Not packed in a bus. Not herded with a group. Self guided walk is the SAFEST way to sightsee while observing SOCIAL DISTANCING!
Picturesque Phnom Penh
Image by Arian Zwegers under Creative Commons License.

Picturesque Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (A)

Over the last few decades the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, has largely grabbed international headlines for negative reasons (mostly for the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the latter part of the ‘70s, and the rampant sex trade that flourished there in the following decades), but it is now a city which is bound to strike a first-time foreign visitor as a place of immense and downright inexplicable charm.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: Picturesque Phnom Penh
Guide Location: Cambodia » Phnom Penh
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 6.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 6.0 Km or 3.7 Miles
Author: Arya Kazemi
Author Bio: I have spent the last couple of years in Phnom Penh working as a staff member for the ongoing U.N-backed trials of five former associates of Pol Pot. The trials are being held on the outskirts of the city, and they take up most of my time, but I still have managed to get an intimate feel of Phnom Penh's landscape and nuances.
Author Website: http://www.hetrippin.com
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Railway Station
  • Wat Phnom
  • Post Office
  • Old Market
  • Sisowath Quay
  • FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club)
  • National Museum
  • Royal Palace
  • Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument
  • Independence Monument
1
Railway Station

1) Railway Station

The reasons for visiting this location are numerous. It is a great example of the classic French colonial architecture (built in 1932 out of ferroconcrete), being slowly wiped away throughout the city in order to start constructing bigger and more modern edifices.

As of early 2009, the Cambodian railway system has been shut down due to budget issues, and currently there are no passenger trains operating out of the station; which gives it a rather eerie feel. This will be compounded by the fact that the site served as the location where Pol Pot secretly founded the Cambodian Communist Party in 1960.

History and railway buffs will also appreciate the classic 1912 French steam engine on display on one of the tracks here.
2
Wat Phnom

2) Wat Phnom

Though Phnom Penh is home to dozens of picturesque Buddhist temples (wats), the one that is a must-see for any visitor is the oldest one, Wat Phnom. According to legend, the city was founded on this small hill in the 14th century by an elderly lady (grandma Penh or Daun Penh), who built the temple in order to house and protect four sacred statues of Buddha that she had found in a nearby tree trunk from heavy flooding in the area.

Besides the temple itself, the site has other worthwhile pulls for a visitor--ranging from elephant rides, a large number of resident monkeys that range from friendly to greedy; and countless fruit bats. The Southern end of the site features a huge grass clock. During major holidays such as the water festival or New Year’s Eve, Wat Phnom is teeming with both residents of the city, and visitors from rural areas; and large fireworks above it are a major reason why.

There is a $1 admission fee for foreign visitors to the temple.
3
Post Office

3) Post Office

This building is located at the heart of what was once the city’s “French Quarter.” The consensus is that it is the oldest example of colonial architecture (dating back to 1894), and the immediate area around it is still home to a handful of original and now largely derelict French buildings-- including the old police headquarters and Phnom Penh’s first hotel built during colonial times. Of course, this building can be a practical stop as well, in order to send or pick up mail—the Cambodian postal service is a surprisingly efficient one!

This sight is of added interest to film fans, as the 2002 Hollywood feature City of Ghosts (starring Matt Dilon and Gerard Depardieu) was mostly filmed in this part of the city.
4
Old Market

4) Old Market

Though Phnom Penh has a handful of very interesting traditional big markets and nowadays modern shopping malls as well, what makes the Old Market (Phsar Chas) a great stop, is the fact that despite its proximity to the riverside; it is not geared towards tourists at all and very much has an authentic feel to it.

The market has different sections each specializing in certain items (fruits, second-hand clothing, electronics and different meats, etc.) and besides the fixed stalls there are many street vendors hawking everything from curios to garments. Haggling and bargaining for items that catch your eye are par for the course here. It all makes for quite a few photogenic scenes, so a good idea to have a camera along with you.
5
Sisowath Quay

5) Sisowath Quay

The rather famous riverfront of the city is a 3 kilometer-long strip along the West bank of the Tonle Sap River catering to the whims of foreign visitors through its many shops, hotels, restaurants and bars (some of which are actually floating on the river!) . For the more adventurous traveler, the handful of pizza parlors here offering specialties featuring marijuana as a topping tend to be a somewhat memorable! stop.

Locals tend to favor the area for walks, jogs or games of kick volleyball during the hours around dawn and sunset, when the heat and humidity is still not bothersome. Beggars and youths peddling varied counterfeit goods (mostly copied books) are also an irksome fact of life on this stretch of road, though a simple 'no' tends to suffice in warding off solicitations.

For those wanting to explore nearby small islands that are home to sundry ethnic minorities (especially the Muslim Chams) there are frequent short-distance ferries departing from the Quay. Boats going a few hours north to Siem Reap are also available on occasion in this area.
6
FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club)

6) FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club)

Though the city is filled with bars targeting tourist dollars (as the American dollar is actually the de facto currency of the country), the FCC has established itself as the clear-cut favorite with both short-term visitors and resident expats. Though it is not in reality a real private club for journalists, but rather a specialty chain operating throughout Asia; it certainly has a feel of an informal newsroom as especially in the early hours of the evening it is the gossip mill for the foreign community.

The second and third floors of the FCC offer fabulous views of the Tonle Sap River, and the food and drink at this establishment are of high quality and cleanliness, though a bit pricey by local standards—for those with a thirst to quench from the city’s heat and humidity, a visit during happy hour between 5 to 7 p.m. is a great idea; as all drinks are $3.

History buffs will surely find the fact that the building served as an administrative site for Pol Pot’s regime noteworthy.
7
National Museum

7) National Museum

Cambodia is a nation extremely rich in terms of historical artworks and heirlooms, and a visit to the National Museum is a great way to get a better understanding of the country’s history, plus its arts and crafts.

Housed in a building dating back to 1920 and in the tradition of classic Khmer architecture, the museum is home for many fascinating wooden, bronze and stone objects (not to mention ceramics) dating from both the pre-Angkor and Angkor period. The former period has a strong influence from the Indian sub-continent which is quite interesting.

Keep in mind how the long wars of recent years and the presiding poverty in the countryside of Cambodia have caused many similar precious historical objects to be either destroyed or looted for profit.

The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday, and charges $3 as admission.
8
Royal Palace

8) Royal Palace

This huge compound dates back to the 1860’s, when the capital of Cambodia was moved from the nearby town of Oudong to Phnom Penh under the orders of the new French rulers of the country.

The compound is home to a multitude of royal pavilions, halls, shrines and stupas which surely require at least a couple of hours of your time for a through understanding and enjoyment, but do keep in mind that between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. the compound shuts down for a lunch break (it operates from 7:30 till 11 in the morning, and then from 2 to 5 p.m.). The regular entrance fee is $3 per person, but those wishing to use a camera must pay $2 extra, and those wishing to use their video equipment are responsible for an additional fee of $5.

Though the section of the compound (named Khemarin Palace) housing current King Sihamoni, and his parents, the former King Sihanouk and Queen Monique (who actually both nowadays reside mostly in Beijing, China) is officially closed to regular visitors; certain lucky ones occasionally can get a glimpse of royalty as they make their way to certain parts of the compound to meet with dignitaries or to offer prayers.
9
Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument

9) Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument

A must-see for anyone interested in Cambodia’s past and present politics and history. This monument was built in 1979, immediately after Vietnamese forces managed to rid the city and most of Cambodia from the Pol Pot regime. It is quite similar to monuments and statues produced in the former USSR, as it is made in the “Socialist Realist” style—it features both a Cambodian and Vietnamese soldier, and a woman carrying a baby (representing Cambodian civilians in general).

Just a few steps behind the monument is a fountain that in the evenings features a synchronized light and music show that draws many denizens to the area—others flock to the open spaces around the monument for group tai chi or dance practice around twilight time.

One important fact to keep in mind is that Cambodia and Vietnam have a history between them that has been filled with animosity over disputed land in the Mekong region, and occasional signs of disgruntlement at the supposed control that the Vietnamese have over the present government in Cambodia occasionally festers itself around this site. In 2007 there was a small explosion caused by a homemade bomb that did very little damage to the structure, while anti-government leaflets being secretly scattered in the premises is also a possibility. In general a quite safe section of town for a visitor, so by no means be scared away!
10
Independence Monument

10) Independence Monument

Built in 1958 in celebration of Cambodia’s independence from France five years earlier, this monument’s style is heavily influenced by the great temples of Angkor Wat, as it is also a stupa in the shape of a lotus. The Naga (serpent) is a Buddhist symbol of strength and protection that due to India’s historic influence on pre-Angkor Cambodia holds just as much reverence (if not more) in this country than in present-day India. The Independence Monument is crowned with 100 Naga motifs.

There is also a fountain featuring colorful lights surrounding the Monument, but it is turned on only during evenings on the weekend, or for national holidays and special foreign dignitaries visiting the city. November 9th marks the anniversary of Cambodian independence, and being near the site on that day is a treat; as the King, Prime Minister and all the other high-ranking government officials are on hand for the commemorative festivities.