When one thinks of Cambodia, what usually comes into mind is Angkor Wat and its host city, Siem Reap, but Phnom Penh, the capital city, is also worth a visit.
From Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam, my son Jandy and I, together with my companions Violet Imperial, executive director of Nature Awareness and Conservation Club Inc.; and Rosanna “Osang” Kho, CEO of Kho Travel and Tours, were also bound for Siem Reap (where we were to take our plane back to Manila). We decided to go there by bus, the cheapest and the most popular means of overland transport between Saigon and Siem Reap. In between, we were to spend two nights in Phnom Penh.
The long 285-kilometer, seven-hour trip to Phnom Penh included stopovers at the Moc Bai (Vietnam) and Bavet (Cambodia) border gates for passport checks and lunch plus a 10-minute roll-on, roll-off ferry crossing at Neak Loeung. We arrived at Phnom Penh’s Central Market by 6 pm and hired a tuk-tuk (the local version of the Philippine tricycle) to take us to the fairly new, clean, comfortable and affordable, 19-room Elite Boutique Hotel.
Street 184, where our hotel was located, was also bounded by two of the city’s prime tourist attractions—the National Museum (built between 1917 and 1924) and the Royal Palace. We first headed out for the latter. The National Museum, Cambodia’s largest museum of cultural history and the country’s leading historical and archaeological museum, houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art (sculptural, ceramics, bronzes, ethnographic objects, etc.). It also has a collection of over 14,000 items from prehistoric times to periods before, during and after the Khmer Empire.
After our short visit to the National Museum, Osang, Violet, Jandy and I proceeded on our way to the nearby Royal Palace, a good example of Khmer architecture. From Street 184, we turned right to the surprisingly car-free Preah Sothearos Boulevard. On its left is a wide promenade where flocks of doves congregate. Beyond the promenade is a small park, Sisowath Quay and the mighty Mekong River. On the boulevard’s right is the open-air Moonlight Pavilion, built alongside a section of the palace’s high, yellow crenellated defensive walls. It has a balcony that is used for viewing marching parades.
Covering an area of 174,870 square meter., the palace complex is divided by walls into four main compounds. The buildings of the palace were gradually built over time, some were dismantled and rebuilt as late as the 1960s, but some old buildings date back to the 19th century. Our guide-less tour of the palace compound took us to the cross-shaped Throne Hall, the most impressive building in the royal compound. Though we weren’t allowed to go inside or take pictures of the interiors, its impressive exterior still provided a good photo-op.
From the Throne Hall, we proceeded to south side of the Royal Palace complex to the beautiful Silver Pagoda (so named because of its 5,329 signature silver floor tiles), the official temple of the king of Cambodia. After leaving our footwear outside, we were allowed to enter. More a museum than place of homage, it houses a rich collection of 1,650 royal gifts received by the Royal family over the years, many of them national treasures.
We also visited a number of exhibition halls, such as the multi-purpose White Elephant room, the Showroom of Royal Palanquins and Bossabok (traditional Khmer-style thrones), the Elephant Boxes Showroom and the air-conditioned second floor Showroom of Royal Dancers Ornaments.
After our daylong walking tour, we still had time to go to the nearby large, bright ochre-colored and Art Deco-style Central Market, another Phnom Penh landmark and “must-see” built in 1937. Almost anything you can think of are on sale—electronic equipment, secondhand clothing, watches, bags, suitcases, gold and silver curios, dried and fresh foodstuff, jewelry, cheap T-shirts, kramas (Khmer scarves), antique coins, pseudo-antiques, clocks, fabrics, shoes, flowers, luggage, books (including photocopied travel guides) and lots of souvenirs (key chains, ref magnets, postcards, etc.). After shopping, we had dinner at the nearby eight-story, Western-style Sorya Shopping Center, the first real mall and the largest in the city, before heading back to our hotel. Early in the morning of the next day, we continued on to Siem Reap.