Phnom Penh: The New Old World

Phnom Penh’s delicate balance of immense history and dynamic present symbolises an Asian capital at the crossroads of rapid change.

by / Published: 5 Dec 2013

Phnom Penh: The New Old World

Children playing in front of one of Phnom Penh's many temples

Currency: RM1 is equivalent to KHR1,267.91
Population: 1,501,725
Weather: Tropical wet and dry climate with temperatures ranging from 18° to 38 °C. The dry season lasts from December to May followed by the rainy season from June to November
Getting there: AirAsia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh once daily

The sun is about to set upon the Mekong River. All along the riverbank, small clusters of locals and tourists gather, sitting, chatting, laughing, snapping photos, watching the last rays of the day’s sun glint off the surface of the water. Dusty little feet pound the pavement, their cheeky owners grinning as they scatter pigeons in their wake. A pair of young monks walks by solemnly, the saffron hue of their robes brighter than usual against the dimming daylight. And high above, encompassing the entire scene like a benevolent parent, is a blindingly brilliant ball of a sun that sinks slowly out of sight from behind the twisted spires of the Royal Palace. It’s the end of another day, and tomorrow the sun will rise again. But as is the nature of time and change, the city will not be quite like it was the day before.

A beautiful sunset overlooking a lake in Phnom Penh

Old world, new home
Walking down the cobbled streets of Phnom Penh, there is much to take in and be in awe of. During the day, the city comes alive with the bustling sights and sounds of traffic as the residents of Cambodia’s capital city go about their daily business. Everyone is living in the moment, even as symbols from the past stand prominently amidst the liveliness as if to assert their longevity.

Much of Phnom Penh’s modern history is wrapped around the legacy of the French Protectorate of Cambodia from the late 19th century. Phnom Penh itself has existed since 1434, and still retains many of its historical relics and attractions. Yet today, most of the world knows it for the French influence that led to it becoming one of the most visually striking French-built cities in Indochina, most notably so during the 1920s.

From a small cluster of pagodas and wooden structures by the riverbank, Phnom Penh was transformed into a city of Parisian villa-style residences, manicured boulevards and public buildings that echoed the style of classic European architecture. At the peak of the colonial era, Phnom Penh was said to be the most beautiful city in Indochina, and was known far and wide as the ‘Pearl of Asia’.

Sadly, anyone visiting Phnom Penh today who is unfamiliar with its backstory would have a difficult time gleaning its glory days from the architecture as most of these buildings have fallen victim to age and disrepair. In the onslaught of modernisation, some have been torn down to make way for new commercial and government structures. Yet if one can really look past the thick coats of grime and filth, the signs of the Pearl that was are still very much evident.

It is not just the buildings that bear testament to the city’s capacity to survive. The ascension of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, along with its radical attempts at social reform and genocide practices left a horrific trail of famine, disease, torture and executions in its wake. Even after the Khmer Rouge’s deposition from power in 1979, it took the better part of the next two decades for Cambodia to gradually salvage its economy, population and spirit. Although the scars from that black period still run deep, today’s generation of Cambodians has learned to honour the lessons of their tragedies, and to steer their nation towards a brighter future.

A city unto itself
Today, Phnom Penh is home to 2.2 million people—over a quarter of Cambodia’s total population of nearly 15 million. It has the distinction of being Cambodia’s largest city, and also its wealthiest. As the country’s commercial and political hub, its vibrant atmosphere pulsates across the air and into the heart of its people. Phnom Penh is a city on the move in many ways, eagerly trying to keep up with the rapid changes that come with modernisation.

Part of Phnom Penh’s unique appeal is its seemingly organic navigation of extremes. Buddhism has been the dominant religion in Cambodia for centuries, and its beliefs still hold strong, as reflected in the people’s conservative dress attire, modest public behaviour and dedication to the local temples. Yet the city itself is becoming more and more urban as the government strives to advance Cambodia’s tourism sector in hopes of furthering national income (to date, the textile industry remains Cambodia’s top export earner).

Like many of its fellow Asian capitals, Phnom Penh’s reputation as an exotic tourist destination stems from its fascinating mix of the old and the new. While still a far cry from its heyday as the ‘Pearl of Asia’, what remains of the French colonial architecture lends a touch of old world charm to the city, especially when contrasted with the more modern buildings that have popped up in recent decades.

Thanks to a fine balance between economic development and cultural preservation, a sightseeing session in the city will yield plenty of visual opposites and an insight into its ongoing evolution. Hop onto a tuk-tuk (a motorised version of a rickshaw) and take in the sights of Chinese-style shop lots lining the streets along with narrow apartments and residences—a stark contrast to the more rustic appeal of their European cousins. To boost the local tourism sector, a host of new buildings have cropped up over the past few decades including international fine dining restaurants and sidewalk hawker stalls, luxury hotels and budget guest houses, nightclubs, pubs, bars, cinemas and many more.

Enduring charms
When first setting foot in Phnom Penh, it is near impossible not to be awe-inspired by its historical products. Each attraction exudes its own story—a living, breathing reminder that history can endure beyond age, violence or tragedy.

One of the city’s most famous landmarks is the Royal Palace. Since its construction in 1866, it has served as the official residence of the kings of Cambodia. Situated on the western bank of the cross division of Tonle Sap River and Mekong River, the palace is actually a complex of buildings built over different periods of time. Many of these buildings have undergone major refurbishments or have been rebuilt completely over the years, but they have always been popular among tourists.

Orchids frame the Royal Palace in the distance

Though certain sections like the King’s living area are sealed off from the public, visitors to the Royal Palace are allowed to roam through sections like the Throne Hall, which is used for religious and royal ceremonies and meetings, and the Silver Pagoda, which houses the Wat Preah Keo royal temple. The main building here is where various national treasures including golden and jeweled Buddha statues are kept.

Also of noteworthy interest is the magnificent Moonlight Pavilion, a golden-roofed, open-air structure that traditionally serves as a performing arts platform. It is here that the Royal Dancers converge to perform the Khmer classical dance, and here that the King addresses the crowds on important occasions.

In the heart of the city lies the Monument of Independence, a proud reminder of the day Cambodia achieved independence from France in 1953. Built in the form of a traditional lotus-shaped stupa, the monument plays a vital role during national celebrations where a ceremonial flame is often lit on its interior pedestal. Protected at all times by a surrounding traffic circle, it is an especially luminous sight at night when lit up.

In order to get acquainted with the country’s vast cultural history, the National Museum of Cambodia is a good place to start. Apart from being the country’s largest museum of history and archaeology, it is home to one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of art pieces and artefacts from before, during and after the Khmer Empire. Sculptures, pottery and ceramic relics representing aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism can also be found here.

Pieces of religion
Religious aspects are incorporated into much of Cambodia’s daily activities. It is neither surprising then to note the many temples around town nor the clear devotion and care shown to them by locals. Many of these temples have been standing for centuries, and have seen a constant flock of locals and tourists coming to pay their respects and admire the intricate, highly symbolic details of their architecture.

Among the most famous temples in the vicinity is Wat Phnom, which marks its 640th birthday this year. As the legend goes, a wealthy widow came upon a large koki tree in the river. Inside the tree were four bronze Buddha statues. To protect them, the widow had a shrine built on a manmade hill. Over the centuries, the site evolved into a religious sanctuary and a place of prayer and blessings for the local residents. Today, visitors can admire the carved statues and colourful murals on the walls that depict tales from the Reamker, or the Khmer version of the Ramayana. Inside the temple is a central altar where a large, bronze Buddha statue is flanked by candles, flowers and smaller statues. For those who come during the Khmer New Year, it is a remarkable opportunity to see how central a role Wat Phnom plays in the local celebrations.

A little further beyond the city by bus is Phnom Chisor, a high hill in the Takeo Province that is also home to the ancient Angkorian temple originally known as Sri Suryaparvata (‘the mountain of Surya’). Constructed in the 11th century, the view of the countryside from the top of the hill is breathtaking to say the least, and the temple ruins make for a fascinating exploration. Carvings and statues dedicated to the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu are still amazingly intact for the most part. More recently, a modern pagoda was built nearby for the resident monks.

Honouring the dead
Nearly half of Cambodia’s current population is less than 15 years old. Many of them only know about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge through lessons at school or through stories related by elder family members. They are far removed from the devastating effects of the communists’ radical ruling, but the people and government have made sure that the memory of those who lost their lives continues to be honoured.

An information marker at Choeung Euk Memorial

Once upon a time, Choeung Euk was an orchard. It was also the site of a mass grave for millions of genocide victims of the Khmer Rouge rule. Today, it is famously known by a more sinister moniker: The Killing Fields. Thousands of visitors come here every year to view the memorial built to remember the victims. Topped by a Buddhist stupa, the memorial’s sides are made from acrylic glass, through which more than 5,000 human skulls exhumed from the graves can be viewed. It is a chilling reminder of the horrors of violence, but also a testament to the Cambodians’ fierce spirit to survive.

Closer within the city is another site left over from the 1970s: the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Formerly a high school, the Khmer Rouge utilised it as a security prison and torture facility. It has since been converted to a museum and memorial, and its interiors have been preserved the way the Khmer Rouge left them. Since then, photos of victims who were brought to the prison as well as wall paintings by survivors have been added. The museum is open to visitors daily for a fee of KHR3.

The beckoning future
Just as old Cambodia continues to attract and charm, there is much to admire about modern Cambodia too. An endless array of local markets provides everything from fresh fruit and produce to textiles, souvenirs, electronics and trinkets. The most famous of them, the Central Market sits in a colonial-style building right in the middle of the capital. Nearby is the Russian Market, so called because of the influx of Russians in the country during the 1980s. It is well known for its vast selections of textile fabrics and materials.

Literally a stone’s throw away from the Central Market is Sorya Shopping Centre. As Phnom Penh’s largest modern shopping attraction, this is the place to go to escape the heat of the day. A wide range of small shops and kiosks is available here along with a roller skating rink, a cinema, a games area, fast food outlets and a food court.

A Cambodian woman cooking at a local market

In terms of accommodation, there is an interesting mix of boutique hotels and luxury hotels to choose from depending on one’s travelling taste. For the adventurous backpackers who want to sample as much of the local culture as possible, places like The Quay Hotel overlooking the Tonle Sap River are an ideal choice. For those seeking a quieter retreat, Villa Langka does not only promise a peaceful stay but also offers rooms that blend modern sophistication with traditional Cambodian-style interiors.

On the other hand, Phnom Penh’s luxury travel sector is also shaping up nicely. The Plantation Hotel is an urban resort and spa located just behind the Royal Palace, and provides a soothing stay right in the heart of the city. There is also Sofi tel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, which pays tribute to Phnom Penh’s French heritage through its elegant decor. Its riverside setting also lends a picturesque touch to one’s stay apart from being very close by the city’s landmark attractions. Aside from that, the InterContinental Phnom Penh situated between the International Airport and the riverside also makes for a relaxing luxury travel stop.

A new dawn, a new day
An orange sliver of the rising sun bathes the city in a subtle glow. It is still quiet and empty along the riverbank; the proverbial calm before the streets wake and the people set out on their daily routines. A thin, elderly man wearing a baseball cap gives his blue and yellow tuk-tuk a cursory once-over as he waits for the day’s customers to appear. He is parked at the junction directly opposite the majestic outline of the Royal Palace. The old and the new in a single image—that is Phnom Penh.

Observing Etiquette in Cambodia
• The head is considered the most sacred and spiritual part of the human body, and therefore should not be touched by others, even in a joking manner.
• When sitting down, always keep your feet tucked in as it is deemed disrespectful to let them point at other people or things.
• Always remove your hat and shoes before entering someone’s home, a place of worship or a place of business.
• Som Pas, a traditional Cambodian greeting is made by placing both hands together with the fingertips near the chin, and bowing your head slightly. hands are held higher when greeting elders or monks. Many Cambodians also opt to shake hands when greeting tourists.
• The dress code in Cambodia is largely conservative, so cover up as much as possible in public, especially when visiting temples or offices.
• In Cambodia, elders and monks are accorded the highest level of respect. Always let them take the lead during a conversation or a walk. Never sit in a higher position than the eldest person in the room.
• Although Cambodians are perfectly warm and friendly towards tourists, it is considered polite to ask permission first before taking a photo of someone. Some Cambodians also dislike having their photo taken in a group of three as they believe it will bring bad luck to the person in the middle.
• Be mindful of cultural sensitivity by not bringing up the subjects of the Khmer Rouge, war or violence when conversing with the locals.

Cambodian Living Arts performs the traditional heritage play 'Mak Theung'

Central Market
Between Streets 126 & 136,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Choeung Euk Memorial
15km southwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Monument of Independence
City Centre, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

National Museum of Cambodia
Street 13, Sangkat Chey Chumneas,
Khan Daun Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 211 753 

Phnom Chisor
Off Highway 2, Prasat Neang Khmau,
Takeo Province, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Russian Market
Corner of Streets 163 & 444,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Royal Palace
Samdech Sothearos Boulevard,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Sorya Shopping Centre
11-13, Preah Trasak Paem,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
Corner of Street 113 & Street 350,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Wat Phnom
Street 96, Norodom Boulevard,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

InterContinental Phnom Penh
296, Mao Tse Toung Boulevard,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 424 888

Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra
26, Old August Site, Sothearos Boulevard,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 999 200

The Plantation
28, Street 184, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 21 51 51

The Quay
Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 224 894

Villa Langka
14, Street 282, BKK 1,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 726 771