Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh

Photo: Two Buddhist monks at a temple © Diego Vito Cervo | Dreamstime.com

- May 1, 2016

While some of Southeast Asia’s cities traded their historic charms for modern metropolitan flair, Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, retains parts of its French colonial façade as well as its intriguing though unsettling history. Phnom Penh’s original name, Krong Chaktomuk — “City of Four Faces” — reportedly referenced its location at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonlé Sap rivers and suited the various facets of its personality.

Phnom Penh’s highlights vary from sobering historic sites like the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to serene Buddhist temples like the hillside Wat Phnom to a vibrant bar scene. One of the most bustling areas, Sisowath Quay, runs along the west bank of the Tonlé Sap River and features an array of restaurants, bars, upscale hotels, boutiques and some of the city’s main attractions.

The renowned Royal Palace flanks the Sisowath Quay area. Built more than a century ago, it serves as the home of the King of Cambodia. The palace grounds contain several buildings: the Throne Room of Prasat Tevea Vinichhay, used for ceremonies; the Chan Chhaya Pavilion, used for dance performances; the king’s official residence, called the Khemarin; the Napoleon Pavilion; and the Silver Pagoda, named for the 5,000 silver tiles covering the floor. A life-size Buddha made of solid gold sits among the 1,650 art objects housed in this temple.

Demons in a wall painting of the Ramayana at the Royal Palace

Demons in a wall painting of the Ramayana at the Royal Palace © Henriette Sulmann | Dreamstime.com

North of the Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia, inaugurated in 1920, today houses art from the pre-Angkor period, circa the fourth century, to the post-Angkor period, dating to around the 14th century. Art ranges from sculpture to ceramics to frescoes on the walls of the compound that bring to life the scenes from the Khmer version of the Ramayana.

Also on the waterfront lies Wat Ounalom, founded in 1422 and one of Phnom Penh’s five original monasteries. The head monk of the country resides in the pagoda here, which once served as the library of the Buddhist Institute. Behind Wat Ounalom, the area lures travelers with bars and restaurants.

Nearby, Street 178, better known as Artists’ Street, features several notable shops, including the Kravan House, offering a variety of Cambodian silk products. Happy Painting Gallery, founded in 1995 by French-born Canadian artist Stéphane Delaprée, is an art mainstay in the area. Located in the historic building of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, the acclaimed gallery showcases Delaprée’s creations.

The FCC Phnom Penh itself is a tourist magnet as well as a staple for expats and aid workers who come to enjoy live music and riverfront views on its roof terrace. The venue serves local Khmer and Western cuisine in addition to a variety of signature cocktails.

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