In the months before I left for Phnom Penh, I eagerly read other travel blogs to learn what sites I should see while there. While I had plans to explore all of Cambodia, from the temples of Siem Reap to the Elephant Conservation project in Mondulkiri. I wanted to ensure that I saw everything that Phnom Penh had to offer.
When I was in Scotland, one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t see more of Scotland itself. I jetted off to other places, traveling to Germany, France, and even Estonia; however, I failed to make it up to the Scottish Highlands and see the fairy pools that I lusted over for a year before arriving in Scotland. I remain happy and confident in my decision to see other places in Europe while on my Scottish adventure, but it also taught me not to make the same mistake in my future travels, hence my determination to explore Phnom Penh.
One of the most common things other travelers recommended while in Phnom Penh, other than the Genocide Museum and S21 Killing Fields, was the Royal Palace. Initially I was a bit doubtful of its splendor and attraction. I had seen century old castles in Europe and cathedrals that took my breath away. The grand architecture of European buildings had stolen my heart, and I was unsure if any new style could possibly compare. Despite my hesitations, I added the Royal Palace to my list of things to see anyway.
As I mentioned in my weekly rewind post, I just recently visited the Royal Palace this last weekend and spent hours in awe of it with my fellow volunteer, and new friend, Laura. Electing to spend a weekend seeing some of the sites of Phnom Penh, Laura and I made the half hour tuk tuk journey to central Phnom Penh in order to visit this “must see” site.
To our dismay, when we first arrived at the gates around eleven o’clock, the Palace was “closed for lunch.” Every day the Palace is closed from eleven until two, and no visitors are allowed inside. I felt especially foolish for making the rookie mistake of not checking the open hours online before making the trip, as things could have been even worse: since it was a public holiday, the Palace could have not been opened at all!
However, Laura and I made the most of it, deciding to trek to Wat Phnom and then circle back around two when the Palace re-opened. As I said before, Wat Phnom is incredible, and I highly recommend it if you find yourself in Phnom Penh (a post about it will come later, so look out).
After a three hour break, we walked back to the Palace gates on tired feet, and patiently waited with other tourists to be let inside. I was feeling a bit nervous. A few of the other volunteers had warned me against visiting the Palace, hinting it was not worth the $10 entrance fee. When the time came to part with my money and trade it for a paper ticket, my heart childishly began to beat a bit faster.
When we made it into the Palace grounds, I happily realized how wrong I was to hold any doubt about the Royal Palace. I instantly felt my mouth spread into a huge grin, and found myself saying “oh my god” in the same manner I imagine that I would drool over Zac Efron.
The Palace grounds were absolutely breathtaking. Upon walking in, the first thing I noticed was how beautifully green and clean everything was. Of course this seemingly made sense, as it was a Royal residence; however, after the culture shock of trash and dirt I witnessed for the last week around the rest of the city, I felt like I had been transported into another world.
The Royal Palace grounds are split into two sections, or so the map I got when I entered told me so. To be perfectly honest, I do not know which area is which or what the significance of them is. I don’t even know the function or history behind the majority of the building that I stared in wonder at; I just enjoyed them in a blissfully ignorant sort of way. Part of me wishes I went the extra mile and added a tour guide onto my ticket, as the history buff in me now craves to know exactly what I was looking at for so long. However, I also feel content just knowing that I spent a good two hours entertaining myself by looking at pretty buildings and taking many Instagram worthy photos.
However since I am curious by nature and uncertainty bothers me like no other, when I got home after roaming about the Palace I did some research about it. The Royal Palace, as told to me by Wikipedia and other very reliable sources, has been occupied by Cambodian Kings without fail since it’s conception in the 1860s, with the only exception being during the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge. It’s placement in Phnom Penh is relatively recent move. Previously all imperial settlements were reserved for the north of Cambodia near Angkor. It was not until the implementation of Cambodia as a French Protectorate that the Palace was moved and reconstructed in the country’s new capital, Phnom Penh.
The Palace was constructed with an influence of traditional Khmer and French architectures, representing the mix of cultural influences present in the country, and the royal family, at this time. For the most part, the Palace was constructed to like Khmer buildings, featuring only slight French touches. The defensive outer wall, stupahs, towering spirals, and mural pantings all relate back to French influence, but were completed with a certain Khmer flair that makes the Palace look especially unique.
With all that being said, I must say that one of my favorite parts about walking around the Palace was seeing all the monks. I have already seen a fair share of monks while in Cambodia; however, they were in such close proximity at the Royal Palace. I find monks very intriguing; and yes, I realize I am talking about them like a scientific specimen. From everything that they do to the beautiful bright orange colors of their robes, they fascinate me. I am not particular proud nor ashamed to admit that a good thirty minutes of my time at the Palace was spent discretely following a group of monks, trying to take a photo of them. I felt too shy to ask for one outright, despite many other tourists doing so. What resulted was me being as awkward as ever and basically stalking the monks around the Palace grounds (and I am certain that they noticed).
The Royal Palace is, in my opinion, a definite must see if you are in Phnom Penh. Yes it is $10, but if you are willing to fish out the $40 (or whatever it is) to see Angkor Wat, then you can certainly justify this as well. Seeing the Royal Palace provided me a temporary escape from the unfortunate reality of poverty, underdevelopment, and overall culture shock of Phnom Penh. This is not to say that the extreme wealth gap in Cambodia is okay or something to try and ignore, but rather that in spite of the country’s struggle to stay a float in the development race, it still holds places of extreme beauty and cultural significance. Yes Phnom Penh can so easily be categorized as a less than appealing city, with its crime, pollution, and traffic. However it is also home to places rich with culture, documenting and making real all the beauty that the city has to offer.