Phnom Penh, once known as “The Paris of the East”, might not quite be able to live up to that rather grand title anymore, with the French having moved out in 1953 and many of the city’s crumbling French colonial buildings having a somewhat faded glory about them. Still, over the last two decades, Cambodia’s capital city has been slowly emerging as one of Southeast Asia’s major go-to cities.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the people of Cambodia have had to live through brutal wars and one of the worst genocides in history. Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, it is estimated that a third of the population was wiped out through murder and starvation. Despite this, the Cambodian people have emerged stronger and Phnom Penh has risen from the ashes of these tragic events, as Cambodia’s economy continues to grow stronger and tourism in the country increases rapidly. There is still much progress to be made in the city, as well as the country as a whole; but there is no doubt that Cambodia has come a long way in a short space of time, so today Phnom Penh remains a fascinating and explorative city in which to study abroad in Cambodia.
Visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
A must for anyone studying abroad in Phnom Penh who seeks to truly understand Cambodia and learn about its recent history. When Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, they turned the school of Tuol Sleng into the country’s most notorious prison. Tuol Sleng was where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured some of its most notable enemies, including people whose sole crimes included being literate and wearing glasses. Appalling and unimaginable atrocities took place here. The graves of the few bodies remaining at Tuol Sleng, discovered by the Vietnamese when they seized the capital in 1979, rest in the courtyard of what is now a brilliant museum that continues to educate people about a period in Cambodia’s history that must never be forgotten. Out of the thousands who entered Tuol Sleng, tragically, only seven survived to tell the tale.
Meanwhile, 15 kilometers outside of the centre of Phnom Penh, in a peaceful and unassuming suburb on the edge of the Cambodian countryside, lies the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where the Khmer Rouge transported the prisoners of Tuol Sleng to be executed. Choeung Ek is one of around 200 killing fields across the country that have been discovered to date, where men, women, and even babies were ruthlessly slain in ways that seem incomprehensible. A visit here is not for the faint of heart, yet hundreds of people both Cambodian and foreign, visit everyday to pay tribute to the victims of a brutal, totalitarian rule. A Buddhist stupa stands tall at the centre of Choeung Ek as a symbol of triumph through adversity. It is an impressive yet haunting memorial, containing the skulls of just some of the thousands of bodies that have been discovered within the area so far.
Take a stroll or sail along the Mekong
They say you learn much about a place by simply strolling through its streets and Phnom Penh is no exception. Sisowath Quay is the city’s main promenade, resting by the left bank of the Tonle Sap River, and Phnom Penh’s heart beats here. The area is full of life, with locals hanging out by the river, street stalls, and restaurants selling delicious food, and there are bars and cafes nearby to relax in with a drink in your hand whilst watching life go by you. The Tonle Sap flows past Sisowath into the Mekong River’s muddy waters. For those headed onwards in the direction of Vietnam, why not cross the Cambodia-Vietnam border in style and sail across the Mekong into Vietnam, rather than taking the usual cramped bus or minivan?
Take in the beauty of the Royal Palace
Like a miniature version of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok but just as impressive, The Royal Palace is one of the most famous and adored buildings in Cambodia for a reason. Home to the Cambodian royal family since the 1860s, excluding the 1975 to 1979 reign of the Khmer Rouge, visitors can get lost for hours admiring the many examples of lovingly detailed architecture. The most famous of these, along with the Royal Palace itself, of course is the Silver Pagoda. This particular pagoda is blinged up to the hilt – the floor is laminated with thousands of silver tiles and it also houses a life-sized Maitreya Buddha fashioned out of more than 9000 diamonds. The view of the Palace from the other side of the Tonle Sap, where the river meets the mighty Mekong, is also a delight, especially when the sun sets behind its historic walls.
Go See a Wat (or Five)
You may well be thinking “what’s a Wat?”. Well Cambodia features one on its flag, the country’s most famous - Angkor Wat - located 300 kilometers up the road from Cambodia’s capital. There are also a fair few Wats, or temples, in Phnom Penh that are definitely worth a visit; whilst they might not be as ancient or revered as the complex of temples in Angkor, there are still plenty that are worth checking out. Wat Phnom, the city’s most famous temple, is perched on top of a hill that features a giant clock. Meanwhile, Wat Ounalom features a stupa containing an eyebrow hair supposedly belonging to Buddha himself, whilst the equally alluring Wat Botum is located near the Royal Palace, where some of Cambodia’s famous names from the past are buried.
Phnom Penh is full of fantastic eating options and can well lay claim to being one of the best food capitals in Southeast Asia. There is something for everyone, from the sumptuously appetizing street food, such as num pang (baguettes mixing western and eastern ingredients) and kuy teav (fragrant noodle soup), to the downright bizarre. For example, the pizzas at Happy Herb’s Pizza Restaurant, where the “oregano” on some of the pizzas may well give you the munchies. However, undoubtedly the best place to eat in the city is a restaurant called Friends, located near the National Museum, serving both Cambodian and international cuisine. To say the food is delicious would be an understatement and it’s all for a good cause too, the restaurant is part of an initiative to provide street children with work by training them to become waiters, waitresses, and chefs.