I just returned from my first trip to Cambodia and I was amazed as to how much there was to see and do in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. I visited Phnom Penh twice during my trip, first flying there from Hong Kong and spending a night en-route to Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor Wat. Then a week later, I returned, spending two days there as a port of call during an amazing AmaWaterways river cruise I took.
What to do
The city is vibrant and exciting, just walking around is a thrill. I liked visiting the markets, both the local and tourist market. There are two main markets, the Central Market is where locals shop and is filled with all kinds of necessities and a fascinating variety of vegetables, meats and fish. This is a serious food market and it’s a bit overwhelming with all the sights and smells. The other market is known as the Russian Market and is filled with souvenirs, “Cambodian Rolex” watches and all kinds of merchandise for travelers. From t-shirts to knock-off luxury goods, it’s all here. This is a great place to buy little Buddha statues and models of Angkor Wat. Bargain hard, you can get the little statues for $1 each and t-shirts for $2.
The Royal Palace (Samdech Sothearos Boulevard) has a lot to see, but I found the National Museum of Cambodia (Street 13) far more interesting. I suggest visiting after seeing Angkor Wat as many of the statues and figures originally at Angkor Wat, are now here and it gave me some perspective on what I was seeing. Years of looting and other thefts from the Angkor Wat site are slowly being corrected, and the art returned here for safe-keeping. The museum has room after room of giant statues and figures, along with weapons, vehicles and other artifacts. Everything is in chronological order, starting with pre-Angkorian societies and going through to the early 20th Century and the country’s last Royal rulers.
The Royal Palace has the famous Silver Pagoda, with a solid silver floor worth millions of dollars, but I found the solid gold, jewel-encrusted Buddha statues inside more interesting. Signage is poor, so be sure to go with a knowledgeable guide. There are also rooms with other art pieces and various items from the Royal collections. Admission tickets to the Royal Palace and the National Museum are each $5, with group tours available for a few dollars more.
Although I got the feeling scars are finally healing, this country has only recently moved past a truly horrific past. Over 2 million Cambodian citizens, men, women and children, were brutally murdered by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Civil war and war with Vietnam followed, with peace only restored in 1993. The tragic history can be witnessed in person only minutes from Phnom Penh with a visit to the mass graves at the Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum . Also known as S-21, this was a school converted into the Khmer Rouge’s prison and death factory. Perhaps the most chilling part of a visit here are the thousands of photographs taken of each prisoner, and displayed at the museum. The fear shown in their eyes is haunting. Words cannot describe the horrors visitors witness here, but it in no way compares to the true horror the millions of Cambodian victims felt in those very same places.
Where to stay
We stayed at the InterContinental Phnom Penh (296 Blvd. Mao Tse Toung), a beautiful property in the middle of the city’s rapidly developing business district. The rooms are luxurious and feature all the bells and whistles travelers expect from a five-star property (flat screen TV, marble bathroom, high-end mattresses, etc.). The hotel offers a free breakfast buffet for guests and with our early morning departure plans, this was perfect. The food was great and featured all the Western necessities, along with Asian specialties. The fresh fruit was especially good, as were the baked goods and pastries.
While there are many luxury hotel options in Phnom Penh and other cities, to me the difference is service. As with other InterContinental properties, the InterContinental Phnom Penh offers attentive, personalized service designed to make traveling comfortable and hassle free. For example, we planned to take the Mekong Express bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. The problem was we were arriving at 7 PM, and then trying to catch the bus the next morning at 7:30 AM, and the bus ticket office closed at 5 PM. With no online sales, we thought we would be out of luck, until the hotel learned of our plans during the booking process and kindly offered to buy the tickets for us, and hold them for our arrival. As promised, upon our arrival, the two, reserved, paid-for tickets were handed to us.
Where to eat
The city presents an almost endless variety of food options. I recommend a mix of street food, high-end Khmer (Cambodian) cuisine and a nice French meal. For good street food, I recommend stopping anywhere on Blvd. Mao Tse Toung where you see a bunch of people eating, whether inside or in little plastic chairs on the street. Also in the Sisowath Quay area, walk a few blocks away from the river and find any place filled only with Cambodians and with no signs or menu in English.
On the other end of the scale, I recommend a meal at the city’s fanciest restaurant, Restaurant Le Royal at the Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh. They offer French and Royal Khmer cuisine, which are meals prepared for the Royal family of Cambodia, very different than Cambodian street food. Le Royal also offers classic French cuisine and an extensive wine list.
Freddy Sherman is a world traveler and editor of the travel blog travel4people.com. You can follow him on Twitter @thefredsherman
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