Phnom Penh is a bustling city of 2.3 million on the banks of the Mekong river. It became the capital of Cambodia in the 1860s at a time when the country was still a French Protectorate, and shortly thereafter construction began on the Royal Palace complex. So the story goes, in 1865, the year of the cow, at nine o’clock in the morning, King Norodom moved the Royal court from Oudong to the new Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and the city became the official capital of Cambodia the following year.
During a recent stay in Phnom Penh the famous river-facing exterior of the Royal Palace was transformed into a makeshift memorial to King Sihanouk [31 October 1922 – 15 October 2012] who was the King of Cambodia from 1941 to 1955 and again from 1993 to 2004. He was the de facto ruler of Cambodia from 1953 to 1970. The Guinness Book of World Records identifies him as the politician who has served the world’s greatest variety of political offices including two terms as king, two as sovereign prince, one as president, two as prime minister, as well as numerous positions as leader of various governments-in-exile.
Unfortunately due to the King’s death major portions of the Royal Palace including the Silver Pagoda were ordered closed for three months, so my visit was not a fruitful [or should I say shiny] as I had hoped. Still, the Palace complex was an interesting site to see. It is quite a large complex, dotted with potted plants and taller trees that make up its “tropical gardens” with Khmer sculptural elements at every turn. The high walls block the noise from the outside world giving the interior space a tranquil feeling.
Through a gate I was at least able to catch a glimpse of the famous Silver Pagoda. Originally constructed of wood in 1866, it was expanded in the 1960s by King Sihanouk who had the floor inlaid with more than five thousand solid silver tiles, hence its name.
Other buildings inside the Palace grounds include the Throne Hall [coronation site for Khmer kings and the largest gilded cathedral in Cambodia], the Royal Chapel, the Khemarin Palace and Phochani Hall.
Just outside of the Palace complex is a long string of restaurants and bars along the river, so when you are done trapsing through nineteenth century Cambodian history you can sit, relax, have a drink and marvel at the chaos of the frogger-meets-Mad Max traffic flow in front of you.