Cambodia is one of my favourite places in South East Asia. It’s beautiful. It’s raw. It’s real.
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia. It’s the best place to start your visit to this country. It’s here that you can learn about Cambodia’s history, both the grand and the tragic, that will set the tone for the rest of your journey.
48 Hours in the Capital of Cambodia
Normally I write 24 hour guides. I try to capture the main points of a destination in one 24 hour itinerary. I find that if you can see the main highlights in one day, then you can use the rest of your remaining time to further explore areas of the city that have peaked your interest. With Phnom Penh you can’t see the highlights in one day. You absolutely need two days to fully appreciate what Phnom Penh has to offer. Spending any less that 48 hours in the capital of Cambodia is an injustice to the place.
The first day of the itinerary focuses on the brilliant and glorious past of Cambodia. The beloved monarchy, and the glory of the Angkor civilization. The second day of the itinerary has the completely opposite atmosphere. The second day is all about the tragic and heart wrenching recent past of dictatorship and genocide. If you absolutely only have 24 hours to spend in Phnom Penh, then I would recommend picking one attraction from the first day and one from the second. Both parts of Cambodia’s history are important to learn about, and you don’t want to only see one side of the story.
Day 1: Morning
Your first stop this morning will be The Royal Palace of Cambodia. Get there early to beat the heat and to ensure that you are able to enter at the time you want. Also, remember to dress conservatively, both the knees and the shoulders must be covered or you will be denied entry.
The Royal Palace contains two of the most magnificent structures in Phnom Penh; the silver pagoda and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Palace was built in the 19th century, and is one of the public buildings that miraculously survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
Day 1: Afternoon
Escape the heat of the afternoon at the National Museum. The National Museum mainly focuses on the golden age period of the Cambodian history, when Angkor was the seat of power. If you plan to visit Angkor Wat, then a visit to the National Museum is a per-requisite.
Day 2: Morning
Unfortunately, one of the things that Cambodia is the most famous for, is it’s tragic and tumultuous past under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975 they began an all out attack against the people of Cambodia. The years of the Khmer Rouge were defined by famine, torture, and arbitrary executions which saw the deaths of an estimated 2 million Cambodians.
One of the symbols of the horrors of this regime is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The S-21 prison was a former school, and became the site of one of the most feared prisons under Khmer Rouge rule. More than 14,000 prisoners passed through it’s gates, and only 8 survived.
The museum can be terribly confronting. Many of the rooms are lined, from floor to ceiling, with photographs. The Khmer Rouge loved to document their atrocities, and as a result, visitors can now look into the eyes of many of the victims who lost their lives here. The horrible thing about these photographs is that these people, these absolutely ordinary people, had without a doubt, committed no crime. Some of the people are even smiling for their photograph, as it was likely the first time they had ever had their picture taken. But the most absolutely upsetting thing in this museum, is the photographs of children. Some were even babies and toddlers, all executed in the Khmer Rouge’s insane mission to create a “perfect society.”
Day 2: Afternoon
After a visit to Tuol Sleng you might need to take some time to reflect. If you can handle a little bit more emotional punishment, then head to another monument of Khmer Rouge cruelty – the Killing Fields. The killing fields are about 17 km’s from Phnom Phen. It will be easy to find a tuk tuk driver that will take you there. Many tuk tuk drivers hang around the outside of Tuol Sleng and will compete for your business to take you to the Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields is a spot where thousands of prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were taken to be executed. This is the location of mass graves, and you can still see scraps of clothing and other artifacts sticking out of the ground, so please be respectful. A glass Buddhist stupa filled with over 8,000 human skulls marks the site.