The Pearl of Asia

Phnom Penh by day

Four hours. I thought I heard that right. Obviously, I did not. The road trip from Siem Reap to the capital city of Cambodia took six hours plus. The on-going ‘major, major’ rehabilitation on the national road before the Phnom Penh border didn’t help at all, it slowed us down to snail’s pace.

The Mekong River, by the Grand Boulevard, at night

So we crept on the dusty road towards the capital and largest city of Cambodia and made it to our hotel by mid-afternoon, but not before crossing the Mekong River and admiring it from the banks of Phnom Penh this time. I’ve rode its waves in Vietnam and flown over it in Thailand, and there’s still Burma, China and Laos where this powerful long river can be viewed from.

French colonial architecture can seen along the grand boulevard
Phnom Penh, founded in 1434, became its country’s national capital when France colonized Cambodia in the mid 1800s. Soon after, in the 1920s, it was considered as one of the most beautiful French-built cities in Indochina (the influence is very visible in the French colonial architecture of the buildings along the grand boulevard) that it was called the “Pearl of Asia.” Today, it has grown to become the nation’s center of economy, industry, culture and politics.

The Central Market, one of Phnom Penh’s popular shopping destinations
The dome at the center of the Central Market

Within the few minutes in the city, I got the vibe of Saigon and Bangkok with the hundreds of motorcycles and tuktuks zooming along the main thoroughfares. I saw myself having a good time touring the city. But that won’t happen until the next day.

Bangkok vibe. Tuktuks are the best way to go around the city.

Perhaps knowing how the city got its name will be more interesting at this point. Phnom Penh literally translates to “Penh’s Hill” and takes its name “Hill Temple” aka Wat Phnom and the legend o Lady Penh is to be credited.

The Wat Phnom, the Buddhist temple the city was named after

Legend has it that in 1372, Daun Penh, a wealthy widow, found a dead Koki tree floating downstream while fetching water from the Mekong River. The tree bore statues of Buddha, four bronze and one stone, which she took ashore. Penh had people create an artificial hill northeast of her house where she then built a small shrine with Koki trunks for the statues. She named the temple after herself – Wat Phnom Daun Penh, which is the Buddhist temple Wat Phnom (Mountain temple) today.

A reminder of the not-so-distant past
Coincidently, the Hotel Raffles de Royal is just a couple of blocks away from the Wat Phnom. It was at night when I got a glimpse of this temple on a hill with a park built on the foothill. It would be good to see it during the day. But the grand boulevard, where the French colonial buildings still stand, along the bank of the Mekong River is best seen at night. I went that way.
Everyday people….


An enterprising senior…

A hungry student after school

And barefoot monks on the city streets


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