Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Phnom Penh, once the pearl of Asia

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, its biggest and most bustling city. During the French colonial period, it was considered very beautiful, enough to be called the Pearl of Asia. While remnants of French colonialism can be seen in certain buildings, I think it’s fair to say Phnom Penh has lost a good bit of its past glory. Still it is pleasant in some aspects. Sited along the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, it has a nice riverside promenade and a majestic Royal Palace.

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The first place I went was to Wat Phnom, a small hill with a temple from which the city got its name from. In 1372, a wealthy woman was said to have discovered a few Buddhist statues in a river and ordered a mound to be created, which became the hill, and a temple built on top to place the statues. Phnom means hill in Khmer, Cambodian’s language, and Penh was the woman’s name.

Soon after I arrived in Phnom Penh and checked into my hotel, I walked about 20 minutes to Wat Phnom. Along the way, I passed some decent colonial houses and a skyscraper in the distance.

Wat Phnom is a very small hill that features a large clock on the front lawn, “guarded” by a large cobra made out of bamboo at the side perched as if ready to strike. It’s an easy climb to the top, which is dominated by a large stupa (domelike Buddhist structure that usually contains relics) and a pink Buddhist temple. It’s a good place to be up close with traditional Cambodian religious architecture and legends.

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Several lion statues stand guard on stairways and the leveled roofs of the stupa. The stairway features nagas, the distinctive snake-like creature that is one of two main mystical creatures found in Cambodian temple motifs – the other being the bird-like garuda, the naga’s sworn enemy, that is the mount of the Hindu god Vishnu (Cambodia was heavily influenced by Indian culture and Hinduism many centuries ago). Both garudas and nagas are present in Hinduism and Buddhism.
The roof edges of the temple have peculiar crested heads, possibly nagas, while the main roof is topped with the head of a garuda, with a distinctive arched protrusion. Female figures with pointed hats (kinnaris, female bird-like beings present in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies), decorate the underside of the roof. The temple features some elaborate carved statues and sculptured murals of deities and nagas. Around the stupa, a few worshippers were offering incense at small shrines.
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From there, I walked to the riverside, a busy stretch filled with restaurants and bars, mostly for Western tourists. I passed a post office, a colonial-era pastel-colored building that rivaled the one in Ho Chi Minh City as the most beautiful post office I’d ever seen.

The next day, I headed to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng museum. Those places will be in a separate post. After those places, I went to the Royal Palace. My driver (Mr. Evan) dropped me off at the side of the road leading to the palace (since vehicles aren’t allowed on that road) and right away, I was approached by a guy in a wheelchair selling books and a kid. As I walked towards the palace, a little girl who was sitting across the street with her family ran up to me begging for money. She was about 6, and she was holding a baby! I’d like to say I gave her money right away but honestly I felt really awkward and distressed. I don’t mean to be callous, but I felt more horrified than compassionate, having a little girl begging wretchedly and holding a baby. I kept on walking but I gave the girl some money, a small amount. Then she ran back, and immediately another little girl came, also holding a baby. “No money, no food” she repeated, just as wretchedly as the first girl, but this time I just kept on going. This second girl actually followed me for a good distance, whilst holding the baby, but eventually she had to stop. As I write this, I feel bad and I think I should have given her something as well, but honestly at that moment, all I could think about was to try to ignore that sight.

When I reached the palace, it was closed for lunchtime so I walked across to the riverside. Some kind of ceremony was going on at a small Buddhist temple there, with dozens of people clutching incense and praying in. A few persons even released birds, which is a Buddhist act of compassion. You buy animals, such as birds, turtles, or fish, and release it in a nearby park or river. The first photo in this post was taken from the riverside.
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After about 20 minutes, I went to the palace. It was a very large and beautiful complex, though part of it was sectioned off due to members of the royal family still living there. The first glimpse of the complex is a fancy pavilion along the wall that looks onto the street, possibly a stage for royalty to look out at street parades, with a portrait of the Queen facing the street and topped with a green and yellow roof that had garudas perched on the roof edges. Inside the buildings all had the same color schemes, cream with gleaming green and golden-yellow roofs but more elaborate and topped with spiraled pointy domes. The main building was the Throne Hall, while the Silver Pagoda was another major building. It’s not that old, having been built in 1866 after the French made Cambodia a protectorate. There are smaller buildings and stupas, as well as a large model of Angkor Wat.
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The Royal Palace was quite grand and despite its relatively young age, its architecture and design were a striking reminder that Cambodia had a great past. Sadly this past was far back, many hundreds of years ago, when the Khmer Empire was a powerful entity and built and ruled from Angkor. Over time, Cambodia was defeated and taken apart, not by the West, but by Asians, specifically its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. The Mekong Delta, which I’d taken a daytrip to from Ho Chi Minh City, actually used to belong to Cambodia before being seized by Vietnam in the 19th century. The area where Angkor was situated in, northwest Cambodia, used to belong to Thailand up until 1906, after having been conquered back in the 15th century. This period of time between the 15th century and French control in 1863 is known as the Dark Ages (sadly it would not be the last “dark” age Cambodia would suffer).

After the palace, I walked to the nearby National Museum, a large handsome red building built in the style of traditional Khmer temples (and probably the most attractive museum I’ve ever seen). It is not that old, having actually been built by the French in the early 20th century. It’s a decent museum, featuring a lot of historic artifacts in halls that surround an open space in the center. The only problem is photos aren’t allowed.
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That evening, I headed to the night market near the riverside. An open-air concert was going on and there was one particularly good performance when a local guy did some rapping, set to a Pitbull tune, and a small girl of maybe 8 or 9 years got up from near the stage and just started to dance. She did that for the whole song, and she could have been an extra in one of those dance movies. After her “performance,” she got loud cheers and money from the crowd. Even now, I still think she was just some kid from the crowd and not a performer in the show.
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On my final morning, I walked to the Central Market, a large domed building that is designed in what is called the Art Deco style (not that I know much about this). On the compound were a bunch of stalls selling bags, especially North Face and other outdoor brand-name fakes, clothes and other souvenirs while inside were a lot of stalls selling jewelry, gemstones and gold.

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The Tonle Sap river and the part of the city on the opposite bank.

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6 thoughts on “Phnom Penh, once the pearl of Asia

  1. I went to Cambodia in 2009, you brought me back good memories 🙂 I really liked the country, especially the people.
    I came across less beggars than I was expecting, btw.

    And I have been to several cities that claim to be “the pearl of Asia”… it is a disputed title, hahaha.

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    1. I’m glad you liked the post too. I wish I felt the same way as you did about the country and people (I did meet decent people such as my tuktuk driver who drove me to the genocide sites, hotel staff, and the staff at a school inside Angkor who I asked to let my friend use the washroom) but there was just too much of a sad vibe overall.

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      1. Oh really? That is quite different from my experience! It’s true that I was in Phnom Penh just for a day and a half, the rest of the time I was in Siem Reap, but the feeling I got was of hope and happiness. Everybody smiled and chatted with us, and we made friends with basically all the kids in Angkor. BTW our tuk tuk driver was also a very nice guy, he even invited us to have dinner at his aunt’s house (a wooden log, to say the truth) because it was Chinese New Year. He sent me an email a couple of months ago, he learned Korean and is now working in Korea. Smart kid.

        Overall the impression I got from Cambodia was similar to the Philippines. Poor countries, crappy economies, corrupt governments but happy and smiling people.

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        1. Yes, I’m afraid that was my impression. I was in Phnom Penh for just two days, so not much longer. At Siem Reap, it didn’t feel as bad, though within Angkor there were many child vendors. They weren’t as wretched (and I don’t mean that as an insult) as the child beggars in Phnom Penh, mostly because they were selling things and were kind of amusing, especially when some of them spoke in Chinese as well – “yi kuai (1 RMB), liang kuai, ni kan hen pianyi (look how cheap)” etc. In my post, I described being chased by little girls near the Palace, begging me while holding little babies (probably their siblings of course). It was a very shocking and troubling experience for me, though it wasn’t the only reason I felt how I did about Cambodia.
          Actually in Angkor, there was one site where there were several kid vendors, ranging from 10 to maybe 3. I found the little ones kind of cute especially since they could barely talk, but there was one point where a European family with 2 little kids were there, and when one of the little vendors walked up to one of the European kids (it was a cute scene but it was also a stark contrast), the mother hurriedly grabbed her child and walked away. Things like that color my memory. The other question is whether kids should be selling, though I visited in late June so perhaps the school term had ended.
          This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t visit of course, especially as tourism does bring in revenue and allows us to appreciate these countries and people.
          Having just come over from Vietnam, I found the countries to be so different. I found Vietnam to be more “happier” even though it’s not a well-off country as well.

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