Discovering Indochina–Phnom Penh, Cambodia


After eleven days in Vietnam, today we are going to Cambodia. Carol and I are excited about seeing another country. I don’t know much about Cambodia, just that Angkor Wat is located there, and that Angkor Wat had a strong Hindu connection. I also know of the atrocities done by the Khmer Rouge against the people of Cambodia.

We took off from Saigon on a public bus. After an hour of so we reached the border.

We have to pass through the border in two steps. First we all get off the bus in Vietnam and go through their border processing.


Then we get back on the bus. We are in some kind of ‘no mans land’ now between Vietnamese exit processing and Cambodia immigration.


We officially pass into Cambodia.


Then we come to the Cambodian Border Check. We were able to get visas at this border crossing, so did not need to get them in advance. The bus company helped in this. There was an attendant on the bus who collected passports, visa applications, photos (that we brought with us), and fees. While the bus moved along on the three hour trip, she organized everyone’s paperwork and handed it directly to the authorities. The passports were processed in bulk, and we waited to be called to collect ours and go through the entrance point to Cambodia.


Right across the border we saw many gambling casinos. I guess these are not allowed in Vietnam. Here is the ‘Crown Bavet Casino.’


Here is the ‘Silverstar.’ That sounds like a name from Las Vegas, not Cambodia.


Changing countries I am aware that many cultural details change, so I was interested in how they build houses here. Many of them are up on stilts. Some are because of high water, others are just built that way because ‘that’s how it is done here.’ The space underneath the house is used for storage, and for shaded living space.


Soon we came to the Mekong River. Though this is the main route from Vietnam to Cambodia, there is still no bridge, so we must take a ferry.




These are big ferries, that can carry a full load of buses and trucks, as well as cars, motorbikes and people.


They every carry farm produce, like this van load of pigs. Oink, oink.


In this area houses line the river. I wonder if we are seeing some kind of resort, with the six buildings with the pyramid roofs?


One treat that is enjoyed by the Cambodians is freshwater clams. In this photo below there is a flat basket carried on a woman’s head. It is filled with small, thumb-sized clams that have been salted. They are eaten as snacks. Open the shell and enjoy a morsel of salty clam. Yum! But a lot work to eat.


By the river, boys play in the water.


Boys and girls going to school. Notice that they all wear uniforms.

Also look at the conveyance that the boys ride in. It is a long skinny wooden trailer, pulled by a motorbike.


I see many temples off the road. Most have ornate gates.


You can see stupas inside, so the temples are Buddhist. Below is a picture of typical Cambodian stupas.


Stupas were originally mounds of earth, containing ashes from the Buddha. Then domes were built over the mounds, then the domes became more elaborate. You will find stupas throughout Asia where there are Buddhist temples.

In Buddhism, aside from practical use as funerary monuments, stupas are best described as sacred monuments that symbolize enlightenment. Stupas have square bases which symbolize four immeasurables as taught by Buddhism. The immeasurables are:

  • Immeasurable love
  • Immeasurable compassion
  • Immeasurable joy
  • Immeasurable equanimity

In Cambodia (and Thailand, and other places in Asia), stupas are used as reliquaries that house the ashes of a cremated ancestor. Big stupas are built by the wealthy, smaller by those not as fortunate. In Cambodia, stupas are known as Chedey. Usually they are built on the grounds of a Buddhist temple (for a nice donation to the temple, I think).

The building below is a Buddhist temple. It is typical of those that are seen in Cambodia and Thailand, with stepped roofs, a towering spire atop the temple and the curious ridge finial: the chofa. Chofa means “tassel of air” and its shape is thought to derive from the Garuda, a mythical (Hindu) guardian figure with bird-like features. The chofa is but one of several Cambodian and Thai temple features that has an Indian origin. Another that you will see frequently is the Naga, the snake-god. This clearly has a Hindu origin, from ancient roots, venerating the power of the cobra. Also in the grounds is a stupa.


On the street you can find what you need to decorate your own place, including these ceramic horses, elephants and tigers.


Spirit houses are also sold by the road. Every house and most businesses have one or more spirit houses. They are used by both Buddhists and animist minorities.

Buddhists believe that leaving offerings at the spirit houses wishes luck in the next life for the recently deceased, who are awaiting reincarnation in the underworld. In doing so, they also believe that they are giving themselves good luck.

The ethnic minority followers of animism in the more remote parts of Cambodia also believe in the use of spirit houses. However, the spirit houses play a much more significant role in their lives.  According to animist traditions,  the recently departed must exist as spirits in the forests until they are reincarnated. They take great care in not offending the spirits, as they believe that unfortunate events such as disease are caused by angered spirits. Thus they leave offerings at the spirit houses in hopes of remedying illness, often in lieu of seeking medical  treatment.


We are nearing Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is the capitol of Cambodia, and is the largest city in Cambodia with a population of a bit more than 2 million people. Located on the banks of the Mekong River, Phnom Penh has been the national capital since the French colonized Cambodia, and has grown to become the nation’s center of economic and industrial activities, as well as the center of security, politics, economics, cultural heritage, and diplomacy of Cambodia.

Once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochinain the 1920s. Founded in 1434, the city is noted for its beautiful and historical architecture and attractions. There are a number of surviving French colonial buildings scattered along the grand boulevards. Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, are significant global and domestic tourist destinations for Cambodia.

I am surprised to see a large gated community, The Star Platinum (Borey Penghuoth), with big expensive houses, mainly for Cambodian nationals. Some Cambodians must have a lot of money. I read that these are mostly sold already, though this development was just completed in 2011.


KFC – Kentucky Fried Chicken – seems to be everywhere.  Its parent company, Pepsico, does an excellent job in worldwide marketing of their food and drink products.



Below, an auto dealership. This shows we are no longer in Vietnam. There, because of extremely high tariffs, autos are unaffordable by any except the very wealthy. In Cambodia, they are still out of reach for most people, but not nearly so expensive.


A flower shop. Like the Vietnamese, the Cambodians seem to love flowers.


We arrive at our hotel. Across the street is a Buddhist temple.


The main hall.


Many stupas are found on all sides of the temple.


The first night we ate at a nice restaurant.


Many paintings were on the walls.



This is a close up of one of the paintings, where a man is offered a fried tarantula to eat. We will get this treat for ourselves in a couple of days.


The next morning we are going on a cyclo tour. A cyclo is a bicycle-powered rickshaw. In Cambodia these are usually small, with a seat for just one person. Unlike in India, the driver sits behind the passenger.


Here is Carol in her cyclo.


Richard and the rest of the group, ready to go.


Across the street is a Cambodian autorickshaw. Here they are trailers with roofs and padded seats, pulled by a motorbike.


We then took off through the streets of Phnom Penh. I am glad that there is not so much traffic as Saigon.


We still did need to weave through traffic, though.


We pass by the Sorya Shopping Center, the largest modern shopping complex in Phnom Penh.


Western technology companies offer their products here.


The golden building in the center of the photo is the unique Art Deco building, the large Central Market, the Phsar Thmei Market,” built in 1937 by the French. I am sorry we didn’t go in. I am told that it is beautiful inside, with only natural light let in by the many windows.


Outside the building, the market is extended toward the street by many umbrellas, to keep goods and shoppers out of the sun.



There were about a dozen of us, so we make a pretty good procession going through town on our cyclos.


The cyclo’s brake is activated by a ring behind the driver’ seat.


There were many Buddhist monks on the streets. They wear saffron like the sadhus in India. That is about where the similarities end. Most sadhus are old; the decision to take sannyasa is often made towards the end of a life, after 50 years of age. Many Buddhist monks are young. In the old days it was common for a family to send one of the sons (other than the oldest) to be a monk. There are schools at most temples, so this is a place where a person can complete his education. For this reason, in Cambodia it is still common for a man to spend one or two years as a monk before he marries. This makes him a much better prospect to the girl’s family. So a man might be a monk for just a period of his life. A sadhu takes sannyasa for the remainder of his life. Sadhus renounce everything, even a place in which to live. Monks live in quarters in the temple. Sadhus eat only if food is given to them. Monks eat at the temple, though they will go out begging for food to be cooked there.


In many places the French influences can still be seen, like in this school, the “Lycee Francais Rene Descartes.”


Since Cambodia is the nation’s capital, some of the nicest wide streets are lined with embassies. Here is a photo of the entrance to the US embassy. When they saw me taking the photo, the guards were saying “No photos,” and I thought that maybe they would run after me and confiscate my camera. We escaped though.


There are many public statues. This is the statue of Lady Penh, who is the legendary founder of this city. There will be more about her below.


Wat Phnom

We next came to Wat Phnom (“Temple of the Mountains” or “Mountain Pagoda”), a Buddhist temple located in Phnom Penh. It was built in 1373, and stands 27 meters above the ground. It is the tallest religious structure in the city.

Legend relates that Daun Penh, a wealthy widow, found a large koki tree in the river. Inside the tree she found four bronze statues of the Buddha. Lady Penh constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill to protect the sacred statues. Eventually this became a sacred site and sanctuary where people would make blessings and pray. This is considered the center of the city, and the reason that the city was located here.


We now have a different guide from Gecko Adventure Tours for Cambodia, Rong. He is telling us about the history of this site.


This is Wat Phnom from the front side. The big round clock built on the ground was donated by the Peoples Republic of China. The main stupa rises above all.


This is a monument to King Sisowath of Cambodia (1840-1927). The plaque to the left commemorates the treaty between France and Siam (Thailand) in 1907 which returned much of northern Cambodia to Cambodian rule, including Siem Reap and the nearby Angkor Wat. The bas-relief to the right shows that Thailand, with Japanese backing, seized the Cambodian territories from Vichy French forces in 1941.


A spirit house adorns the grounds. It looks like a Buddha sits inside.


This is a close up of the figure seated in front of the Buddha. He is obviously a wise elder. I do not know who it represents. Someone has left an offering of candy.


On the base of the hilltop stupa, guardian figures are there to protect it.


A young girl finds a good use for the plaque that marks the gift from China, the giant clock. She sits on it and plays.


After we left Wat Phnom, we passed through a section that housed many government offices. In front of most were pictures of the King and Queen, along with the Chief Minister of that office.


The person below stands by the roadside. Somehow I think this person is involved in the sex trade.


Nearby are massage parlors, often offices for the sex trade.



Western influences abound, like this pizza parlor.


As we continue on our cyclo tour we approach one more tall monument.


This is the Independence Monument (Vimean Ekareach). It was built in 1958 for Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It stands in the central part of the city. It is in the form of a lotus-shaped stupa, of the style seen at the great Khmer temple at Angkor Wat and other Khmer historical sites.



Here is another monument, to a king. The seven-headed Nāga is at the entrance of the monument. Its body extends back to the monument itself. These long Nāgas are common in Cambodia along walls, gates and entrances to temples and other holy places.


The Nāga is originally from India, the Hindu Snake God, the Indian cobra. (I think these snakes, cobras, were holy in India even before Hinduism.) One way that you can see the spread of Hindu ideas is by the spread of the Nāga and even its name, throughout Asia. The same basic word is used in India, Burma (Myanmar), Java, Cambodia, Thailand, Tibet and China. In some cases they have a Hindu flavor, in others, Buddhist.

Nāgas in the predominantly Hindu regions of Asia (India, Nepal, and the island of Bali) are both protectors and destroyers. In India, nāgas are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought.  They are objects of great reverence in some parts of southern India, where it is believed that they bring fertility and prosperity to their venerators.

The nāgas also carry the elixir of life and immortality. Garuda once brought the elixir of life to them and put a cup with elixir on the ground, but it was taken away by Indra. However, a few drops remained on the grass. The nāgas licked up the drops, but in doing so, cut their tongues on the grass, and since then their tongues have been forked.  Nāgas are often associated with gods, like those that coil around Siva and Ganesh, or who shelter Vishnu (and now other gods).

Traditions about nāgas are also very common in all the Buddhist countries of Asia. In many countries, the nāga concept has been merged with local traditions of great and wise serpents or dragons.

In Cambodia, the nāga is combined with the dragon. The Nāga King’s daughter married an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya, and from their union sprang the Cambodian people. Therefore Cambodians still say that they are “born from the Nāga.” The Nāga clan is also said to have its origins in Kashmir (North India), indicating a link due to geographical proximity of both peoples. The Seven-Headed Nāga serpents depicted as statues on Cambodian temples, such as Angkor Wat, are said to represent the seven races within Nāga society, which has a mythological, or symbolic, association with “the seven colors of the rainbow.” Furthermore, Cambodian Nāgas possess numerological symbolism in the number of their heads. Odd-headed Nāgas symbolize the Male Energy, Infinity, Timelessness, and Immortality. This is because, numerologically, all odd numbers come from One (1). Even-headed Nāgas are said to be “Female, representing Physicality, Mortality, Temporality, and the Earth.”

In Tibet, the nāga was equated with the klu, that dwell in lakes or underground streams and guard treasure. The depth of the Tibetan view was expressed by Venerable Lama Karma Samten Gyatso, who was requested to placate the spirits, particularly the nāgas, in the area around the hydroelectric generators along the shores of Lake Tekapo, New Zealand, in 1993. He saw that these were responsible for the electricity crisis in New Zealand at that time. He said that the natural balance of the basin in that area had been disturbed and that the spirits weren’t happy. He explained that nāgas are associated with water and invisible to our eyes. He explained that they are highly intelligent and sensitive and that their moods affect changes and the feelings of people. When the balance of nature is upset, the nāgas can cause climatic disturbances, floods, droughts, or skin diseases. When they are respected and assisted through introverted awareness and gratitude founded upon sincere repose that is joined with extroverted work in conjunction with nature’s life-giving source – which is water flowing from springs and through rivers, lakes, and streams – nāgas can increase fertility of crops and promote sumptuous ecological systems. Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche taught that Yid Shin Norbu, the “Wish-Fulfilling Jewel,” exists “in the nāga or deva realms and gives the owner whatever he or she wants. He also confirmed that the term is used metaphorically.” Thus the “Wish-Fulfilling Jewel” exists within each of us.

In China, the nāga was equated with the lóng or Chinese dragon, and the Dragon King.

The Buddhist nāga generally has the form of a great cobra-like snake, usually with a single head but sometimes with many. At least some of the nāgas are capable of using magic powers to transform themselves into a human semblance.

Here is the king.


In this section of town the streets are broad. Some are lined with shops, as below.


Some with large French-colonial houses.


Here is another Nāga form in a public monument. Five-headed Nāgas stand together and wrap their tails to make the support for some kind of flat bowl they are holding up.


This building houses the “General Inspectorate for National Buddhist Education of the Kingdom of Cambodia – GINBEC.” Given its orientation, it’s no wonder that it looks like a Buddhist temple.


The Chan Chaya Royal Palace

The palace was started in 1866 after King Norodom (1860 – 1904) relocated the royal capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh after the mid-1800s. It was gradually built atop an old citadel called Banteay Kev. It faces towards the east and is situated at the western bank of four divisions at the Mekong River called Chaktomuk (an allusion to Brahma).

Three Buddhist monks enter.


Here is a map of the palace compound.


This is the Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya or “Moonlight Pavilion,” an open-air pavilion that serves as a stage for Khmer classical dance.


I think this is the Hor Samran Phirun, the royal waiting area to mount an elephant for royal processions


This is the Throne Hall, the Preah Tineang. Its full name means “Sacred Seat of Judgment.” The hall is used in inaugurating new kings, and also for other royal events such as addressing audiences, including diplomats, and holding royal meetings,


Front view of the Throne Hall. Rong is telling us about it.


Atop the Throne Hall, there is a figure with four faces. We will see faces reminiscent of this when we visit Angkor Wat.


Monks stopping to take photos of themselves visiting the Royal Palace. This seems funny to me. I cannot image one of the sadhus that stay near us at Arunachala even having a camera, much less mugging for it.


Another building in the palace compound, Preah Reach Damnakchan, next to Napolean’s Hall, under renovation.


Backside view of Moonlight Pavilion.


A side tower on, I think, the Throne Hall.


Garuda and Apsara under the eaves. Apsaras are beautiful, supernatural female beings. The Garuda is a large mythical bird or bird-like creature that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.


Detail of a bas-relief carving that climbs up the wall.


Another building in the palace compound.


A Nāga stair railing.


A side entrance to the Throne Hall.


More Garudas used as decorative elements.


Another Nāga staircase.


Below is the Silver Pagoda, or Wat Preah Keo Morokot – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This building houses many national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues. Most notable is a small 17th century Baccarat crystal Buddha (the “Emerald Buddha” of Cambodia) and a life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds, the largest of which weighs 25 carats. The floor is covered with five tons of gleaming silver.

There is a dress code for the building: shoes off, long pants and long dresses. You will not be allowed to enter otherwise.


A spirit house is at the entrance to the Silver Pagoda.


Here is a Wikimedia Commons photo of the Golden Buddha in the Silver Pagoda. Cameras are not allowed, but I guess the photographer sneaked this shot.


The Cambodian Emerald Buddha, photo from


Beautiful flowering plants outside the Silver Pagoda.


A heroic figure on a horse, the statue of His Majesty King Norodom.

This statue was a gift from Napoleon III, the Emperor of France, to King Norodom in 1875. It was placed in the Silver Pagoda in 1892. The canopy was added later by His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk in 1953, when Cambodia obtained independence from France.


This is the stupa of King Norodom containing his ashes, constructed in 1908.


This tower is above the halls that surround the Silver Pagoda. On the inside walls is a 600 meter long mural painted in 1903 that depicts the Reamker, i.e. the Khmer version of the classic Indian epic, the Ramayana.


Here are some of the murals. They are damaged at the bottom, but still show the story.



There is also a model of Angkor Wat. In a few days we are to see the real thing,


This is the stupa of Princess Kantha Bopha, the memorial to the beloved daughter of the former King Sihanouk. Princess Kantha Bopha passed away in 1952 at the age of four, succumbing to leukemia. The stupa was built in 1960.


Hanuman guards a doorway. Since they seem to love the Ramayana, it is not surprising to see Hanuman here.


Decorative and colorful spears and emblems to be carried in parades.


A Buddha, filled with peace, in a meditation pose.


Rong is showing us a map of Cambodia about one thousand years ago. In those days, Cambodia (the Khmer Empire)  was THE major power in Indochina, occupying what is now Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam, and the southern part of Thailand. I really wonder what happened to Cambodia to cause them to lose so much territory?


As we leave the palace complex we go through a small museum.

Here is what looks like a Hindu bronze figure.


And a bronze Ganesh.


In this exhibit you can see stairs one would climb up a royal staircase to get in a royal howdah.


Photos of the young King Norodom Sihanouk.


Some kind of fancy royal conveyance, a boat on wheels.


Outside the palace are vendors for food and drink for the palace visitors.


This is a cage full of wild birds. It is a Buddhist tradition to release wild birds. But before you release them someone has to go catch them.


A small Buddhist temple near the river.


We stopped for lunch at a nice place next to the river.


Later in the afternoon we wandered through a small market.


Freshly slaughtered and cleaned chickens are available here, including the chicken feet.


Much good looking fresh fruit.


Buy a grilled fish to take home for dinner?


Or maybe a roast duck?


Two men (one a policeman, on duty?) play a board game while another watches.


A shop where you can buy all the Cambodian statues you will ever want.


Riding back to the hotel, Rong and Carol.


That night we went out again to the river. We had heard that it was nicely lighted.


Not really so, but some lights.


We walked down the street looking for some place to stop and eat.


We passed by a local coffin shop, open in the evening for your coffin needs. (Here, like in India, bodies are dealt with quickly, so the late hours of this shop are probably a good service to its customers.)


We found a place to eat on the second floor that looked over the park next to the river. We enjoyed our meals. I had satay and beer. I was happy.


We saw a lot today (even more than this as you will see in the next post). We enjoyed Phnom Penh, more than some other cites we have visited on this trip. We like the Cambodian people who seem gentle and friendly. The city is clean, not too much traffic, and feels good to be in.

Related Posts


Day of Death: The Killing Fields
To Siem Reap, Sunset at Angkor Temple
Sunset at Pre Rup
Ta Prohm The Temple of Doom
Angkor Wat
Touring around Siem Reap

The Vietnam part of this trip:

Hanoi, Day 1
Hanoi, Day 2
Hội An
Mỹ Sơn
Nha Trang
Mekong Delta
Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon

Other Travel posts:

Touring and Travel in India
Touring and Travel outside India


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