As we get ready for our travel club’s trip to Cambodia next week this article from one of our members is really getting us excited!
Researching Cambodia’s history might dissuade the most intrepid of travelers; military coups, Khmer Rouge occupation, Vietnam War, famines are a few of the pockmarks left on this gem in Southeast Asia. Thankfully, the country has shaken off some of its geopolitical woes and begun to seriously improve itself. Following the Mekong River northeast takes you directly into the city proper of Phnom Penh. Pleasant surprises are always welcomed after a taxing travel itinerary and Phnom Penh was exactly this. Once known as the ‘Paris of the East,’ one can’t help but wonder what the place looked like years before troubles engulfed it. Today, it is a popular tourist stop for edgy or bold travelers who are looking for an exciting city that is truly alive. There are countless ways to explore, discover, and absorb this hidden relic, here are five things that are worth checking out:
1. Sisowath Quay: Enjoy your espresso and croissant with a view! Simply known as the Riverfront or Riverside, a long avenue stretches for several kilometers on the east side of the city along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. On the city side, there are endless cafes and patisseries full of French delicacies that haven’t been forgotten yet. Many of the upscale eateries still possess the Neoclassical elements that made up French architecture of the time. Elaborate wrought iron cresting appear on rooftops, thin columns, French doors with tiny panes of glass and stucco roofs might sound ostentatious yet when juxtaposed with the dusty surroundings, the effect is nostalgic. Across the street, over the grassy medians, is the river side where many locals relax with friends and family in public park space. Locals find time in their day to overlook the muddy river flowing by swiftly while those with a bit more energy kick a soccer ball or participate in a group exercise session.
2. The National Museum: Head south along the river and eventually you’ll pass by the National Museum of Cambodia. A massive quadrangle introduces the wide building, manicured lawns covering almost the whole space. This impressive structure has a beet red hue with decorative roof sconces that look like a rhino’s horn. Once inside after paying a laughable entry free (only $2!), the collection contains hundreds of artifacts from Cambodia’s Angkor Age, a time of wealth, prosperity, and relative peace. Statues of kings, stone tablets carved in Sanskrit, ancient weapons, and delicate manuscripts written in Old Khmer are one of many treasures found here. While you’re at the museum, next door is…
3. The Royal Palace: Two things to make sure before you go: make sure members of the royal family aren’t there as all visitors will receive limited entry and to wear proper attire (no bare shoulders). And yes, the ticket office will deny you entry for failure to comply, which happened
when a friend was wearing a tank top. When you are able to go in, the two main attractions are the Silver Pagoda and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha inside. The orange stucco roof of the Silver Pagoda accented with gold leaves is supported by dozens of thin white columns. The building’s façade has been remodeled with white Italian marble and thousands of miniature tiles. The grounds of the Silver Pagoda are flanked by flower beds, manicured walkways and hundreds of statues and Buddhist stupas honoring previous royalty. Once inside, the piece de resistance is a crystal Buddha sitting atop a shiny multi-tiered platform. Diamonds, crystals and gold adorn every surface of the chamber and the green Buddha wearing a pointy gold crown overlooks this magnificent chamber.
4. Independence Memorial: Think of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, translate it to the Cambodian dialogue of style and architecture, and then you have the Independence Memorial. This is something to see and relax by, not something you can touch or walk through. The memorial sits in the center of the city’s largest rotary with no crosswalks leading into it. However, if one was to walk down Boulevard Preah Norodom, you are able to see it several blocks away while you meander though wide green space. People hang out around the nearby parks for R&R, sip a few drinks, or to enjoy the colorful fountains accompanied by classical music playing from hidden speakers. A great place to enjoy the sunset and meet friendly locals.
5. Russian Market: Unlike the tourist trap known as the Central Market, this one is a little bit off the beaten path. This market in the southwest is full of designer clothes, many of which are authentic. Since there are many factories in the country, clothes that have even the most minor of defects aren’t shipped internationally and make their way to the local markets. Knockoff Swiss watches to Calvin Klein underwear and everything in between can be found here. Local handcrafts can be found here also, including beautiful silk scarves in energetic colors.
Phnom Penh should absolutely make the top ten list of cities to visit if one is exploring Southeast Asia. Getting around is a breeze, the nightlife is wild, locals speak passable English, and the food is superb. In this city the adventures find you, just make sure you are ready!
About the Author: Andrew Skarvinko is one of our favorite travel club members. He is a great travel writer and has over 2 years experience traveling Asia & the Pacific.