Phnom Penh & Environs

Capital on The Mighty Mekong
The Mekong is one of the longest rivers in Asia, flowing 4,200 kilometers from the Himalayan mountains of Tibet, running through China, Burma, Laos, and Thailand, before its silt-rich waters flow into Cambodia and then through Vietnam to the South China Sea.

Fuelled by the melting snows of the Himalayas, it increases with the torrential rains of the tropical monsoon season, reaching its deepest and fastest flow in August and September.

Within Cambodia the Mekong meanders for 494 kilometers and in the rainy season forces the waters of a major tributary--the Tonly Sap River-to reverse direction, flowing north, swelling the size of the Tonle Sap Lake, or Great Lake in central Cambodia to many times its normal size.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia's Capital, is a vibrant, bustling city nestled majestically on the banks where three mighty rivers, the Mekong, the Tonle Sap and the Bassac, converge and then split apart again-at a location known to the Khmers as Chatomuk, meaning four faces.

Legend has it that, after a particularly high flood, a wealthy Khmer woman named Daun Penh found a tree on the banks of the Mekong with four Buddha statues inside. She built a temple in 1434, immediately after the abandonment of Angkor, to house the sacred relics, and to this day the temple, Wat Phnom (hill temple), located on the highest manmade hill in Phnom Penh (pictured middle) is a revered place of worship for all Khmers and the namesake of the capital.

The French added a distinctive stamp to the city while overseeing the construction of several buildings in the classical Khmer style and several dozen grand residences for the French administrators, many of which are still standing. The adaptation of French architecture to Cambodian life-styles adds a unique and elegant atmosphere to Phnom Penh.

However, modern Phnom Penh's golden era of development and first period of systematic planning took place after Independence from the French in 1953 and coincided with the rule of then Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

At the behest of the Prince, Phnom Penh was adorned with broad tree-lined avenues, gardens with fountains and several distinctive and proud monuments reflecting the nation's new-found sense of freedom.

Much of the work was the creative output of Cambodian architect Van Molyvann. Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium, the Independence Monument (pictured right), and the Chatomuk Hall all stand as contemporary Khmer-style edifices which give the city an identity all its own.

Royal Palace
Built in 1866 by King Norodom, the palace officially opened on 14 February 1870. It faces east, thus complying with the sacred geographic tradition of Cambodia.

It is painted with the traditional royal yellow color. Occupied by many at the turn of the century, including the royal dance troupe and the royal elephants, it has numerous buildings including a throne room and open air theater.

The architecturally unexpected Napoleon III pavilion was given to King Norodom by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III who opened the Suez Canal. The French building was brought to Cambodia and reassembled.

The main palace compound is closed to the public except on special occasions such as the King's birthday when Khmers flock to honor their monarch.

Silver Pagoda
The oldest part of the palace is the fresco-covered walls of the palace compound which is open to the public. It depicts episodes from the Khmer version of the Ramayana, the Reamker.

Housed in the compound of the Royal Palace, Wat Preah Kaeo Morakot, or the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, is known more commonly as the Silver Pagoda because of its floor.

Comprising 5,000 silver tiles, each weighing 1.1 kilos, the temple's floor is a priceless work of religious art.

The center of the pagoda houses a 17th century small emerald Buddha made of baccarat crystal.

In front is a solid gold Buddha, weighing 90 kilos and encrusted with 9,584 diamonds. The figure was made in 1960 to the exact proportions of King Norodom It is made from his melted down jewelry. On either side are numerous smaller Buddhas, one of which is covered with 1,000 diamonds.

Two dozen cabinets along the perimeter are filled with a myriad of gifts to King Norodom and successive kings from other royalty and dignitaries.

The compound also houses Wat Phnom Mondap, containing Buddha's footprint.

National Museum
Many of the Kingdom's most important and awe-inspiring works of art from the pre-Angkor and Angkor era are housed in the National Museum--an attractive, rust-colored building with a wooden roof frame, just north of the Royal Palace, which represents Khmer architecture at its finest.

Incorporating what used to be the University of Fine Arts, the repository of the Kingdom's cultural wealth was inaugurated in 1920 by King Sisowath.

Housing over 5,000 works of art, the museum's collection is divided into archeological and ethnographic masterpieces, ranging from 6th to 13th century sculpture, ceramics, Royal barges and palanquins, as well as dance costumes from the 19th century.

The museum's graceful exterior is surpassed only by the peaceful, palmshaded interior. In the central courtyard visitors can rest by the still waters of the lotus ponds, while gazing at the original statue of the Leper King presumed to be Jayavarman VII from Angkor, and contemplate the timeless wonders of one of Asia's richest and most prolific cultures.

A former capital of Cambodia, Oudong was founded by King Soryopor in 1601. It was built on a hill 40 kilometers north of Phnom Penh.

King And Duong (1841-1850), a master builder, created canals, terraces, bridges and approximately 100 pagodas in the area, a density that would have startled and amazed any visitor.

While little remains of the complex, Oudong is still frequented by Khmers who go to pay homage to the remains of former kings.

Tonle Bati
Not far south of Phnom Penh is a 12th century temple, Ta Prohm, built by Jayavarman VII (1181-1201). Consecrated to the Buddha and to Brahma, the temple is noted by its refined bas reliefs. Nearby is a smaller temple, Yeay Peau, which also has remarkable stone carvings.

Nearby Tonle Bati there is a small lake with a beach and food stalls, where Phnom Penh residents picnic on weekends.

Phnom Chisor
Further south on the main road, is Phnom Chisor, a fine 11th century Angkorian temple on a hilltop with extensive views. It was build by Suryavarman I to honor a divinity and has been a pilgrimage site for Buddhists for many centuries.

The central sanctuary houses "Neang Khmao," the Black Lady, a widely venerated Buddha, about 300 years old, situated on a plain close to Phnom Chisor.