Phnom Penh: The phoenix risen city of South East Asia

Phnom Penh truly stands out to be the phoenix-risen city of South East Asia. From a genocidal past to a thriving city now – Phnom Penh has much to offer to a tourist. Often hidden in the shadow of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is a city which has much to offer, especially when it comes to museums and royal palaces. It makes for a good detour from Siem Reap, should you have 2 days on your hands or a weekend to spare, if based in South East Asia.

I went to Phnom Penh on a whim. The whim was to get out of Singapore for the weekend. I booked tickets at 4 pm on a Friday evening and took a flight at 7:30 pm and by 9:30 I was in the city centre!

Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument – Built in 1958 to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France

The curiousity to see a new city made me think little of how I was travelling solo. The welcoming presence of friends was another reason. They took time out to show me around the city’s markets, the spas and the local pubs. This added to my experience, fun and sense of security in the region and made my trip to Phnom Penh, a city which was the epicentre of a genocide a little over 30 years ago.

Traffic at Sisowath Quay

Did I feel safe? Yes, for most parts of the trip. I felt safe hurling one tuk tuk after the other, and traveling alone. The only bit I was concerned was about my bag being snatched away if I didn’t hold it tight enough. So I did hold my bag tight enough, but the very complacency which Singapore gives you, makes you wary in other parts of South-East Asia. I realize now that carrying a Singaporean mindset is not the most useful thing to do while traveling across South East Asia.

So why Phnom Penh and not in Siem Reap?

National Museum of Cambodia
National Museum of Cambodia

If there is a choice between Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh, the answer is definitely Siem Reap. There isn’t anything that matches the temples of Ankor Wat and Banteai Srey. But if you are interested in pre-Ankor art and artifacts, the museum of Phnom Penh houses pre-Angkor artifacts which you won’t really see the in the temples of Angkor. Interesting enough, are the sculptures of Vishnu and Durga that are markedly different from the ones you see in India. If you like appreciating how Durga can have a sensual look or Vishnu can have a naturalistic, hip-swayed look then Phnom Penh is the place to go.

Royal Palace of Cambodia

Next in line comes the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The royal palace in Bangkok makes for an interesting visit given the sheer look of it. Spread over several acres of land, the royal palace was built under the reign of King Norodam when he shifted the capital of Cambodia from Oudong to Phnom Penh in the mid-19th century. The Royal Palace is beautiful for its sheer style and architecture. What I found very interesting was the similarity in its layout to the Royal Palace in Thailand. The frescoes on the wall depicting the scenes from Ramayana, and the multi-building layouts, one housing the throne hall, and other pagodas housing enticing statues of Buddha, seemed very similar to the layout of the royal palace in Bangkok.

Tuol Seng or Genocide Museum of Phnom Penh

The Genocide Museum is gory, but yet a must watch. Though not what you’d want to see in a typical vacation, it gives you a sense of pain, and uneasiness about how man can destroy another man. It’s a painful painting of man’s greed for power, and also an exemplification of the resurgence of the Cambodian society. For me, travel is not just something about pretty places – it’s also about appreciating a country’s reality, its history. The Genocide is one such point. It’s not fun and it’s not pretty but it is real.

A view of the Tonle Sap from Sisowath Quay

And last but not the least, is the fun part. This is undoubtedly the Sisowath Quay. Sisowath Quay is a road that adjoins the Tonle Sap river for 4 km. It’s also where most of Phnom Penh’s tourists are to be found given the numerous bars and restaurants that are to be found.

The Russian Market on a Sunday morning



And after a night of drinks at the Sisowath Quay, Sunday morning is best spent at the Russian market. I loved the colourful tone of the Russian Market. The market called so because of the Russian expat population that shopped here in the 1980s houses a great collection of everything. Trinkets, clothes, artifacts and dry fish – you name it and it’s there!

The Nada Spa in Phnom Penh

And last but not the least – are the spas. As I’d already done the Apsara dances in Siem Reap, I had decided to go for the Cambodian spa this time. A friend took me to Nada’s. An hour of body message in the spa truly refreshed me for my flight back home later in the evening. What special about the messages? Not really anything – unless you try. Work during the week, and frequent travel tired my body at the very least – an hour at the spa more than refreshed me. It was a nice ending verse of my travel to Phnom Penh 🙂

Leave a Reply