48 hours in... Phnom Penh

| September 19, 2012

Cox & Kings’ Katie Parsons spent 48 hours in the Cambodian capital and found there was more to see than expected in this often overlooked city.

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A trip to any capital city should always include its national museum. Visit Cambodia’s after you’ve been to Siem Reap and you may be disappointed, but it’s a good introduction to the history of Angkor Wat and other temples of the same era, and the building itself is worth a photograph.

The nearby complex of buildings at the Royal Palace, the royal residence of the King of Cambodia, is an excellent example of Khmer architecture and a couple of hours can be spent wandering around the gardens, temples and palace buildings including the Throne Hall, Silver Pagoda and dance pavilion. Story has it that a former king couldn’t be bothered to learn the days of the week, so his butlers wore a different coloured pair of trousers each day so he’d know. As the only hotel in the city with a royal warrant, the Raffles Le Royal continues this tradition with their doormen sporting the same colours as chosen by the king.

After lunch at Friends, a not-for-profit restaurant run by former street children, the next stop should be any of the city’s numerous markets. The Russian market sells everything from bicycle tyres and scooter frames to fresh meat, live fish and tourist souvenirs. Markets are a great place to get a taste of local life and seeing ladies sitting in their hammocks above their wares proved this.

A perfect way to relax in the late afternoon is a cruise along the Tonle river to the meeting point of the Mekong. Sit back with an Angkor beer and watch the sunset behind the Royal Palace.

After the cruise, eat at the atmospheric FCC rooftop bar on the waterfront, which opened in 1993 for journalists and diplomats to drink while sharing stories as peace was just starting to take hold in the city. Day 2 No visit to Cambodia can avoid the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79. For a shocking insight into the horrors, just being in Tuol Sleng Genocide museum will give you goose bumps. In the heart of Phnom Penh, the former school became one of Pol Pot’s most notorious prisons: Security Prison 21 (S-21). The buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes. It is as horrifying as it sounds, but is integral to Cambodia’s recent history.

Just outside of Phnom Penh lie the seemingly peaceful green fields of Cheung Ek. Made famous by the movie The Killing Fields, there is now a Buddhist memorial to commemorate the 17,000 victims who were killed by the Khmer Rouge. The remnants inside the memorial and the mass graves that dot the area serve as a reminder of the suffering of the victims and give an appreciation of the struggle that the Cambodian people have faced and their incredible courage and humility in moving on and rebuilding their nation.

After lunch and a stroll along the fashionable Street 240, lined with boutique shops and cafes, visit Wat Phnom, from where the city gets its name. The temple commemorates the founding point of Phnom Penh in 1373 by Lady Penh, who created a shrine to the four bronze statues of the Buddha she found inside a nearby koki tree.

The Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal is a favourite drinking haunt of the city’s ex-pats and is the perfect place to end a stay in Phnom Penh. The hotel’s champagne-based signature cocktail, Femme Fatale, is inspired by Jackie Kennedy’s visit to the hotel in 1967.

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