Phnom Pehn- The Royal Palace

6 August 2011

I arrived in Phnom Penh today, departing from my hostel in Bangkok at 5am and landing in Cambodia at 9am. My first thought when we drove through the city was how low lying all the buildings were- this was not a city like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, but was more like a small township in Banting, Malaysia twenty years ago, with few buildings over 4 stories. You cannot escape the thought that Phnom Penh is a ‘young’ city, not because of the fact that people have not lived here for long (which is far from the truth) but from the fact that it is not developed in the sense that there is still so much space. The effects of the Khmer Rouge is still very much felt everywhere. There does not appear to have the same level of city life and over-population as other South East Asian countries either.  The closest example I can think of is the central city of Suva, Fiji.

Independence Monument, in the middle of Phnom Penh's diplomatic area

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View of Independence Monument outside World Bank office and in the middle of the road!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first stop was the Royal Palace, in the centre of the city. In terms of size, the Palace is nowhere near the same scale as the Grand Palace in Bangkok and not as old either. It was built in 1866 by King Norodom as the King’s residence. The current King recently moved back into the residence which was vacant for many years after King Sihanouk was exiled to China prior to the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in 1991. When the flag is up, the King is home. No, I didn’t get a chance to pay a personal visit to his personal quarters although I did note that security didn’t appear that stringent.

The Royal Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Royal Residence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the coronation hall (the biggest building in the Royal Palace quarters apart from the residence) was the Coronation throne, only used once (or twice in King Sihanouk’s case) when a King is crowned.  In front of the coronation throne was a much less glamorous seat and it is this seat that the King uses when sitting in the hall. The ceiling was adorned with paintings of the Ramayana epic and the floor carpet matched exactly the pattern of the floor tiles. On the roof of the hall was a spire with four different faces of Rama, the

Hindu god. While Buddhism is the official religion practiced by the majority, this reflects Cambodia’s Hindu past and its acceptance in Cambodian life.

The faces of Rama, on the roof of the Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beside the Royal Place was the Silver Pagoda temple which houses the emerald Buddha image gifted by Sri Lanka many years ago. It is named the Silver Pagoda because of the 5329 silver tiles weighing a total of 5 tonnes that cover the floors. Each tile weighs 1kg in silver and were made from all the silver coins contributed by the public as offerings. This temple was built in 1892 by King Norodom and is surrounded by an exterior wall covered by 600metres of fresco of the Ramayana epic. Also within the walls of this temple was several grey ‘stupas’ where the ashes of the past Kings are held.

Frescoes of the Ramayana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch, we then visited the Russian Market, nicknamed after the fact that some Russian nurses working in a nearby hospital used to visit that particular market, encouraging vendors to learn Russian. While there were few actual links to Russia, it didn’t actually look too dissimilar to the markets in China and Russia.  Narrow lanes, dark lighting and many people.

Initial observations

Aggression- My biggest surprise at this market was how aggressive the vendors were, with one woman adopting very threatening body language because one of my friends did not buy anything. This was a great shock as we expected them to be like the vendors in Thailand. In fact, they were similar to those in Egypt in terms of the aggressiveness and persistence! This observation was not confined to the walls of the market but extended to most people in the city too.  I wonder if this aggressiveness stems from poverty and having to fight to live. If you observe most of the people in the city, you will note that most people are no more than 35 years old (as the Khmer Rouge regime affected many people born before the 1980s) and coupled with a hard young life, it is no wonder that they are aggressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Torture camp in the middle of the city- I was also surprised that the infamous S21-Tuol Sleng Torture prison was smack bang in the middle of the city. I had somehow it to be located outside the city, but as a local noted, Phnom Penh was a ‘ghost town’  during the Khmer Rouge regime. During Pol Pot’s rule, all the intellectuals, people who wore spectacles, could speak another language or had any indication that they were ‘new peoples’ (ie bourgeois  or city folk) were either executed or forcibly moved into the rural areas in order to contribute to Khmer Rouge’s vision of a self-sustaining, agrarian society. Thus, Phnom Penh was empty right up to 1991 when the Vietnamese invaded. Despite it now making sense, I still do find it shocking that a torture prison, now a genocide museum, is right in the middle of the city.

Cambodians are not Thais– This sounds obvious and very stupid but I still felt odd that my Cambodian driver could not understand Thai.

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