The Cambodia–Vietnam Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh
The Cambodia–Vietnam Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh

Seems like the award for the biggest culture shock of my life thus far belongs to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  While Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam was a new experience, it still seemed somewhat familiar (check out Vantage Point: Ho Chi Minh City here).  However, the capital of Cambodia was different. As I stepped off of the Mekong Express bus, I entered an exciting world of sensory overload.  From Tuk Tuks to the Emerald Buddha, from somber history to joyous traditional dance, here are the top experiences that I recommend for your next trip to Phnom Penh:

Throne Hall – Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

1The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda

This magnificent complex and series of buildings constructed in the 1860s is where the King lives.  Without a guide, this massive compound would be overwhelming.  So its best to dedicate a couple of Cambodian Riel to this.  Nevertheless, what you will witness are the impressive Khmer architectural designs on full display.  And don’t forget to check out the Silver Pagoda and Emerald Buddha on the south section of the grounds.  Also dress modestly (covered shoulders/upper arms & knee length shorts/skirts) or you may be denied entry.

Monument in S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh

2Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

In the 70’s, the Khmer Rouge committed genocide, forever impacting Cambodia.  This was led by Pol Pot, a dangerous Cambodian revolutionary.  He carried out one of the worst mass killings and systematic destruction of his own people based on a warped philosophy of cleansing.  This museum was repurposed from a torture and detention center known as Security Prison 21, which in turn was repurposed from a high school.  While emotionally charged, it is important to visit this museum to feel the impact that still grips this country.

Skulls at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh

3Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields)

Those detained and tortured in Security Prison 21 were then brought to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.  There is no better example of the destructive capacity for evil that humans possess as bits of human bone and clothe are scattered about as you walk through the mass graves.  Also, the audio tour includes history, chilling accounts, and music to help you come to grips with the impact of what occurred.

Cambodian Living Arts traditional dancers in Phnom Penh

4National Museum of Cambodia

Located near the Royal Palace, the National Museum is Cambodia’s largest cultural museum.  This massive building pays homage to traditional design while home to a collection of fine Khmer sculptures.  The highlight was sitting front and center for the Cambodian Living Arts traditional dance performance.  Do not miss this show as it is filled with energy and tradition.  And it shows a rich bright culture holding on strong after such a dark past.  You can find more information on the Cambodian Living Arts here.

Cambodian Lager by the riverfront in Phnom Penh

5Phnom Penh – The Simple Moments

Finally, the rides on a Tuk Tuk.  Enjoying a Cambodian Lager overlooking the Tonle Sap River.  Observing the grandeur of the Independence Monument.  Feeling the pulsating nightlife.  All of these experiences will make Phnom Penh one of your favorite cities in the world.

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