The royal palace area, with its glittering spires, wats and stupas, contains the most impressive cultural sights in Phnom Penh. Built mainly by the French in 1866, the Royal Palace is home to Prince Norodom Sihanouk and King Norodom Sihamoni. Its Throne Hall was built in 1917 in Khmer style, with a tiered roof and tower, influenced by Angkor’s Bayon Temple. Also within the complex are the Royal Treasury, the Napoleon III Pavillion and the Silver Pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha after the statue housed here. The Silver Pagoda was built by King Norodom in 1892 and then rebuilt by Sihanouk in 1962.
Its floor comprises more than 5000 silver blocks weighing nearly six tonnes. In the centre is a magnificent 17th-century emerald Buddha statue made of Baccarat crystal and a 90-kg golden Buddha, dating from 1906. This is studded with diamonds and was modelled exactly on the vital statistics of King Norodom.
North of the Royal Palace is the National Museum, while to the east, on Sisowath Quay, attractive colonial buildings form an unbroken chain of bars, restaurants and guesthouses overlooking the waters of the Quatre Bras, where the Mekong, Sap and Bassac rivers converge.
Other sights in and around Phnom Penh are more grisly though no less compelling. The Tuol Sleng Museum is housed in a former high school that served as the Khmer Rouge’s main torture and interrogation centre, known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). More than 20000 people were taken from S-21 to be executed at the ‘killing fields’ of Choeung Ek. Countless others were thrown into mass graves in the school grounds.
One block of classrooms displays poignant photographs of the victims. Choeung Ek itself is now a peaceful site surrounded by orchards and rice fields and overlooked by a huge glass tower filled with the skulls of men, women and children exhumed from mass graves in the area (which were not discovered until 1980).