Founded in 1434, Phnom Penh has quite the history and still has numerous French colonial buildings along the long boulevards. During the French occupation, Phnom Penh was known as the “Pearl of Asia,” as many believed it was the prettiest city built in French-occupied Indochina. Phnom Penh has served as the official capital of Cambodia since 1866 when it became the permanent seats of government where the Royal Palace was built. By 1872, the French began turning this riverside village into a small city as they began constructing concrete houses and buildings. From there, Phnom Penh experienced rapid growth as its infrastructure grew. During the Vietnam War, many citizens and refugees fled to Phnom Penh for food and shelter; not only was Cambodia pummelled with bombs from the US troops, but its people were tortured by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide as well. More on this later.
Today, Phnom Penh is a thriving capital. They have persevered through death and destruction, and overcome each obstacle put in their way. Unlike many major capitals, Phnom Penh is mostly inhabited by Cambodians (90%) with only a few ethnic minorities.
During your visit to Phnom Penh, there are 4 sites you must see….
1. The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is – you guessed it – a complex of buildings serving as the royal residences for the King of Cambodia since the 1860s. Prior to the 1860s, the seat of Khmer power was up by Angkor Wat. Spend some time wandering the complex. Be sure to peak into the beautiful Throne Hall (still in use today for religious and royal ceremonies) and the Silver Pagoda which houses the Emerald Buddha.
2. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is on the site of a former high school turned Security Prison 21 (S-21) during the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Tuol Sleng was one of about 200 prisons and torture centers established by the Khmer Rouge throughout Cambodia. You’ll see classrooms turned into cells, blood-stained walls, graphic photographs, and torture devices as they were found. If you’re interested in learning more about the Cambodian Genocide, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a must – it costs $8 USD with an audio guide. Typically I’m not a fan of audio guides, however, it is absolutely necessary if you want to get the full experience.
3. Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Prisoners that weren’t tortured to death at Prison S-21 were typically sent to Choeung Ek, commonly known as the Killing Fields. Today they serve as the mass graves of over one million people executed here by the Khmer Rouge. Choeung Ek is a memorial in the body of a Buddhist stupa. Within the stupa you will see 9,000 human skulls, along with various other larger limbs, to commemorate those who lost their lives there. While human bones still litter the site (you can see some if you look closely), this is an important stop for anyone visiting Phnom Penh. It costs $6 USD with an audio guide (again, I found the audio guide to be very important) and is located about 30 minutes south of the city center.
4. Sora Sky Bar
After bearing witness to some extremely heavy sites and spending the day contemplating the worst of humanity, sometimes it’s important to unwind and reflect upon how blessed we are and how good we have it compared with so many. We ended up at at Sora, the highest Sky Bar in Phnom Penh. Located on the roof of the Rosewood Hotel, this venue far surpasses anything in site. This isn’t a hotel that boasts “the highest sky bar” to then have neighboring skyscrapers. No, there’s no skyscraper in sight next to Sora. Be sure to plan your visit around sunset as it offers spectacular views of the sun setting over the city, and then you can watch as the city lights brighten the sky.
Where to Sleep? La Rose Suites
La Rose Suites is a luxury boutique 5-Star hotel in the heart of Phnom Penh. It’s located near, and easily accessible to, all of the sites listed above. The decor from the moment you walk in depicts the charming architecture of French Indochina paired with the grandeur of Cambodia today. You will find fresh lotus flowers at every turn as well as a staff that is truly as attentive and gracious as it comes.
The hotel is located throughout two buildings, one across the street from the other, and offers 68 spacious rooms and suites. After an easy check in, we were taken to our Junior Suite Double Room and it was simply beautiful! With a uniquely designed canopy (that I totally wanted to make into a bed fort), comfortable bed, work desk, small sitting area, flatscreen TV, and spacious bathroom with a separate rain shower and tub, we had everything needed to make our stay great.
Included in our stay was a complimentary one-hour traditional Khmer massage (that was simply incredible) along with daily breakfast. Unlike most hotels, they offer an a la carte breakfast menu where you can order anything from your favorite fresh squeezed juices and coffees to a variety of Western or Asian breakfasts alike… or a combination of both if you please. Breakfast is an all day affair, as you can order it anytime from 6am to 10pm and if you don’t want to eat in the restaurant, no problem, they will bring it to your room at no additional charge.
We also chose to eat at their on-site restaurant – Banana Restaurant. I ordered the vegetarian set for $11 and it was not only a four-course meal, but of the highest quality. I absolutely recommend having a meal in house during your visit.
If you’re looking to spend a bit less, but still wanting to stay at an extremely nice hotel, you can check out La Rose Boutique Hotel & Spa, their sister 4-Star hotel just a 12-minute walk away. This hotel is a bit more intimate as it only houses 10 luxurious rooms; the location is prime and the rooms are chic and comfortable.