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The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is the principal attraction of the Phnom Penh and contains the best examples of 20th century Khmer architecture. The Royal Palace is the official residence of King Norodom Sihanouk. Set among the perfectly maintained gardens you can find the exquisite Throne Hall, the Elephant Pavilion where the king's elephants were kept, the Royal Treasury, and the Chan Chaya Pavilion which was made especially for performances of classical Cambodian dance. Although mostly off-limits to the public, the Silver Pagoda can be visited. This remarkable building is the highlight of the compound and takes its name from the floor of the temple, which is completely covered in silver tiles. The internal walls are decorated with frescoes depicting episodes of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903 by 40 Khmer artists. It is also called the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, in tribute to the magnificent baccarat crystal image of the Emerald Buddha that sits in the centre on a gilt pedestal. There are other intricately carved Buddha images on display, notably the life-size solid gold statue that stands in front of the pedestal, decorated with 9,584 diamonds. Remember to dress conservatively and respectfully when visiting the Royal Palace, bare shoulders or legs are frowned upon within the complex.
The National Museum is a striking and famous example of the Khmer architectural tradition and houses the country's most important collection of ancient Cambodian cultural material and Khmer art. It is made up of four galleries containing relics, sculpture, art and crafts covering history from the prehistoric, the pre-Angkorian, the Angkorian, and the post-Angkorian periods of Cambodian culture. The pieces are arranged in chronological order and the already impressive collection continues to grow as new treasures previously hidden from the Khmer Rouge are discovered. The museum houses original relics and sculptures from the temples of Angkor and visiting the museum is a good accompaniment to exploring the temples. There is a gift shop which sells books, souvenirs and replica sculptures. The museum was built in 1917 (and extended in 1924) and today it has a beautiful central garden with lots of water and greenery which is a lovely serene place to rest and relax after touring the exhibitions. Guided tours in English and French cost a bit extra but they are worthwhile because, although the artefacts are impressive, the printed information in the museum is minimal. Photography is not allowed inside the building.
Tuol Sleng Museum
When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they commandeered and converted a secondary school into a primitive prison where they detained and tortured anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary behaviour. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 victims were imprisoned in Security Prison 21, or S21, as it was known. The museum was established after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and today it appears exactly as the fleeing Khmer Rouge left it, and serves as a testimony to the crimes and atrocities of the organisation. It is a tremendously depressing experience, and the pictures, instruments of torture, and bloodstained walls give a thorough idea of the extent of the pain and horror borne by the Cambodian people. Thousands of victims were transported from here to the extermination camp outside the city, Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), to be executed. There are some first person accounts on display at the museum, despite the fact that of the estimated 20,000 prisoners incarcerated in S21 there are only 12 known survivors.
Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)
The Cambodian genocide during the late 1970s ranks as one of the great horrors of modern history. Under Pol Pot's rule an estimated 1.7 million people (21 percent of the Cambodian population) were either ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, or died of starvation. Choeung Ek was the extermination camp where the prisoners from S21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum) were transported to and executed. Also known as the Killing Fields, after the movie of the same name, this football-field-sized area contains the mass graves of about 20,000 people, many of whom were tortured before being executed. A tall Memorial Stupa has been constructed to commemorate the dead and more than 8,000 human skulls are displayed behind the glass. At the entrance, a handwritten sign in Khmer and English summarises the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. As a reminder of the reality of this great tragedy human bones are still frequently unearthed by heavy rains in the area, and many of the tour guides have personal stories to tell about their experiences during Pol Pot's reign. A visit to the Killing Fields is harrowing but it remains one of the most popular destinations in Cambodia.
Rantanakiri Province is Cambodia's version of the Wild West. Situated in the north-east of the country, along the border with Vietnam, it is rather inaccessible, but definitely worth the extra effort as it is an area of stunning natural beauty. Visitors travelling to Rantanakiri will discover lush tropical rainforests, volcanic lakes, pristine waterfalls and abundant wildlife including Asian elephants, monkeys, guar and many endangered bird species. The province also boasts slightly cooler weather. Close to half of Rantanakiri province is a protected area in the form of the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary. One of the key tourist attractions in Rantanakiri is Yak Loum, a perfectly round crater lake with crystal-clear waters, surrounded by dense jungle foliage. The lake is great to swim in and a relatively short distance from the town of Banlung. There are interesting villages to visit which allow for authentic cultural experiences. Be aware that the roads are not great; they are very muddy when it is wet and covered in thick red dust that makes everyone appear orange in the dry season. Boats are a popular mode of transport for scenic trips. As a destination for the eco-tourist or adventure seeker Rantanakiri is a paradise.
While this beach town doesn't have much to compare with Thailand's pristine coast, it does make a great tourist getaway. Sihanoukville is the country's only deep water port, making much of the town industrial and unattractive to tourists. But Sihanoukville is surrounded on three sides by the Bay of Thailand and there are several secluded tourist beaches with all the requisite trappings: dishevelled beach bars, guesthouses and hawkers. As there isn't much to do in town, it is worth the extra money to stay in the quaint beachside accomodation. Daytime activities include swimming, fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and boat trips to the nearby islands. There are also several Buddist temples to be explored in the area and the Ream National Park is only 11 miles (18km) away. Most hotels and guest houses offer transport and day passes for visiting the National Park. Nightly beach barbecues prepare great food and offer cheap beer. The government is said to have plans to develop the area for larger resorts which will surely ruin its laid-back beach charm in years to come. Regular daily buses provide a three to four hour journey to and from Phnom Phen, along Cambodia's best road. There is also a ferry connecting to Koh Kong, the Cambodian/Thailand border.
From Phnom Penh, a great excursion is the formerly lavish resort town of Krong Kep. Although once a famous high society destination, called The Pearl of the Orient, Kep is now more of a rustic fishing village; a peaceful and charming destination for those who like to travel off the beaten track. The Khmer Rouge did a number on this town, but the crumbling villas of the rich add to its ruinous mystique. A beautiful coastal road, slivers of beaches, jungled mountains, and the nearby Rabbit Island provide present day visitors with a beautiful setting. For the best restaurants in town, and the best seafood in Cambodia, try the shack-like buildings near the water and order the crab. The Crab Market, made up of a number of these shack-like restaurants is delightfully relaxed and friendly; for an authentic experience it is best to avoid the more expensive places and dine here. There are also wonderful, rustic picnic platforms at Kep Beach where you can settle down and be served freshly caught seafood from vendors, most of whom speak at least a little English. Kep is around a three hour taxi ride from Sihanoukville, or a four hour bus ride from Phnom Phen.
The Irrawaddy river dolphins inhabit a 118 mile (190km) stretch of the Mekong River. These odd and delightful creatures are in danger of extinction and the Cambodian population was recently estimated to consist of a mere 85 animals. For years the dolphins were killed in now illegal fishing practices, and hunted by the Khmer Rouge for sport, but they are now fully protected under Cambodian Fishery Law and their appeal to tourists is bringing in welcome foreign dollars to the region. The dolphins have become a symbol of hope for the sleepy northeastern town of Kratie and the money paid to view them supports the local community as well as the conservation of the dolphins. The animals themselves are shy and intelligent and their perpetual grins make them very endearing. They are easily spotted from the riverbank but many tourists opt to rent small boats to get closer to them. The local oarsmen retain a healthy distance from surfacing animals but viewers can get close enough to recognise individual characteristics and see the famous dolphin smiles. Kratie is accustomed to budget travellers, with a choice of cheap guesthouses and small hotels. All of these offer motorbike drivers for the scenic 9 mile (15km) drive to the dolphins' river home, a tiny fishing village called Kampi where the houses are raised up on stilts to prevent annual flooding.
Cambodian travel can often be jarring; hard beds, bumpy roads, death defying taxi drives, and many hours spent sightseeing on foot can leave a body in ill shape. Seeing Hands is a business employing blind masseurs and masseuses to work out those tourist kinks. Cambodia gives few opportunities to disabled workers and supporting Seeing Hands has its own karmic rewards, but visitors will be even more satisfied by the quality of the massage. The city offers a host of dodgy 'massage' houses and knowing a place is reputable is relaxing in itself. The centres are all comfortable and peaceful and visitors can change into loose cotton pyjamas and completely unwind in very capable hands. You are able to choose the strength and duration of your massage; note that typically massages are quite hard so it is worth requesting a gentle one if this is not your style. Paying a visit to one of these centres is undoubtedly a pleasurable way to support a worthwhile Cambodian charity. There are three Seeing Hands centres in town, all offering massages for about $6. This is a very reasonable rate but don't forget to tip. It is considerate when tipping to use $1 bills as apparently these are easier for the blind to handle.
Central Market (Psah Thmay)
A trip to Phnom Penh would be incomplete without a visit to Central Market. Phnom Phen's most obvious landmark looks more in style with a trading post then most earthly structures and its quirky architecture is part of its appeal for tourists. This famous Art Deco building consists of a huge central dome with four wings opening out into large halls. Psah Thmay contains countless stalls run by more than 3,000 merchants. When the market was first opened, in 1937, it was said to be the biggest market in Asia. It has recently undergone years of serious renovation but the newly improved Central Market reopened in 2011. Merchandise comprises almost everything imaginable including souvenirs, clothes, fresh produce, books, flowers, postcards, antiques and a lot of jewellery. As many stalls stock the same merchandise it is useful to compare prices to find the real value of goods. One should bargain hard but good-naturedly. Surrounding the structure is a ring of tightly packed vendors selling similar wares. Its central location is walkable from almost anywhere and it is visible from many of Phnom Penh's main roads but, if necessary, all taxis know 'central market'.
Foreign Correspondents Club
A pleasant way to spend the evening is on the wide balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club. This well-located bar, restaurant and boutique hotel sits on the banks of the riverside overlooking the converging Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. The spectacular view is best appreciated at sunset, which luckily coincides with the FCC's happy hour (5pm - 7pm). The FCC can be more expensive then its neighbours, but the colonial-chic style and atmosphere of the place gives an invaluable French flair to the night. The FCC sits in the heart of the bustling waterfront district, close to various popular nightlife venues. The club was renovated from a colonial-era French villa but, despite the many stories implying a rich past, is actually only about 19 years old. Nevertheless, it is one of Southeast Asia's most legendary watering holes, famous for being the spot where the numerous journalists covering the last days of Pol Pot's regime converged. Unlike most Foreign Correspondent's Clubs it is not private but members from other clubs do get a discount.
Amuse your inner warrior with one of Phnom Penh's best carnal pleasures: shooting big guns. Whatever one's taste, be it automatic rifles, rocket launchers, or grenades, they are all a possibility. The Phnom Penh shooting range is legendary amongst those who enjoy exploding things and a visit there will give you the opportunity to handle weapons that are probably unavailable to you at home. The range is run by the military and there are safety measures in place but it is still a remarkably casual and free environment. It is even said that for extra money targets can become live farm animals, although this controversial practice may have been stopped in recent times. It does all come at a cost though and at about a dollar a bullet, make sure Rambo instincts are kept in check. Upon arrival you will be able to see all the weapons on display and read a 'menu' detailing what is available and how much handling each weapon costs. Guides generally recommend that you visit the shooting range first if you plan to also see sites like the Killing Fields because thinking too deeply about Cambodia's violent past has been known to dampen the excitement and fun to be had at the range. All guesthouses and taxis can provide a trip to the shooting range, which is located close to the airport.
Cambodia Cooking Class
It is always wonderful to return from your time abroad with a skill you didn't have when you left home in the first place - and the Cambodia Cooking Class, one of Phnom Penh's most popular tourist attractions, offers tourists to Cambodia the chance to do just that. Khmer cuisine distinguishes itself from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine with its delicate use of spices and aromatic herbs, used to create finely-balanced flavours that run the gamut from sweetness, to saltiness, sourness and spiciness. The Cambodia Cooking Class is operated from the Frizz Restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, and prides itself on a 'small classes, maximum attention' philosophy (space is limited to 16 participants per day). During the full day lesson (9am to 4pm), visitors will learn to prepare a full-course Khmer meal, as well as learning useful tips about the blending of spices and the decorative aspects of Cambodian cuisine. Included in the price is transportation to and from the restaurant, a visit to the market to buy ingredients, and a full-colour recipe booklet, so you can try your new culinary skills on your friends and family once you return home. You also get to eat the delicious meal you produce in a beautiful riverside setting.
Not to be confused with the Central Market (Psah Thmay), the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) is best reached via tuk-tuk or car. It is located south of Mao Tse Tuong Boulevard, and offers tourists a great range of bargains. The array of silk scarves is impressive and they are dirt cheap; the $3 silk hammocks are also justified in their fame. Apart from these treasures, which make wonderful gifts for people back home, it is easy to find curios, souvenirs, jewellery and almost anything else you could desire. There are some very good tailors who can fit you for custom-made suits and shirts for very reasonable prices (although you will have to wait about three days to collect them). There is also wonderful local food on offer and the fish soup is particularly tasty. Like all sizeable markets in Cambodia it can get very crowded and a little overwhelming so it's best to go early or later in the evening. The market is undercover so it is ideal to miss the midday heat which makes it almost unbearably hot inside. If you get tired or need a break head to one of the nearby cafés lining the market for a delicious fruit cocktail. The market got its name from the plentiful Russian tourists who shopped there when visiting Cambodia just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it remains a popular tourist market.