It’s not every day that you gets to visit a palace. So, when you visit Phnom Penh in Cambodia, a tour of the Royal Palace is an absolute must.
Oudong, about 40 kilometers from Phnom Penh used to be the capital of Cambodia. It was here that the kings had their royal residence, for more than 250 years. However, in 1865, King Narodam I decided that Phnom Penh would be the capital of the country. He relocated in 1865 and went about recruiting the best to construct the Royal Palace. Among them was the architect Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak whose brief was simple – design a palace that was, well, fit for a king. A year later, in 1866, it was officially inaugurated as the capital.
Legend has it that the king chose this site on the advice of his astrologers and ministers. As if to prove a point, more than 100 years later, when the Khmer Rouge turned Phnom Penh into a ghost town in 1975, they chose to leave the palace mostly intact.Adjacent to the palace is Wat Preah Keo Morokat, meaning the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Both these complexes sit within the yellow walls of the royal compound by the riverfront. Trying to explore them in a short period of time can be a daunting task. While some visitors opt to hire guides, most choose to discover it by themselves.While not a definitive guide, these are some of the buildings, pagodas and stupas that you should try and see. While not in any order of importance, if you get to explore some of them, then your time within the two complexes will be totally worth it.
The Royal Palace Grounds
It is the official residence of the King and his Queen mother. It is also the venue for all court ceremonies. While large portions of the palace are open to the public, there are certain areas that are strictly off-bound for visitors.
Preah Thineang Vinnichay
Also called the Throne Hall, this is by far, the main attraction in the palace complex. It is mostly used for ceremonial occasions, including ceremonies and presentation of credentials by diplomats. The present structure was constructed in 1917 and inaugurated in 1919 by King Siswath. Among its main highlights is a 59-meter high tower spire
Napoleon III Pavilion
Close to the Throne Hall is a building that looks like an oddity. The Napoleon III Pavilion, with its European style cast-iron structure, seems out of place among the Khmer inspired buildings. Originally built for Empress Eugenie of France, wife of Napoleon III for the inauguration of the Suez Canal, it was gifted to King Norodom in 1876 and was shipped from Egypt to Phnom Penh. Today, it serves as a small museum that houses various royal memorabilia. In a lucky coincidence, the letter ‘N’ etched as an emblem on the glass didn’t need to be altered when Napoleon III handed it over to King Norodom.
Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya
Also called the ‘Moonlight Pavilion’ is an open-air pavilion built between 1913 and 1914 under King Sisowath. It carries a similar design as the previous wooden pavilion. It serves as a stage for the royal dancers to performance. It is also used as a venue for the king to address the crowds and to hold state and royal banquets. Built along the sides of the palace walls, it is easily recognisable from outside.
Hor Samran Phirun
It is also called ‘The pavilion where one sleeps peacefully’. This is the royal rest house and waiting area where the King waits to mount an elephant for royal processions. It was built in 1917 to house musical instruments and procession elements. Today, it houses a display of gifts that the King receives from various foreign heads of state.
Hor Samrith Phimean
Constructed in 1917, it is also called the ‘Bronze Palace’. It was used as a repository for all the royal regalia and attributes. Today, it houses a display of royal regalia and costumes on the ground floor.
It is an open hall that was built in 1912 as a venue for classical dance. Today, it is used to host receptions and meetings.
The Damnak Chan was built in 1953 and was meant to house the High Council of the Throne. Over the years, it has served various purposes, including as the house of the Ministry of Culture in the 1980s and Supreme National Council between 1991 and 1993. It currently houses the administrative offices of the Royal Palace. It is out of bounds for the public.
The Silver Pagoda grounds
It sits next to the Royal Palace and is only separated by a walled walkway. The highlight is obviously the Wat Preah Keo Morokat. However, it also contains several other structures, stupas, shrines, monuments and even a miniature model of Angkor Wat.
Wat Preah Keo Morokat
It is also called the ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’. However, it is more famously known as the Silver Pagoda, inlaid with more than 5,000 silver tiles. The other centerstage is the Emerald Buddha. The verdict is still out as to whether it is made from emerald or baccarat crystal. Unlike most pagodas, no monks live here. However, it is where the King meets with them to listen to their sermons. Some of the royal ceremonies are also performed here.
The Ramayana Frescoes
Housed within the temple building is the Reamker galleries. Painted between 1903 and 1904 by students, they depict stories from the Khmer version of the classic Indian epic, the Ramayana. During the 1930s, the galleries served as classrooms for Buddhist monks. Unfortunately, because of weather, there are some sections that were damaged over time. However, between 1985 and 1987, extensive renovations were carried out.
This is an open hall within the Silver Pagoda ground. There is an open hall that is mostly used by Buddhist monks to recite their texts. There is also a royal reception area.
There is also a small library with a metal statue of Nandini standing guard. It also houses sacred Buddhist texts. Pay a small contribution and you can have your future read by any of the fortune tellers who work within the shrine. Only issue is that you will need somebody to translate it for you.
Within the grounds is a small hill. Meant to symbolise Mount Kailash, there is a shrine that contains a large Buddha footprint. It also has 108 images of The Buddha for each of his 108 past lives. Fortune tellers can, for a small contribution, read out your future.
Statue of HM King Norodom
The statue of King Norodom sits on a white horse., covered by a canopy. The statue is a creation of the French artist Eude in 1875. It was shipped and placed on the grounds in 1892. The canopy is a recent addition, when in 1953, King Sihanouk had it installed to commemorate Cambodia’s independence.
The Royal stupas
There are also a few stupas within the grounds. Each of them is dedicated to past kings and queens and contains their ashes. One of the stupas is for Princess Kantha Bopha, daughter of the former King Sihanouk, who, at the age of four, succumbed to leukemia in 1952.
Information you can use
It is open daily from 8am to 5pm and entry is US$ 6.50 per person. However, the best time to go is in the morning. That way, because most of the buildings face east, you get the best possible light. You can also avoid large tour groups that come by the busload if you land early.
Photography may not be permitted in all sections of the palace. As with most public places in Cambodia, and Asia in general, you are expected to dress appropriately.
Set aside between 1 to 3 hours. Tour guides are available at the gate, for around US$ 10 or a little more, and are recommended if you are short on time or wish to understand each and every element within these two complexes.