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Exploring Phnom Penh

Indochina Day Three

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Outside the Royal Palace

Yesterday morning when I woke up I was feeling pleased (and a little relieved) that I had suffered no ill effects after eating the insects and various street food treats the previous evening. So ironically I was caught out instead, I think, by last night's lime sorbet, and had one of those nights when you spend more time in the bathroom than you do asleep in bed!

Luckily by the time we got up I seemed to be over the worst although there was no question of breakfast for me, sadly. But I decided to risk going ahead with our planned morning tour in Phnom Penh, which proved to be the right decision.

The Royal Palace

Van and our driver, whose name I had unfortunately failed to catch, picked us up as agreed at nine. Our first stop was at the Royal Palace. The palace is not a single building but a whole complex. As it is the residence of the king there are only a few parts open to the public but there was more than enough to keep us occupied for the next couple of hours.

The palace was constructed between 1866 and 1870, when King Norodom decided to relocate the royal capital from Oudong (about 40 kilometres away) to Phnom Penh. It was built on the site of an old citadel called Banteay Kev, on the west bank of the Tonle Sap just at the point where it meets the Mekong. We had been outside its walls on our first evening in Phnom Penh and I had photographed its exterior and the nearby elegant lampposts at sunset. Now we were seeing them in bright morning sunshine.

Van paid our entrance fee and we went through the turnstile, dodging a large tour party that had just arrived. We followed a path lined with small stone Buddhas and behind them larger Hindu statues (copies of older ones damaged in past conflicts). Van told us that placing these here together was a demonstration of how the two religions had been brought together in unity in Cambodia.

Buddhist and Hindu statues by the entrance

Ornamental gate

First view of the Throne Hall

This brought us to a view of the large Throne Hall, its stone steps guarded by seven headed snakes or naga. This was where the king's generals and royal officials used to carry out their duties and is still used today for religious and royal ceremonies such as coronations and royal weddings. The building is cross-shaped and topped with three spires. The tallest of these in the centre is 59 metres high and topped with the white, four-faced head of Brahma, inspired by the Bayon in Angkor Thom. The present-day structure was constructed in 1917 to replace that built in 1869-1870 under King Norodom, which was demolished in 1915.

Throne Hall steps with naga, and roof detail

The roof is supported by stone figures known as kinnaris, mythical creatures with the head, body, and arms of a woman and the wings, tail and feet of a swan. They are considered symbols of beauty and are skilled dancers.

Kinnaris holding up the Throne Hall roof

To the right of the Throne Hall Van pointed out Hor Samran Phirun (built in 1917), the building where the king used to rest while waiting for his elephant to be prepared to carry him on a journey. The building was constructed to allow him to mount the elephant from the upper floor without the need for steps. The tradition of using an elephant for transport was stopped in 1960 - not, as we had at first thought, out of consideration for the elephant's welfare but because the king had realised that cars, recently introduced into the country, were more practical and comfortable. He acquired a Mercedes and this has been the preferred brand of car ever since.

The roof of Hor Samran Phirun

Repainting Hor Samran Phirun, and door detail with frangipani flowers

We climbed the steps to look into the Throne Hall, but it isn't permitted to go in, nor are photos allowed. Van showed us the main throne of the king at the far end of the room - each king has his own, she told us, it is not passed from one to the next. In front of this traditionally stand two other smaller thrones, side by side - one for the king and one for the queen. These are passed down from one monarch to the next. But because the current king is single (even at 64) the queen's throne is in storage.

We could go into a nearby building, Hor Samrath Vimean (also built in 1917), and take photos there of the traditional costumes on display. The stunning gold royal wedding garments were hard to photograph as they are kept in a glass cabinet, but it was easier to get shots of these traditional outfits in a different colour for each day of the week.

Traditional costumes

Van told us that brides often still follow these colours and choose a wedding dress according to the day on which they are getting married. I immediately resolved that should I ever get married in Cambodia (unlikely, I know) I would have to avoid doing do on a Monday as I would look dreadful in that day's shade of yellow/orange!

We had better views of the Throne Hall from this side, and Van showed us the best vantage points to get photos without other visitors intruding.

Throne Hall from the far side

From here we passed into a courtyard with the famed Silver Pagoda at its heart. Despite the name this temple isn't actually silver - the name refers to the more than 5,000 silver tiles that cover its floor. We were able to go in to see these - most are protected by carpet but a small area is left uncovered. Shoes had to be removed and again no photos were allowed. This is the king's private place of worship, used only on ceremonial occasions, at which time the carpet will be removed to reveal all the tiles.

The pagoda’s main treasures are a small 17th century Buddha statue made of emerald crystal, and a life-size gold Maitreya Buddha which weighs 90 kilos and is dressed in royal regalia, set with 2,086 diamonds.

Behind the Silver Pagoda is a model of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most prized historical sight.

Silver Pagoda with model of Angkor Wat, and Buddha outside

There are a number of stupas around the pagoda, each containing the ashes of a former king or other member of the royal family.

Stupas near the Silver Pagoda

One is decorated with flowers - this is the stupa of the king's half-sister, Princess Kantha Bopha, who sadly died of leukaemia in 1952 aged only five (according to Van – some sources say just four or even three). Her father, King Sihanouk, was naturally stricken with grief but subsequently founded a hospital for sick children in her name. There are now five Kantha Bopha children’s hospitals in the country, which take care of 80% of the nation's sick children, free of charge. When King Sihanouk himself died in 2013 most of his ashes were scattered on the Mekong River but some were put in an urn and placed in this stupa with those of his beloved daughter.

Stupa of Princess Kantha Bopha

The walls around this courtyard are decorated with frescos hundreds of metres in length depicting an episode of the Indian epic Ramayana. These are the biggest mural frescos in South East Asia. They were damaged by the Khmer Rouge and are only gradually being restored. Van said that it is likely some parts will be left unrepaired as a record of the past atrocities.


Frescoes near the Silver Pagoda

Restoring the frescoes

Outside we saw a beautiful 'cannonball tree' with a stone Buddha at its foot. Van explained that for Buddhists this tree represents the transitory nature of life, as its flowers bloom only for a day - opening each morning and dropping in the afternoon. The scent is beautiful - a cross between a rose and an orchid.

Cannonball tree flower

Buddha and cannonball tree

Another Buddha under the tree, and lotus flower in a nearby pool

The National Museum

We drove the very short distance to the museum – it was a relief to get a little time in the air-conditioning of the car as it was already over 30 degrees. Van explained that she wasn't permitted to guide us around the museum - we had to hire one of the guides who work there or explore on our own. As the labels are all in English (as well as French and Khmer), and as we suspected we would only want to look closely at a limited selection of the exhibits, we chose the latter.

The National Museum

Museum roof, and elephant carving outside

Tree near the museum which I tried and failed to identify!

Another bike helmet for my photo collection

The museum building is very attractive and looks older than its roughly 100 years because of the traditional design and mellowed terracotta stones. It is arranged around the four sides of an attractive courtyard garden and displays mainly statues from the pre-Angkor period through to the 19th century. I liked most the large statues of pre-Ankorian Hindu gods, and there were also some attractive and surprisingly modern-looking bronze and ceramic pots.

No photos are allowed in the galleries, but we were allowed to take photos of the 10th century stone statue of Garuda in the lobby.


Photos are also permitted in the garden, and as the galleries open directly into this it isn't too difficult to get a few photos of the exhibits on the edges!

Courtyard garden


Carvings on the edge of the courtyard

Artist at work

In the centre of the courtyard is a 15th century stone statue of the Leper King from the Royal Palace at Angkor Thom. We were to see a replica in situ a few days later so I will save my detailed description until then.

Statue of the Leper King

Wat Phnom

We didn't spend nearly as long at the museum as we had at the palace so were quite soon on our way to the final stop in our tour with Van, the temple of Wat Phnom. This dates originally from 1372 although it was rebuilt several times in the 19th century and again in 1926.

Wat Phnom, and Buddha outside

There is a legend which says that a wealthy widow called Daun Penh (Grandmother Penh) found four bronze statues of the Buddha near the river. She built a small shrine to protect the sacred statues, on an artificial hill that was made by the villagers. From this comes the city’s name of Phnom Penh meaning 'Hill of Penh'.

We (slowly in my case) climbed the steep flight of steps to the temple and took our shoes off to enter. To my surprise, and pleasure, Van said it was fine to take photos, so I did - quite a lot of them!

She pointed out the statue of Madame Penh who built the temple, smartly dressed as befits the rich woman she was.



In Wat Phnom ~ Madame Penh is the statue shown bottom left

She also explained how the small fortune-telling books of tablets are used - worshippers hold them on their head, ask the Buddha for guidance, and use a stylus to select the tablet that will contain some advice for, or perhaps a warning about, their future. If the message is worrying they can wash in holy water to dilute its power, but not change their future completely.

Fortune-telling tablets

Wall paintings


Just as we were about to leave the temple we saw two women ascend the steps and release cages of sparrows, just as we had done on our first evening here. It was good to see them given their freedom although I have read that many are trained to return to their cages to be sold and released over and over again. I would like to think this isn't the case. Can you train a sparrow, I wonder - these aren't, after all, homing pigeons!

Releasing the sparrows, and Van outside the temple

Psar Thmei

Wat Phnom was the last stop on our half day tour, but rather than go back to the hotel, we asked Van if we could be dropped off near the Central Market, properly known as Psar Thmei (the ‘new market’), which we were keen to see. I was feeling well enough to risk having some refreshment and was craving coffee, so she recommended one of her favourite coffee shops in the area, 53 Central, and dropped us just across the road. Here we said our farewells as we would be leaving Phnom Penh in the morning. We had thoroughly enjoyed our time with her (although ‘enjoyed’ isn’t really the right word to use about yesterday’s visit to Cheong Ek and Tuol Sleng) and even though we were to have many other good guides during this trip, at the end of it we both voted her the best!

We crossed the busy road, which in itself is an adventure here. You mustn't try to wait for a break in the traffic or you will still be standing there at bedtime! Instead take a deep breath and step out slowly into the steady stream of vehicles. Don't try to hurry; take your time so drivers can easily see you, and they will part around you. Or so we were told, and it seemed to have worked as we were still in one piece when we reached the far side of the road!

Bike decor and another bike helmet for my 'collection'!


Crossing the road to the Central Market

After our coffees we braved another road to enter the market. This Central Market was built in the 1930s in the Art Deco style as part of French plans to expand and modernise the city.

At the heart of the building is a huge central dome, 26 metres high, which is claimed by some sources to be one of the 10 largest domes in the world. This central area is full of glitzy jewellery stands selling gold and silver as well as ornaments made from semi-precious stones alongside cheaper items.

The central dome

Jewellery stalls, and ornaments on display


From this central dome four wings extend, and beyond them the building is surrounded by a maze of stalls under green awnings, which lend an unusual colour cast to the goods on display. These are a mixture of those aimed at local shoppers (food stalls, cheap clothing, electrical goods, toys, hairdressers etc.) and at tourists (crafts, souvenirs, and clothing more aimed at their tastes).

Some of these photos I took with permission while for others I was 'shooting from the hip'.

Selling snacks, including insects

Food stall

Shoe repairers

Shoe repairer

Clothes stalls

When we emerged at the far northern side of the market, we decided to look for a light lunch and found one in another coffee shop, MK. This was calmer than the rather bustling Cafe 53 where we had been earlier and we rather liked it, although bizarrely they were playing English Christmas carols in February! I enjoyed a slice of banana cake, which seemed a safe option, and Chris a tuna sandwich.

Surprising wall decoration in the MK coffee shop

After our break we went back into the market to explore a little more. On the far side we got a tuk-tuk back to the hotel and had a relaxing few hours sorting photos, catching up with emails and messages, and in my case on notes for this blog.

Tuk-tuk ride back to our hotel

Typical Phnom Penh cable arrangement outside the market

In the evening we decided to try the food at our hotel, the Anise, as we liked the atmosphere of its shady terrace and it seemed popular. I steered away from the spicier options and chose a Chinese-influenced chicken and ginger dish which was delicious. Chris had fried chicken with red rice which he also liked.

After a post-dinner Angkor beer a prompt night was called for, as we had a long drive ahead of us tomorrow.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:37 Archived in Cambodia Tagged architecture restaurant temple history market palace cambodia phnom_penh buddhism museum coffee street_photography

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You are bringing back a lot of happy memories here. We visited most of the places in your blog during our trip. The tree you can't identify is also common here in Hong Kong. I'm not an expert on trees but I tried a search for it and I think it may be Lagerstroemia speciosa also known as Queen Crape Myrtle. Google it see what you think. Great blog, waiting for more.

by irenevt

Thank you Irene :) I think you might be right about the tree. I asked Van and she checked with a colleague and said that they didn't know the proper name but always called it crape tree - except I thought she said 'crepe' so when I Googled found nothing!

by ToonSarah

We have a crape myrtle in our yard and the flowers look the same. They are beautiful trees and ours blooms all summer. They love hot weather.

This seems like a much more pleasant day than yesterday. The frescoes were amazing. Thanks for posting them.

by Beausoleil

Sorry about your "limesorbet-stomach"! Good it didn't ruin the whole day!

I like the idea of two religions coexistencing (? sorry, I don't know how to properly bend this word :( ) the same time :)

I would propably go for a thursday or friday wedding if I would choose by dress color in Cambodia (were the dresses in weekday order su-mo-tu etc. ?) :)

Scary way to cross the street!!!

by hennaonthetrek

Thanks for confirming the tree identification Sally :)

Henna, the English word you need is'coexisting'. But maybe I was a bit misleading - they don't really coexist, as the main religion is definitely Buddhism, but it has absorbed some elements of Hinduism.

I could wear any of those colours apart from Monday (yes, they are in order) but would like Tuesday, Friday or Saturday the best!

by ToonSarah

My spelling wasn't too far off then, at least you could understand what word I meant :)

IMO the Monday dress color is nice but not in a clothing :)

by hennaonthetrek

I agree the Monday colour is pretty Henna but to wear that colour would make me look ill ;)

by ToonSarah

You guys have seen a fair bit of the city. I so wished we were there for more than one day, reading your blog, I know we missed out on a few interesting things.

I really like the detailed information. I visited the Royal Palace with a guidebook, but I now know more than when I was there in person.

Funny fact about the Silver Pagoda, we both were searching for it quite a while till we read it were the tiles ... we went back to check it coz we couldn't believe it!

by Ils1976

Van was a great guide, Ils, and I was surprised afterwards how much I had retained of what she told us - always a good indication of how interesting a guide has made the information they give you about a place :)

I know what you mean about the Silver Pagoda - I was expecting to see some sort of silver on the exterior!

by ToonSarah

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