Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was formerly Tuol Svay Pray High School before it was turned into an interrogation, torture and execution centre by the Khmer Rouge regime. Also known as S-21 Prison, an estimated 17,000 Cambodians entered this notorious venue but only seven managed to survive following the end of the regime. Most rooms have been left in the state they were found in January 1979, including classrooms divided into tiny cells. An essential stop while visiting Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also displays 6,000 haunting portraits of its prisoners for travellers to understand the recent tragic Cambodian history. It is an intense experience touring the old prison and will no doubt give you plenty of food for thought.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are set adjacent to each other, spanning 174,870 square metres of lush greenery and breathtaking Khmer architecture. Although the king of Cambodia still occasionally resides in The Royal Palace (if the blue royal flag is flying, the king is in residence), visitors can explore several buildings within the palace grounds for US$6.50 and guided tours are available for US$10. Located in Sisowath Quay, must-visits at The Royal Palace include the Throne Hall and Moonlight Pavilion. Meanwhile, entrance to the Silver Pagoda is free of charge, where you can visit the Emerald Buddha, which dates back to the 17th century and made with Baccarat crystals.
Central Market (Phsar Thmey)
Central Market (Phsar Thmey) caters to just about any traveller, whether you’re a shopping enthusiast who wants to gauge your haggling skills, a tourist interested to be a part of bustling crowd, or simply keen to explore (and photograph) Phnom Penh’s unique architectural designs. Designed by French architects Jean Desbois and Wladimir Kandaouroff, this indoor market was the largest of its kind in Asia when it was constructed in 1937. Travellers can find a wide assortment of goods in Central Market (Phsar Thmey), from men and women’s clothing, jewellery, flowers and shoes to gemstones, local handicrafts and fresh produce.
Ta Prohm Temple at Tonle Bati
Ta Phrom Temple at Tonle Bati dates back to the late 12th century, featuring well-preserved stone carvings and bas-reliefs of Hindu mythology – this temple is similar in style to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Accessible within an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh City Centre, there’s an entrance fee of US$3 to visit the temple, making it affordable and convenient option for travellers who are staying in the capital of Cambodia. Other attractions in Tonle Bati include Yey Peo Temple (located 200 metres north of Ta Phrom Temple) and Tonle Bati Lake, a popular picnic spot amongst locals. Great for unwinding after visiting the temples, you can also rent huts and hammocks at relatively low prices.
The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields or Choeung Ek Memorial is a bone-chilling reminder of Cambodia’s tragic history. Located 17km south of Phnom Penh City, it is one of the many killing fields or execution and burial grounds used by the Khmer Rouge regime during its rule of the country from 1975 to 19767. Mass graves were discovered after the Khmer Rouge fled the city, leading to the construction of a Buddhist memorial for over 15,000 victims in The Killing Fields. Half-day tours to this memorial and S-21 Prison feature informative audio guides in many languages as well as testimony from survivors and guards of the regime.
Independence Monument is an iconic landmark that’s set in the heart Phnom Penh City Centre. Locally known as Vimean Ekareach, it signifies Cambodia’s liberation from the French who have colonised the nation between 1863 and 1953. As a result, vibrant celebrations of national festivities such as Independence Day (November 9th) and Constitution Day (September 24th) are held here. On most days, the best time to visit is at night as that’s when Independence Monument and its surroundings are illuminated by blue, red and white floodlights.
Wat Ounalom offers visitors an in-depth look into the spiritual teachings, philosophies and history of Buddhism in Cambodia. The most prominent and oldest of five pagodas in the country, Wat Ounalom is the centre of Cambodian Buddhism and serves as the abode of the Patriarch of the Mahanikai School of Buddhism. Built in 1443 to enshrine an eyebrow hair (ounalom) of Lord Buddha, the shrine housed over 500 monks and the Buddhist Institute’s library that held in its collection over 30,000 titles before they were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge regime. The displayed Buddha’s eyebrow miraculously survived, making it the main draw amongst travellers from all over the world. A 10-minute walk from The Royal Palace, entrance to Wat Ounalom is free of charge.
Cambodian Living Arts – Apsara and Traditional Khmer Dance
The Cambodian Living Arts is a non-profit organisation that hosts Apsara and traditional Khmer dance performances at the National Museum of Cambodia. Tickets are priced at US$15 and are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and weekends from 19:00 onwards. Traditional Khmer dance dates back to the 18th century, but was almost lost under the Khmer Rouge regime. Cambodian Living Arts revived the art by gathering surviving master artists to train and pass on their knowledge to younger generations. The troupe comprises live singers and musicians in traditional Khmer costumes, performing eight classical dances of ethnic minorities from all over Cambodia.
Wat Langka, situated nearby Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument is one of the five pagodas founded by Ponhea Yat in 1442. This colourful shrine was established as a library of Buddhist scriptures as well as a meeting place for Cambodian and Sri Lankan monks, but it was also used as a storehouse during Khmer Rouge’s two-year regime. Unlike most Buddhist temples in Cambodia, the stupas here are kept in a great condition and entrance to the temple is free of charge. Every Sunday at 08:30, Visitors can participate in Wat Langka’s meditation sessions which are supervised by English-speaking monks.
National Museum of Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia is the country’s largest archaeological and cultural history museum. It enables you to have a glimpse into the cultural side of Cambodian history dating back to the 4th century. Housed within an impressive red sandstone structure and inaugurated in 1920 as the Musée Albert Sarraut during the French colonial period, the museum stands out as a fine illustration of the traditional Khmer architecture. There are over 14,000 interesting exhibits that are arranged according prehistoric, pre-Angkor, Angkor, and post-Angkor eras, each of which comprises bronze and wooden sculptures, ceramic items, ethnographic items and stone articles. One of its most spectacular exhibits is an eight-armed statue of Lord Vishnu that dates back to the 6th century.