Once considered the “Pearl of Asia,” Cambodia’s capital is starting to gleam again. A building boom fueled largely by Chinese and Japanese investment has brought new luxury retail developments (complete with Western brands), the middle class is on the move, and cafes and restaurants seem to crop up overnight. But echoes of old Phnom Penh linger in the French Quarter, along the lazy Tonle Sap River, and amidst the gilded temples of the Royal Palace compound. Memories of war loom large, too, and a visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields are an essential, sobering reminder of the horrors of Pol Pot’s era. Many travelers skip through Phnom Penh en route to the temples of Siem Reap, barely giving this buzzing metropolis a glance. Do yourself a favor and take a day or two to get to know this city and its warm, friendly residents working hard for a better future.
Three major north-south boulevards divide central Phnom Penh. In the east, M.V. Preah Sisowath, with its cafes and bars, runs alongside the Tonle Sap River. M.V. Preah Norodom, west of the river, is lined with embassies, government ministries, banks, and NGOs. One block to the east, toward the Tonle Sap, are the National Museum, Royal Palace, and Silver Pagoda complexes. The main commercial, financial, and residential thoroughfare, M.V. Preah Monivong, runs straight down the center of the city. Most accommodating and restaurants are between the Tonle Sap Preah Monivong and Norodom just south of M.V. Conféderation de la Russie (called Pochentong Blvd. everywhere but on maps.) R.V. Samdech Preah Sihanouk, and M.V. Mao Tsé Toung. Most named streets have a number as well; both are printed on street signs.
Phnom Penh is better for aimless exploration than scheduled sightseeing. There are few jaw-dropping tourist attractions, but some are more profound, deserving plenty of time and attention. Chief among these are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields at Chœng Ek. Guest houses arrange motorcycle drivers for the day. Many government tourist attractions close on Mondays, but a gratuity could open the doors.
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The staples of every Cambodian meal are rice and fish. Rice can be simply steamed, fried, or made into noodles. Fish soups are common; occasionally they will also contain egg and vegetables. You’ll find that lemon grass, hot peppers, ginger, and mint flavor most dishes
In Cambodia, as in the rest of Asia, natives always have tea on hand. Coffee, brought to Cambodia by the French, is quite sweet, as they add sweetened condensed milk to it. Typically, it is most polite to use chopsticks, a spoon, or your fingers to eat. As always, take cues from the locals around you.
Because of the havoc on Cambodian cultural traditions during the era of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, there is a dearth of artistic professionals in Cambodia today; however, those who somehow survived are serving as catalysts for an imminent cultural renaissance.
The Angkor Wat temple complex near Siem Reap is, without a doubt, one of the most magnificent pieces of architecture in the world. According to Hindu mythology, the gods live on top of five mountains including central Mt. Meru surrounded by the cosmic ocean. The structural layout of Angkor is meant to mimic this myth with four smaller towers and one prominent one as well as a surrounding moat. The ancient Khmer also displayed their architectural prowess by devising advanced irrigation techniques that provided enough water to grow and harvest several crops of rice each year in order to support the densely populated empire. Modern Cambodian village architecture takes water into account as well; most structures are built on stilts to prevent flooding or infestation by insects and small animals during the monsoon season.
Associated with the Royal Court for over one thousand years, Cambodian classical dance was heavily influenced by the Indian tradition. Despite the devastation of the Khmer Rouge era during which over 80% of the dance masters were killed, the classical tradition was kept alive mainly in Thai refugee camps. Cambodian dance demands the greatest precision as well as the tightest of clothes: dancers are actually sewn into their sarongs before each performance. Today, the tradition is experiencing a resurgence of sorts, and the apsara dancer has regained her place as one of the country’s most enduring cultural icons.
Cambodia’s last movie theater closed in 1998 under commercial pressure from cheap Thai videos and television soap operas. Before the Khmer Rouge banned movies – not to mention most other cultural activities – Cambodia’s vibrant film industry was turning out more than 50 feature-length films per year. Today, the industry is struggling to get back on its feet. Director Fay Sam Ang released the myth-based film The Snake King’s Child, a modern re-telling of the 1960s-era movie The Snake King in time to coincide with the lunar New Year celebrations for the Year of the Snake. Many consider Fay Sam Ang to be Cambodia’s cinematic hope.
Handed down from generation of women to generation of women, Khmer weaving is a tradition integral to Cambodian culture. The Khmer Rouge destroyed the mulberry trees in which the silkworms live; as a result, the tradition experienced a severe decline. Today, thanks to the efforts of several NGOs, the trees are being replanted, and Cambodian women, as well as polio and landmine victims – are being encouraged to turn to weaving as a source of income.
Cambodia is often considered less fervent about Buddhist doctrine than its neighbors. However, the basics still hold: don’t point your feet toward people or images of the Buddha, don’t touch people on the head (the head is sacred), don’t lose your calm in public. Unlike in the rest of Southeast Asia, shorts and t-shirts are accepted at some temples. Also, crossing one’s fingers, considered a sign of good luck in many western countries, is considered obscene in Cambodia. Similarly obscene is the use of one’s left hand; always use both hands or the right one only when passing something.
Always ask permission before taking someone’s picture – especially monks and villagers in remote areas who may not have much exposure to westerners and their cameras. Keep your social place in mind when interacting with Cambodians; it is not polite to make eye contact with those who are older than you or socially superior to you.
There is little or no openly gay life in Cambodia. Rumors of underground communities abound, but finding them is entirely a matter of luck. Before careful and discreet; con men are known to run scams involving gay travelers.