Few cities have risen from the ashes quite like Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s sprawling capital. The last century saw the fall of France’s occupation, followed by the brutal dictatorship of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. However, even though Phnom Penh became so deserted during the early 1970s that animals freely roamed the streets, the city has rebuilt itself over the past 30 years into a thriving metropolis, dotted with remnants of past empires and constant construction reaching farther towards the sky. For a taste of Cambodian history and a sign of where the nation is heading, Phnom Penh is the pulse by which the rest of the country follows.
As the story goes, Phnom Penh’s founding can be dated back to an old woman named Penh
who found a log filled with three buddhas floating in a river. She then climbed the highest hill (or phnom) she could find to build a monument to her discovery. And with that, Phnom Penh was born. Wat Phnom still stands as a beautiful landmark dedicated to the city’s history and is regarded by many as one of the most treasured sites in Phnom Penh. Located just north of the primary tourist district, Wat Phnom is the perfect place to start a walking tour of the city or to watch the sun set over Phnom Penh’s increasingly crowding skyline.
Phnom Penh’s historic Central Market emerges from the smog and dust of the city’s main business district. Designed more than 100 years ago in art-deco fashion, the market provides much of the city with everything from jewelry and knockoff North Face gear to fresh fish and a wider variety of produce than most can fathom. You can wander the endless halls of the market, working your way from butcher’s row to an endless maze of toiletries, all while listening in on the daily conversations held by locals and travelers alike. Snack as you go, breathe in the rainbow of scents coming from all directions and be ready to bargain.
Just like most major cities in Southeast Asia, traffic in Cambodia’s capital flirts between chaos and mayhem. However, nowhere is this dynamic more on display than in the roundabout surrounding Cambodia’s Independence Monument. Signifying the nation’s freedom from France that occurred in the 1950s, the Independence Monument is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city and in recent years has taken on added significance as a memorial to King Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled Cambodia immediately before and after the Khmer Rouge’s reign.
Emerging from behind the shrouded gates of the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda contains one of Cambodia’s most treasured artifacts, the emerald Buddha. Modeled after Bangkok’s Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda is now primarily a tourist attraction, but once served as the royal family’s private place of worship and welcomed renowned monks from across the region. In recent years, the pagoda has turned into a museum of sorts, acting as a gallery for hundreds of Buddha images in different sizes, colors, and materials. Currently, the silver floor, which is where the pagoda’s name stems from, is mostly covered up by protective carpet, but there are efforts underway to repair the storied temple’s famous namesake.
Before the Khmer Rouge ascended to power in the late 1960s, Phnom Penh was home to a
thriving Chinese community that was welcome in the capital, especially for the food that they
brought with them. Since Phnom Penh’s near extinction in the 1970s, the Chinese population and their food has slowly returned to the city. No temple of Chinese gastronomy is more beloved than Sam Doo Restaurant, located a few blocks west of the Central Market. Focusing on Hong Kong specialities like whole roasted duck, claypot rice with Chinese sausage and a huge variety of dim sum, Sam Doo acts as an oasis from the calamity and combustion of Phnom Penh’s busy streets, all while satisfying the tastes of Chinese expats and travelers looking for a taste of the northeast.
One of the harsh realities of visiting Phnom Penh is the inescapable truth of what the city and its inhabitants have endured over the past 50 years. No other site represents this suffering more than the city’s most visited tourist attraction, the Choeung Ek killing fields. Located just a few miles south of the city center, Choeung Ek stands as an important relic to Phnom Penh’s past and a key stop for anyone interested in Cambodia’s recent history. Tour the grounds, listen to the stellar audio tour and reflect on a nation’s history that you might’ve been completely unaware of before arriving within its borders.
The sister site to Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng was converted from a high school to a torture center and prison during the Khmer Rouge era. However, unlike Choeung Ek, the prison is located in the middle of Phnom Penh and transports visitors into the living hell that was Cambodia in the 1970s without leaving the city center. One minute you’re walking through streets lined with noodle and barbecue shops and the next you’re face-to-face with the gates of one of the Khmer Rouge’s most pivotal centers for torture and mutilation in the entire country. It’s haunting, but enlightening and pivotal for those looking to further their understanding of Cambodia’s story.
Where there’s conflict, there are journalists—and where there are journalists, there are strong drinks. Whether it was during the tumultuous French colonial period ending in the 1950s or the Khmer Rouge’s terrorist overthrow, the Foreign Correspondents Club has always housed and served reporters investigating the madness that is Cambodia. History is everywhere on these hallowed walls and to this day you’ll still see reporters and writers working away while enjoying an Angkor beer or a gin gimlet. Stop by for a drink and strike up a conversation with someone. More often than not, your fellow FCC patrons will have a story or two to share about the Cambodia that is and once was.
Photos: Max Bonem
Max Bonem is a writer and eater currently traveling through Southeast Asia. You can follow his travels via his blog, Instagram or Flickr.