Erika Kinetz wrote in the New York Times, “One of the best ways to disentangle the city’s torturous — and tortured — history is to study its old buildings. Although the city has been shaped by waves of French and Chinese, you’d never find that old Chinese temple (now inhabited by squatters) or that defunct Citroën factory without help. Also, don’t miss the work of Cambodia’s most celebrated modern architect, Vann Molyvann, whose midcentury modern buildings are disappearing fast. Two have been torn down this year alone. [Source: Erika Kinetz, New York Times, September 19, 2008]

River Front Area (near the Royal Palace) is one of the most charming areas of Phnom Penh, A stroll or Cyclo ride along the park-lined riverfront is a must. Pubs, restaurants, shops and tourist boats line the way. Chhrouy Changva park is another newly attraction at the other side of the river opposite the Royal Palace. The view of the confluence of Mekong and the Tonle Sap is geographically unique. Early risers, check out the spectacular sunrise over the river in front of the Royal Palace. A trip on the river front will fill you with fresh air from the Mekong and Bassac rivers, especially around the garden in front of the Royal Palace. Furthermore, you will have the special chance to relax and chat with your lovely friends at the riverside. And just sit on the benches or walking through the riverbanks you can absorb the fresh air from the river and see the whole view of beautiful river, in order to reduce stress and frustrations. English Street is a block of weathered buildings not far from the Royal Palace. Between 5:00an and 6:00pm the streets fill with young people who speak English with one another.

Chroy Changvar Bridge (the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge) was originally constructed in 1966. During the war from 1973 to 1975 Khmer Rouge forces mined it twice and destroyed large portions if it. When Phnom Penh was abandoned in April 1975, the bridge was neglected has been abandoned without taking care or repairing the damages from the war. After the liberation on 7th January 1979, mixed provincial and municipal population, returned to live in Phnom Penh and the government started to rehabilitate the infrastructures in Phnom Penh that has been damaged from the war and abandonments. However, the bridge would not be constructed due to the financial constraint. But in 1995 the government got the donation of the Japanese government to reconstruct this bridge and the Japanese engineers repaired it.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom(central Phnom Penh) is the temple that gave Phnom Penh its name (Wat Phnom means "Hill Temple" and "Phnom Penh" means "the Hill of Penh"). According to legend the temple and city were founded in the 14th century after a huge koki tree was washed by the flood-swollen Mekong river to the top of a hill where a lady named Penh lived. Inside the tree were four bronze Buddhas, believed to have been sent by the gods as a sign that Angkor was doomed and a new capital should be set up here. The lady built a shrine on the hill for the Buddha's and the shrine grew into a temple which now lies at the heart of Phnom Penh.

Cambodians believe that this temple is powerful in that anyone who makes a wish will have it granted. It is not surprising to see many people coming here to pray for protection or healing. Many bring lotus flowers as offerings for prayers answered. The Buddhist faithful come to Wat Phnom to pray before the large gilded Buddha statue, light incense and candles, and make offerings of fruit and flowers. Outside the temple are young children with caged songbirds that can be sent free for a small amount of money. Setting the birds free from the cages is said to bring luck and merit, which can be used in next reincarnation, to the person who frees them.

Set on top of a tree-covered knoll 27 meters high, Wat Phnom is the only hill in town. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong and discovered by a woman name Penh. The main entrance to Wat Phnom is via the grand eastern staircase, which is guarded by lions and naga (snake) balustrades. Today, many people come here to pray for good luck and success in school exams or business affairs. When a petitioner's wish is granted, he or she returns to make the offering (such as a garland of jasmine flowers or bananas, of which the spirits are said to be especially fond) promised when the request was made.

The vihara (temple sanctuary) was rebuilt in 1434, 1806 , 1894, and, most recently, in 1926. West of the vihara is an enormous stupa containing the ashes of King Ponhea Yat (reigned 1405 to 1467) . In a small pavilion on the south side of the passage between the vihara and the stupa is a statue of the smiling and rather plump Madame Penh. A bit to the north of the vihara and below it is an eclectic shrine dedicated to the genie Preah Chau, who is especially revered by the Vietnamese. On either side of the entrance to the chamber in which a statue of Preah Chau sits are guardian spirits bearing iron bats. On the tile table in front of the two guardian spirits are drawings of Confucius, and two Chinese-style figures of the sages Thang Cheng (on the right ) and Thang Thay (on the left). To the left of the central altar is an eight-armed statue of Vishnu.

Down the hill from the shrine is a royal stupa sprouting full-size trees from its roof. For now, the roots are holding the bricks together in their net-like grip, but when the trees die the tower will slowly crumble. If you can't make it out to Angkor, this stupa gives a pretty good idea of what the jungle can do (and is doing) to Cambodia's monuments.

Curiously, Wat Phnom is the only attraction in Phnom Penh that is in danger of turning into a circus. Beggars, street urchins, women selling drinks and children selling birds in cages (you pay to set the bird free locals claim the birds are trained to return to their cage afterwards) pester everyone who turns up to slog the 27m to the summit. Fortunately its' all high-spirited stuff, and it's difficult to be annoyed by the vendors, who after all, are only trying to eke out a living.

Wat Ounalom

Wat Ounalom(on the riverfront about 250 meters north of the National Museum) is one of Phnom Penh's five original monasteries and one of the most significant pagodas in Cambodian Buddhism. Built in 1422 and situated in the Corner Sothearos facing the Tonle Sap River near the Royal Palace, it serves as the headquarters for Cambodia’s religious establishment and is home to Cambodia’s most revered Buddhist patriarch— the top monk of the nation.

In earlier years, this pagoda served as the library of the Buddhist Institute. At that time, this place has cumulated about 30, 000 titles. However, it was later ruined by the Khmer Rouge. Over the years, the structure has been restored from its ruins caused by the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. The most important and eminent attribute related to this wat or pagoda is a hair from Buddha's eyebrow which is referred to as 'ounalom'. At present, it has been conserved carefully in a building situated behind the main wat of the Ounalom Pagoda.

The Royal Palace is also quite close to the wat. The area features a pleasant ambience where tourists can take a stroll. The wat was the home of the Buddhist Institute and library until 1999. Wat Ounalom was one of the five initial monasteries to be built in Phnom Penh, in 1422 during the reign of Ponhea Yat. Before 1974, the pagoda housed over 500 Buddhist monks. Many were killed under the Khmer Rouge. The Buddhist Institute is now re-established and was moved to the Sihanouk Boulevard, where it enjoys a much larger area.

Independence Monument (in the middle of a roundabout at Norodom and Sihanouk Blvd, 10 minutes by foot from the Royal Palace.) was built in 1958 to symbolize the independence that Cambodia gained from France on the November 9, 1953. The French fully abandoned their interests in Indochina following defeat by the Vietnamese at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. The monument has a unique and peculiar style and doubles as a memorial to Cambodian patriots who died for their country. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The 20-meter-high Independence Monument (Vimean Ekareach) was inaugurated on November 9, 1962. An Angkorian-style tower located in the heart of the capital, the monument attracts many tourists for its peculiar- looking and unique architectural style. It was designed by Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann, and is shaped in the form of a lotus, which also can be seen at Angkor and other Khmer historical sites. You are not allowed to enter the monument. At night it is lit with blue, red and white light (the colours of the national flag),

There is a big open park with fountains at the Independence Monument and it seems to be a popular place among the locals. It is the site of celebrations and services on holidays such as Independence Day and Constitution Day.


Royal Palace (near the Tonle Sap) contains the Cambodian king’s royal residence. Separated from the Tonle Sap by a lovely green park, where many Cambodian families gather on weekend evening, it was completed in 1870 by King Norodom, King Sihanouk's great uncle. The royal residences are generally off limits to tourists but the spacious grounds and the various temples and buildings around the residences are generally open. If the grounds are closed you can get a good view of the palace through the two large gates that face the river on the eastern side.

The Royal Palace is built on the site of the Banteay Kev, a citadel built in 1813. Within the compound are several gold and green buildings, housing the throne room, a performance hall for the royal ballet and private apartments for the King and his family. During the early Khmer Rouge years, King Sihanouk was confined to one of the apartments under orders by Pol Pot. The Throne Room of Prasat Tevea Vinichhay is used for the coronation of kings, official receptions and traditional ceremonies. The Chan Chhaya Pavilion which is a venue for dance performances. The king's official residence is called the Khemarin. There are also the Napoleon Pavilion and the spectacular Silver Pagoda. This pagoda is worth exploring. It owes its name to the 5,000 silver tiles weighing 1kg each which cover the entire floor. See Below.[Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Gleaming in gold, the Royal Palace is one of Phnom Penh’s most splendid architectural achievements. It was built in 1866 by His Majeaty Preah Bat Norodom, great grandfather to our current King. The Royal Palace is built on the site of the old town. This site was especially chosen by a Commission of Royal Ministers and Astrologers because it had great geographical significance in relation to the King, who was regarded as a direct descendant of the gods, whose role it was to live and govern on earth under the influence of heaven.

Royal Palace Buildings and Treasures

The Royal Palace contains some spectacular buildings. Not least of which is the Throne Hall, situated to the left of the main entrance. It boasts a 59-meter tower. The tower roof is beautiful, having been decoratively tiered with golden coloured tiles. This building is used for high official celebrations, coronations and audiences with foreign dignitaries and government officials.

The Royal Palace sits between streets 184 and 240. The main entrance is situated on Samdech Sothearos Boulevard via the Pavilion of Dancers. Opposite the entrance sits another almost equally stunning Royal spectacle. The Royal Residence, along with their Royal Highnesses, houses the sacred white elephant, the most auspicious and reverd symbol of royal beneficence within Cambodia.

The Royal Treasury and the Napoleon II villa lie south to the Royal Throne Hall. North to this stands the Silver pagoda enclosure, otherwise known as the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha. The Pagoda’s steps are crafted from Italian marble, and within the throne room the regal floor consists of more than 500 solid silver blocks. If calculated together, they weigh nearly six tones. Displayed a round the room, surrounding the main area, stand plush presents from foreign dignitaries.

Emerald Buddha sits on a pedestal high atop the dias. In front of the dias stands a life-size Buddha made of solid gold and weighs 75kg. It is decked with precious gems including diamonds, the largest of which is 25 carats. Also on display at the sides are the coronation apparel and numerous miniature Buddha in gold and silver. The walls surrounding the compound which is the oldest part of the palace, are covered with frescos depicting scenes from the Khmer version of the Ramayana.

The magnificent 17th century emerald Buddha statue is made of Baccarat crystal and solid gold. It weighs 90 kilograms and is adorned with 9,584 diamonds. Bronze statues stand to it’s left and right sides. Next to these, encased under a glass cover, reside a golden locus. Within this area other ancient treasures include a large Buddha’s footprint, representing the 108 past lives of the Buddha before he was re-incarnated as Prince Siddharta, who subsequently gained enlightenment. On the wall, surrounding the Pagoda compound, (the oldest par of the palace) are hundreds of meters of frescos depicting an episode of the Indian epic Ramayana. These are the biggest mural frescos in South East Asia.

Silver Pagoda

Silver Pagoda (next to Royal Palace) is one of Phnom Penh's premier tourist sights. Built in 1892 and restored in the 1960s, it is named for the 5,000 silver tiles that cover the pagoda's floor. Among the temples other features are a live-size golden Buddha encrusted with more than 9,000 diamonds, about 100 or so other golden Buddhas, and an Italian marble staircase.

The Silver Pagoda is located on huge ground with gardens, open spaces and lots of other buildings. The Elephant Place is a small museum with royal umbrellas and platforms used in royal coronation ceremonies, royal funeral processions, twelve-month anniversaries and other religious rituals. The Khmer Rouge reportedly didn't destroy the Silver Pagoda because they wanted visiting foreign dignitaries to think they were interested in preserving Khmer culture.

Wat Preah Keo Morakot (Silver Pagoda) is located in the southern portion of the Royal Palace complex. The pagoda was formerly known as Wat Uborsoth Rotannaram because it is where the King worshiped, prayed and practiced every Buddhist Silas Day. In the additional, the royal family and officials also held Buddhist ceremonies there. This pagoda has no monks. However, His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk lived there for one year when he entered the monkhood on July 31, 1947. Because the pagoda has no monks, visitors usually refer to it as Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot. When the King celebrates Buddhist ceremonies, monks from other pagoda such as Wat Unaloam and Wat Botumvattey are invited to attend the ceremonies. Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot was built between 1892 and 1902, during the region of King Norodom, but at that time it was constructed of wood and brick. Its design is base on Cambodian architectural style. Then Banhchos Khan Seima ceremony was held on Feb 5, 1903.

The temple was later damaged, and Queen Kosamak Neary Rath asked that it be repaired. Under the direction of her son Samdach Preah Norodom Sihanouk, who at that time was the head of state, the old temple was dismantled and reconstructed in 1962 on the same site with reinforced concrete. The floor was laid with silver tiles, and the columns were covered with glass stone imported from Italy. The architecture, however, remained the same. This temple is called Pheah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot because the main Buddha statue is made of priceless emerald, which Cambodians call Keo Morakot. Westerners, however, prefer to call the temple the Silver Pagoda because of the 5,329 genuine silver tiles that cover the floor.

Art Objects in the Silver Pagoda

There are 1,650 art objects housed in this temple. Most of them are Buddha figures. They are made of gold, silver, bronze and other valuable materials. Some are decorated with diamonds. They are gifts from the King, the royal family, dignitaries and other people who worship at Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot, where they pray for peace and prosperity, for happiness and for the preservation of Cambodian cultural heritage for the next generation. In front of the throne, site a Buddha statue made of gold, weighing 90 kilograms (about 200 pounds) and decorated with 2,086 diamonds. The biggest diamond is on the crown. It is 25 millimeters. This statue was commissioned in 1904 by King Sisowath, following the suggestion of King Norodom. King Norodom said, after his body was cremated the gold casket should be melted to make Buddha statue representing Preah Srei Araymetrey. This Buddha statue is named Preah Chin Raingsei Rachik Norodom.

Objects of particular interest in the Preah Vihear Keo Morakot include: The Preah Keo Morakot, the Emerald Buddha, which sits atop throne in the center of the temple. There is a small glass cabinet that contains what Buddhists believe are ashes of the Buddha. The ashes were brought from Sri Lanka in 1956 by Samdech Head Monk Lvea Em, who stayed in Wat Langka in Phnom Penh. In a nearby cabinet sits a gold Buddha figure offered by Queen Kosamak Nearyrath, mother of King Norodom Shihanouk, in 1969. This Buddha figure is protected by naga. It represents when Buddha stayed at the Muchalonti Pond. Objects in other cabinets are the keepsakes and decorated objects for royal and Buddhist ceremonies. The temple is surrounded by lofty gallery. On the wall of the gallery, there are traditional paintings of the entire Ream Ke epic. These paintings were done by 40 Cambodian artists between 1903 and 104 under the direction of Oknha Tep Nimit. The Ream Ke painting is 642 meters long and 3meters high. It starts from the south of the eastern gallery and winds its way around the gallery. This means that visitors must walk in a circle to see the entire story.

The ancient epic Ream Ke along the gallery shows a unique scene not copied completely from Indian Ramayana. Because some plots of Cambodian Ream Ke are so mysterious, visitors mush look at the painting carefully. Visitors who are familiar with Indian Ramayana will understand the Cambodian Reap Ke easily, even thought the two versions are different. Some themes are also depicted by La Khon Khaol or depicted in Sbek Thom and other sculpted figures. Astrologers also use the story to tell fortunes. Weather, structural damage and destruction by visitors over the years have caused the paintings to deteriorate. In 1985, the Cambodian government was cooperating with the government of Poland to restore, protect and maintain the paintings. The venture lasted only five years, however, because the budget was terminated. Today the Cambodian government is looking for way to conserve, restore and maintain this cultural heritage.

Religion Buildingsof the Silver Pagoda

Monks from Phnom Penh and other provinces once studied the Pali language in classes that were held along the gallery before the Pali School was opened in Phnom Penh on Dec 16, 1930. In front of Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot, are two stupas and a statue under the roof. The south stupas hold the cremains of King Ang Doung, the great-great grandfather of King Sihanouk. The north stupas hold the remains of King Norodom, the great grandfather of King Shihanouk. Both stupas were dedicated on March 13, 1980. The statue of King Norodom riding a horse was erected in 1875. It was the keepsake of the French King Napoleon III. It was kept in front of Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot in 1892, but at that time there was no roof. During King Sihanouk’s crusade to win independence from France, he prayed in front of the statue. After Cambodia won its dependence on Nov 11, 1953, King Sihanouk had the roof built in honor of King Norodom.

South of Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot beside Thamma Hall, a place for praying, and the stupa of King Sihanouk’s father, King Norodom Soramrith, which was built in 1960, visitor find: Keung Prah BatKeung Preah Bat houses the footprints of the four Buddhas who have already reached enlightenment. Those Buddhas are Kok Santhor, Neak Komonor, Kasabor and Damonakodom. In additional to the four Buddha, Preah Srei Araynetrey, whom Buddhist believe has not yet been born. They believe that he will come 5,000 years after the fourth Buddha reaches Nirvana. Buddhists believe that Preah Srei Araymetrey will come and help the people. Phnom Khan Malineati Borapat Kailasha Phnom Khan Malineati Borapat Kailasha or Phnom Mondul is the manmade hill that represents Phnom Kailasha, where the Buddha left his footprints on the stone. On the Phnom Mondul, there is a statue of the Buddha and 108 blessings of life before the Buddha reaches enlightenment.

Kunthabopha Stupa was built in 1960 as the resting place for the ashes of Princess Norodom Kunthaboph, the daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk. She was four years old when she died of dengue fever. The stupa’s design is base on the ancient Banteay Srei temple in Siem Reap. West of Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot is a bell hall. The bell is used in the various ceremonies and to mark the opening and closing of the Silver Pagoda. In the past, the bell was also used to call the monks who studied Pali in the palace. To the north, is a building that houses. Tipitaka, the fundamental scriptural canon of Buddhism. They include: Sutta Pitaka

The Sutta Pitaka, a collection of discourses, is primarily composed of dialogues between the Buddha and other people. It consists of five groups of texts: Digha Nikaya (Collection of long discourses), Mijjhima Nikaya (collection of medium discourses), Samyutta Nikaya (collection of grouped discourses), Anguttara Nikaya (collection of discourses on numbered topics), and Khuddaka Nikaya (collection of miscellaneous texts). In the fifth group, the Jatakas, comprising stories of former lives of the Buddha, and the Dhammapada (religious sentences), a summary of the Buddha’s teachings on mental discipline and morality, are especially popular. The Vinaya Pitaka, the code of monastic discipline, consists of more than 225 rules governing the conducts of Buddhist monks and nuns. Each is accompanied by a story explaining the original reason for the rule. The rule are arranged according to the seriousness of the offense resulting from their violation. Abhidharma Patika

The Abhidharma Patika contains philosophical, psychological, and doctrinal discussions and classifications. It consists of seven separate works. They include detailed classifications of psychological phenomena, metaphysical analysis, and a thesaurus of technical vocabulary. The Building also houses a Shiva’s mount Nandi. This figure was found buried in Koh Thom district in Kandal province in 1983. It is estimated to be 80 percent silver and 20 percent bronze, copper, lead, iron and zinc.


The National Museum of Khmer Art and Archeology (a block away from the Royal Palace) has a fine collection of pre-Angkor and high-Angkor Khmer art and sculpture. Most of the 5,800 art works displayed and housed at the museum are stone sculptures and bas-reliefs that were used to decorate Khmer temples. Many of the best statues found at Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples, that weren't looted by the French and Cambodian soldiers, are found here.

Built of red bricks by the French in a pseudo-Khmer style in 1917, around the time of World War I, the National Museum building is built around a courtyard. It was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge years between 1975 and 1979. During that time the museum’s roof caved in, the art works were neglected and the museum was taken over by three species of squeaking, insect-eating bats, which over time became more famous than the objects in the museum .

The National Museum of Cambodia is housed in a graceful terracotta structure of traditional design (built 1917-20) just north of the Royal Palace. Entry is $3. Photography is prohibited inside. Guides who speak French and English are available, and there is also a booklet - Khmer Art in Stone - available at the front desk for US$3, which gives a rundown with locations of the most important objects on display. The museum is open daily from 8:00am to 11:30am and from 2:30pm to 5:00pm.

Erika Kinetz wrote in the New York Times, “If you can’t make it to Angkor Wat, check out the collection of Angkorian artifacts at the National Museum (corner of Street 13 and Street 184; tel. 855-23-211-753). An open-air pavilion built around a lush garden fountain, it’s one of the calmest places in the city, despite the occasional bat flying overhead. [Source: Erika Kinetz, New York Times, September 19, 2008]

Royal University of Fine Arts (École des Beaux-arts) has its headquarters in a structure behind the main building of the National Museum. It sometimes lets visitors come in watch students learn classical Cambodian dance. "It is quite a scene," wrote Philip Shenon of the New York Times, "as scores of young children take to the stage in the brilliantly colored dance costumes of old Cambodia."

Erika Kinetz wrote in the New York Times, “ For something more modern, head around the corner to the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture (47 Street 178; 855- 23-217-149;, run by Ly Daravuth, a French-educated curator and cultural historian whose past exhibits have included wat paintings and sculptures made from everyday objects. Reyum also publishes a collection of books on Cambodian culture that you won’t find elsewhere. [Source: Erika Kinetz, New York Times, September 19, 2008]

National Museum of Khmer Art and Archeology Collection

Influenced and inspired by Indian art and Buddhism, the figures include images of Buddhas, Nagas (the seven-headed serpent), apsara dancers, heads of Angkor kings, and Hindu gods like Shiva, Durga, Brahma, Vishnu and Ganesha. The identity of the craftsmen and artists who made all the statues and art work is unknown. Some Western visitors to the museum find the stone sculptures and art work to be repetitive and boring. Most of the items are made from sandstone; there is very little color; and many of the works seem lost taken out of the context of their temple. Take a visit to the restoration wing if it is open to visitors. It is interesting watching the craftsmen and restorers at work.

The museum comprises four courtyards which face onto a garden courtyards to the left and straight ahead of the entrance. There is a good collection of Khmer sculptures dating from the pre-Angkor period (4th century) to post-Ankgor period (14th century) Some highlights include the eight-armed statue of Vishnu from the 6th or 7th century, the statue of Shiva (circa 877-866) and the sublime statue of Jayavarman VII seated (circa 1181-1218), his head bowed slightly in a meditative pose. Elsewhere around the museum are display of pottery and bronzes dating from the pre-Angkor periods of Funan and Chenla (4th to 9th centuries), the Indravraman period (9th and 10th centuries), the classical Angkor period (10th to 14th centuries), as well as more recent works.

Bats of the National Museum of Cambodia

During the Khmer Rouge years between 1975 and 1979, the museum was taken over by three species of squeaking, insect-eating bats, which over time became more famous than the objects in the museum . By the mid-1990s, the museum was home to a million bats, which dropped an estimated one ton of corrosive guano every month. The mess required thorough daily cleaning of the floors and statues and spraying of insecticide to keep away the fleas that lived on the bats. Most of the guano collected on the wood ceiling below the bats. In the dry season the guano turned to dust and settled on anything below it. During the rainy season the guano ran down the walls and collected in pools. It not only smelled bad the guano became more acidic in the high humidity and damaging to the art work.

Some tourist were so worried about bat guano they wore Vietnamese-style conical hats when they visited, Some employees at the museum made a handsome profit collecting the guano and selling it as fertilizer and trapping bats and selling their blood and meat, which are regarded as delicacies in Cambodia and Vietnam. Conservationists wanted the bats to be left alone because they ate lots of insects and one of the three species, Theobald’s tomb bats, were not common. The other two species. the wrinkle-lipped bat and beared tomb bat are fairly common.

By the early 2000s, there were maybe two million bats in the museum building, the largest population to inhabit a building anywhere in the world. For a while there discussions about building a second ceiling to separate the bats from the museum room but there was never enough money to do that. Finally in the early 2000s the bats were driven out by simply sealing the places where the bats entered the building after a night of feeding on insects in the city.


Joseph Freeman wrote in the Washington Post: Phnom Penh’s old French district is located in the central part of the city near the U.S. Embassy. Visiting an apartment there,Joseph Freeman wrote in the Washington Post: “The building was advertised as the modern incarnation of the colonial-era Hôtel Manolis. Now chopped up into apartments, the hotel provides a footnote to French literary and colonial history. In 1923, the writer and future French minister of cultural affairs André Malraux occupied a room there. Malraux was a young man, traveling with his wife, Clara, and a friend, when he was caught trying to spirit Cambodian antiquities out of the country. Criminality, scandal, intrigue, the ghost of Malraux: What more could you want in a potential living space? The French real estate agent, however, offered a better-known selling point when we met him for a walk-through. The area, he told us, had been featured in the 2002 Matt Dillon movie “City of Ghosts.”[Source: Joseph Freeman, Washington Post, January 23, 2014]

“I’ve lived in Phnom Penh for nearly two years and thought that I knew the city well. But when we ascended the staircase and opened the door to the flat, a much older model appeared. The apartment had slatted royal-blue shutters and tiled, dusty floors. There were no air conditioners: Ceiling fans pushed the hot air around. From the living room windows, whose many locks took about three minutes to open, small steps led down to a low-slung balcony.

“Five minutes earlier, we’d been immersed in a bustling Phnom Penh. Here inside, past and present merged. We were being shown an apartment with French colonial roots by a transplanted Frenchman 60 years after King Norodom Sihanouk led the crusade for independence from France in 1953. Perhaps the strangest thing was that there was nothing strange about it.

Traveling Around the French District of Phnom Penh

Joseph Freeman wrote in the Washington Post: But a friend had recommended seeing the colonial era through a preservationist group called Khmer Architecture Tours. Half of the three-hour excursion takes place on foot. In between stops, we each hopped briefly into a cyclo, or cyclopousse, the bicycle rickshaw that was invented, appropriately enough, by a Frenchman, Maurice Coupeaud, in 1937. In “Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History,” historian Milton Osborne writes that Coupeaud pulled off a colonial publicity stunt by riding a cyclo himself from Phnom Penh to what is now Ho Chi Minh City, about 125 miles away. The journey took 17 hours. [Source: Joseph Freeman, Washington Post, January 23, 2014]

“Our tour guide was a Cambodian architecture student from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. First, he took us into the surviving Post Office, which is still in use and right across the street from Malraux’s onetime hotel room. He led us over to a wall where we gazed up at photos of old counters lost in the changing restorations of the place. The high ceilings, he pointed out, created a cooling effect necessary in the tropical heat. “Sometimes, I really admire these colonial architects,” he said.

“We walked across the road into the aging French police commissariat, whose future is unknown. The cream-colored building on the corner is falling apart and seemingly uninhabitable, although I occasionally see lights on inside at night. During the day, volleyball games take place in the courtyard.

“Apart from a few notable exceptions — the National Museum, the Central Market, the National Library, parts of the Raffles Hotel Le Royal and sections of the Royal Palace grounds — most French structures around today were brought back to life to serve a different purpose, some hilariously different. One building site is now home to a branch of Cambodia’s dominant coffee chain, Brown. I’m sure that the French developer behind a large colonial hotel on Phnom Penh’s riverside would be delighted to know that it’s now a KFC. Other buildings have been put to use as government institutions, property developments and, in a win for cultural preservationists, UNESCO’s Phnom Penh offices. Many have simply been left in disrepair or demolished to make way for more practical offerings, such as an office supply store.


As you leave Phnom Penh, the scenery become very rural quickly. Cambodia's second largest city, Battambang, is located 290 kilometers (175 miles) to the northwest. About three hours by road to the southwest of Phnom Penh is the port and beach resort of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat are about 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Phnom Penh. In the far northeast,Ratanakiri province is the home of Cambodia's ethnic minorities. Siem Reap and Ratanakiri are best reached by plane.

Day trip destinations from Phnom Penh include Odong (40 kilometers north of Phnom Penh), Cambodia's capital from 1619 to 1866. Tonle Bati and Ta Prohm and Yeay Peau Temples are located 32 kilometers south of Phnom Penh. More temples can be found at at Phnom Chisor (50 kilometers miles south of Phnom Penh and 13 miles south of Tonle Bati. Koki Beach (10 kilometers east of Phnom Penh) is situated on the Mekong River and is popular with locals on the weekend. Tonle Bati (60 kilometers from Phnom Penh) is a well-preserved set of 11th century ruins. Nearby is Oudong, the capital of the country in the 16th century. See Below

Mekong Island (45 minutes by boat from Phnom Penh) is a 25-acre island in the Mekong River that is sort of like a cultural amusement park that offers elephant rides and features traditional crafts and dances. The island features unspoiled surroundings. Houses are erected on stilts and people lead a simple lifestyle while earning their livelihood primarily from agriculture, fishing and silk weaving.One of the not-to-miss communes of the island is Koh Dach, sometimes dubbed as the country’s silk weaving centre, as there are thousands of silk weavers producing quality silk under their stilted houses’ dappled space. For a fun experience, be sure to try to weave silk on spinning wheels made using bicycle parts. An animal park on the island has panthers, monkeys, bears and snakes. A one day tour cost about $25 and includes lunch, entertainment and the boat ride there and back.

Kampong Cham (75 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh is one of central Cambodia's largest cities. It is located near a heavily forested region of Cambodia with several large rubber plantations nearby. Kampong Cham's location on the Mekong River has led to the development of a productive fishing industry. The soil around Kampong Cham is extremely fertile and supports the growth of corn, cassava, beans, tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, rice, and potatoes. An 11th century Buddhist shrine, Wat Nokor, is located on the outskirts of the city. Kampong Cham has a population of about 40,000.

Kirirom National Park

Kirirom National Park (120 kilometers west of Phnom Penh) is a 86,000 acre (30,000 hectare) park opened in 1995 around a former royal retreat in the Elephant Mountains. Tigers can still be found here. Located at Phnom Sruoch district in the province of Kampong Speu, Kirirom is situated on a 700-meter-high plateau, The name “Kirirom”— meaning “Mountain of Joy”—was given to it by the King of Cambodia. Due to its high altitude, the park is known for its unique high elevation pine forest, which forms the headwaters for numerous streams feeding Kampong Speu Town.

Kirirom National Park, whose official name is Preah Suramarith Kossmak, is home to many endangered species of animals such as gibbon, sun bear and tiger . You can take a ride in the traditional ox-cart ride or trek along the walking trails among the pine trees. Since this natural resort is located relatively close to Phnom Penh, visitors can hire taxis to get here. Traveling along National Road No. 4 will also get you here.

Kirirom National Park has was a small, newly-renovated visitor’s center. The park is part of the 'Southwest Cluster Protected Areas' which include Phnom Bokor, Preah Sihanouk and Kep National Parks. Attractions at Kirirom include rare wildlife, spectacular scenery and waterfalls. The visitor’s center has some really attractive displays although there are too many for such a small space. Next to the visitor’s center are the ruins of a large old mansion. Pictured here is a tall, multi-part chimney on a foundation surrounded by a wooden deck that is falling dangerously apart. The house was a hot-season estate of Cambodia's King Sihanouk but it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Oudong: Post-Angkorian (1618-1863) City

Oudong (35 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh city via National Road Number 5 in Kandal province) was an old city of the post-Angkorian period (1618-1863). Located in present-day Psadek commune, Punhea Loeu district, the city faces Kampong Loung village and Tonle Sap river on the east, Vang Chas village and Oudong market in the north, National Road Number 5 on the south, and its southwest side faces Prasith mountain. It is approximately 10 difficult away from another post-Angkorian city of Longvek.

Ancient City of Ondong was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The city remains are near a distinctive mountain called Phnom Oudong (Oudong Mountain) and consist of many archaeological findings left from Pre-Angkor, Angkor and Post-Angkorian periods such as sandstone architectural elements and artefacts resulting from the worship of Animism, Hindusim, Mahayana Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism. Those artefacts include the laterite foundations, door set elements of the ancient temple, the statue of Nandin and Buddha on Naga, the house of Neak Ta and spirits, and an Islamic vihara. Additionally, a great Artharush Vihara and Maravijjaya Buddha are on the lower peak of the mountain. Importantly, the site contains 16 stupas of earlier Theravada Buddhist Kings and the Royal family of the Oudong period, of which13 are on the mountain, and 3 are at the foot of the mountain.

Recent LiDAR images reveal that the ancient Oudong city covered a large area, with Oudong mountian forming the point with construction in to all four cardinal directions. A remarkable settlement was located around the Royal Port (Kampong Loung) on the Tonle Sap river that connects to the ancient city of Longvek. Many significant names in the area still used today clearly trace the infrastructure and management plan of the city. For instance, Srah (pond) Sarpeyuth, Srah Dhammakerti, Vang Chas (old palace), Vihear Loung (royal vihara), Vat Knong Vang (the pagoda located in royal palace), Preah Sre (royal rice field), Khlang Sbek (leather storage), Psa Dek village (blacksmith village), Cham village. In addition, archaeological research shows a large and important iron kiln located in the city (Boeung Samrith area, close to Oudong Mountain).

Today Oudong is well-known as a tourist attraction site due to its historical background as an ancient city of the post-Angkorian period, and persistent religious and cult beliefs maintain the mystical sacred aspect of the site.

Layout of Oudong

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: The location and the city area of Oudong could be described as a political centre, trading centre, and religious / cultural centre. According to historical records of the Portuguese the urban planning of Oudong city was well managed and organized. Some wooden houses were built in a straight horizontal and vertical lines, one next to another with significant shape and style. They were described as looking clean and comfortable, while other houses were not built following the straight line, but the shape and style were similar. These houses were scattered both on the flat area next to the rice fields and also along the river. Roads provided easy access to the villages and facilitated local transportation inside the city which is mainly the oxcart. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

Further from the houses, the Royal Palace of Oudong was also well constructed. It was built almost in a square shape, surrounded by a strong wall, with the main entrance to the south and smaller gates on the other sides. Before entering the complex area of the Royal Palace, there is a control post and also another wall. The compound of the palace had two big basins, a garden, a great hall, residential quarters of the King of Particular note, the capital city of Oudong was also not only the residence for Cambodians, but was also open to multiple nationalities with village enclaves specifically designated for Chinese, Cham (probably Java), Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and others.

Until today, some of these foreign villages are still recognisable through archaeological findings and foreign records or through the name of the villages and some distinct jobs and professions such as blacksmith, gold, silver, copper and iron smiths and ceramic kilns were also found. Recent excavation shows that Beoung Samrith, located near Oudong mountain was a large iron kiln. This kiln is suggested to be a biggest iron kiln the Southeast Asia at that time.

Contemporary reports mention that the city had other important buildings, such as pagodas, prayer halls and many storage facilities, but did not clearly mentioned other facilities such as schools and hospitals. However, it is also well-known that in those days pagodas functioned as the places for education. Therefore, the ancient city of Oudong was composed of different infrastructures and facilities to provide and support a political centre for both local and also foreigners through a well-constructed administrative infrastructure, and a strong ability to produce significant products.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated August 2020

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.