By Neil Kook
Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia. You have arrived, but where should you go?
Opportunity comes from every angle and one should be selective to make the most out of this adventure. For starters one should explore Phnom Penh. Situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Mekong, and the general Bessac Tonle Sap Lake, the capital becomes “The Pearl of Asia”, a hectic city, full of imaginative modern reconstruction which has managed to keep its architectural French heritage. If architecture is of interest then The Royal Palace should be your next stop; indeed, it should not be missed by anyone.
Built in 1866 by King Norodom on the edge of the Tonle Chatomouk Phnom Penh and then named Preah Reach Borane Vang Chatomuk Mongkut, the palace features many buildings inspired by Khmer culture and art, all oriented to the east according to sacred rules of construction.The exteriors are painted in royal yellow. Considered the main attraction of the city, the palace offers visitors great gardens and several palaces and pagodas – we never tired of contemplating them. Protected and enclosed behind a high wall, built in 1866 during the reign of Norodom, also painted in royal yellow and within sight of the roofs of Khemmarine castle, are the pavilion Chan Chhaya, the Preah Keo Morakat and the Tévia Vinichhay, offering food for the eyes. Among the most visited Royal Pagodas, the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Preah Keo, better known as the Silver Pagoda) is the shrine of royal ashes and a holy place. It was built by King Norodom from 1892 to 1902. Seen in the courtyard, his equestrian statue is shown dressed as a French general. It could be the equestrian statue of Napoleon III, whose head was replaced by King Norodom.The interior of the temple offers visitors around 1,600 rooms to discover brimming with religious objects, Buddhas, and statues inlaid with diamond and rubies. The gold, bronze, silver and array of precious stones evoke a rich and glorious past.
Take the time to browse inside the cloister, the walls of the outer gallery which include frescoes painted between 1903 and 1904 telling of episodes from the Khmer version of the Ramayana, called Reamker.
If there is time, and there should be, head to the National Museum. The National Museum of Phnom Penh and its magnificent mall occupies a vast and elaborate building officially opened in 1918 and offering visitors thousands of years of Khmer art from the 4th to 13th c. to discover in four galleries. There is a remarkable collection of sculptures and pre-Angkorian and Angkorian objects.
Of course, the history of Cambodia is a troubled one and cannot be shown by sculptures and jewels alone. The Tuol Sleng Museum, Tuol Sleng (S21) is one of the most visited sites by Cambodians and foreigners, and is located in the heart of Phnom Penh. It was formerly a high school that was converted in 1975 to a Detention Center, known as the Security Prison name 21 (S21) by Pol Pot Security Forces.It is now recognised as the largest center of detention and torture in the country. More than 17,000 prisoners were held there and then transported to the extermination camp Cheoung Ek. The Charnel Cheoung of Ek is a site of barbaric history; in this old orchard, the remains of 9,000 people were exhumed in 1980. The bones of those who went through the infamous S21, the school prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured their prisoners, can be seen. As we advance slowly in this bumpy field where each hole is a grave, each piece of fabric a memory, following the explanatory panels coldly describing what happened to all those who were brought here, we note that one should still visit here. The place is calm and quiet, and the atmosphere freezes the blood. In the center, a large glass stupa contains the skulls of the dead arranged by the sex and age of the victims. Visiting the graves of Choeung Ek after S21 captures the genocide that took place in Cambodia in all its magnitude.
The Independence Monument created by the famous Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, now is seen to celebrate the end of the war in Cambodia, and is also known as Victory Monument. It represents a lotus flower in bud and is decorated with Naga (cobras with several heads) and is reminiscent of the shape of the towers of Angkor Wat, which should also be visited.
For a different side of Phnom Penh one finds bustling markets and smiling faces. The Central Market offers much to curious visitors.The Central Market in Phnom Penh fits inside a colonial building in the heart of the city. Its Khmer name “Psar Thmay” means “new market”.It was built in 1937 during the French colonial period, in an Art Deco style. Its facade is painted in a beautiful yellow ocher akin to the light that washes over the place. The market consists of four wings overhung by a central dome. Inside and outside the complex you will find everything you could imagine: electronics, watches, bags, suitcases, food, jewelry, clothing (from cheap t-shirts to Khmer Krama (traditional cotton scarves), and pseudo-antiques. Additionally check out The Russian Market which began to be frequented by foreigners during the 1980s, at a time when most of the foreign community in Cambodia was Russian.Certainly it does not equal the architectural beauty of the central market, but there are a selection of items – souvenirs, trinkets, sculptures and silks – wider and more varied, as well as jewelry and gold. This is also the place to find pretty fabrics In the evening head over to The Night Market. The new Night Market of Phnom Penh, located near the banks of the river, is a tourist paradise that offers a wide range of handicrafts such as Cambodian silks, trinkets and other souvenirs.The night market, gay and festive, delights everyone, big or small, tourists and residents alike, and is a major asset to the city ,especially as the majority of goods that are found there made locally, not imported. Go!
River Cruises are popular. Several cruises are organized along the banks of the river. They offer stunning and interesting view of the city.The trip, lasting 1 to 3 hours, should take one from the Tonle Sap along the waterfront, allowing you to admire, among others, the Royal Palace, the National Museum, a variety of parks and the urban landscape of Phnom Penh. Then cruise reverses direction to head to Mekong, where pretty fishing villages with stilt houses dot the banks of the river.
The Docks should not be missed. The banks of the Tonle Sap, more commonly known as Sisowath Quay, offers bars and restaurants aplenty. These establishments generally occupy beautiful colonial mansions of the nineteenth century and attract an international clientele. This is also where most of the major national celebrations take place, such as the Cambodian New Year in April, and the feast of Water in November.
Leaving behind the hustel and bustel of Phnom Penh, travel to Silk Island by jumping in a tuk-tuk (a kind of auto rickshaw) and travel over the Japanese Bridge into the countryside. Pass through rural settings and by roadside stalls selling everything from paper-mache animals to steamed corn. Then board the barges that will take you across the river to the beautiful island of Koh onto- Dach, Also Known As Silk Island.The town on Silk Island is typical of many rural Cambodian villages with houses built up high on stilts. Locals work, silk weaving on hand looms and dying materials in vibrant colors. Locals are incredibly friendly.
Sihanoukville is another friendly locale. Sihanoukville borders the blue waters of the Gulf of Siam. It is the first deep water port in Cambodia and also its only real resort. It was renamed in honor of Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia. Easily accessible from Phnom Penh by a very good road (about 4 hours by car), Sihanoukville is popular with foreign tourists and Cambodians. Sandy beaches lined with pine trees and coconut trees stretch over several kilometers. The best spots are in the South, in the district of Ocheteal Beach. Apart from swimming, it is possible from Sihanoukville to make trips of half a day to a day to discover the natural wealth of the region, such as the Ream National Park, offering mangroves, rivers and white sandy beaches, or the island paradise of Koh Russei. Siem Reap offers all hotel styles, from modest to luxurious and offers some great nightlight and urban experiences to contrast a quiet day on the waters.
That said, Tonle Sap Lake fishing village , located a few kilometers from Siem Reap, should not be missed. Known as a ‘living lake’, it evolves with the floods depending on the season, drastically changing its shape and size. Fishing villages skirt it and houseboats are a popular choice in this area of perpetual motion. The kingdom of Cambodia itself is in the midst of rapid change. Over the past few years the number of restaurants and hotels have grown considerably and in the last year there hasbeen a huge increase in the number of visitors. Tonle Sap and Cambodia as a whole is changing and it seems that now is the time to see it in its glory.