Friday, December 31, 2010

Phnom Penh - A City Revitalized

Published: 31/12/2010
Source: Bangkok Post

Phnom Penh is a city revitalized. The skyline of Cambodia's once sleepy capital is being pierced by its first high-rise, and the red dirt roads, now sealed, swarm with SUVs and motorcycles. For a city that has endured more than its share of bloodshed and destruction, today's youthful exuberance and palpable energy are a welcomed by locals and visitors. Yet despite the positive change being witnessed today, any time spent in Phnom Penh must still include reflective visits to the sites of the country's horrific past. Two of the most visited places in Phnom Penh are still Camp Cheoung Ek, one of many infamous Killing Fields sites, and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that became a torture centre known as S-21.

Camp Cheoung Ek lies 15 kilometres southwest of the city and was the burial site for those tortured and killed in S-21. In 1980, 129 mass graves were found here and 8,985 corpses unearthed. Today, a large stupa contains the bones and remnants of clothing as a memorial to the victims. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located in a suburb of Phnom Penh. The building is thought to have witnessed over 20,000 citizens pass through its doors to be tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge. On the ground floor, rooms with a single bed and leg irons where torture was carried out now envelop visitors in an eerie silence. One of the most haunting experiences, however, is looking at the thousands of black and white images of victims displayed on boards throughout the building. Like all regimes that committed genocide, the Khmer Rouge was meticulous in documenting those it killed.

Rediscovering Khmer arts

It's hard to comprehend but the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge wiped out so many artists and craftsmen that the country's traditional arts were almost lost. Today, following a concerted effort to retrain young people Cambodian crafts have emerged as some of the finest in the region.

Artisans d' Angkor was established in 1998 and has played a significant role in saving and promoting the country's rich cultural heritage. Originally under EU funding, the business is now totally self-financing and trains dozens of artisans each year, many of whom set up on their own. In Phnom Penh, Artisans d' Angkor have a boutique in front of the post office on Street 13, and at Phnom Penh International Airport. The shops sell lacquerware, stone carving, high quality hand woven silk, silverware and much more. Visit for further details about the inspirational projects.

The recent blossoming of Khmer arts and crafts has also seen many other boutiques open in Phnom Penh. There are several clustered on Street 240 and a host of art galleries close to the National Museum on Street 178, commonly referred to as Art Street.

One of the joys of travelling in Asia is visiting the vibrant markets. Phnom Penh is no exception and is home to the fabulous Psar Thmei, also known as the Central Market, a striking art deco building dating back to 1935. Here you can buy just about anything from shoes and clothing to souvenirs and jewellery. In Phnom Penh there are also many sprawling fresh markets to explore. Colourful, chaotic and not for the squeamish, they are the heart of the city. Check out the old market of Psar Chas on Street 9 and 11 which is open throughout the day and in the evening. For a colourful fresh market, head over Monivong Bridge in the early morning and you'll discover the wonderful Psar Chhbar Ampoeu.

Former glories

Despite wanton destructive within Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge years, much of the capital's former glories survived. The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda within its compound are well worth a visit. The complex dates from 1866 and is filled with Buddha statues, and religious and royal artefacts including an emerald Buddha encrusted with jewels. Entry is $3, plus $2 if you wish to use a camera. It is open every day from 8 a.m. - 11.30 a.m. and 2 p.m. - 5 p.m. Nearby, the beautiful red building of the National Museum houses a wonderful collection of over 5,000 Khmer art and sculpture.

Getting around Phnom Penh

The moto-romuak, Cambodia's answer to the tuk-tuk, are an excellent way to get around, and preferable to the confines of a car. You can hire a moto-romuak and driver for between $10- 15 a day for running around town. For longer trips to places outside the city expect the fee to rise. Drivers usually wait around near hotels and the concierge should be able to assist with negotiations.

Where to stay

The InterContinental Phnom Penh was the city's first international five-star hotel. The 346-room hotel is located in the heart of the city and 20 minute's drive from the airport. Guests can enjoy luxurious rooms and suites, and excellent service. Dining includes the Regency Cafe and the Deli Cafe. There's also a spa, fitness centre, and outdoor swimming pool. 296 Boulevard Mao Tse Tung, Phnom Penh. Visit the website at

The latest addition to booming Phnom Penh is the Sofitel Penh Phkeethra. The brand new hotel occupies a riverside location in the city's old quarter and is close to many of the main attractions. Inspired by colonial era architecture, the hotel offers 201 rooms and suites with views across the Mekong and Bassac rivers.

Facilities include elegant restaurants and bars, two pools and a stylish spa. 26 Old August Site, Sothearos Boulevard, Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Phnom Penh. Visit the website at

Getting there

Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways fly daily to Phnom Penh.

A visa on arrival is available at the airport for a fee of $20. One passport photograph is required. A departure tax of $25 is also charged.

More images of Phnom Penh can be seen at

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