I was lucky enough to spend some time in Cambodia’s lively capital city Phnom Penh recently during a long layover there on my way to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Archaeological Park. With just 1-day to look around, I headed for the Doun Penh District, where many of the major sightseeing attractions are within walking distance or a short tuk tuk ride from one another.
On foot, there is little escape from the tumultuous clamor along the city’s streets. Like most cities, traffic gets backed up during peak hours. Prepare to be bombarded by calls from tuk tuk drivers offering to cart you through the steady stream of buses, scooters, and cars that share the roads here. The air is thick with pungent aromas wafting up from this clamor and grind. Some pleasant and enticing from the countless restaurants, and street food carts, others brutally sour from pollution and whatever has been left behind to rot in the heat.
Here is what I was able to see on my trek. I found exciting, beautiful and exhausting.
A boy chases pigeons at Sisowath Quay. Photo by Matt Newkirk
Once you reach the Doun Penh District, walking along this promenade, that runs next to the west bank of the Tonle Sap River, is an excellent way to get around and see the sites. The Royal Palace and National Museum are just one block away, and you can see them from the Quay. With less tuk tuks and street vendors, it is much more peaceful and scenic than the busier main streets. Taking you past the many shops, hotels and eating places that lie between the major sites and attractions including those featured in this post.
Freeing and feeding birds and animals is a standard and karmic practice in Phnom Penh and other Buddhist communities. Vendors sell bird food all along Sisowath Quay bringing hundreds, possibly even thousands, of hungry birds to the area. Some visitors come seeking a personal photo shoot with these birds and set out to gather them in one spot by scattering food around themselves. Above a boy is shown tearing through a crowd of pigeons to photo bomb a young couple who has just spent several minutes and a bag of bird feed arranging for a selfie.
Wat Ounalom. Photo by Matt Newkirk
Founded in the 1400s, Wat Ounalom is the HQ of Buddhism in Cambodia. The compound is made up of 44 structures and serves as home to the head of the Buddhist brotherhood. King Ponhea Yat or “Eyebrow Temple” is the name of the stupa behind the main house, Chetdai. Here, an eyebrow hair believed to have belonged to Buddha himself is kept safe keeping. There are numerous statues, carvings, and other antiquity to see during a visit to this Wat, which many consider a must see when visiting Phnom Penh.
Located on Samdech Sothearos Blvd, Central Phnom Penh. Open daily 6:00am – 6:00pm. Admission is free.
Wat Phnom. Photo by Matt Newkirk
Legend has it that a woman known as Lady Phen built Wat Phnom in 1372 at the top of the only hill in town to shelter several bronze statues of Buddha she found floating in a hollow tree during a flooding of the Mekong river. The word Phnom means “hill” in Cantonese. Wat Phnom translates as Hill Temple in English. Once the Wat was completed the city went on to be known as Phnom Penh, meaning “The hill of the Lady Penh.”
Many more statues have been added since the original construction of the temple as leaders and politics have changed over the years. Reconstruction has also been needed to maintain the Wat, included the main temple in the 1920s. A stroll around Wat Phnom and its lovely surrounding gardens is a nice way to break up the day and can provide shaded areas to sit and take a short rest in the heat.
Located on Norodom Blvd at St 96. Open daily 6:00am – 6:00pm. Admission is USD 1 + USD 2 if you would like to enter the museum. The ticket office is located at the bottom of the steps but can be easy to miss due to the number of street food vendors and tuk tuks surrounding it.
National Museum of Cambodia. Photo by Matt Newkirk
National Museum of Cambodia
Designed by historian George Groslier, an early leader in spurring interest in Cambodian arts and crafts, the museum contains one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world. This includes items dating as far back as prehistoric times. Once dominating the region, Cambodian civilization has a vibrant history. Visit the museum’s website for more information.
Located on Street 13 in central Phnom Penh, next to the Royal Palace. The visitor’s entrance to the compound and the admissions ticket booth are at the corner of Streets 13 and 178. Open daily 8:00am-5:00pm. Admission for foreigners ages 10-yrs to 17-yrs pay $5. Over 17-yrs pay $10.
Preah Tineang Chanchhaya, more commonly known at Throne Hall of the Royal Palace. Photo by Matt Newkirk
His Majesty Preah Bat Norodom, the great grandfather to current King Norodom Sihamoni, built the palace in 1866. The grounds consist of four main compounds. To the south, the Silver Pagoda, to the north the Khemarin Palace, to the west is the private sector called the Inner Court, and in the center stands the most popular of them all Throne Hall. Assembled in 1917 as a place to conduct official business. It is now used only for special events, such as coronations.
Located Samdach Sothearos Blvd 3. Open daily 8am -10:30am & 2-5pm. Admission is on the eastern side near the Chan Chaya Pavilion. USD 3 + USD 2 for a camera. Guides can be hired for USD 10 per hour.
A taxi from airport to Doun Penh District $12-$15.
Cambodians are modest people and it is considered disrespectful to enter temples or other official buildings in clothing that does not cover your knees and shoulders. Skirts and shorts should hit past the knee and shirts and blouses should come to the elbow. Shoes are to be removed in places of worship.
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