A day well spent in Phnom Penh

7 Aug

“Phnom Penh”. Whenever I would hear this name in the past, the words that I would immediately conjure in my mind would somehow always be “ancient”, “exotic” and “colorful”. And when we finally visited this city, it didn’t fail to live up to our expectations. Phnom Penh (unlike Siem Reap) is very much a city – its much bigger; more crowded, and distinctly marked in terms of contrasts that coexist – opulence and poverty, modern and traditional, charming yet chaotic.

This city was once considered one of the loveliest cities of Indochina and in some parts you can still see why. It has loads of mixed architecture and history – from the ancient Khmer history, to French architecture, to the remnants of the Khmer Rouge rule and now the present day modernization. This all still coexists and we had a great time exploring this and also the various nooks and corners of this city.

We started our trip here, bright and early, with a visit to the Royal Palace. This is a beautiful complex built-in the Khmer style with sloping wooden roofs, loads of gold work and the symbolic garuda (which is the symbol for the royal family). This huge royal complex houses the Royal Palace, the Throne Hall, the Silver Pagoda, the dance pavilions and the massive gardens. Since the palace is still the residence of the reigning prince, the palace and the dance pavilions are closed for the general public. So we only saw the beautiful throne hall (which is still used for royal coronations and other ceremonies) with beautiful paintings from the Ramayana all over it and a small museum. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Throne Hall and hence there are no pics. 🙂

The Royal Palace Complex

The Throne Hall

After seeing the palace, we went on and the saw the highlight of this Palace complex i.e. the Silver Pagoda – the most sacred pagoda for the country and a proud survivor of the Khmer Rouge destruction (of all pagodas). Well for starters the temple building is beautiful and whole enclosure around this temple is gorgeous. It has a small garden, a miniature Angkor Wat temple model, smaller shrines and the entire perimeter walls are covered with beautiful paintings with the stories from the Ramayana.

The complex of the Silver Pagoda

Paintings from the Ramayana

The Silver Pagoda is aptly named after the silver flooring of the entire pagoda. Though the flooring is covered you can pick the carpet at the corners and you will see blocks and blocks of solid silver in the entire full temple. Then there are Buddhas all around you (literally), there must be at least 1000 Buddha statues here. There are also statues and relics here from other countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka etc. However the main highlight is a statue of Buddha which is studded with nearly 9,500 diamonds and the largest of these is of 25 carats. It is a beautiful and a “sparkling” statue. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the temple too and hence there are no pics just mental images.

The Silver Pagoda

We then drove to slightly outskirts of the city to see the notorious ‘Killing Fields’ of Choeung Ek’. During the atrocious Khmer Rouge rule, the prisoners were brought here from prison in trucks, then they were made to dig their own graves (often while blindfolded), after which they were hit on the head (to save precious bullets), killed and buried in these graves. Each grave here is a mass grave where anywhere from 20 – 45 people have been buried together. Since the people digging these graves were already very weak from starvation, these graves are not very deep. Hence you still see loads of bones, teeth, skull, clothes etc protruding from the ground. It is very sad to see these graves and imagine the despair of these people whose lives were cut short for no reason. There is also a memorial here where a lot of bones and skulls of the people who died here have been kept and there is also a small museum that provides an insight on the Khmer rouge’s rule, beliefs and the damage caused.

The Memorial

The Mass Graves

Bones and Clothes in the ground

We also learnt that these Khmer Rouge leaders are now being tried in court for committing these atrocities. During the Khmer Rouge regime, approximately 1.7 million Cambodians (roughly 20% of the population) died between April 1975 and January 1979. Eventually the Cambodian government realized that justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge would be a step toward the redevelopment and healing of the people and asked the United Nations for assistance with prosecuting the Khmer Rouge leaders. After lengthy negotiations, the parties created the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the ECCC) which is truly a one-of-a-kind international court. It is a domestic Cambodian court with Cambodian legal procedure but comprises of both Cambodian and international lawyers and judges who enforce domestic and international laws. Additional information on this is available at http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/khmer_rouge_tribunal_resources_2.pdf.

Execution of Children

More on execution

We then returned to the city to see the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison Museum. Well if we were sad on seeing the killing fields, then we were in absolute despair after we saw this S-21 museum. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power this building used to be a school but was later converted to a prison when Khmer Rouge took over the country. During their rule thousands of men, women and children were interrogated here (pretty much no one survived) and several methods of torture were used to gain information. The classrooms were turned into prison cells (without any windows and only a metal box to use as a toilet). Over the years with increasing number of prisoners the size of cells became smaller and smaller. Many of these cells didn’t have doors and there was barbed wire at all exits. Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of all people executed here and these are now displayed in numerous rooms. When we asked our guide as to the reason for the same, he said it was for families who are still looking for their missing relatives. There are also numerous rooms showing paintings of the various forms and tools of torture employed by the Khmer Rouge. And it’s awful and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to see the whole thing. Also, one piece of advice don’t go here around lunch time. 😦

S-21 Prison Museum

The Prison Cell

The Rules

The Records

We then went and saw the National Museum which houses a lot surviving Khmer art, pottery and sculpture. The majority of the exhibits are from the Angkor period from 9th to 15th century, but some date from as early as the 4th century. Apart from the exhibits the building of the museum is also very pretty. We also met numerous arts students who were practicing sketching with these artifacts as models.

The National Museum

the beautiful rooftops

Beautiful Artifacts

Post this we generally walked around the city and explored its beautiful French architecture visible all around.

French Buildings

We then ended our day with a long walk on the riverfront watching the brilliant burst of fireworks (as it was the King’s birthday).  On the riverfront we also saw a lot of people doing aerobics and various dance forms in big groups and there was also an open gym next to this. Here there are numerous pubs and eating places that are a good way to start the celebration of the evening. 🙂

The riverfront

An aerobics class

In Phnom Penh we again missed a few things to see but that was because we were busy shopping, eating and having fun on a river cruise. But I’ll write separate posts on that in due course. 🙂


52 Responses to “A day well spent in Phnom Penh”

  1. Niranjan August 7, 2012 at 22:39 #

    Magnificent captures..



  2. grackleandsun August 7, 2012 at 23:15 #

    Wow. That is astoundingly beautiful. And astoundingly sad, too.


    • getsetandgo August 7, 2012 at 23:48 #

      wow… you have highlighted another contrast… Thanks … 🙂


      • grackleandsun August 8, 2012 at 00:54 #

        Some time ago, I read a very long, very intense book on the Pol Pot regime. I don’t even know why I picked this one up, as military history and war books have never been my cup of tea. It was really hard to get through—so much hatred and pain in what is such a beautiful place. Your post reminded me of how people are capable of creating such extremes.


      • getsetandgo August 8, 2012 at 11:27 #

        If you found the book hard then you absolutely cannot visit the S-21 museum and the Killing Fields. The scenes here are gruesome and we just couldnt complete the tour. We also couldnt imagine as to how people in the age group of 16 – 18 could carry so much hatred within themselves and cause so much destruction and pain. How could they kill in such a brutal manner. We also felt that the guilty should be punished for what they had done. We also met numerous people who have lost several family members to this tragedy, and their stories just added to outrage.


  3. sarahryan85 August 8, 2012 at 00:13 #

    Great article, interesting, informative, great shots of the palace (reminds me of the grand palace in Bangkok), but like the commenter above I find the history incredibly sad. I think it is important people visit sites like this to understand what people can do and so prevent history repeating.



    • getsetandgo August 8, 2012 at 11:20 #

      The history of this country and what the people here have endured is indeed very tragic and sad. Some of the things that we saw were also downright gruesome. But as you rightly said its important for everyone to visit these places and understand that this should definitely not be repeated.


  4. Julie August 8, 2012 at 07:46 #

    Beautiful pictures! Was just there a few months ago and your pictures made me relive my trip!


  5. Beautiful photographs but the narrations particularly the part about the atrocities by Khmer Rouge created heart burn. I wonder they too were Cambodians and why did they do all that.


    • getsetandgo August 8, 2012 at 14:41 #

      Politics and Beleifs. But even I fail to understand the level of atrocities carried out. You really have to be completely brain washed or twisted in the head to do something like this to anyone. Its very sad and tragic.


  6. pommepal August 8, 2012 at 13:42 #

    Beautiful pictures captured the colour and spirit of the place. Such beauty but so much horror as well.


    • getsetandgo August 8, 2012 at 14:42 #

      Its a beautiful city but with an extremely tragic history…


      • pommepal August 8, 2012 at 17:43 #

        We would love to go there, maybe next year…


  7. rommel August 9, 2012 at 07:13 #

    Sure the inside must be so interesting, the outside alone is striking. I always love looking at temples. Unfortunately, there’s little to find here in California. You are lucky to have been there. The first image is very well photographed.
    From your first paragraph, it doesn’t look from the pictures. It isn’t crowded and it doesn’t look modernized. You did well capturing and showing us the authentic side of the place.


    • getsetandgo August 9, 2012 at 10:54 #

      Thanks Rommel. I feel Asia always provides good opportunities to photograph temples and I literally went mad on this trip. Have clicked nearly 1000 pics here. We visited during the off season and hence managed to avoid the crowds in all pics.:)


  8. Dheeraj Sharma August 9, 2012 at 07:49 #

    Some really nice pictures with beautiful colors.


  9. Fae's Twist & Tango August 9, 2012 at 09:17 #

    We were in Southeast Asia April 2010. We covered many countries but Cambodia was not one of them. I am traveling vicariously through your blog. Great photos. 🙂 Fae.


    • getsetandgo August 9, 2012 at 11:09 #

      Thanks Fae. That is my dream, to someday quit my job and just take my time and travel through SE Asia. I loved all your posts on Buenos Aires and look forward to reading more such stories.


  10. Gracie August 9, 2012 at 21:32 #

    What an amazing place. Thank you for giving us a virtual tour of the city.


  11. thexcel August 10, 2012 at 09:05 #

    Come to Malaysia!


    • getsetandgo August 10, 2012 at 14:21 #

      Thats on the list. I have heard there are some new islands and amazing wildlife santuaries here that still not as touristy and worth a visit.


      • thexcel August 13, 2012 at 13:28 #

        Good! Do contact me if you are here! =)


      • getsetandgo August 13, 2012 at 16:19 #

        Will do 🙂


  12. apple.e.e-s. August 10, 2012 at 22:09 #

    ive been wanting to visit this place 🙂


  13. maria precioso August 12, 2012 at 21:08 #

    wow. really really great photos!


  14. Ed Spadoni August 13, 2012 at 18:51 #

    Thank you for a wonderful piece about this faraway place. You’ve captured the essence, it’s beauty, and sadness. Beautiful photos too.


    • getsetandgo August 14, 2012 at 11:20 #

      Thanks for visiting my blog and for the kind words. Sincerely appreciate it.


  15. sutira August 13, 2012 at 20:25 #

    The Royal Palace is simply gorgeous.


    • getsetandgo August 14, 2012 at 11:21 #

      Thanks. It is a beautiful place and I loved photographing the roofs and the art work. 🙂


  16. dearankita August 16, 2012 at 20:01 #

    I have been wanting to visit Phnom Penh for quite a while now and this post has really convinced me to make a trip in the near future!


    • getsetandgo August 19, 2012 at 20:11 #

      Hey, it’s a must visit and shop in city. Happy travels 🙂


  17. Travel with Jodi August 18, 2012 at 00:33 #

    Stunning photos!!!


  18. youmeandatanuki August 18, 2012 at 09:43 #

    Looks like a beautiful place with a tragic history. great photos!


    • getsetandgo August 19, 2012 at 20:15 #

      Thanks. You are right, it’s a beautiful place with some of the most amazing people, despite the tragic past.


  19. Corrie August 20, 2012 at 12:38 #

    Such vibrant pictures…


  20. Grumpa Joe August 24, 2012 at 02:23 #

    My only knowledge until your post has been what I heard during the Viet Nam War.


    • getsetandgo August 25, 2012 at 23:50 #

      That was the case with me as well till I visited this place.


  21. tripsfor2 August 29, 2012 at 02:55 #

    such beauty amid brutality! sweet pagoda/shrine photos!

    tough to read/look at some of this, but it’s a reminder of how beastly humans can be to each other. thanks for your courage in writing about it.


    • getsetandgo August 30, 2012 at 12:39 #

      Hey, thanks. Its even tougher to actually stand there, see the remnants of the brutality and hear the locals speak about it. But I still think its important that we learn about these things and hope that they dont happen in the future…


  22. RDoug August 30, 2012 at 05:33 #

    Beautiful city, and beautiful pictures of it, as well.


  23. sirpasalenius September 8, 2012 at 14:55 #

    We were in Cambodia early June. It was a fantastic trip! I haven’t had a chance to write about it yet but it was great to read about your impressions. Thank you for sharing.


    • getsetandgo September 10, 2012 at 16:28 #

      Thanks for visiting my blog and reading my post. Also, I’ll look forward to reading your posts for your take on Cambodia…


  24. chandralatha May 9, 2013 at 11:55 #

    Reblogged this on sueshan123.


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