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5 Highlights of Phnom Penh

May 29, 2013

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city on the Mekong River with over 2 million residents, was our first stop in the country.  We spent three days visiting the city’s major sites and soaking up urban Cambodian life.

Thanks to our centrally placed (but noisy and rather basic) hotel, we were able to explore most of the city, from Wat Phnom in the north to the Russian Market in the south, on foot.


View of Aqua Boutique Hotel pool and entrance.

Here are five of my favorite things we saw and did in Phnom Penh!

1. The Royal Palace


Wat Prea Keo or the Silver Pagoda

The Cambodian Royal Palace, with its golden spires and vibrantly colored rooftops, is the first stop of most travelers to the city.  Like others before, we were charmed by its beauty, and I had a field day taking pictures of the various buildings, statues, and monuments within the complex.  I couldn’t help but compare it with Bangkok’s larger Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, which were certainly an influence.  The complex’s construction under the French Protectorate in the 1860s was also made apparent by several European elements on the grounds, including an equestrian statue of King Norodom and an iron pavilion gifted to the King by Napoleon III.


Due to the recent death of the Cambodian King and period of mourning, we were unable to see the largest part of the complex including the Throne Hall.  The Napoleon III Pavilion was also out of bounds and closed for renovation, which I was particularly bummed about as a researcher of French-Asian contact.

However, we were able to access the beautiful Wat Prea Keo, known as the Silver Pagoda.  In addition to the temple, this part of the royal compound also boasts intricately carved stupas and a miniature model of Angkor Wat.


Due to the striking architectural details and how photogenic the entire area was, this was likely my favorite stop in PP.

$3.00/person (site says they charge extra for a camera, but we were not requested to pay more)
Open everyday, 7:30am-11:00am / 2:00pm-5:00pm.

2. National Museum of Cambodia


Inner courtyard of the National Museum.

Though I am an art historian, museums are not always at the top of my list of things to do in new countries.  In most of my travel throughout Asia, I’ve found palaces, temples, and markets more enlightening and engaging than the often poorly conserved and presented museums in the region.

However, I would count the National Museum in Phnom Penh as an exception.  While there is not an abundance of wall text or object labels, you can see many of the wall reliefs and sculptures in the round that were taken out of the Angkor Archeological Park upon the temples “rediscovery” in the late nineteenth century.  The installation of the objects is quite nice, and they are well-presented, albeit perhaps not sufficiently contextualized for most visitors unfamiliar with the period and religions represented.

*Photographs are not allowed inside the Museum.

Open everyday, 8:00am-5:00pm

3. Sunset Cruise on the Tonle Sap River

Fishing village across the River from National Palace.

Fishing village across the River from National Palace.

If you walk along the riverfront, a rather touristy area with many “western-style” restaurants and bars, you can reach the Passenger Port just north of Street 104.  From here, shared tour boats depart regularly for river cruises.


We decided to take a sunset cruise to see some of the Phnom Penh skyline set against the warm evening light and the vibrant colors of the sunset.   As soon as we boarded the “Love” boat, we headed to the upper deck to get good seats along the railing, where we could enjoy the views during the hour-long ride.

The cruise first heads south along the river bank, allowing for gorgeous views of the Royal Palace.  Next, it travels across the Tonle Sap to the opposite bank where there are several floating fishing villages.  I loved the colorful buildings in the villages, the walls of which were made up of a patchwork of brightly-colored scrap metal.  It was also interesting to see a Christian church with a neon cross shining brightly on the steeple.  Many of the villagers in their long boats passed us as they headed home from a day of work and as we watched the sunset and drifted back to the dock across the river.


The sunset cruise was a fun way to start one of our evenings before dinner and cocktails at Tepui and a trip to the night market.

Cost: It depends on the company you use and type of cruise.  We went with the first hawker we found along the Passenger Port and paid around $4/person.  For the sunset cruise, we showed up around 4 or 4:30 and ended up waiting around awhile.  There didn’t seem to be any danger of not getting tickets, so others would probably be fine showing up closer to the time of sunset.

4. Wat Phnom


Wat Phnom is built on an artificial hill and is at the highest point in the city.  It is an active temple and one of its “claims to fame” is being situated near the spot where the town was reportedly “founded” in the 14th century when a woman discovered a tree with four statues of the Buddha inside.


As always, I love wondering around the temples and taking pictures of the architecture and statues on the grounds.  Here, I particularly enjoyed the large stupa immediately behind the temple sanctuary, as well as the many spirit houses throughout the complex.

Spirit houses are common in Cambodia and some other Southeast Asian countries, and they often appear outside homes or places of business.  They consist of miniature houses or temples placed on top of a pillar.  These provide shelter for the spirits that inhabit a place, and votive offerings, such as incense, are placed on them to appease the spirit.


5. Raffles’ Elephant Bar

Jackie O's Femme Fatale cocktail at Elephant Bar.

Jackie O’s Femme Fatale cocktail at Elephant Bar.

Finally, for a little indulgence and peek into the colonial past, I’d suggest trying the Elephant Bar at Raffles’ Le Hotel Royal.  WWW and I both have a soft spot for colonial architecture and design, and the Raffles name certainly embodies both.

Le Hotel Royal was originally opened in 1929, and like many Raffles properties in Asia was a magnet for international dignitaries.  Perhaps most famously, Jackie O visited the hotel and Elephant Bar in 1967 and ordered their famous rouge champagne cocktail.  In recent years, the Raffles in Cambodia have dubbed this concoction the Femme Fatale after the famous first lady and unofficial diplomat.  The drink includes champagne, creme de fraise sauvage (a wild strawberry liquor), and cognac.

While the E&O in Penang remains our favorite property, the Raffles in Phnom Penh is worth a look if only to see the many embassies and diplomatic residences in the neighborhood.

Happy hour: Enjoy 50% off cocktails from 4-9pm.

Stay tuned for more coverage of Phnom Penh!  Up next are a look into Cambodia’s dark past and ways to give back by dining and shopping with Cambodia’s NGOs.

Have you ever been to Phnom Penh?  What were your favorite things about the city? 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2013 1:06 am

    Great post. I am going to Cambodia next week and your post and photos has got me all excited! Thanks too for sharing the info about admission costs etc.

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink*
      May 30, 2013 8:37 am

      Thank you for the comment, Cassandra! Have a fabulous time in Cambodia…I’m jealous. 🙂


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