Leaving out the Royal Palace while you are in Phnom Penh is tantamount to skipping Angkor Wat when you are in Siem Reap. In addition to its main function as the royal residence and the monumental archive of the monarchs, the Palace also offers great and illuminating insights into the Cambodian cultural and architectural elements, as well as the Kingdom’s history. The beautifully manicured grounds and ornate buildings are only a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of city life, writes Taing Rinith.
The Royal Palace, designed by the legendary architecture Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak and built in 1866, has four gates: Victory Gate, Funeral Gate, Executing Gate and Commoners Gate. However, only Commoners Gate, which could be reached by travelling on Southearos Boulevard, is open to the public.
Vehicles are prohibited near the entrance, so find a place to park and walk in. Since you will spend most of time there walking under the sun, morning is the best time to tour the site.
Near the gate is the ticket booth, where tour guides speaking different languages, are stationed. Entrance fee is 1,000 riel ($0.25) for a Khmer visitor and 40,000 riel ($10) for a foreigner while hiring a tour guide costs around $10 per hour. There are several rules to be observed, including no smoking and no weapons or any sharp object, and a dress code for clothes that reach the knee and t-shirts or blouses that reach to the elbow, particularly covering the shoulders.
There is no cafeteria in the Royal Palace, so do eat first before entering the site. Yet, there are a few stands selling drinks and ice-cream.
In a nutshell, the space where you can tour in the Royal Palace can be divided into four blocks, each with a main structure: Khemarin Palace in the north, Throne Hall, the Inner Court in the West and Silver Pagoda in the South. However, only south and central compounds are open to the public. Don’t worry! These two areas possess enough features even to keep you busy for the entire day.
From the gate, enter a path to see numerous statues of angels and your journey begins by walking past beautiful landscape gardens into the north. When you reach the next gate, the Victory Gate, turn left toward The Throne Hall, also known as Preah Tineang Tevea Vinnichay Mohai Moha Prasat (translated as Sacred Seat of Judgment).
In the past, the Throne Hall served as a platform where king’s confidantes, officials and generals performed their duty. Today, it is the place where royal ceremonies and ritual take place. A stunning throne, known as Preah Tineang Bossabok, is placed in in the hall.
Heading back to the south from the Throne Hall, you will run into several other architectural structures built with Khmer traditional style and a slight of French touch such as Hor Samritvimean, the Royal Treasury, and Moonlight Pavilion (Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya), an open-air pavilion that serves as a stage for the Royal Ballet performance. Not far south of the Throne Hall and today under restoration is Napolean III Pavillion, built with clearly visible French design and given to King Norodom by Napoleon III of France in 1876.
There are even more interesting things to see and do in the south bloc, in the centre of which is the Silver Pagoda, also known as Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot, probably the most popular attraction on the site. Built out of Italian marble, it is home to the Emerald Buddha, an extraordinary Baccarat-crystal sculpture sitting on a gilded pedestal. Adding to the lavish mix is a life-sized solid-gold Buddha adorned with 2086 diamonds, the largest weighing in at 25 carats, as well as many other valuable Buddha statues.
The Silver Pagoda also serves as a public museum featuring articles which find their place in Kingdom’s history, from coin currencies and jewellery to weapons of war. Many precious mementos from foreign heads of state to Khmer monarchs are also exhibited there. Don’t take out your phone or camera on reflex when you are here, because taking picture inside the pagoda is forbidden.
Even more fascinating monuments surround the Silver Pagoda, like the huge stupas in which the remains of the late monarchs are kept while people love taking pictures of themselves with a miniature model of the Angkor Wat. Meanwhile, at Kailasa Mountain, an elevated oasis of shrubbery with a small shrine atop, you can anoint yourself with the holy water for good fortune and happiness. Surrounding all these structures is a long corridor of murals depicting scenes from Reamke, a Khmer epic adapted from India’s Ramayana.
After two hours in the south compound, it should be time to move on further south and turn left, to reach the Exhibition Hall. Among others, Roung Domrey (Elephant Stable) is a gallery, dedicated to the royal elephants and featuring hundreds of statues and silverware made in the form of the biggest land mammal. King Sihanouk’s Photo Gallery, in the meantime, tells the life story of the ‘Father of Cambodia’s Independence’, from his childhood to repatriation. Yet, the most remarkable gallery should be Preah Sihamoni’s Expo, where many articles related to royal family are on display. Some examples are a rifle which belonged to King Norodom, along with royal seals and decrees.
Before heading for the exit, it would make sense to sit yourself down under a cannonball tree for quiet reflection, to the strains of court music from the Palace band playing traditional instruments. Your rare visit of the Royal Palace has enriched you with intimate knowledge of the Cambodian monarchy and its 2,000-year history.
The Royal Palace is open to the public every day, from 8am to 11am and 2pm to 5pm.