Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Stein Travel
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Phnom Penh

Legend has it that in 1372, a local widow named Penh discovered four Buddha statues that had been washed up by the waters from the Mekong River. She saw them as bearers of good fortune and erected a temple on the hill to house them, and so the city grew around this structure, known as the Hill of Penh (Phnom Penh).

Once considered to be the loveliest of Indochina's French-built cities, this untidy capital sprawls at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonlé Sap Rivers. Concrete buildings in need of repair, unsealed roads riddled with potholes and a confusion of boulevards crammed with traffic, all make uninviting first impressions. Traces of Khmer and colonial eras can be found in the little details, redeeming those first hasty conclusions. These can be found in the heart of the city where French villas and street-side cafes perch along tree-lined boulevards and the occasional majestic Khmer building catches the eye.

Phnom Penh has a number of Wats (temple-monasteries), museums and other places of interest in and around the city, as well as sunset cruises on the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, and a bustling market place. There has also been a recent boom of new hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs sprouting up through the city and a nightlife that promises fun and flavour.

Information & Facts

Climate

Phnom Penh, with a tropical climate, has hot weather all year round, but temperatures are slightly cooler between November and January. The hottest month is April, when temperatures can soar to over 104°F (40°C). The wet monsoon season runs from June through October, bringing strong winds, high humidity and very heavy rains.

Getting Around

Phnom Penh has a limited public transport system, with no bus service. The city is relatively small and is easy to negotiate on foot. Taxis can usually be arranged through hotels, though can also be telephoned or found outside hotels. Taxis are not metered. Bicycle rickshaws ( cyclos) are widely used, but are best for short distances only and motorbike taxis are a popular option. Fares should be negotiated before hand. Car rental agencies are available, as well as motorbike hire, but traffic can be hectic.

Language

Khmer is the official language. French is also spoken, but English is fast becoming popular with the younger generation.

Money

Riel (KHR) is the official currency and is divided into 100 sen. Foreign currency is difficult to exchange with the exception of US Dollars. Most transactions require cash. US dollars and Thai Baht are accepted, although smaller transactions are usually done in riel. A torn US dollar note renders it useless. Credit cards are only accepted in a limited number of tourist-orientated hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and larger towns. There are a few ATMs in Phnom Penh, but they shouldn't be relied upon as a source of money; travellers cheques in US dollars or sterling can be cashed at a limited number of banks and larger hotels, though travellers cheques are not recommended due to limited acceptance.

Night Life

The nightlife is Phnom Penh has picked up in recent years, with several good quality clubs and bars emerging to join the list of enduring classics like The Heart of Darkness and The Foreign Correspondents Club. The upmarket Elephant Bar at the Hotel Royal and the Riverhouse Lounge are both stylish places to start an evening in the city. The area around the Lake has many bars although the majority are still of the go-go girl variety and are rather seedy, although an interesting experience and worth checking out at least once during a stay in the city. For live music try Memphis Pub which has nightly gigs and Miles Jazz Café with jazz every Friday. Equinox Bar has jam sessions on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Most of Cambodia's artists and musicians were killed during Pol Pots' reign, part of a deliberate attempt to eradicate the country's culture and artistic traditions. That's why it is worth supporting institutions and events that help with the rebirth of these areas of Khmer life. The Royal university of Fine Arts hosts Khmer royal ballet although training and performance sessions are irregular. The Aspara Arts Association holds classical and fold dance sessions every Saturday at 7pm. The Souvanna Phum Theatre has traditional puppetry shows on weekends, while Chatomuk Theatre on Sisowath Quay hosts traditional music and dance on occasions.

Although Phnom Penh is getting safer it remains a fairly dangerous city, hence walking around at night is best avoided. Using motorcycle taxis is a cheap and fairly safe way to get between venues.

For details of what's hot and happening in the city get a copy of the Friday edition of the Cambodia Daily, the fortnightly The Phnom Penh Postand the free and always interesting Bayon Pearnik, which comes out monthly.

Shopping

The most popular destination for visiting shoppers is undoubtedly Russian Market, a square block of covered stalls between Streets 440 and 450. There is an interesting mix of paraphernalia, pirated gear and religious icons on offer but you must be prepared to bargain hard. Central Market is an art deco city landmark and a good place to buy silk and fabrics, as well a range of souvenirs.

Another good location for traditional fabrics is Mekong Arts on Street 178. To find essentials and grocery items try Lucky Market which is where the city's expats do their weekly shopping. For a Cambodian version of the modern mall experience head to Sorya Shopping Centre, just south of the Central Market. For art galleries and boutiques offering a more high-end selection of goods than the markets, head for Street 240.

When shopping in Phnom Penh remember that cash is king, and both dollars and riel are accepted. Don't try to use credit cards or travellers cheques. And of course, bargaining is expected and essential.

Sightseeing

Phnom Penh is a good example of a two-day city, where there is plenty of see and experience in a short time but little to keep one longer. The Royal Palace and National Museum are worth a morning, to get a sense of the country's rich heritage, then as a counterpoint, visit the Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields to understand the terrible atrocities suffered by the Khmer people during Pol Pot's reign of terror. In a lighter vein, enjoy the lively shopping scene in Central and Russian Markets while taking time to watch the sunset on the river at the Foreign Press Club's balcony bar.

Getting around between sights can be a hassle. It's not a bad idea to engage a taxi driver for the day, or for the more adventurous, rely on the services of moto-taxi where you sit on the back of a moped. Walking is an interesting option, but best avoided during the heat of the day and at night. Grab a free copy of the quarterly A Phnom Penh Visitors' Guideas it contains a useful map and good summaries of major attractions.

Time

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