Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia. It lies in the southwest of the country at the confluence of the Mekong and Tônlé Sap rivers.
The city was founded in the 14th century and became the Khmer capital after the Angkor region was abandoned in 1434. Phnom Penh became the capital of Cambodia in 1867. Today it is the country’s main hub of economy, industry, commerce, history, culture and tourism, and is the country’s richest city. It is considered one of the most charming cities built by the French in Indochina and was once nicknamed ‘the Pearl of Asia’. The French colonial era left an important architectural mark on the city, most notably on the Royal Palace, the city’s wide boulevards and picturesque squares.
After years of unrest the Cambodian capital is reemerging with a renewed sense of confidence. The dynamic city is in the state of constant development, change and growth, and possesses numerous stylish restaurants, bars, shops and hotels.
Phnom Penh has a tropical climate and thus hot and humid all year round. Average yearly temperature is 27 °C. The hottest month is April with temperatures frequently above 40 °C. Temperatures are slightly cooler between November and January. The wet season, from June to October, brings high humidity, very heavy rain and strong wind.
January average temperature 26 deg Celsius 8 mm rainfall February average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 10 mm rainfall March average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 36 mm rainfall April average temperature 29 deg Celsius, 79 mm rainfall May average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 145 mm rainfall June average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 147 mm rainfall July average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 152 mm rainfall August average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 155 mm rainfall September average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 226 mm rainfall October average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 251 mm rainfall November average temperature 26 deg Celsius, 140 mm rainfall December average temperature 25 deg Celsius, 43 mm rainfall
Phnom Penh International Airport is located 7km west of the city.
Taxis to the city center cost $9 and tuk-tuks cost $7. For those on a tight budget, the official motorcycle taxi costs just $2.
The public transportation system is limited. There are no buses, but luckily the city is small enough to reach many destinations on foot.
Taxis are only available at a few locations; one of them is outside the Foreign Correspondents' Club on Sisowath Quay. Taxis are not metered and prices vary due to gas price fluctuations. You should negotiate the taxi fare in advance. You can ask hotel staff for assistance in organizing a taxi.
Cyclos are three-wheeled cycle rickshaws widely used for short distances. They are slower than motos and are slowly disappearing from the streets. Negotiate the fare beforehand.
MOTORBIKE TAXI / MOTO
Motos are very cheap and available everywhere. They are also used for short distances. As with cyclos and tuk-tuks, it is important to negotiate the fare beforehand.
Tuk-tuks are motorcycles with a passenger cabin in the back. They are cheaper than taxis and are mostly used by tourists; hence many drivers speak at least some English.
Crossing the roads and streets can be very challenging. Proceed slowly and watch around you at all times.
Angkor Wat is undoubtedly the country’s biggest attraction. The temples’ grandeur is comparable only to that of Machu Pichu. The complex, built by the Khmer civilization between the 9th and 13th centuries, was one of the biggest cities of its time and still represents one of the world’s biggest architectural achievements. From here the ancient Khmer kings ruled their vast empire stretching from Vietnam and China to the Bay of Bengal. Today, visitors can see over 100 stone temples, the survivors of a once grand religious, social and administrative metropolis which had numerous other structures, such as palaces, public buildings, and wooden houses that are, alas, now long gone.
RIVER DOLPHINS OF KRATIE
Kratie is a small town in the northeast of Cambodia and the base for spotting river dolphins, the Irrawaddy. The animals, which are a popular tourist attraction, had almost become extinct due to over-fishing.
The town of Kratie is well equipped with guesthouses and welcomes budget travelers. Trips to the river 15 km away can be organized through the guesthouses. The best time for dolphin-viewing is late afternoon.
A bus ride from Phnom Penh to Kratie takes around 4 hours.
CRUISE ON THE MEKONG RIVER OR THE TONLE SAP LAKE
The Mekong, one of the world’s major rivers, runs like a lifeline through the very heart of Southeast Asia. It originates in Tibet and flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea. The Tonle Sap is the largest water body in Southeast Asia, a combined river and lake system, and a UNESCO designated biosphere which was crucial to the existence of Cambodians for millennia. A cruise is a great way to experience the riverside communities that have remained unchanged for centuries, see temples off the beaten path and enjoy the famous Mekong sunsets.
Address: No. 63, Street 348, Sangkat Toul Svay Prey II, Khan Chamkamorn Phone: (0)2 321 1593 Open: daily 7:30 am – 11:00 am & 2:30 pm – 5:00 pm
The Royal Palace is the city’s most popular tourist attraction. It dominates the skyline with its distinctive Khmer roofs and ornate gilding. It was built over a century ago as the official residence of the King of Cambodia and as the venue for ritual and ceremonial performances. Today it is the home of the Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk. Walled grounds, measuring 500 x 800 meters, feature numerous buildings, structures and gardens overlooking a riverfront park. Most of the complex is off-limits to visitors. The Silver Pagoda, however, can be accessed. The floor of this temple is completely covered with silver tiles while the walls of the pagoda were painted by 40 artists and feature frescoes depicting the Ramayana myth.
The museum is located in a charming traditional terracotta building and houses Cambodia’s finest collection of ancient Cambodian culture and Khmer art, and is the nation’s leading archeological and historical museum. The items on display are arranged in chronological order and range from pottery and bronzes of pre-Angkor period (4th century) to recent day art works. There are over 5,000 objects on display and the collection constantly grows as new artifacts, previously hidden from the Khmer Rouge, are discovered.
TUOL SLENG MUSEUM
Open: daily 7:00 am - 5:30 pm
The Tuol Sleng museum bears witness to the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in power from 1975 to 1979. It was once a high school, but was converted into a notorious interrogation and torture facility where genocide was practiced. On display are weapons of torture, skulls, blood stained walls and photographs of thousands of people who were murdered. The prisoners were questioned here and after “confessions” were taken to Choeung Ek, where they were beaten to death with hoes since bullets were considered too expensive, and buried in mass graves.
KILLING FIELDS OF CHOEUNG EK
Open: daily 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
Choeung Ek was an extermination camp, 14.5 km from Phnom Penh, where prisoners from S21 prison - Tuol Sleng were executed. The site is just one of thousands of similar sites scattered around the country that emerged during the terror regime of Pol Pot. The death toll was high: Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed 1.7 million Cambodians in the years from 1975 to 1979, which makes up for 21 percent of the population. The death camp of Choeung Ek covers an area of a soccer field and contains mass graves of 20,000 Cambodians. Of the 129 graves at the site, 86 were unearthed. The brutality at the death camp was sickening – in order to save ammunition the executors killed their victims with axes, hammers, spades, and sharpened bamboo sticks, here babies were smashed against tree trunks. Today, a commemorative Buddhist stupa stands on the grounds, filled with skulls of the victims.
SISOWATH QUAY / THE RIVERSIDE
Sisowath Quay is a boulevard lining the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. It is packed with lively street cafés, bars, shops, and is popular with tourists, expatriates and locals alike. It connects the city’s various landmarks and is a great place to start exploring the city. The best time to visit the promenade is early evening when it truly comes alive.
FCC is housed in a renovated colonial building. It has a great location on the banks of the river and the bar terrace offers splendid views. The décor and atmosphere is French chic capturing bygone times. The bar is open until midnight and is a popular hangout during the weekends.
PSAH THMAY / CENTRAL MARKET
The bright-ochre painted Art Deco building housing the central market was built in 1937 during the French colonial rule. It has four wings and is dominated by a central dome arching in their midst. The market offers an odd combination of items, ranging from electronic equipment, watches, bags, suitcases, dried and fresh food, jewelry, to clothes, Khmer scarves, and books – among which you can also find photocopied travel guides; and heaps of souvenirs.
The city’s selection of restaurants is diverse enough to keep both its inhabitants and visitors happy - ranging from fine Cambodian and French establishments, American-style grills, to budget noodle and rice shops. The Khmer (Cambodian) cuisine has a lot in common with other traditions from Southeast Asia, especially in curries, sates and fish-based meals, except that Cambodian food is generally less spicy. The local food was also heavily influenced by the French, most notably in their love of the baguette, which is usually eaten for breakfast. The staple Cambodian food is rice, although noodles are also very popular.
Here is a selection of a few eateries and restaurants, ranging from modest to top notch:
This is a restaurant with a cause: it is run by a charity organization which trains former children from the street to work in tourism and related industries. The restaurant serves Asian and Western style food.
This is one of the main events of the year. It is celebrated over a period of three days and celebrates the turn of the year in the Khmer calendar and also marks the end of the harvest season. Streets fill up with people dancing, singing, and playing traditional games, and the temples are filled with visitors.
Chinese New Year
Phnom Penh is home to a large Chinese population so the Chinese New Year is celebrated here with much enthusiasm.
Royal Ploughing Day
Date: May Location: near the Royal Palace
The Royal Ploughing Day is an ancient royal rite celebrated at the beginning of the rainy season. It marks the beginning of rice–growing season and it is meant to ensure a good harvest. A ceremonial furrow is ploughed in the park in front of the National Museum. Also, a divination is made, based on what the sacred oxen eat, predicting whether the next season will be plentiful or not.
King Sihamoni's Birthday
Date: May 13 – 15 Location: throughout the city
The Royal Palace opens to the public during this special occasion. The evening is marked by a magnificent riverside fireworks display.
Pchum Ben is a Cambodian Buddhist festival, marking a time when the spirits of dead ancestors walk the earth. During a period of 15 days the souls search for their living relatives. The living offer them food and prayer to improve their karma. People cook meals for monks, bring offerings to temples and throw rice near temples so the ancestors’ ghosts may eat it.
Water Festival / Bon Om Tuk
Date: October /November Location: riverside near the Royal Palace
The Water festival marks the end of the rainy season and the start of the fishing season. It is the most extravagant and lively festival on the Cambodian calendar. The festival also coincides with a unique natural phenomenon when the Tonle Sap River changes its direction. The festival is truly a national event; the city’s population doubles as people come from far and wide to attend the celebrations, which include a river boat race and impressive fireworks.
Date: November 9 Location: throughout the city
Cambodia gained independence from France on November 9, 1953. The celebration includes a parade in front of the Royal Palace.
Victory over Genocide Day
Date: 7 January Location: throughout the city
The festival celebrates the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
Phnom Penh is a surprisingly lively nightspot offering everything from neighborhood bars to trendy nightclubs. Most venues are scattered around town but the city is small enough to allow for easy navigation via taxicabs. In addition, there are some areas where venues are clustered together and you can easily walk from one to another.
The riverfront area is dotted with bars and restaurants, those closer to the river tend to close down at midnight, whereas those on Street 104 and Street 136 stay open until 3 am; especially the hostess bars. Street 51 and Streets 154 - 174, is lively late into the night offering a large variety of nightclubs: the Walkabout, Zeppelin Café, Howies and Heart of Darkness.
Check the listings in Cambodia Daily’s Friday edition for live concerts, or the Bayon Pearnik Magazine (www.bayonpearnik.com/).
Some of the venues include: Memphis Pub with live rock & roll and blues every evening Monday thru Saturday, Lobby bars at the major hotels often feature Cambodian and Filipino live bands playing popular music.
Even though Southeast Asia was settled already in the Stone Age, the first strong evidence of settlement in the area of present day Phnom Penh dates back some 2,000 years ago.
According to legend, Phnom Penh was founded in the late 14th century when Duan Penh, 'Old Lady Penh', discovered five images of Buddha that were washed up on the bank of the Mekong River. Some saw it as a sign that the Khmer capital had to be moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh. A shrine was set up on a small hill to house the sacred statues; today it is called Wat Phnom. When the capital was moved it also started a shift from an agrarian economy to a more trade and commerce oriented one, as Phnom Penh is a river port town.
The foundations of the city were set in the mid 15th century by King Pohea Yat. The town was laid out along the rivers and several Buddhist wats were built. Its place of prominence did not last long. Before the end of the century the capital had moved again; this time to Longvek, a town 46 km upriver. However, in the 15th century there was a marked increase in maritime trade that made Phnom Penh an important international trade center of Cambodia.
During the 16th century the town remained a lively trading port with a mixed population of Chinese, Malay, Cham, Japanese and Europeans, living in separate camps along the river. The Spanish and the Portuguese were the first Europeans in the region and established trade connections there in the early 16th century.
In the 17th century the town continued to prosper. The East India Company became the dominant European trading partner, but this culminated in the Battle of Phnom Penh in 1644. After these disputes the Company never regained its status in Cambodia. From then on, Cambodia did not have much contact with Europe until the French took hold in the 19th century.
Phnom Penh became the capital of Cambodia in 1867 when the French arrived. At that time the city was a multi ethnic port of about 10,000 inhabitants, with floating villages along the riverfront, and wooden houses, shops and vendors all grouped into separate ethnic communities lining a single main road running parallel to the river.
The French began to control the area in the 1860s, first in southern Vietnam and then spreading to the rest of Vietnam and Laos, this resulted in a federation of protectorates and named French Indochina in 1887.
During the 1880s most of the city was still a swamp, dotted with wooden houses and huts, with a few early colonial buildings around Wat Phnom. Slowly fires swept away the wooden houses and new building regulations were implemented. During the 1890s the town population expanded, wetlands were drained, and new canals and bridges constructed. Several new buildings emerged, such as the Post Office and the Treasury.
MODERN (20TH CENTURY)
French control in Cambodia continued throughout first half of the 20th century. The face of the town was changing as many colonial style buildings and villas such as the Police Station, and the Hotel Le Royal emerged; the canals were filled up and turned into streets; and wetlands were drained as the city spread westwards. During the 1930s the city enjoyed a golden era under colonialism and was considered the prettiest town in the entire French Indochina.
In 1954 Cambodia gained independence from France. The period was marked by a considerable commercial development as roads, markets, power plants and apartment buildings were built.
This prosperity did not last long, however. In the 1960s Cambodia found itself in the middle of communism versus capitalism conflict raging in the neighboring countries. It eventually spilled over the Cambodian borders and approximately 600,000 Cambodian civilians were killed during the bombings - the USA dropped nearly 4.5 million tons of high explosives on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the conflict, which is double the amount dropped during the entire Second World War.
In 1970, the population of Phnom Penh was approximately 500,000. As the Vietnam War spread onto Cambodian territory, the city's population swelled with refugees, and reached more than two million in early 1975. In the early 1970s the Khmer Rouge took over the countryside. By 1974 the city was besieged, cut off and finally usurped on April 17, 1975. Three days later the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, forcing the entire population into the countryside. Except for senior party members, factory workers and trusted military leaders, Phnom Penh was essentially a ghost town until the Khmer Rouge fled the city due to the invading Vietnamese army in December 1978. The Khmer Rouge retreated to positions on either side of Thai border and continued to attack. Arms were finally set down in 1999 following the death of Pol Pot.
When people started returning in 1980s they found the city looted and neglected. The city’s development started at the end of the decade when the government dispensed communism. By 1990 the city population grew to 615,000.
In 1993 Cambodia held national elections with the intervention of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac). With it, the country opened up to development, business and international investment. Tourism developed after years of oblivion. The city experienced an all-round flurry of activity; construction, economic and urban development.
During the 2,000’s the city population grew to 2 million. It saw major improvements in infrastructure and construction with the first high-rise buildings emerging. Today Phnom Penh is still on the road of fast change and development.
Be very careful if renting a motorbike – a large number of tourists are involved in road accidents.
Do not travel anywhere at night.
Street crime is a problem. Do not leave your possessions unattended in the streets because tuk-tuk and motorbike purse-snatchers operate all around Phnom Penh. Also, be careful when going out at night.
Tipping: it is not obligatory but is greatly appreciated in hotels, restaurants, etc. Tour guides should be tipped.
Health: No vaccinations are required for entry to Cambodia, but they are highly encouraged. Malaria and dengue fever are very frequent. Malaria vaccination is recommended for all regions, whereas Dengue fever is prevalent mainly in densely populated areas. Drink only bottled water. Avoid uncooked meat, unpeeled fruit, salads, food sold by street vendors, and don't take drinks with ice.
It is essential to have good medical insurance. The only quality medical facilities in Phnom Penh are private clinics which are expensive. Treatment has to be paid for in cash.
Landmines: Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Travel with a local guide and never stray off the paths.
Emergency Phone Numbers
Police Hotline: 023-720555 American Medical Center: 023-991863, 012-891613