The capital and the largest city, there was no better place to begin our Cambodian adventures than Phnom Penh. Arriving directly from Vietnam, we began learning about the Kingdom of Wonder, its fascinating culture and its deep-rooted history.
We stayed very close to the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, so it was the first real Khmer-style structure we saw up close in person. After two months of Chinese-style architecture in the previous few countries, it was certainly very different. From afar, the monument just looks like a big brown blob, but as we got closer, we saw all the intricate details in the layers of roof.
The most distinct aspect of Khmer-style structures, especially at first, were the beautiful roofs. We started to notice the roof ornaments looked like snakes with many heads. This was later confirmed to be a seven-headed snake in the other structures around Phnom Penh. Just down the street from the Independence Monument was the Statue of Norodom Sihanouk, considered to be the king-father of Cambodia. His son, Norodom Sihamoni, is the current reigning king.
National Museum of Cambodia
Since the Royal Palace is closed for a two-hour period everyday, we took the opportunity to visit the National Museum right outside. The building itself was classic Khmer architecture, but painted a lovely dark red.
The museum is home to the world’s largest collection of Khmer art, from sculptures to bronzes to ethnographic objects. We saw many relics preserved from different periods of Cambodian history. All the exhibitions had phenomenal descriptions in English, French, and Khmer, the best we’ve encountered in any museum on this trip by far.
It was here that we learned about Hinduism for the first time, as the two dominant religions in the Khmer Empire were Buddhism and Hinduism. There were many sculptures of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva, the three gods of Hinduism. The seven-headed snake we saw on the roofs of buildings is Naga, a snake deity. Many sculptures in the museum depicted Buddha sitting on Naga, with the head of snakes as a covering.
After walking around the exhibitions, we enjoyed sitting in the garden in the center of the museum. It was lovely.
The Royal Palace was the jewel of Phnom Penh. We were able to walk through only a part of the entire palace complex as half of the palace is the private residence of the current King of Cambodia and was thus off-limits. All the buildings in the palace complex were incredibly beautiful – though more beautiful on the outside than the inside. The throne hall was the masterpiece, but we could only peek in from the door and no pictures were allowed. It consisted of a long corridor with several columns on each side and chandeliers along the way. At the end of the corridor was the golden throne used by the king during royal ceremonies.
Heading towards the south of the palace complex, we entered the Silver Pagoda section, which consisted of a walled area with paintings all along it, the temple of the emerald Buddha and several pagodas around the temple. Again, pictures were not allowed inside any of the buildings.
The temple of the emerald Buddha was home to several national treasures, such as gold and Buddha statues – with the most important one being an almost life-size Buddha with 9584 diamonds attached to it! It was possible to walk inside and see most of the treasures, but you must wear appropriate clothes (covering shoulders and knees) and take your shoes and hats off.
We found the Royal Palace to be very grand and majestic, filled with treasures and stunning examples of Khmer architecture. The fact that it was so different from any palaces we have ever seen before made it even more beautiful.
Wat Phnom is an open public temple in a green park in the middle of the city. There used to be elephant rides around the park, but those stopped due to safety concerns. So nowadays, the best part of Wat Phnom was seeing monkeys! I had never seen one so up close before, they seemed to be used to humans and walked right past us. We even saw the monkey pet a dog with his hands, which was hilarious.
This fun incident with the monkey overshadowed the temple itself for us, especially after seeing the much more spectacular Royal Palace. Wat Phnom had a $1 entrance fee for foreigners, but it felt more like a scam than anything else. Basically the “guards” yelled at us from afar, hoping to get our attention so they could point at the signs and demand payment. We ignored it the first time (we’ve gotten used to ignoring the heckling after Vietnam) and nothing happened to us. When we did pay the fee at a different entrance, it seemed to have gone straight into the pocket of the “guard.” While we’re usually more than happy to pay entrance fees that support the maintenance of the attraction, we’re pretty sure that was not the case at Wat Phnom.
We had a great introduction to the Kingdom of Wonder and Cambodian culture. However, aside from the pretty sights, we also knew there was a darker side to Khmer history that we wanted to learn about.
For more pictures from Phnom Penh, please visit the gallery!