Phnom Penh / Cambodia



Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, founded in 1373 CE, is nowadays inhabited by about 1,5 to 2,2 million people and it's the economical and political center of Cambodia, as well as it's capital. Geographically, Phnom Penh is situated at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River in southeast Cambodia. The Mekong here is much more busy than further upwards. Not only the wooden riverboats, but also larger sea vessels until a certain size reach Phnom Penh, coming from the South China Sea upwards passing through Vietnam.

'Historical Photo of Phnom Penh, 1860s' by Asienreisender

Phnom Penh in an undated historical photo, probably from the 1860s. In the background the stupa of Wat Phnom is to see. Image by Asienreisender in the Royal Palace, 2014

After a Siamese army from Ayutthaya sacked Angkor in 1431 CE and demolished it, the Khmer capital was shifted from Angkor Thom to Phnom Penh. After 1505 CE Angkor Thom was abandoned for centuries. The Cambodian capital then moved several times. It was moved to Phnom Penh again in the mid-1860s. From 1867 on mainly the French built up the city, particularly by first creating a canal system to drain the water out of the surrounding swamps. In the 1920s the city was very much coined by French architecture and had a reputation of being the 'Pearl of Asia', kind of a small Paris of the east. In the early post-colonial era more building activities added a certain modern Khmer style, adding new impulses to the city. Sadly, nowadays, little is left of that former elegance.

In the American Vietnam War (in Cambodia particularly the years from 1970-75), Phnom Penh suffered already much. A great number of refugees flooded into the city, escaping American carpet bombings of greater parts of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge cut the city off supplies. After their victory in 1975 they occupied and heavily demolished the city. The two million people inhabiting the place were evacuated within three days, sent on death marches into the countryside. Only 20,000 people, mainly Khmer Rouge themselves, remained in Phnom Penh. The former megacity changed into a gost town.

'A Housefront in Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

A housefront anywhere in Phnom Penh. It gives a typical image of how many streets look. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

After the Khmer Rouge were driven out of the city in 1979 by Vietnamese troops, people came slowly back to live here.

Meanwhile Cambodia's capital is almost completely rebuilt and is a vibrant economic center. When approaching the city from any direction one sees the concrete cancer getting bigger and bigger around - everywhere are new buildings and building sites, many of them bigger. In the last years there was a double digit economic growth around the megacity. In fact it's all about business here. The real estate prices go up increasingly. Speculation generates a lot of money, work remains extremely cheap.

A number of huge infrastructure projects are planned or already under construction in and around Phnom Phen. Whole new (sub-)cities are going to be created. It's a process as it happened comparably in Kuala Lumpur and other booming Southeast Asian cities already years ago.

Nevertheless, it's still so that the infrastructure is of doubtless quality. Running water is frequent since a few years. Electricity seems to be stable at least in dry season in the inner city. Internet access is normally weak, slow and suffers many interruptions, but is increasing remarkably.

Confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap River

'The Confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap River' by Asienreisender

The confluence of the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap. In Phnom Penh the Mekong splits up into it's mouth until reaching the South China Sea. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

'Phnom Penh's River Promenade' by Asienreisender

Phnom Penh's river promenade along the Tonle Sap River. The confluence is at the tall building in the background. A short piece downstream the Bassac River splits up from the Mekong, being also part of the Mekong Delta.

Image by Asienreisender, 12/2014

Map of Phnom Penh

'Map of Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

An overview map of Phnom Penh. In many restaurants or other touristic places in the city one get's a map for free - in difference to Bangkok, where the touristic city maps with all the advertisings are meanwhile sold and therefore rare.

Most of the steet names are merely numbers. The odd numbers are given to the streets who are aligned in a north-south direction. They start at the river and get as higher as further they are away from it. The even numbers are given to the 'horizontal' roads who run in east-west directions. As further they are in the south, as higher their number.


A Traveller's View on Phnom Penh

Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Vientiane, Phnom Penh - they all have what in common. They are capitals and they are busy. Very busy. Traffic and pollution are enormous, living quality for the masses is poor. Therefore the prices are higher compared to the countries provinces.

A Foodstall in Phnom Penh by Asienreisender

A street restaurant. In southern countries most of the people's activities happens outdoors. Sidewalks are merely seen as multy-purpose space, particularly for the nearby residents. Image by Asienreisender, 2007

Phnom Penh's first given impression is that the majority of the population consists of drivers and touts. You have not left the bus yet and there will be a group of tuk-tuk drivers waiting for you, just YOU, to go with them. From now on at every step, at every streetcorner there will be lots of drivers asking you to go with them.

They are followed by the touts who want to sell other things of all kind, from food and accommodation to clothes, jewels and other luxuries, besides drugs and humans. The only way to effectively escape them is to lock up oneself in the hotel room.

Discovering a place is always best done by walking. One can naturally stop and go and have a closer look whenever one wants. That's not given in a big city as Phnom Penh is. Moving spontaneously on the roads means getting hit by rolling tin for sure. One also does not just cross a road. It's a big thing to do so, the tin flood never stops on Phnom Penh's roads.

'Streetlife at Phsar Chhar, the Night Market of Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

Streetlife at Phsar Chha, the night market. In November 2014 there was a great fire on the market. Rumours say it was caused by the explosion of a gas bottle. Hundreds of stalls burned down. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

By the way, the traffic clearly consists of less cars and more motorbikes here than in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Jakarta. That's remarkable and the air pollution is not that bad as in these other cities. That's because Cambodia is a few years behind the other countries in it's development. With it's further progressing there will be more cars here as well. Many more cars.

As in all the Southeast Asian places there are barely usable sidewalks. What in western countries is a sidewalk, meaned for pedestrians to walk on, is here merely a multi-purpose stripe. Mostly abused for parking vehicles it's also a place where food vendors are placed, workshops are expanded or masses of litter is piled up. Everything is on the move, it's like in an ant heap. So, constantly circumnavigating obstacles is not only tiring, but takes also most of the energy and awareness for what one has actually in mind. That is, in my case, to look around for sights, the other street live, many surprising details and the peculiarities of the city.

Traffic and Obstacles in Phnom Penh

'Traffic in Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

A pedestrian in Phnom Penh has to cope with various obstacles who appear at every street corner. The sidewalks are crammed with the belongings of people, who don't care the slightest bit for other people. This antisocial behaviour seems to reflect a general attitude of Southeast Asian people, who never learned to respect the concept of public property. That's also an explanation for the extremely high level of corruption in these countries. If one is in the position to take from the community or the state, they would be considered foolish not to do so. Everybody does. Criticism on corruption is comming from those who have no access to public sources. If things change and they get opportunity to take, they wouldn't hesitate.

Crossing roads, particularly main roads, is quite an adventure. Few redlights might stop the main tin flood, but there are always drivers who go nevertheless, on whatever streetside or using the sidewalk. Pedestrians are best equipped with a 360 degree pivot head which spins permanently around like a blue-light.

Cambodians are also masters of transport. Overloaded vehicles are an all-day-sight. The bulkiest things are transported on motorbikes, practically often due to a lack of alternatives.

Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 12/2014

Safety and Crime

Cambodian society is rotten from top to bottom. Lying and cheating are common behaviour, and one shouldn't wonder about it. It's rather a little wonder if it doesn't appear. Henri Mouhot gave an interesting record about the low kind and manner of the Cambodians in his time, what he observed first at his arrival in Kampot (in 1859). Practically nothing changed since then. Phnom Penh now is not only the economic and political center of the country, it's certainly also the focus of criminality.

'NGO Poster Showing Victims of a Street Execution in Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

An NGO poster, showing the victims of a street execution in Phnom Penh. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

However, tourists often get it wrong and think that all the scams and crimes are directed against foreigners exclusively. That's absolutely not the case. Fraud is endemic in Cambodia, everybody cheats everybody, and within the families and communities it's the same thing. Many people here are willing to sell their children into slavery for one or two hundred dollars. For the money they might pay their debts, or buy then a vehicle or a karaoke set to speed crazily or produce an incredible din, pesting square kilometers around their place. Additionally they can afford cheap whiskey. The booze and the din then makes them feeling good and overcoming their misery for a time. Deprived and immoral humans can sink incredibly low, so low an animal could never.

Anyway, what an observer witnesses in fraud and crime here is just the top of the iceberg. Beyond it is a great deal of violence. Cambodian society is brutalized. And that is not a new phenomenon. Reading historical documents we find again and again over the centuries the deep brutality which coined Khmer society. The so admired medieval Angkorian society already was very brutal and, moreover, a highly necrophile one. Dead things, including many irrational fetishes, are higher valued than living beings.

Decades of war, beginning with the First Indochina War in 1946, followed by US induced civil war, American carpet bombings, the rule of the Khmer Rouge and the continuing civil war when Pol Pot's warriors fought a guerilla war (by the way supported by US supplies after 1979, covering 85 million US$) didn't do any good for the Cambodian society. Factually the situation in nowadays Cambodia is partially comparable to that of Germany/Middle Europe after the 30-years-war (1618-1648). The now booming Cambodian economy produces a few 'winners' and keeps the majority of the population out. Struggling for survival, many people have no choice but to steal and to rob, if they can. That's not an easy life, of course, and the rich can affort thugs and gunmen - the expensive places and shops are all guarded by uniformed security staff with partially heavy weapons. Since these places are therefore practially untouchable, the gross of the criminal population focuses on weaker targets. Tourists are great - they are often unaware of the local dangers and circumstances, sometimes disorientated, unarmed, many travel alone, there are many women among them - it's easy to prey on them.

'Armed Security Staff at Phsar Thmei, Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

Two armed watchdogs at Phsar Thmei's entrance. Pretty young boys, actually. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2014

So, in detail there are a couple of things one has to care for in Phnom Penh. The first thing is the traffic. It's terribly chaotic; Cambodians drive without rules, like it drunk or drugged, speed if they can (also on the sidewalks, if there is one) and the vehicles are not seldom overloaded or rotten. Cambodians love the horn and hate the breaks. As I had to observe myself, sadly, not few Cambodian drivers like to hurt or kill by driving, and enjoy that. They look just for an excuse to do so, anything to blame the victim. Bag-snatchings by motorbikers are common. Phnom Penh is even seen as dangerous in Asian relations; you can't compare it with Bangkok, where traffic is much tamer than here.

Pickpockets are around. Fraud is common. Check your bill when you pay anywhere; if the price is not clear, inquire before ordering. Robbery (mugging) appears, sometimes very brutal ones. The offenders carry guns, knifes or use a screwdriver instead (in case they couldn't afford a decent knife). A few years ago brick raids were notorious - walking tourists got a brick at their backhead, and while they dreamed of better times, they lost their valuables.

'Homeless People on the Streets of Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

Homeless people in Phnom Penh, here on road no. 13 in front of the National Museum. As everywhere in impoverished societies, rural people try to escape their miserable life in the countryside and move into the urban centers in hope for at least a low-paid job.

Occasionally, when certain events like the annual water festival are impending, the streets get 'cleared' by the police. Homeless then disappear in 'social affairs centers' or 'job training centers'. In former times such places were simply called prisons. Little, stinking, ugly food remains are given to the prisoners there, a square meter space for a person in a cell they have to share with many others, the toilets are in a rotten state, guards are blamed to beat prisoners frequently up... like in the prisons in Europe 150 years ago. Beeing poor is seen as a major crime...

For the established part of the population business as usual can go on then. I don't mind, what I don't see...

Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 12/2014

Safety deteriorates after nightfall. Most streets have no lights. Sideroads are more dangerous than mainroads. Burglaring happens, therefore verymost of the city's buildings are equipped with window grids and getting locked like an inversed prison, with the intention to keep the criminals outside. Nevertheless, in hotels and guesthouses thieves occacionally try to fish valuables with a stick through the window.

Khmer Rich and their thoroughly spoiled offspring often frequent nightclubs in accompany with their bodyguards. If you come anyhow in conflict with them (a 'wrong word' or misunderstanding in a conversation might be already a trigger) you risk getting beaten up or stabbed with a knife of shot. In nightlife generally many people appear drugged and behave weired. Tuk-tuk drivers often try to sell drugs and girls to tourists. These drugs can be anything unexpected and kick one out, and who knows who the place with the girls is...?! The driver might smell a larger benefit than merely the fare and a commission.

Sophisticated scams appear. A friendly woman addressed me lately from far already near the Sihanouk Memorial and wished me a happy christmas. Started a friendly conversation. Good looking, well dressed, friendly... I cut it off immediately. That's exactly how scams start, for example the 'Black Jack Scam'. One get's invited into a private house where 'friends' wait. One shares dinner with them, get's involved into a friendly conversation and then involved into playing cards. One looses a lot of money and get's then accompanied by a few thugs to the next ATM to pay for the gambling debt. Once, yet being less experienced, I barely escaped such a scam in Bangkok, and it was really brilliantly done. There are many more scams possible.

However, being carefully but not paranoid, I never faced a criminal offence by my own in Phnom Penh. It's probably due to a combination of behaviour and good luck. I should add that I avoid nightlife. Safety is also kind of boring.


The Sights of Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is the by tourists second most visited place in Cambodia, after Siem Reap/Angkor Wat and the Archaeological Park there. That's barely because of the few, comparably poor sights in the city. It's for the nightlife. The nightlife is notorious - after dusk parts of Phnom Penh turn into a kind of sin city. Sex-tourists, smaller and bigger perverts, criminals, drug-addicts and all kinds of retarded find here their El Dorado.

Wat Phnom

Phnom Penh, Wat Phnom by Asienreisender

Wat Phnom. This place was namegiving for the city. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Another reason for tourists to come here is shopping. I don't know what to buy here what one doesn't get elsewhere, but defenitely there is much to buy here. In fact there is everything for sale here, including drugs, arms, people, politicians, companies etc. In the end it's just a question of the price.

For classical tourists and culture freaks the biggest and most representative sight in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace. It looks spectacular on the first glance. Nevertheless, it's not a really old Khmer building compound, but built by the French in the 19th century for their new vassal kingdom.

Wat Phnom is an old temple on a hill erected in 1372 CE. The hill was the name giver for the later capital.

In the 1950s a couple of buildings were built in a certain mixture between contemporary western and ancient Khmer architecture. Among them was the former national theatre (torn down in 2008) and the royal university, as well as some villas for the upper-class of the time.

There is a remarkable central market (Phsar Thmei), built in art-deco 1920s style. A few years ago it was still a crowded, dirty place; in 2009 it was restored and now it looks clean and proper.

The Royal Palace

Royal Palace Map

'Map of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

After the downfall of Angkor Thom in 1431 CE the Khmer capital moved to Phnom Penh at the banks of the Tonle Sap / Mekong River. But the place was small, merely a village. Phnom Penh remained the Cambodian capital for a few decades only, then the capital was moved to other places such as Basan, Longvek (Lovek) and then Udong (Oudong). The royal court moved back to Phnom Penh in 1863, the year when Cambodia became a French protectorate.

So, in stark contrast to Cambodia's past temples of Angkor Wat and all the other thousand temple buildings in the Siem Reap region alone, the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is of a comparable young age. Moreover it's not that much original Cambodian, but built under French supervision with the help of Siamese know-how and architects.

The then king Norodom (reign: 1860 - 1904), eldest son of king Ang Duong, (the one who was met by Henri Mouhot in Kampot 1859), first moved into a temporary wooden palace which was placed a bit north of the nowadays palace's site. Might have been the place where the Cambodian National Museum is situated now. Phnom Penh became officially the new capital of Cambodia in 1866. The Royal Palace here had a versatile history of added and demolished buildings since then. The architectonical style is a mixture of traditional Khmer design, Thai style and European implementations. The Cambodian royal court moved permanently into the new palace in the year 1871. The palace walls were added two years later. At this time Phnom Penh itself was still just a small village with a concise number of wooden houses along the river banks.

Entrance Gate, R. Palace

'Entrance Gate to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

The eastern entrance gate to the Royal Palace, which leads straight to the Throne Hall. It's closed for commoners. Image by Asienreisender, 2014

Following kings as Sisowath (reign: 1904 - 1927), Monivong (reign: 1927 - 1941) and Sihanouk added more buildings and replaced or demolished older ones. Only some buildings date back to the 19th century.

Nowadays the Royal Palace is the main tourist sight in Phnom Penh. Entrance fees enjoyed a markup to 6.50 US$ (that's 25,000 Riel at the time of writing this, what is 12/2014; it was 2 US$ at my first visit in early 2007). Photographing is not allowed in the Silver Pagoda. Most of the palace buildings are not accessable for tourists. The greater part (about two thirds of the palace areal) is completely closed for visitors. It's still in use as a residence for the current king Sihamoni and his court (the inner court or private sector). For a visitor it's highly recommendable to arrive at opening time (8 a.m.). Soon later the place is flushed with package tour tourists, the majority of them footsore, ignorant and many of them appear more dead than alive.

The size of the palace contains an area of 174.870m2 (the side lengths of the outer wall are 402m and 435m). The most significant buildings are the Throne Hall, the Moonlight Pavilion and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (commonly called the 'Silver Pagoda'). Additionally there are some stupas, an extensive mural painting depicting the Khmer version of the Ramayana epic and the Iron Pavillion of Napoleon III.

Throne Hall

Phnom Penh, Royal Palace by Asienreisender

Phnom Penh's Throne Hall, inside the Royal Palace. Image by Asienreisender, 2007

The Throne Hall

One of the first things one sees when doing the tourist trip through the Royal Palace is the Throne Hall. It's a large building with three spires of who the central one is very remarkable because of the four-faced head which it shows. It's 59m high and shows the head of Brahma which looks in all the four directions of the compass. The Throne Hall is still in use for certain purposes as coronations, royal weddings, diplomatic happenings and other events. The inside is closed for tourists. The Throne Hall has been built in 1917, but there was another, wooden Throne Hall at the same place before. Particularly beautiful are the ceiling paintings. The constructors of the building, however, didn't use the whole ceiling for paintings, and that looks a bit strange. The edges are are not painted with pictures as the center is; empty space is left there.

Inside the hall are three thrones and two statues of former Cambodian kings.

Next north to the Throne Hall is the much smaller Hor Samritvimean placed.

The Moonlight Pavilion

Chhan Chaya Pavilion

'Moonlinght Pavilion' by Asienreisender

The Moonlight Pavilion, seen from the Suthearos Boulevard outside the palace. Image by Asienreisender, 2014

This representative building is integrated in the palace wall and is also an entrance gate to the palace for the king and other officials. It's very remarkable already when walking outside the palace on the road. Two guards are posted in small housings, and occacionally a group of palace forces parade up and down the boulevard. Some very big posters show the king among his adoring people (very similar to many of this kind in Thailand). The Moonlight or also Chhan Chaya Pavilion has a balcony which can be used for watching official events who happen on the very wide Samdech Sothearos Boulevard in front of it. The boulevard is usually closed for vehicle traffic, but pedestrians are allowed. As well as the Throne Hall, the former, wooden construction of the Moonshine Pavillion has been replaced (in 1914) by the present building.

The Silver Pagoda

Buddha Footprint

'Buddha Footpring in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

Inside the 'Buddha Footprint Pavilion'. The artefact is several meters long. Image by Asienreisender, 2014

The so called Silver Pagoda is rather a vihear, called 'Wat Preah Keo Morokat' (or 'Temple of the Emerald Buddha'), and it's housing besides a great deal of treasures a precious Buddha statue. However, the emerald Buddha of Cambodia is not, as the emerald Buddha in the Royal Palace in Bangkok, made of real jade. In front of the green Buddha is another, upright standing and tall Buddha statue placed. It's lifting it's hand as it would demand the observer to stop. This Maitreya Buddha is made of 90kg gold and adorned with thousands of diamonds. Additionally a great deal of valuables are piled up here, good for nothing, while a considerable part of the folks is starving beyond the palace walls. Photographing is strictly prohibited, guards are all around. The Silver Pagoda got it's name because the floor was tiled with far more than 5,000 silver tiles, each one of the weight of 1.125kg. Now the floor is covered with carpets and the precious metal is mostly hidden below.

Wat Preah Keo Morokat

'Silver Pagoda' by Asienreisender

The Silver Pagoda. Left is the bell tower, right is a model of Angkor Wat. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2014

The Silver Pagoda was in a desolate state and had to be rebuilt in the 1960s. That has been done preserving the same style as it was before. The vihear is the official temple of the king of Cambodia.

Khmer Scrolls

'Old Scrolls in the Royal Palace' by Asienreisender

Old scrolls in the Buddha Footpring Pavilion. Seldom to see nowadays. They give a hint to how the ancient Khmer scrolls might have looked in the libraries of Angkor. Image by Asienreisender, 2014

The vihear is surrounded by a number of other constructions of different kinds. There is a small temple stupa with a Buddhist shrine and a Nandi statue inside, what was formerly a library. Nandi is a bull and the vehicle of the Hindu god Shiva. There is a horse memorial with king Norodom I on it and a bell tower. The stupa north of the Norodom memorial is a shrine containing Norodom's ashes. West of the vihear is a small model of Angkor Wat. There are three tall stupas dedicated to deceased members of the royal family and another pavilion with a huge Buddha footprint (Koeng Preah Bat). A number of old scrolls are preserved here in some cabinets. The whole square is surrounded by a wall on which the Reamker (the Khmer version of the Indian Ramayana) story is painted, comparably to the Ramakien paintings in the Royal Palace in Bangkok. The paintings have been made in 1903 and 1904 and are mostly in a poor condition and need urgently restoration. Some restoration has been done, and these parts of the paintings look much better than the rest. Why isn't the restoration continued? The story starts south of the east gate and turns clockwise around.

The Reamker Gallery

'Reamker Gallery' by Asienreisender

The Reamker gallery, part of it along the northern wall. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2014

Napoleon III Pavilion

The Iron Pavilion

'The Iron Pavilion / Napoleon III Pavilion' by Asienreisender

In December 2014 the Iron Pavilion was covered with a tarpolin. This image is made in 2007 by Asienreisender.

In a very contrast to all the other traditionally styled Southeast Asian buildings on the palace grounds stands the Napoleon III Pavilion. Built completely in iron it's style reminds rather to the Eiffeltower in Paris than to anything Asian. The building has an exceptional history itself. It was used for the opening celebration of the Suez Canal (1869) and dedicated to Eugenie of France, empress and wife of Napoleon III. It's stated that 'emperor' Napoleon III made it a present for king Norodom of Cambodia in 1876. In fact, Napoleon III wasn't emperor in 1876 anymore, for he lost this very title together with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71. Inside there is usually a small museum, but was found closed in December 2014.

National Museum of Cambodia


'Garuda in the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

A garuda in the entrance area of the National Museum. It's an extraordinarily large one, in a dynamic position and in a pretty good shape. Image by Asienreisender, 2014

Cambodia is clearly the country with the longest history in Southeast Asia. The first civilization in the world region, Funan, rose up in the Mekong Delta long before the arrival of the Vietnamese. Cambodia is also the country with the largest cultural contributions to the world region, particularly in the years of the medieval empire of Angkor. However, those civilizations who appeared early as grand ones in history, once they lost their power their time is over forever. The Egyptians, the Greec, the Romans had their great times long ago and set standards, but after their decline other civilizations replaced their role, and in the present world these countries are of little influence. Cambodia nowadays is a meaningless country without much living culture. It's grand times date back to the centuries before 1500 CE. Since then it came under the strong domination of other powers, the Siamese above all, and the Vietnamese, later the French. Much of the cultural treasury of the 'glorious' past has been destroyed or stolen. Not only by foreign conquerors but also by Cambodians themselves. The Khmer Rouge were very eager to sell out what they could to gain weapons and ammunition in return. They demolished the museum and abandoned it. A considerable part of the Cambodian cultural treasury might be to find in France now. Saying that is not to blame French archaeologists; they were the first who systematically explored the country's history and did a lot of restoration work on the old monuments, namely in the heart of the Angkor territory around Seam Reap. Tomb raiders from many different nations were attracted after the world got knowledge of the ancient Angkorian civilization, and many local tomb raiders took what they could before. In their view it wasn't even theft - the artefacts and valuables were just there, abandoned in the jungle, and nobody cared. However, art theft is ongoing and many important pieces are sold on black markets and come into the hands of private collectors. So it comes that what is left for the public now is just a small fraction of what there was in the past. It's so little that it is often difficult or impossible to imagine how it once was.

'Khmer Sculptures in the National Museum of Cambodia' by Asienreisender

A number of heads at the ticket desk of the National Museum. They represent different styles and most of them where, presumably, the heads of complete sculptures. Image by Asienreisender, 2014

For those who are interested in Khmer and Southeast Asian history and culture, the National Museum of Cambodia is home for the richest collection of Khmer art accessable for the public.

Before the Europeans established colonies in Southeast Asia, the local people didn't have much knowledge about their history. Most of it was legend. Angkor Wat, for example, was widely believed to have been built by a species of giants or gods who later disappeared. A modern approach to history, based on scientific method, was only introduced by European scientists and explorers like Adolf Bastian, just to name one. So it was no wonder that the National Museum was also built by the French colonialists who started to restore the Angkorian temples and ned a safe place for the many artefacts they found. The Museum's architectonical style itself is a successfull blend of classical Khmer architecture in combination with younger Buddhist temple innovations. The construction time covered the seven years from 1917 - 1924.

National Museum, Phnom Penh

'The National Museum of Cambodia' by Asienreisender

The National Museum from outside. The basic architecture is clearly echoing the classical Angkorian Khmer style, while the spires and the roofs are rather a contribution to later buddhist temple style. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 12/2014

The museum's collection consists of more than 14,000 pieces, who's age covers the timespan from prehistory via the early empires of Funan and Chenla, the classical Angkorian era and the post-Angkorian age. The National Museum of Cambodia is situated directly north of the Royal Palace. Behind the museum there are some workshops and a stage for performances. The entrance fee is 500 Riel for Cambodians as the Khmer Rich; foreigners pay 40 times the price, that's 5 US$ at the time of writing this. Photographing is forbidden in the museum galleries.

Phsar Thmei

'Psar Thmei, Central Market, Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

The central market Phsar Thmei, Art Deco style. Built in 1937 by the French colonial regime, it's one of the most remarkable buildings in the city and in it's architecture a unique market in whole Southeast Asia. The building is also a landmark in the Cambodian capital and approximately located in the geographical center of it. Until 1975 Phsar Thmei was the trade center of Phnom Penh. In the years 2009 - 2011 renovated with financial aid from a French institution, it is presenting itself in a distinguished clean and ordered manner. The large building has four wings and a central dome of a huge size. Surrounded by foodstalls who offer food of better quality and a greater variety than at other places, the inner part houses a number of shops who sell jewellery, clocks, clothes, electronics and so on. There must be over 3,000 shops in total in Phsar Thmei nowadays. The cleanliness and tidyness of the market gives a stark contrast to the other markets in the capital. It's also much less overcrowded than most of the city. Therefore it has the recommendation to be pricier than elsewhere.

P. Thmei, Central Dome

'Phsar Thmei, Central Dome' by Asienreisender

The central dome from below. It's 26m high with a diameter of 45m. The four outer wings have a length of 44m. The wings are put on pillars, and the construction has numerous openings who give the building a pleasant microclimate.

Image by Asienreisender, 12/2014

The former landscape here was a lake, swelling in rainy season and shrinking in dry season. For the construction of the building the lake had to be drained and filled. Periodically problems with overflooding appeared at the place. However, the drainage of the site was a key for Phnom Penh's expansion to the west, a landscape what was formerly coined by rice paddies.

In the Franco-Thai War in 1942 the market was bombed by the Thai Airforce and heavily damaged. Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975 - 1979) Phsar Thmei was used as a horse stable.

The renovation in the years 2009 - 2011 was comprehensively and included a new drainage system (the groundwater level is merely 15cm below the surface), road extension around the market, more parking space for the ugly tin explosion, new electricity poles and electronics, and expanded roofs between the wings for the establishment of more market stalls. The French 'Agence Francaice de Developpement' (AFD) gave 4.5 million Euros in support for the project. The original outfit of the historical building has been mostly retained.

Some Cambodians believe in the existence of a guardian spirit being around here. The spirit's name is Lok Ta Psar Thmei. In the past, before the Khmer Rouge regime, the Chinese community celebrated an annual lion dance at the place to honour the spirit Lok Ta, and the buddhist community pays also great respect to the ghost. Particularly at nighttime, it's said, the spirit is wandering around in the building.

Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The independence memorial is said to represent the new Khmer architecture, although it's built as a remake of a traditional Angkorian temple tower. A huge Olympic Stadion is also considered among the new architecture. It's used by the national football team and for some big sports events. Olympic games never happened in Phnom Penh.

Olympic Stadium

'Olympic Stadium of Phnom Penh' by Asienreisender

Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium, designed by prince Sihanouk's star architect Vann Molyvann. Over the day it's empty, in the evenings it fills with crowd doing exercises.

The Olympic Stadium was inaugurated in 1964 and meaned to be the site for the Asian Games. In the following years the stadium with a capacity for 60,000 visitors was a landmark for Phnom Penh's modernization. Privatized in the year 2000 it's now neglected and in a state of disrepair.

Image by Asienreisender, 2007

The banks of the Tonle Sap River at the confluence with the Mekong River are paralleled by a 3km long and broad promenade (Sisowath Quay). That's among the very few places in Phnom Penh where one can walk widely undisturbed by traffic. The promenade is paralleled by a busy road. On the other side of the road are blocks with countless restaurants, bars, hotels and guesthouses. It's the touristic center of the city.

Cambodia's National Assembly

'The National Assembly of Cambodia' by Asienreisender

Cambodia has a two chamber parlamentary system, of which the national assembly is the lower house; the second chamber is the senate as the upper house. The assembly itself is, in theory, consisting of 123 elected members. An absolute majority of a party or coalition, to form the government, must occupy then at least 62 seats in the parliament. The current national assembly was the result of the September 2013 elections, the fifths elections since the UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) intervention in 1992/93. In the first year it was boykotted by the largest oppositional party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, due to massive election fraud.

Image by Asienreisender, 8/2015

Phnom Penh's Central Post Office

'Phnom Penh's Central Post Office' by Asienreisender

The main post office. An old colonial building, which got restorated and reopened in 2004. It's always an adventure to send post in Cambodia. First, the staff is reluctant to serve a customer at all, second the postage is somewhat magic. Image by Asienreisender, 2014

Tuol Sleng, or: S-21

'Prisoner Photos of Tuol Sleng / S-21' by Asienreisender

Six of around 17,000 prisoners in Tuol Sleng, photographed at their arrival. They all were doomed to die. Image by Asienreisender, 2007

When the Khmer Rouge gained control over Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975, they widely evacuated the city of it's inhabitants and the masses of refugees who gathered at the time in the city. Soon later they ruled over whole Cambodia. Their rule was exclusively destructive. A central part of their agenda was a furious revenge. Therefore about 150 torture centers were equipped in the country. S-21 (Security Prison 21), also called Tuol Sleng (Khmer for 'Poisonous Hill'), was one of them, placed into a secondary school (with the former name 'Chao Ponhea Yat High School' or 'Tuol Svay Prey') in the then outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Tuol Sleng served allegedly as an interrogation center. For gaining valuable information it must have been ineffective, because the 'interrogated' prisoners were tortured and had to confess anything what they invented or what the torturers wanted to hear. Numerous other people were blamed under torture, family members, friends, acquaintances of the victims. The interrogation was insofar merely a legitimation for another, the real purpose: to torture and to kill. As Alexander Hinton elaborates in his work 'Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide', the Khmer concept of revenge is not 'an eye for an eye', but 'a head for an eye'. Means unproportional revenge. As many other unappetizing customs it's, according to Hinton, a deep factor in Khmer culture, which also often appears in all-day-conflicts.

Tuol Sleng, inside and outside

'Tuol Sleng, or: Security Prison 21 (S-21)' by Asienreisender

The main building of S-21 (left) and one of the side buildings from inside, from where the photo left was shot. Long walkways with wooden cells for the prisoners. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2007, 2014

'Don't laugh in Tuol Sleng' by Asienreisender

Some people need to be explicitely remembered that Tuol Sleng is no fun park. Image by Asienreisender, 2007

In the first time of Tuol Sleng's existence the prisoners were people from all levels of society, particularly such who were in service of the last pre-Khmer Rouge government Lon Nol. Since dictators have no friends and brutal regimes get naturally more and more paranoid, those who run S-21 killed more and more of their own comrades who were seen as traitors. Even the itself intimidated staff got repetedly exchanged by others, itself imprisoned, interrogated and killed. S-21 was a negative factory, where nothing else was produced except death and, remarkably, buerocracy. It's a curious thing about the Khmer Rouge, who were mainly illiterate, primitive and brutal butchers, to document their bad deeds so detailful. Every prisoner was photographed and a file was opened to report the course of the interrogation. There was a special documentation unit accompanying the interrogations in Tuol Sleng.

Skulls in Tuol Sleng

Phnom Penh, Tuel Sleng by Asienreisender

Inside the interrogation center Tuol Sleng (S-21): collected skulls and bones of countless victims. Image by Asienreisender, 2007

When somebody got arrested it was usually so that his whole family was arrested with him too; that was to avoid that family members could take revenge later. A great number of children were among the prisoners. The tortured had to denunciate other people, who were then arrested, tortured and killed as well. There were between 1,000 to 1,500 prisoners at any time in the former school.
Alltogether there were roughly 17,000 people tortured and killed in S-21 respectively at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where those got beaten to death who survived the torture. Among the victims were also a number of foreigners as Vietnamese, Thais and Westerners. More than 1,700 people committed the interrogations and killings. Merely seven prisoners survived S-21 at the end.

The Khmer Rouge were militarily defeated by Vietnamese troops in 1979 (the 3rd Indochina War). Phnom Penh and S-21 was freed from them then. Tuol Sleng / S-21 is now a genocide museum.

Fore a concise introduction into Cambodian History click the link.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

The site of Choeung Ek is one of about 300 rural sites where the Khmer Rouge killed and burried their victims. Choeung Ek is probably the best known of them, for it's just 15km outside of Phnom Penh and served as the execution site for the victims of Tuol Sleng. At Choeung Ek is a stupa placed, which houses a great number (approximately 5,000) of the skulls of the killed people. Many of the skulls show holes, the impact of hacks, axes, iron bars, rifles or whatever the killers used to execute them. Others were stifled with plastic bags, while their hands were bound. Bullets were too scarce and expensive to be used. Since the mass graves weren't very deep and crammed with corpses, bones and skulls are frequently driven to the survace by heavy monsoon rains.

The government of Phnom Penh sold out the site of Choeung Ek to the Japanese company JC Royal. The company pays an annual rent of 15,000 US$ and has therefore the authority to cash an entrance fee of their own decision.

Another one of the killing fields was directly around Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham. Alltogether there were found about 20,000 mass grave sites by a project launched by Yale University. Around 1.4 million people have been executed alltogether at these sites. Additionally to the victims of direct executions many more people (hundreds of thousands more) died due to famine, sicknesses and the lack of medicals and hospitals.

Choeung Ek, Pagoda and Mass Graves

'Choeung Ek - The Killing Fields' by Asienreisender

The pagoda with the skulls is placed at the edge of the site. The pits are the mass graves. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2007, 2014

For the movie 'The Killing Fields' click the link.

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Published on May 20th, 2013

137 - Phnom Penh

Last update on August 4th, 2015