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Phnom Penh the Bustling Capital of Cambodia.

We spent several days in Cambodia’s Capital before and after a trip to Angkor Wat.

We landed at the Phnom Penh International Airport at around midnight. It is always ‘interesting’ arriving in a new place during the middle of the night. The first thing that struck me looking out the window of our ‘overpriced’ taxi was how many of the high-rise office towers had absolutely no lights on. Were they abandoned or just conserving energy? They were in pitch black darkness.

The morning revealed hazy skies.

The city has been nicknamed the “Pearl of Asia” for its early 20th century colonial French architecture, which includes some Art Deco.

The buildings here definitely have a French colonial influence, albeit somewhat crumbling. There are also many modern steel and glass buildings as well, some light up with led displays in contrast to what I had observed the night before on our ride into town.

On the whole Phnom Penh is not exactly what I would call particularly charming, however it is vibrant.

For instance, the traffic is loud, colorful and chaotic. Lots of motor cycles accurately exhibiting Brownian motion.


Some of the street food looked as scary as shit, whole deep-fried frogs and tables of salted snails fermenting out in the sun. Looked to me like a recipe for a week on ‘the thunder bucket’.

The night markets have multiple food stalls selling the same wares – round balls of multicolored Asian mystery meat on a stick, and suspicious looking seafood. There are dozens of stalls selling footwear, clothing, and assorted plastic stuff.

Where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers meet.

The promenade along the Mekong / Tonle Sap was wide, open and lined with palm trees, flag poles and benches. It is very walkable with bars, vendors and temples, with Nagas extending out in to the wide tiled walkway, all surrounded by parked scooters .

The vendors were selling evening cruises, lotus flowers for temple offerings, balloons, popcorn and sweets for the kids.

Some vendors were static, others carryed their wares on a yoke, on their heads, on push carts, or in large woven baskets.

Watching the world go by

People stand, sit and chat, while watching the river and the river boat traffic go by. Tour boats, sampans, small fishing boats, traditional long boats, low riding bulk carriers and larger freighters.

Golden stylized lions gazed over the Mekong river.

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Impromptu food stalls are surrounded by people slurping noodles with chop sticks, while sitting on tiny plastic chairs – their butts 8 inches off the pavement.

People checking the garbage cans for anything of value – even though there are designated recycling bins nearby.

People feeding flocks of pigeons – toddlers in diapers running through the feeding birds with parents in hot pursuit.

Keeping active

Impromptu soccer’s games employing balls of various sizes.

Boys playing foot shuttle – Jianzi.

Kids on bikes and roller blades.

People playing and exercising on colorfully painted stationary fitness equipment that looked like a cross between a children’s jungle gym and devices to inflict torture. The older generations use the apparatus for stretching, loosening their bodies, and getting the blood flowing. There is lots of spinning, twisting and elliptical type motions going on.

Things that make you wonder

There are many older white single Western men walking around on their own. Where these Lone Wolves looking to regain their youth – or possibly prowling for someone else’s?

On the city side of the promenade there are many sketchy looking establishments. In direct contrast there is also the stunning Royal Palace.


While the river front promenade is very accessible to pedestrians, other parts of the city are completely unwalkable, motor cycles driving on the sidewalk wherever possible and in the curb lane against traffic. Typical Asia the unwalkable

The traffic is tightly crammed, and crawls to a standstill at times.

A few isolated exotic sports cars stood out from the sea of tuk tuks and motorcycles.

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Temples offer an oasis from the chaotic traffic

Thai looking architecture adorned with lots of gold leaf.

Temple cats abound.

Depictions of  Hindu gods, with Shiva, Garuda, and Ganesh are featured alongside with the Buddha.

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The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace of Cambodia is the royal residence of the King of Cambodia. Cambodian monarchs have occupied it since it was built in the mid 1800s (except during the brief brutal Khmer Rouge fiasco).


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Prior to its completion in Phnom Penh the Royal Capital was located in Oudong on the Tonle Sap River.

The palace features lush gardens, striking Khmer roofs with ornate gilding, the architecture here looks very similar to the Royal Palace in Bangkok Thailand.

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The Silver Pagoda

The Silver Pagoda also known as the “Temple of the Emerald-Crystal Buddha” is part of the Palace.

The Pagoda is stuffed to the gills with treasures including a small green crystal Buddha – the emerald buddha himself. There are literally thousand of other treasures made of gold, silver, and bronze, many adorned with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. Don’t forget to cover up and remove your shoes before entering, or you will be turned away.

Outstanding murals

The walls around the Silver Pagoda feature 120 year old restored murals that stand almost 10 feet high and stretch for over 2000 feet. They depict the scenes from the Raemker, the Cambodian poem based on the Sanscrit Ramayana but with a Buddhist twist.

The murals feature Gods, Kings, Queens Princes, Princesses, giants, monkeys and mermaids. The scenes depict Royal Marriages, banishments, power struggles, abdications, battles involving armies of monkey troops. There are Gods fighting evil forces, protecting what is right. Many of the scenes play on the themes of trust, love loyalty, temptation to do evil, guilt and revenge. The murals also depict military strategy and governance ideals.

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The murals depict some of the same stories as seen carved in stone in Angkor Wats bas reliefs.

In front of the Silver Pagoda is a scale model of Angkor Wat.

Around the Silver Pagoda there are temple cats, small ponds with technicolored water lilies and Stupas that stand guard over Royal remains.

The only hill in town

Located a short walk from the end of the promenade, standing on the only hill in Phnom Penh is Wat Phnom.

The entrance staircase to the main Shrine located at the top of the hill is guarded by lions and naga, the mythical snakes of Hinduism and Buddhism

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There are many shrines dotting the side of the hill. One of the shrines attract crowds of people who leave offerings of food.

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A dark recent past

There are also reminders of Cambodia’s dark recent past in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge terrorized this nation from 1975 to 1979.

If any one group of people have the excuse to be nasty and pissed off with the world you would think it would be the Cambodians, instead they are wonderfully kind, gentle people.

There are the physical scars of past conflicts as evidenced by amputees, I am sure the psychological scars are not too far from the surface either.


We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill”.

Also known as S21, Tuol Sleng is a museum that chronicles the Cambodian genocide.

The former secondary school was used to imprison, torture and execute thousands of Cambodians. This was only one of many such facilities operated by the Khmer Rouge.

Those who were not killed at S21, were trucked to the nearby killing fields. An estimated 1.5 to 2 million people perished due to Khmer Rouge policies, nearly ¼ of the 1975 population.

 The visit was an extremely moving experience. A sobering reminder of the atrocities that were inflicted upon the Khmer people by their own.

Pol Pot can be considered one of the true monsters of the twentieth century.

He and the Khmer Rouge carried out enormous brutality against everyone within the borders of Cambodia during the 1975 to 1979 genocide.

There is nothing approaching any form of rationalization for what happened here.

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Putting a bow on it.

On the whole I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh, it really depends where in the city you stay. A hotel on a busy road can be a bit exacerbating.

We enjoyed some really good meals here (Cambodian Fish Amok is a must!)

Cambodia is a place I would like to travel and explore some more in the future. What makes the place special are the Cambodian people – collectively they are warm, friendly and welcoming.

About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography bug, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. “Retired” in 2012 at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis. Michael’s goal is to share the process of escaping the rat race, exploring the globe, and some of the experiences along the way.

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