Located next to the Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia is home to more than 5,000 artefacts dating back to the ancient Angkorian period. Various rooms display a range of rare statues, lingas and other items, including the Leper King from Siem Reap and a giant 11thcentury bronze Vishnu. It equips visitors with some great knowledge ahead of a trip to Angkor Wat Archaeological Park.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, with an estimated two million people killed or dying from starvation and exhaustion. Almost 9,000 bodies were discovered at the mass graves of Choeung Ek, more commonly known as the Killing Fields. Now serving as a memorial, the site features a Buddhist stupa filled with human skulls retrieved from the fields. Visitors can walk around the exhumed graves and learn more through a headset-guided walking tour.
This former high school in central Phnom Penh makes for a sobering visit for the horrific role it played during the Khmer Rouge regime. During that time, the former school was transformed into a political prisoners’ camp known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). Only seven prisoners survived, while many others were tortured and killed there, or sent to their deaths at Choeung Ek. Much of the site has been left as it was discovered in 1979 when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh. The blood-splattered walls, tiny brick cells and abandoned torture tools offer a sobering insight into the brutal regime.
The Royal Palace serves as the King’s residence and home of the royal family, a venue for court ceremony and a symbol of the Kingdom. Sections are open to the public. The palace compound is also home to the Silver Pagoda, a prominent temple that takes a prominent place on the riverside and is named for its gleaming silver floor. Guests can stroll through the manicured gardens and discover the ornate temples, libraries and galleries inside the palace grounds.
As one of Phnom Penh’s most important temples, Wat Langka is home to a large collection of practising monks and ancient scriptures. Guests are welcome to roam the sprawling grounds and temples, provided they behave respectfully. Free meditation sessions, led by a resident monk, are held in the spacious meditation hall every Monday, Thursday and Saturday, from 6pm to 7pm, and Sundays, from 8.30am to 9.30am and 10am for longer sessions.
Standing as the capital’s only hill, this well-manicured park, which doubles up as a roundabout and marks the official centre of the capital, offers welcome respite from Phnom Penh’s heat. Wat Phnom pagoda and its intricately-detailed temple sits atop and welcomes visitors, with foreigners paying a $1 fee. Steer clear of the mischievous, and often vicious, monkeys.
As the main organisation tasked with bringing traditional arts back to life and steering it in a new, modern direction, Cambodian Living Arts trains musicians, dancers, singers, and other performers, providing them with the props to make a living from their art. One arm of their efforts are the daily shows at the capital’s National Museum, which run from 7 pm. to 8 pm. The Traditional Dance Show takes audiences on a journey from Angkor’s palaces to the villages of today through song, music, and theatre.
Helping to push forward Cambodia’s arts scene, Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) runs an arts tour of Phnom Penh. From architectural heritage sites to contemporary galleries, the capital is rich in arts and culture and this tour takes visitors to the highlights, including galleries and back-alley secrets, led by the artists and cultural leaders who are shaping the arts scene. Key stops include Chaktomuk Theatre, built by revered Khmer architect Vann Molyvann, and the Royal University of Fine Arts.
Sovanna Phum Arts Association worked tirelessly to keep the arts alive in the capital. It employs more than 120 artists, and puts on a range of shows every Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm. These include shadow puppet theatre, classical apsara dancing, folklore, mask dances, and traditional music. Visitors can also try their hand at dance, drums, or circus skills at a private workshop.
If you fancy learning first hand the traditional art of apsara – Cambodian ballet – or bokator – the ancient Khmer martial art – then Selapak, which translates from Khmer to the arts, is a good place to start. It runs traditional dance and martial art initiation classes, demonstrations and lessons, all led by experts in their field. Private classes can be arranged on request.