What to do in Phnom Penh
Days 830 – 837
Please don’t think of Phnom Penh as a one-trick pony. As well as the emotional visit of S21 and Killing Fields (See Genocide in Phnom Penh), visiting an assortment of culinary delights (See Food Glorious Food Blog) and a day of Art (Blog to be written), there are plenty of other places to visit in Phnom Penh.
We arrived at the Royal Palace to discover that it was shut. The King only opens his place of residence between 8 – 10:30 am then 2 – 5 pm each day. I didn’t notice any blue, royal flag flying, so no King Sihamoni at home.
We returned later in the week; our tuk-tuk driver was so busy watching a film while he was driving, that he nearly forgot to drop us off!
As we walked along to the main concourse, one of the many gardeners was watering the plants, (not a great time in the afternoon heat). Jac asked him to cool her down, and he very graciously consented. Mind you; another gardener was not best pleased when she stepped on the manicured lawn to take a photo. The gardens here are immaculate, and Tim admired the precision of the topiary. (His next career?)
The grounds are scattered with various grand buildings after King Norodom relocated the capital to Phnom Penh from Oudong in 1865. France generously gifted the Napoleon Pavilion in 1876, and since then, subsequent kings have continued to add, replace and expand buildings; thankfully with complementary styles. There was a nice feel about this place.
We peered into the golden-spired Royal Throne Room; sadly, we were not allowed to enter or take photos. It is painted yellow and white representing, respectively, Buddhism, the current dominant religion, and Hinduism, the main religion during Angkorian times. Inside we could see the majestic coronation thrones; the front for the King, the taller one behind for the Queen. It was glorious; you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Signs to the Silver Pagoda led us through the high yellow walls to the main square. Along the inside was a stunning mural, currently being restored. The paintings depict the epic poem Reamker, showing the balance of good and evil.
I must admit that I was expecting to see a Pagoda made of silver and was very confused when I couldn’t find one. It turns out that the compound is known as the Silver Pagoda. The area includes a few Stupas, a statue of the King Norodom sitting on a white horse and the royal temple, Wat Preah Keo.
This grand building is full of national treasures including the “Emerald Buddha” of Cambodia, similar to the one we saw in Bangkok, and a life-sized Maitreya Buddha encrusted with thousands of diamonds; again, no photos permitted, but one of us captured a sneaky photo. This temple is one of the only temples to survive under the Khmer Rouge, which is remarkable as the floor is covered with 5,000 silver tiles.
We all very much enjoyed our visit here at the Royal Palace. There is plenty more to see, but these are for you to discover if you come and visit.
Legend has it that one day, a hollow tree floated down the flooded Mekong River and landed in the garden of a wealthy lady. She found four bronze statues of the Buddha and saw this as a sign that the Buddha wanted her to building him a new home. She created a temple, now known as Wat Phnom.
On the day we arrived at the closed Royal Palace, we came here instead, the central point of Phnom Penh. At 27m above ground, it’s the tallest religious structure in the city.
We wandered around the beautiful gardens surrounding the temple, watching butterflies, spotting a tree full of dangling fruit bats nearby and admiring the many flowers. As we reached the temple, Tim greeted a young man with “suistei”, and he reacted, astounded that Tim could speak Cambodian! We got chatting to him and discovered that he wants to learn to be a tour guide and improve his English. We admired his openness and desire to learn, perhaps that’s what he saw in Tim.
The temple was pleasant, but it was the surrounding grounds that we enjoyed more.
90% of Cambodian artists didn’t survive the devastating Khmer Rouge regime. One of the 10% who thankfully did was Arn Chorn-Pond, and in 1998 he founded the NGO Project: Cambodian Living Arts, with the mission to “be a catalyst in a vibrant arts sector, inspiring new generations.”
One evening we went to one of their Dance Shows, based in the grounds of the National Museum. We bought the cheap seats and sat on hard benches. I recommend paying for the cushioned one. We watched a film by Chorn-Pond, why he set this NGO up and his dream for the future. His passion was profound.
We also learnt that the choregrapher was another survivor, Voan Savay, a former prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. She was evicted from Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge and sent to the countryside to work; knowing that the only way to survive was to stop dancing, keeping her background a secret and obey orders.
The show began. The one hour flew by watching young female dancers gracefully glide across the stage with angelic faces while the young, energetic male dancers transformed into monkeys, giants and demons. The dancers took us through a storyline of Cambodian mythology and ancestral tradition with romance, drama and humour.
The dancing so inspired the three of us that we decided to join one of the Dance Workshops a few days later.
Together with four other women, we stepped on the stage and were first taught how to put on the traditional Cambodian Sampot made from 5 metres of material to make a rather splendid looking pair of trousers.
Our teachers, members of the troupe we saw at the show, put us through a few warm-up exercises where we were supposed to bend parts of our bodies never been in those positions before – and I thought I was flexible! Ouch!
We focussed on the ancient Apsara movements of three forms; classic, folk and social, mainly the subtleties of hand positions which represent different emotions. Tim made a great impression of a monkey while Jac and I practised looking demure. Our finale was the coconut dance – great fun.
Before our Dance Workshop, we visited the Cambodian National Museum in a beautiful deep red building, contrasting against the lush green plants in its courtyard. The museum is organised in date order from the pre-Angkorian period through to the twentieth century, nicely displayed with interesting write-ups.
The three of us wandered around separately, taking our time at our preferences. I found it fascinating seeing the influence from India, including sculptures of Hindu gods from the 6thcentury. Some also reminded me of Egyptian relics. The world is a small place!
While sitting contemplating my time here, a young curator asked if I would complete a survey. He had studied in London, living near Kings Cross for three years and now back in his home city. I mentioned that it was nice that we were able to take photos here, only to be informed that photography was not permitted inside the museum galleries, only in the exterior and courtyard. Whoops!
We enjoyed our nine days in Phnom Penh, and it’s good to see the great work of many people in this country which is now turning the corner after the recent horrific history.