Phnom Penh


On our last trip to Cambodia, we didn’t make it to Phnom Penh. This time, we decided to experience it. This 3 million-person city has had one of the most turbulent histories of any major city on earth. Located at the intersection of two large rivers, it has long been a commercial center. It has also been at the center of wars, coups and other horrors since the Indochine wars that began in the early 1950s.

Although it had a population of only about 600,000 in the early 1970’s American bombing of the countryside forced farmers to take refuge in the city, resulting in a surge to 2.5 million in 1975. America’s departure generally opened the door to Pol Pot, a genocidal maniac who, in a bid to turn Cambodia into a rural, communist, agrarian society, forced a mass evacuation that turned the city into a virtual ghost town, with a population of about 60,000.

People began returning to the city after a Vietnamese invasion removed Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army from power, but some people and many businesses fled again after a 1998 coup.

These decades of war and genocide took their toll, certainly on the people; but also on the city’s buildings and infrastructure. The Khmer Rouge destroyed almost any building associated with religion (which it outlawed), education (which it viewed as unnecessary in an agrarian society and dangerous to its own power) and to the previous government. The city’s basic infrastructure was neglected, cannibalized and fell into disrepair.

So while people have been returning, the city was a shambles. Worse, the architects, the engineers and the skilled workers who may have been capable of rebuilding the city, had been executed or had escaped the country. It has taken a couple of decades, and a lot of foreign money and talent  (especially Vietnamese and Chinese) to restore the city. New buildings, including some modern high rises, along with more modern interpretations of colonial buildings, are being built from scratch. Meanwhile, some of those colonial buildings that haven’t been irrevocably damaged or torn down and replaced in the name of progress, are being restored.

Retained Majesty

Still, Phnom Penh does retain some of its old colonial majesty. Among the primary examples are the:

  • Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, which were built by the French in 1866. The focal point of the complex is Throne Hall, a 195-foot tower inspired by Angkor Wat’s Bayon Tower, which contains French-style thrones and a nine-tiered ceremonial umbrella. The Palace also contains the Napoleon III Pavilion (a gift from the French Emperor to his Empress,which she granted as a gift to the King of Cambodia). The Silver Pagoda is the marble-clad home of the Emerald Buddha (made of Baccarat crystal) and a 90-kg golden Buddha that is studded with almost 10,000 diamonds. The floor (at least the part that is uncovered, is almost as magnificent, with more than 5,000 silver tiles containing almost six tones of silver (hence its name). The palace grounds are beautifully manicured and contains a number of other buildings with exhibits of everything from royal palanquins, to elephant boxes and traditional Khmer houses. IMG_1913IMG_1914IMG_1918IMG_1919
  • National Museum of Cambodia, a treasure trove of some of the most important Khmer (especially from the Angkor period) art including cast bronze and ceramics. The largest and most impressive part of the collection, however, consists of sculptures. Although the museum has some nice wooden sculptures, stone (especially sandstone) sculptures are the most impressive. These include everything from bas- and high-relief pediments and lintels to freestanding sculptures. Some of the most impressive of these are of Hindu gods–especially Vishnu. One of the most impressive, at least to our eyes, was a roughly 15-foot tall statue of the god created in the 6th century. Although no photos were allowed, Tom, like many others ignored the signs and took some great pictures. IMG_1880IMG_1881IMG_1883IMG_1885
  • Historic Temples. Like most other Buddhist cities, Phnom Penh has a number of beautiful temples, or Wats, although we wated-out" from our previous stops, we did a brief survey of some of the grandest of these, including Wat Lang Ka, Wat Botum, Wat Ounalom, Wat Sarawan and one of the biggest, Wat Phnom, located in the middle of a busy traffic circle. IMG_1920

Recent Historical and Cultural Landmarks

  • Independence Monument, was originally built to celebrate the country’s independence from France (not to speak of interim Japanese) occupation, but now does double duty as honoring the country’s many war victims. Independence Monument
  • Central Market is not particularly historic, but it is something of a beautiful cultural, or at least social landmark. The lovely and highly functional Art Deco building houses a number of shops that are generally organized by specialty, with gems and jewelry in the center, one wing focused on clothing, one on HABA (health and beauty aides) and so forth. central marketIMG_1900
  • Riverfront. The riverfront, which consists of a park along the river and which is bars and restaurants along the street facing onto the park, has a number of French colonial buildings, one of particular historical significance is the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (more commonly known as FCC) restaurant and bar, a popular watering hole that used to be the meeting face for foreign correspondents responsible for covering the war. Now, in addition to being a popular bar, it offers one of the best views in town.

But the most important of Phnom Penh landmarks are those associated with the genocide and the horrors of the Pol Pot museum which we cover in the next blog.

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