One of the top things to do in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, is visiting its magnificent riverside palace complex. Still the official residence of the royal family, there are a couple of strict rules to follow, so read on for a complete guide to visiting Phnom Penh's Royal Palace...
A brief history of the Royal Palace of Cambodia
Construction of the Royal Palace complex began in 1866, during the reign of King Norodom and has served as the residence of Cambodian kings and the royal family for generations. It has witnessed significant historical events including occupation by first the French and then the Japanese, the turbulent years following a coup in 1970 and 4 hellish years under Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Over the years, the palace has undergone several expansions and renovations and today is a glittering testament to Cambodia's resilience.
Today, Phnom Penh's Royal Palace is a prominent cultural and architectural landmark, welcoming visitors from around the world and offering a glimpse into the nation's regal past and the splendour of Khmer craftsmanship. History, tradition and spirituality blend beneath traditional Khmer golden curved rooves.
What is there to see at the Royal Palace?
While exploring the complex, we were immediately struck by its similarity to the Thai Royal Palace in Bangkok! Here are some key highlights you can expect to see when visiting the Royal Palace:
1. Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo Morokat):
Also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Silver Pagoda is one of the most famous buildings in the palace complex. Once a simple wooden structure, the magnificent building you will visit dates from 1962. Its name comes from its floor which is covered with over 5,000 silver tiles (now mostly hidden by protective rugs and carpets). The pagoda houses an extensive collection of Buddhist artefacts, including a life-sized gold Buddha adorned with thousands of diamonds, the revered emerald Buddha statue and various gifts from international heads of states. Photography is not permitted in the Silver Pagoda and you'll need to leave your shoes outside.
2. Throne Hall (Preah Tineang Tevea Vinichhay):
The Throne Hall, with its gold tiled roof, remains a symbol of royal power and is still used for official ceremonies like coronations, royal weddings and receiving important guests. Rebuilt in 1917, its 59-meter golden stupa-like tower soars over the palace complex and the ceiling frescos were painted by French artists.
3. Moonlight Pavilion (Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya):
Visible from the square in front of the palace, this elegant open-air pavilion has a balcony overlooking the high yellow walls so that the royal family can watch parades and processions below. is a serene and picturesque spot within the palace complex. It was traditionally used for royal dances and performances and most recently, the Pavilion was used for a banquet at the 2004 coronation of King Norodom Sihamoni.
4. Napoleon III Pavilion:
This unique building, made almost entirely from cast iron, is rumoured to have been sent to Cambodia's king in the 19th century as a gift from Napoleon III, the Emperor of France - another theory is that it was bought from the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle. In any case, the iron structure, reflecting a blend of Khmer and European architectural styles, is entirely unsuitable for the humid Cambodian climate!
5. Gardens and Courtyards:
The Royal Palace features beautifully landscaped gardens and courtyards adorned with statues and lush tropical greenery. Stroll the French style paths and enjoy the tranquillity of the complex. The walls surrounding the Silver Pagoda are covered with hundreds of metres of frescos (biggest mural frescos in South East Asia) depicting the Reamker, a traditional Cambodian epic poem based on the Sanskrit Ramayana.
The western courtyard containing the Prasat Khemarin, the official residence of the King of Cambodia, is not open to the public. If the blue flag is flying, it means he's home! The current king, His Majesty, King Norodom Sihamoni, is a fascinating character: sent to study in Prague as a child, he specialised in classical dance, music and theatre at the city's Academy of Performing Arts. After studying cinematography in North Korea, he returned to Cambodia in 1977, only to be held under house arrest by the Khmer Rouge with the rest of his family at the palace. After Pol Pot's regime was ousted, Norodom Sihamoni moved to France to set up his own dance troupe, Ballet Deva, until his father abdication in 2004 led to him inheriting the throne.
Top tips for visiting the Royal Palace:
1. Dress appropriately: The Royal Palace is a sacred and revered site, so it's important to dress modestly and respectfully, making sure your shoulders and knees are covered. We read that arms needed to be covered to the elbow but saw lots of people in t-shirts, we'd advise bringing a long sleeve shirt to throw over the top if needed.
2. Respect the photography rules: Be mindful of any restricted areas or photography signage- taking photos is prohibited in certain areas, particularly inside the Silver Pagoda and Throne Room, so it's essential to respect these guidelines.
3. Don't forget your Covid mask: When we visited in February 2023, the Royal Palace was the only place in the whole of Cambodia (apart from flights) where we found that mask wearing was still required. This rule was very strictly enforced - people were not allowed inside the gate even to buy tickets without a mask, so be sure to have one in your bag! Savvy locals were selling face masks outside but these were massively marked up and overpriced.
4. Plan your visit strategically: The Royal Palace can get crowded, especially during peak tourist seasons. To avoid large crowds and ensure a more peaceful visit, arrive early in the morning when the palace first opens or in the late afternoon before the complex closes at 5pm. It's worth double checking the opening hours in advance as the palace may be closed during certain royal events or ceremonies. The Palace gets particularly busy on Sundays when Khmer people travel in from around the country to pay their respects.
5. Show reverence and silence: The Royal Palace is not just a royal residence but an important place of worship, so it's important to maintain a respectful and quiet demeanour while inside. Behave as you would when visiting a temple or church - keep your voice low, avoid disruptive behaviour and be mindful of those around you who may be engaged in prayer or meditation.
Other useful info:
The main entrance to the Royal Palace is on Samdach Sothearos Boulevard where locals relax in the adjacent grassy park. Facing the yellow palace walls, turn left and walk about halfway down to find the entrance to the ticket counters.
Opening hours: From 8-11am and 2-5pm
Entry fee: $10/40,000 Riel
It's possible to hire a guide to take you around the complex - they typically wait inside the entrance gate by the ticket counters and will charge $10 per hour.
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