Last updated on November 14th, 2017
The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh only dates back to the 19th century, and is a mere babe, when you compare it to Angkorian and pre-Angkorian structures that abound across our Kingdom. Nevertheless, the Palace is one of Phnom Penh’s main landmarks and tourist attractions. It serves as the symbol of the Kingdom and the official residence of His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni.
Cambodia is a parliamentary monarchy, the king reigns but does not rule. Many official ceremonies, including the King’s audiences take place at the Royal Palace. The Palace is closed to tourists when official functions need to be performed or foreign dignitaries are visiting. Several sections are off limits and clearly marked, so follow the flow of selfies or your guide!
If you’re using the Eastern Victory Gate, you’re probably the leader of your own people, prime minister, president, secretary general or generalissimo at least. The Northern Gate, facing the National Museum, is for staff. Tourists use the Southern Gate on Street 240 (also called Okhna Chhun Street).
Admissions are from 8 am to 5 pm, with a lunch break from 11 am to 2 pm. The ticket will cost you 25,000 riel (about $6.25).
If you’re Khmer, you’ll be wearing trousers (men wear shorts only for sports, at the beach and at home) and collared shirts (preferably long sleeves). Foreign visitors are only asked to wear knee long shorts (Bermudas are great), and elbow long sleeves (no tank top or sleeveless shirts). Kids can wear anything they want. This is just a formality. His Majesty King Sihamoni lived many happy years as an anonymous classical ballet instructor in Paris, so he’s probably accustomed to tanked topped tourists!
The Palace at the Four Arms
The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh was constructed on top of the foundations of Banteay Kev (the Citadel of Glass). Banteay Kev was built by King Ang Chan in 1813 but only served briefly as royal residence. The Siamese razed it in 1834.
The construction of the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh started in 1866 when King Norodom moved Cambodia’s capital from Oudong, 40 km north of Phnom Penh. The Palace is built at an auspicious location, the Chaktomuk where the four arms of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet.
The earliest buildings, mixing French and Khmer architecture, were added in the decade following the establishment of the palace. Each of the following monarchs made significant contributions: King Sisowath added several Angkorian inspired structured in the 1910s, King Monivong oversaw the construction of a new Royal Residence and the Royal Chapel in the 1930s.
Buildings of the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh
Some people, like my cousin, can spend hours exploring museums and the smallest art exhibition, others are happy to rush through. If you follow the hordes of guided tourists, you can whisk through the main buildings of the Royal Palace in an hour or less probably.
But then again, you could easily spend the whole day reading up on the artefacts, exploring old photos of the 19th century, going back and forth between French and Khmer architecture. Or you could simply look for a quiet spot and enjoy the calm beauty of the gardens. Go on, find yourself a shaded spot to sip an ice cold drink, only occasionally disturbed by the rampaging crowds.
If you’re an ambassador, this is where you’ll present your letters of credentials. Foreign leaders are welcomed here as well. The tower is 59 metre high and bears some resemblance to Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. The Throne Hall was inaugurated by King Sisowath in 1919. Coronations and royal weddings also take place here.
Don’t sit on any of the three royal thrones on display, you could get into trouble! The 9-level Khmer throne, the bossabok, represents the different levels of hell, middle earth and heaven. The throne is exquisitely carved and chiselled.
Do admire the busts of Khmer kings and queens starting with King Ang Duong, and the towering statue of King Sisowath, wielding prodigious Preah Khan, the King’s Sword. Don’t forget to look up and appreciate the beautiful murals of the Reamker, the Khmer Ramayana, the eternal epic of Rama.
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Wat Preah Keo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is also known as the Silver Pagoda, because of its floors lined with 5,000 silver tiles. Climb up the Italian marble stairs to admire the Buddha statues on display.
You’ll probably first notice the huge life-size gold Buddha, commissioned by King Sisowath in 1907: 90 kg of gold and encrusted with 9,584 diamonds (real ones!). The smaller Buddha statue on the pedestal is the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha has traditionally been part of the King’s Regalia. The safety and happiness of the Kingdom depend on the safekeeping of the Emerald Buddha. In other words, it is the palladium of Cambodia.
There are all kinds of legends surrounding the Emerald Buddha, one of which suggests that the original Buddha was taken from Angkor by the Siamese in 1432 (and that it now presumably sits in Bangkok). One thing is certain: the Emerald Buddha is not made of emerald at all, but rather of crystal (“keo” actually means “glass” in Khmer).
The Moonlight Pavilion is the most familiar building and figures on many postcards of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. It is built alongside the eastern wall and can be seen from the street. The Moonlight Pavilion serves as an open air stage for performances by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia (check our post on Cambodian performance arts). The current pavilion was built in 1914 and is based on an older wooden structure inaugurated by King Norodom.
Pavillion Napoléon III
The Pavilion was gifted in 1876 to King Norodom by Napoléon III, Emperor of the Second Empire and nephew to Napoléon. Even if you’ve never been to France and know little about architecture, you won’t fail to notice that its style is rather out of place. For one thing, it’s entirely made of iron, which is probably not the best construction material in the humid sub-tropical Cambodian climate. An extraordinary collection of historical black and white photographs is on display.
Peace and calm
The Royal Palace is the most peaceful and quiet place in Phnom Penh, a notoriously loud city. For obvious reasons, the noise is curtailed by the City Watch (Nokor Bal or police) on the streets surrounding the palace. It also helps to have police stations and police departments in the immediate vicinities of the Palace.
After your visit, take a stroll to Street 240 behind the Palace, located West between Norodom Boulevard and Yukhantor Street. You’ll find a small but good selection of cafes, restaurants and spas for refreshments and relaxation. If you have time to spare, consider another half day visit to the National Museum, just north of the Royal Palace.