Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh is at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the iconic Mekong River; it is actually possible to take a cruise down the Mekong all the way to its Delta in Vietnam. When it comes to the things to do in Cambodia then it is certainly worth including Phnom Penh in your itinerary, even though Angkor is the country’s number one attraction.
While the setting is somewhat sombre, the prison where so many were tortured and killed, and the ‘’Killing Fields’’ themselves are two things that you should visit while you are in Phnom Penh. It is a tribute to the character of Cambodians that they have recovered from these terrible times in the 1970s and that they do not dwell on the past.
• The Royal Palace, with the two lovely pagodas in the grounds, the Silver Pagoda and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is the number one place to visit in Phnom Penh. These buildings were built in the 19th Century, combining French and Cambodia style. They are fairly intact and visitors should dress appropriately as they are visiting a religious site.
• The National Museum has exhibits that will tell you more about Angkor and its Empire. A statue of King Jayavarman VII who ruled between 1181 and 1219 is one of the highlights.
• Tuol Sleng Genocide Museumis a sombre place. It is the prison where many thousands were held, tortured and killed by Pol Pot’s regime.
• The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek themselves are 17 kilometres to the south. There is a large stupa as a memorial with 8,000 skulls displayed behind glass. It is not a place for the squeamish but there is little doubt of its importance in Cambodia history and they need to at least discuss it as part of a Cambodia tour package.
• Wat Phnom, translated as Hill Temple, of historical importance rather than anything aesthetic is close to Sisowath Quay, a nice boulevard with many bars and shops that attract locals and tourists, especially in the evening.
• The colonial architecture is limited because the French were not in Cambodia too long but you should try to see the best examples; the Grand Post Office Building, the Central Market and Raffles Le Royal Hotel.
• The Independence and Liberation memorials are impressive structures. The Independence one celebrates the end of the French colonialists and is very much in Buddhist style. In contrast, the Liberation one remembers the Vietnamese defeat of Pol Pot in 1979 and can best be described as Stalinesque.
If you are thinking about a Cambodia holiday, then Phnom Penh must be included. It is slowly developing with modern skyscrapers starting to appear but it will be some time before it catches up some of the neighbouring capitals. If you are going to visit the things that represent the dark years of Pol Pot, be prepared but do not dwell on them; it does not see as though the locals do.