Phenomenal Penh

For someone my age, the name Phnom Penh conjures up images of a long, far-away, disastrous war. So I had no idea what to expect from Cambodia’s capital. Arriving in the dark after a bumpy, dusty 8-hour bus ride from Siem Reap didn’t offer any immediate impressions of the city. It was nice to discover over the next few days that Phnom Penh didn’t look like a bombed-out shell or a dingy slum so much as a vibrant—and (at this point in our travels) not too overwhelming—city with interesting things to see.

Phnom Penh sits on the banks of the wide Mekong river. A long, broad sidewalk with lots of benches and grassy areas have turned the river front into a park, perfect for strolling and enjoying the near-constant breezes that come off the river (like a giant air-conditioner in the middle of the city!). It’s a great place for people watching.

On our walks there, we saw families having picnics, people making offerings at a Buddhist shrine (including buying sparrows in small cages and releasing them for spiritual merit), guys playing a spirited foot game with what looks like an oversized badminton birdie, and people of every description going by on foot, bikes, or the occasional skateboard. Every day at dusk, part of the riverfront becomes the site for a mass outdoor jazzercise class that would do Richard Simmons proud.

On the other side of the street are cafes, restaurants, bars, and hotels with a beautiful river view. One of them is the old Foreign Correspondents’ Club (now a lavish but mediocre restaurant), where I channeled my inner journalist over a drink at the bar.

Another day, we had our own picnic on a bench by the river: Chinese-style steamed buns with barbecued meat and round breaded fish sticks. When we bought the fish sticks, we thought they were fried bananas. Boy were we surprised!

Our hotel, the self-proclaimed Fancy Guesthouse—which was reasonably fancy, though with a rock-hard bed—was located in what appeared to be a Lao-Chinese neighborhood. We liked the area because it was full of the kind of local life that we love observing. The guesthouse sits next to an outdoor market, on a street lined with coffee houses full of old men, minimarts, shops selling furniture, motorcycle repair places, even outdoor barbers’ stalls. From our window, we could see the gilded roof of the local wat (temple).

Phnom Penh has a few bits of fun French colonial architecture from the 1920s and 1930s. We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to see some of the colonial buildings on a whirlwind tour of the city. (For sightseeing, the DC-style hop-on/hop-off buses have nothing on small, zippy, open-air tuk-tuks.)

Art Deco train station in Phnom Penh
The 1930s Art Deco train station

Our favorite sights in the city, though, were the National Museum and the royal palace. The museum was perfect to visit after Angkor Wat because it contains many beautiful carvings from the Angkor temples that were taken to the capital for safekeeping. Having already seen those temples helped us understand what we were looking at in the museum and where it would have been originally. Even better, the museum fills in the gaps of daily life at the Angkor complex by displaying many of the small objects that were used there: things like ceramic pots, small bronze statues, eating dishes, hand mirrors, jewelry, and other decorative metalwork, including elephant harnesses.

We were especially happy to see a display about a group of statues that had been looted from an old Khmer site long ago and then turned up at several U.S. museums and auction houses. After long negotiations and pleas from scholars, the U.S. institutions recently returned them to the National Museum, where they’ve been reunited for the first time in many years. (As at many museums, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so you’ll have to take our word for it.)

The throne hall at the royal palace

Near the museum, and facing the river, stands the large walled complex that has been home to the Cambodian royal family since the 1860s. Cambodia’s King Sihamoni is a constitutional monarch. Like his counterparts in the United Kingdom, he lives in splendor. The royal family’s private residence is off-limits, but we were able to visit the throne hall (used for coronations), the former royal elephant house, and the Silver Pagoda (a state temple whose floor is paved in solid silver tiles, made from melted-down French coins). The pagoda contains many valuable Buddha statues, including the 17th-century Emerald Buddha that is considered Cambodia’s greatest treasure.

Our guide at the palace spoke good English and had many stories to tell, about everything from Cambodia’s early mythology to the political jockeying that led to the choosing of the current king 10 years ago. We were impressed by how free he felt to talk about sensitive political matters—probably not the case in some Southeast Asian nations.

A building in the old French Quarter by the post office

We feel a bit sheepish about having limited our time in Cambodia to just two places, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Originally we had planned to travel around the countryside for the rest of our one-month visa. But after more than five months of heat and humidity—a Washington, DC, summer followed directly by Bali and Cambodia—our biggest priority became getting somewhere cooler.

So from Phnom Penh we bid Cambodia farewell, with the idea of returning at some future time. And we hopped on a plane flying north to the cool green mountains of Laos.

Photo Galleries