Phnom Penh has been the capital of Cambodia since 1866 and although it suffered extensive damage during the Khmer Rouge era, the city still retains a certain rustic charm.
Tour the city to discover both its ancient and recent past. You are accompanied by a guide, a local who has had family live through some traumatic times. More so than in any other city, his / her commentary and personal anecdotes are an integral part of the experience.
Begin the tour, initially travelling by cyclo, at Cambodia’s Royal Palace, which stands majestically in the city centre just off the riverfront area. Several buildings are open to visitors, including the ‘Silver Pagoda’ whose floor is lined with solid silver tiles.
Continue to the National Museum, located in a fabulous old building. The Museum is filled with art and artefacts dating back to the pre-Angkorian era. At the far north of the city is the hilltop pagoda of Wat Phnom, after which the capital was named. Climb the stairs to the top of the hill for a pre-lunch view of the city below.
You need to steel yourself for the afternoon – a look into the country’s tragic more-recent history, with first a tour of Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and then its on to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. Individually and, more so, cumulatively these are harrowing experiences and should not be considered as appropriate for all visitors. If you do not want to visit S-21 or the Killing Fields, then Phnom Penh has plenty of other sights to keep you entertained during the afternoon.
If you choose to visit these sobering sites, then the brutality and evil of the Khmer Rouge regime hits your square between the eyes. Your guide will no doubt add his / her voice to the experience – everyone in Cambodia has a personal story to tell. Visiting these monuments provides insight in to the Cambodian psyche – with more relevance to an optimistic future than a painful past.
There is also time for a visit to the ‘Russian Market’ – test your bargaining skills as you wander through the stalls filled with souvenirs, local handicrafts, and electronic goods.
End the day with a cocktail at the F.C.C. – the infamous “”Foreign Correspondents Club””. You will feel that you have deserved the drink after a busy, but enthralling, day in the capital.