Introduction to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, capital city of Cambodia (Kampuchea), at the junction of the Mekong and Sab rivers, in the southern part of the country. The city was badly damaged and its population greatly reduced during civil war in the mid-1970s, but rebuilding began in the 1980s. The city had traditionally been a commercial centre for the Mekong Valley with facilities for transport by air, rail, river, and road. It is a major port, with an outlet to the South China Sea through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Principal manufactured goods have included textiles, processed food, and beverages. Known as a picturesque Asian city with an enduring French colonial atmosphere, Phnom Penh has been home to a number of cultural and educational institutions, most of which were closed in 1975 when the city fell to the Khmer Rouge. The Museum of the Buddhist Institute featured a collection of artifacts of the Khmer civilization, and the National Museum of Phnom Penh housed a collection of antiquities dating from the 6th century. Among the institutions of higher education in the city were the University of Phnom Penh (1960), the Buddhist University (1954), the University of Fine Arts (1965), and the University of Agricultural Sciences (1965). Historical landmarks include palaces of former rulers of Cambodia and Buddhist temples.

The first permanent settlement here was probably established in the late 14th century by the Khmers, and in 1434 it displaced Angkor Thom as the Khmer capital. Phnom Penh was abandoned and reoccupied several times before it became Cambodia's capital in 1865. In the mid-1970s warfare in Cambodia led to social upheaval in the city; for a time almost all its more than 1 million inhabitants were forced to evacuate Phnom Penh and move to the countryside as agricultural workers, and a sizeable proportion of the city’s educated population were executed. The city was resettled during the 1980s, and some of its cultural and educational institutions reopened. Population 1,157,000 (2003 estimate).

What to see in Phnom Penh

Royal Palace

Firstly the Royal Palace was erected in the reign of King Ponhea Yat (1434) and secondly it was erected in the reign of King Norodom (1866). The Royal Palace was formerly called “Preah Borom Reach Veang Chatomouk Mongkul” that means it was conveniently located at the confluence of four rivers (The Upper Mekong, The Lower Mekong, The Tonle Bassak and The Tonle Sap”. The Royal Palace is 402 meters, and its complex is surrounded by a high pagoda-styled compound decorated with the boundary strings.

The Royal Palace is a royal residence now where His Majesty, the King of Cambodia, and the royal families live. In a common word, it is like a small town of royal dynasties. The Royal Palace is regarded as the symbol of the whole nation, and all the pavilions are adorned and painted with yellow and white colors. The yellow represents Buddhism and the white represents Brahmanism.

Silver Pagoda was erected in the reign of King Norodom in 1892 and inaugurated in 1903. King Norodom’s successor, King Sisowat, who was his younger brother, kept reigning and decorating the inner wall. And then, Prince Norodom Sihanouk restored it in 1962.

National Museum

The Cambodian-style building was built in 1917 and inaugurated in 1920. It is located to the north of the royal palace. The National Museum can enable you to be more aware of Khmer cultural and historical value and literature through frescoes depicted on the theme of the Ramayana story. Khmer art has been shown since ancient times. A rich collection of original Khmer art features sculptures and statues made of jade, marble, silver, bronze, brass, copper, clay, wood, bamboo, metal, steel, etc. The ancient building contains articles, ceramic ware, earthenware, flatware, pottery, woodwork, silverware, etc.

Wat Phnom is a symbol of the of the capital and the place from which Phnom Penh derives its name. There is a busy park around the slopes of the hill that hosts an array of the street sellers catering to the needs of tourists, and to the constant stream of local pilgrims trekking to see the hill's Vihara, shrines and fortune tellers.

Locals consider the hill of Penh to be a place of good fortune and go there to pray for good luck. However, it is considered very unlucky for lovers or married couples to visit Wat Phnom together. Elephant rides available. The legend of the founding of Wat Phnom is tied to the beginnings of Phnom Penh.

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

$2.00 - Open everyday, including holidays, 8AM-5PM - Closed for lunch)

Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school - a set of classroom buildings in a walled compound. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility, administered by Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. ‘Duch,’ who is currently on trial for his actions at S-21. Inmates at the prison were held in tiny brick cubicles and systematically tortured, sometimes over a period of months, to extract the desired ‘confessions,’ after which the victim was inevitably executed at the killing field of Choeung Ek just outside the city.

S-21 processed over 17,000 people, less than a score of whom survived. The Tuol Sleng compound now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Much has been left in the state it was in when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in January 1979. The prison kept extensive records, leaving thousands of photos of their victims, many of which are on display. Paintings of torture at the prison by Vann Nath, a survivor of Toul Sleng, are also exhibited. For more on the S-21 check out Chandler’s book, ‘Voices from S-21.

Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields)

Many of the Cambodians who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime ended up dumped in one of the dozens of ‘killing fields’ that can be found scattered across the country. The killing fields were essentially ad hoc places of execution and dumping grounds for dead bodies during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979.) After the Khmer Rouge regime, memorials were set up at many of the sites, some containing the bones and remnants of victims gather from the area. Prior to 1975, the Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh was a orchard and a Chinese cemetery. But during the Khmer Rouge regime the area became one of the infamous killing fields. This particular killing field is the site of the brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom had first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the S-21 Prison (now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum) in Phnom Penh.

The Choeung Ek Memorial is now a group of mass graves, killing areas and a memorial stupa containing thousands of human skulls and long bones. The memorial is about a 20-40 minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh. Guided tours through the area are available and reasonably priced multi-lingual guides are available at the site. There is also a small souvenir shop as well. For sake of historical context, combine your trip to Choeung Ek with a visit to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S-21 Prison) in Phnom Penh. Also see David Chandler’s book, ‘Voices of S-21’ for the most systematic and complete account to date of the history and operation of the S-21 Prison.

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