Two days were adequate for us to already go through the major tourist spots in Phnom Penh and know about the history behind each. Phnom Penh in Cambodia is a must-visit city noted for its beautiful and historical sites. However, as the nation’s capital, it is not exactly the kind of city you would be to excited to view skyscrapers or be thrilled with modernization, luxurious delight, and the like. At least not for now.

at the Royal Palace

Rather, Phnom Penh is a place that holds proofs and records on the torture and deaths viciously done by the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot. I was surprised to hear how the Khmer Rouge and its leaders could be so evil to their fellow Cambodians. Our tourist guide narrated about the random deaths and mutilation inflicted on millions of civilians and how they were forced to evacuate the city during their civil war in 1975. More on the story below.

From Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, we boarded a direct bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and listened to podcasts during the six-hour transit. (Click here to know more about how to go to Cambodia from Vietnam.) Bus fare was only USD 10 but cost was already included in our travel package as arranged by Transpipol Travel and Tours. Upon arrival at Phnom Penh, Rith, our English-speaking tourist guide took us to a Chinese buffet restaurant and immediately drove us to the tour destinations as in the itinerary.

Travel Guide: Top 7 Tourist Attractions We Visited in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

1. Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Memorial)

Our first stop was the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Memorial). I did not realize that the story Rith was telling us about during the drive from the restaurant would be related to this “execution ground” until we saw the actual site. The reason why it’s called “Killing Fields” is that from its literal name, this area was turned into a mass grave by the Khmer Rouge during their four-year reign of terror in Cambodia (1975 to 1979). Once an orchard and a Chinese graveyard, this memorial can evoke haunting yet powerful feelings to visitors.

It was easy to paint a picture of the killings in my head because the skulls, bones, and remnants of the regime’s victims were all still there! We entered the Buddhist stupa and found over eight thousand human skills with color-coded stickers that reveal how the person died (according to the type of tool or weapon used on them). Visitors are required to put shoes off. Giving of flowers is optional as a sign of respect.

We then continued to the mass graves which contain thousands of dead bodies discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. 🙁 This was where brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women, and children were done. I could not imagine what was going on the Khmer Rouge’s mind at that time. They’re crazy. On the mass graves, lying beneath those sands were bones. We even saw teeth. Eeeep! 🙁

Operating Hours: 7:30AM – 5:30PM
Entrance Fee: $6

2. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)

To continue our “historical tour,” we went to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) which was a high school converted to a bloody persecution center, prison, and interrogation facility. There’s over a hundred persecution centers scattered in Cambodia, but this is the largest one.

In the past, everyone regardless of position, rank, and class in the society were forced to live in the provinces and pursue agriculture/farming. The Khmer Rouge detested the rich and the educated since these might be serving as “agents” or “spies” that reach out for help from other countries. Hence, to put everyone in the test, the Khmer Rouge asked skilled workers, teachers, and professionals in the provinces if they want to volunteer to work for the government and move back to the city—only to further pin down the rich and educated and torture them to death.

These people were sent to Tuol Sleng where they were treated as inmates. They were tortured to confess what they know and eventually put to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to be executed. From over 17,000 people, only seven survived. One of them was present during our visit, and I was lucky to take a picture of him. Read his testimony published by Phnom Penh Post here.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today has four buildings which serve as living testaments to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Photos and stories of the victims are displayed in a gallery format. Rooms, cubicles, and walkways all looked scary. Smiling, laughing, and making loud noises are prohibited. It’s really hard to even crack a smile when you’re there.

Operating hours: 8:00AM – 5:00PM daily, closed for lunch
Entrance fee: $3

3. Royal Palace

On our second day in Phnom Penh, we relaxed a bit and toured the less traumatic places in the city. Visiting the Royal Palace was originally in our itinerary for Day 1. However, since it’s only open from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and we arrived at about 4:00 PM, Rith suggested to move it to the next day. It was actually a wise idea, so our pictures would also come out more vivid with better natural outdoor lighting. 🙂

The Royal Palace of Cambodia is where their king officially resides and holds meetings. Some buildings cannot be entered but we were already satisfied to visit and walk around in the compound. The buildings with beautiful towering golden spires are a great example of classic Khmer architecture in Cambodia. Surrounding the buildings were statues, stupas, and beautifully landscaped gardens.

Operating hours: 8AM-11AM, 2PM-5PM
Entrance fee: $3

4. Silver Pagoda

Within the same vicinity as the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda (formally known as Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot) houses many national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues that are gifted to the king from different countries. It’s called “Silver” Pagoda because the entire flooring is made of silver. More than 5300 pieces of 1.125 kilo silver tiles are used to cover the floor, and the silver pieces collectively weigh over six tons.

However, we could not see the silver tiles clearly because they are covered with carpet to prevent damage as it’s open for public viewing. Another special thing to be amazed about the Silver Pagoda is the life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds.

5. Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom is a sacred shrine on top of a hill where many locals find time to pray. It’s interesting to learn that this was essentially where “Phnom Penh” got its name. “Phnom” translates to “hill” in English, and “Penh” was the name of the lady who found four Buddha statues inside the hollow of a large koki tree trunk from the river.

Image of Penh

She intended to use the trunk to build a house. Wat Phnom’s location now was a section of her property, and she decided to keep the four Buddha statues in a small shrine for people to worship.

There’s a fortune teller in the shrine who’s known to tell bad news about romantic relationships of couples asking about their future. I don’t know if it’s true but since Penh was a widower, she might not want couples to be happy and stay together long.

6. Phsar Thmey (Central Market)

After lunch at Sorya Restaurant, we walked to Phsar Thmey which means “New Market” in the Khmer language. It’s a market that sells all sorts of things from raw food (meat, fish, vegetables, local delicacies, and snacks), cooked food (hawker-style eateries), to non-food items like clothes, footwear, bags, watches, accessories, etc. and most of them are Class A version or replica of branded/designer goods.

7. Sorya Shopping Centre

Our shopping continued at Sorya Shopping Center nearby. It was the largest shopping center in Phnom Penh until the opening of the Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh. and we said goodbye to Rith before the driver drove us back to our hotel.

Sorya Shopping Centre was the first shopping mall to have ever opened in Phnom Penh in 2003 and the largest shopping center until Aeon Mall opened in the year after. It was a sensational mall among the locals that time as they had never seen escalators before. Prices of goods here are more expensive than those in the Central Market. Filled with tiangges (flea market style), it’s more like Tutuban, 888 Meisic Mall, or 999 Mall in Manila.

last pic with Rith before we parted ways

Wrap Up

I never thought that there could be people as cruel or even more cruel than the Nazis led by Hitler who killed six million Jews. What Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodians was among one of the most calamitous legacies of the 21st century. The guy was a monster, having killed 25% of the entire population of Cambodia.

The worst thing is that many Cambodians have been negatively affected, and many have lost their loved ones to the agonizing war of the “agrarian economy.” This happened only 40 years ago, so reconstruction of the country and stability of the government are not yet fully in place.

We may still have to wait for a decade or two to see real progress. For now, it was good to have come around Phnom Penh as it gave us a heightened sense of cultural awareness and the opportunity to explore a different side of Cambodia apart from the famous Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. 🙂

Up next: Review of Rose Emerald Hotel in Phnom Penh and the Top Tourist Attractions We Visited in Siem Reap, Cambodia

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71 Responses

  1. Marjorie

    I may not be able to go to Phnom Penh in my upcoming trip yet. After reading this I got more convinced that I should just come back and explore PP on its own. I don’t want to hurry my time because there are so many things to learn about this city. The story about what Pol Pot did is appalling. I can’t believe how evil some people can be.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      True. There are no words to express the depth of moral outrage over the barbaric atrocity itself or for those soulless bloodthirsty subhumans that perpetrated those crimes against humanity during those times in Cambodia. It is a mind-bending and emotionally numbing experience for all. You can take your time touring the places in Phnom Penh. 🙂

      Reply
  2. LaShawn

    Wow, this looks like so much fun. I really want to visit Cambodia one day. The Royal Palace looks like a beautiful place to visit! That and the market. I really want to go and take photos!

    Reply
  3. kita

    Loving your pictures. You make me want to travel now. I would go straight to the food though. The skulls my son would love them he is into the stuff…smh.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      It’s great for kids to be more aware of the tragic history that happened in Phnom Penh for them to realized how blessed they are as well. The food in Cambodia are more like Chinese mixed with Vietnamese and some other Asian food fare.

      Reply
  4. Stefanie C

    I love all of the architectural elements! They are so beautiful and unique. It looks like you had a great trip and the photos came out very nice! Love the vivid colors they use on the palace and shopping centers!

    Reply
  5. Grace Hodgin

    I have read some about Pol Pot and was aware of the cruelty that reigned under his leadership. Though out history it does seem that every culture has endured cruel and vicious people who became leaders. Your tour sounds very interesting and I loved getting to hear and see the photos of your trip.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Thanks, Grace. 🙂 Terrorism is designed to produce gut-check overreactions in in governments and people. I bet that all of Cambodia back then were in panic mode. Attacking their local people was evil.

      Reply
  6. tiaras and tantrums

    I have never been to Cambodia – but I would love to visit there some day. Your images are gorgeous. I have been to Thailand and China and Hong Kong and Japan (Tokyo) Every place I have visited in Asia has been amazing – I bet this location would be the same

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Oh, this location is far from Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Japan. You will be mesmerized with the dark history of Cambodia once you get to see and learn about its shockingly horrific events.

      Reply
  7. Jaime Nicole

    It sounds like such a sad history. The architecture is very unique and interesting, but I am not sure I could do the mass graves as a tourist attraction though. It certainly is amazing what we can do to each other and I am so glad that you were able to continue on and enjoy some of the lighter side of the culture and history.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Some tourists can’t even go to the mass graves because they feel super sorry for those who passed away. Thousands of Cambodians have died at the hands of domestic terror than the international terror groups.

      Reply
  8. Felicita Moncada

    Wow, what an incredible experience! Phnom Penh is filled with so much culture and history! I hope to one day make it to Cambodia as I follow a blog that has been traveling all over the country! It is quite beautiful to see.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Yes, it’s a great place to visit if you’re into history. You’ll find that terrorism is a truly a reality in our 21st century lives. It has actually been around for decades, both home grown and internationally inspired. Now, Cambodians are proud citizens who have chosen to live our lives freely and openly, but there’s still lots of work to do for economic improvement.

      Reply
  9. Christy Hoover

    Oh my! The architecture is amazing! I did gasp at all the skulls. It makes me never want to go there, but then my curiosity gets the best of me and I have to see. Thank you for sharing your adventures.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Getting a glimpse of the skulls makes the trip more interesting and unique. Mostly though, you will get to enjoy some well-deserved family time bonding and creating lasting new memories by visiting the other attractions and relishing local food while you’re in Phnom Penh. That is what the best of travel offers anyway. 🙂

      Reply
  10. Kelly Hutchinson

    I think it would be such a rich experience to visit Phnom Penh. I think visiting the Killing Fields would be very emotional. I saw the movie by the same name. Is there a connection?

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      I think so, yes. New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is on assignment covering the Cambodian Civil War, with the help of local interpreter Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) and American photojournalist Al Rockoff (John Malkovich). I think it’s like a documentary film covering what happened in Cambodia.

      Reply
  11. Donna Ward

    Amazing that you were able to do this. I’ve just watched an archaeological expedition through the areas you’re talking about – and it is like a study in opposites – beauty and horror. Your post was just excellent.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Thanks, Donna. It was an awesome trip, combining a mix of different themes in one visit. There are many video documentaries available on YouTube. We began to watch them when we went back home and got to learn more about the cruelty of Pol Pot and his men.

      Reply
  12. jataya

    Cambodia, so very interesting. It never was any place that I had considered visiting. I love the building architecture there. I am not sure if I would go to the mass graves though.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      The mass graves often move people to tears because the realization is quite evident especially when you have a tour guide or get the audio tour to have someone at the back explain to you just what happened to people in the surrounding areas during those times.

      Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Thanks, Stacie! Cambodia is really for the adventurous people who would love something different other than shopping sprees, gastronomic adventures, and the fanciful stuff. Here you get to find out more about atrocities in the past and look back.

      Reply
  13. Jeanette

    I love to travel so this is something I want to do some day. It is sad to see all those skulls and know they were all killed. I think it is a history that we can’t forget just so we don’t repeat it.

    Reply
  14. Liz Mays

    There is a lot of pain in the history of some of these places with tragedies so recent. It would be tough to see some of these things but definitely important.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Yeah, local terrorism was what drove all that lives of people here to question the most quotidian of enjoyable affairs. The anxiety and tension in the air was palpable.

      Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Me too! 🙂 I’m actually now more open to exploring different countries that not only offer great bites (because I’m a foodie) but also excellent histories to learn and capture through the vivid lens of my camera.

      Reply
  15. Lynsey Jones

    Wow, this looks like quite the trip. I found it interesting to learn that these kinds of places even existed like this. Thank you for sharing so much from your trip and the pictures too.

    Reply
  16. Michelle

    There is so much history in Phnom Penh you touched on the beauty to be found in Cambodia and the rawness of the history that lies there. It’s amazing .

    Reply
  17. MyTeenGuide

    I’ve only seen Phnom Penh in travel shows and magazines. It has a rich history and the architecture is amazing. I would love to visit it someday.

    Reply
  18. Annemarie LeBlanc

    I think I could not go to those places where genocide happened. That was a very horrible event in Cambodia’s history. If I would visit the country, I’d go to other places instead. Thank you for sharing your experience though.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Yup, it would be cool to go to the shopping areas where you will find plenty of gifts to bring home to your loved ones. Also, you will get to enjoy more food so be open in welcoming local bites to your palate. 🙂

      Reply
  19. Crystal Lopez

    This is so interesting. I have heard the many historical trials of the people of that country. It is terrible to hear such things but a huge part of history.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Thanks, Mistee. 🙂 None of us lives in a perfect world, and we rarely have all the time we want in any given city. If you only have 24-48 hours to work with in Phnom Penh, these are the top places you should go.

      Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Thanks, Lisa. It’s awesome that we had a tour that condensed all the essentials we needed to make the most out of our short time in Phnom Penh into one highly entertaining, informative, and of course, filling.

      Reply
  20. Up Run for Life Fitness

    Wow it looks like there is so much history in that area. It is kinda sad how there is so many bones just stored on shelves. I bet it was kinda eerie. It sounds like you had a wonderful visit.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Yes, we did. With the rich histories of the places we’ve gone through in Phnom Penh, we left satisfied and our thirst for information was quenched in every sense of the word.

      Reply
  21. Lynndee

    Don’t know anything about Cambodia’s history and this is actually the first time that I’ve read about Pol Pot. Interesting fact. I do wonder if my husband who is so much into history knows that. I will share this with him.

    Reply
  22. ricci

    Is it weird that I never realized there was that much history in Cambodia? I really want to go now!! Thanks for the awesome post girl!!

    Reply
  23. Bonnie @wemake7

    Wow, that place looks very interesting to visit, beautiful all the same and would love to see the history behind it. Those skulls are kind of creepy but would love to see that.

    Reply
  24. Rosey

    Cambodia fascinates me. I have wanted to visit for a long time. I’m happy to read the insight on it.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Cambodia is all but not glamorous, but you will get to learn more about its sad past when you’re there and be excited with the country’s development in the years to come.

      Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      Me too. I’m sure I heard the name “Pol Pot” before but I had never realized how bad he was and how terrifying it had been like for Cambodians who lived during that era.

      Reply
  25. ashleigh

    I love how much I learned from your post. What torture those people went through, happy to see they are honored in some way.

    Reply
    • Rochkirstin Santos

      I’m glad to hear that. Most tourists prefer just going to Siem Reap for the Angkor Wat Complex, but this side of the Cambodia is well worth a visit, no doubt.

      Reply

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