cambodian Riel.
Cover your knees and shoulders – If you’re headed to the temples in Cambodia, make sure to wear something that covers up your knees and shoulders. Buddhism is the main religion there, so it’s seen as disrespectful if you show up to the temple complex with your legs and arms bare. To be safe, bring a pair of long pants and a t-shirt.
Don’t pay the tuk-tuk before you depart – Tuk-tuk drivers might tell you to pay them before you go anywhere, but don’t do it! Seriously, it’s way too risky. They could take your money and drop you off halfway, or just drive off with it and demand more money to take you the whole way. It’s not worth the trouble, so just try to find a tuk-tuk driver who won’t hassle you about paying up front.
Don’t buy from children – A lot of the time, kids come up to tourists asking them to buy postcards, gum, or trinkets, saying the money will help them pay for school. But that’s not true – the money doesn’t actually go to school fees, it just encourages them to beg for money instead of going to school, which keeps them stuck in poverty.
From the historic sites that whisper tales of bygone eras to the bustling markets and the warm embraces of local hospitality, Phnom Penh offers a symphony of experiences that linger long after your departure. The charm of this city isn’t just in its landmarks; it’s in the genuine smiles exchanged, the flavors savored, and the stories shared. Whether you’re a cultural connoisseur, a culinary adventurer, or a seeker of hidden gems, Phnom Penh welcomes you to discover, connect, and leave with a heart full of memories. Until our paths cross again in this mesmerizing city, may your travels be as rich and vibrant as the tapestry of Phnom Penh itself.
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