We fell in love with Phnom Penh and its architecture a long time ago. Though the country is famous for its Angkor Wat temples, the city doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Phnom Penh features grand architecture from different periods. Not only that, but it’s the birthplace of the so-called New Khmer architecture. The mid-20th Century style is like no other.
Besides, the city boasts fantastic temples, palaces, mansions, and art deco buildings. To our delight, Phnom Pehn has been able to preserve the best of its heritage! Today, you can stay in luxurious hotels and eat at fancy restaurants. Let’s not forget the contemporary towers that dot the city. The following are our favorite buildings in Phnom Penh. Visit now before the word comes around!
Phnom Penh Architecture Masterpieces
Wat Phnom is not only Phnom Penh’s oldest building but also its tallest and most important temple. The first temple on the site dates back to the late 14th century. However, the one we can see today is from the 19th and 20th centuries. The temple was built to host a bronze Buddha statue that local widow Lady Penh found in the river.
The temple was named after the widow and the city after the temple. It’s a compound of buildings on top of a hill. A monumental stairway takes you to the main pagoda. Paintings of Buddah’s reincarnations before his enlightenment cover the walls. Behind the main pagoda, you’ll find the giant Stupa and a small shrine dedicated to Lady Penh. The views from the top will take your breath away.
Wat Ounalom is close to the Royal Palace. The Buddhist temple founded in 1443 is the center of Cambodian Buddhism. At that time, it was one of the five temples in the new Cambodian capital. As most of the city, it was severely damaged during Khmer Rouge times. Therefore, most buildings date back to the late 20th Century.
The compound is massive and includes 44 temples and other structures. Near the eastern entrance, facing the river, we find the Main Temple from 1952. The 3-story building hosts a collection of paintings and sculptures depicting the life of Buddha. On the other hand, numerous sculptures dot the temple’s courtyard.
Royal Palace of Cambodia
The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh is the residence of the King of Cambodia. It was built as the royal seat in 1870 when King Norodom moved his capital here from Oudong. It’s been the royal residence since then, except during the Khmer Rouge rule. It is currently undergoing renovations and closed for visits.
The palace encompasses a large area of 174,870 square meters (1,882,300 sq ft). The main structures are the Throne Hall, the Moonlight Pavilion, the Silver Pagoda, and the Khemarin Palace. You’ll recognize the Throne Hall by its three sharp towers. The central one is a four-faced head of Brahma. The Silver Pagoda next to it got its name from the massive silver floor.
Central Post Office
The French empire ruled Cambodia from 1863 to 1953. Many buildings from that period have survived until today. One of the grandest is the Central Post Office in the former French quarter. French architect Daniel Fabre built it in 1895, but it’s been reconstructed several times.
The post office is one of the best examples of French neoclassical architecture in Southeast Asia. The symmetrical building features three different volumes. The central one is the tallest and most decorated one. You will recognize it from its clock. Arched windows surround the ground floor. Notice the columns with Corinthian capitals and the balustrades on the second floor.
Mansion FCC and UNESCO Building
Phnom Penh has some of the best French colonial architecture in the region. Two of the most impressive ones are on the block between the national museum and the Mekong River. We are talking about the famous Mansion FCC and the offices of UNESCO in Cambodia. Both are multi-story buildings from the 1910s.
The Mansion FCC is slightly bigger and has a more playful façade. Both buildings have large vestibules on both floors and a slightly taller and wider central volume crowned with a sort of tympanum. The Mansion also has two side volumes. While you can admire UNESCO’s headquarters, the Mansion is currently under reconstruction.
National Museum of Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia is the country’s most important museum. It holds the largest collection of Khmer art in the world. Not only that but over 14 000 artifacts from prehistoric to post-Angkorian times. It’s one of our favorites in the world. Besides, the museum is also a place of worship.
French architect George Groslier designed the building in the tradition of Angkorian architecture. Three tall spires interrupt the long main facade. The tallest spire is in the center. A long vestibule surrounds the building with a courtyard in the middle. Don’t miss the intricate bas relief on the central volume under the spire.
National Library of Cambodia
To our amazement, Phnom Penh has incredible buildings that most tourists ignore. Such is the case of the National Library of Cambodia, founded in 1924. Almost 80 percent of its books were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge rule. Today, it hosts some 120000 pieces, including more than 300 palm leaf manuscripts.
The small building is on Daun Penh Avenue, in between big public offices and hotels. However, the library itself is quite interesting. An elegant portico with double columns dominates the main façade. Above it, you will see the Bibliotheque sign and a cornice with small balustrades. Notice the geometrical bas reliefs that decorate the façade.
Royal Railway Station
Cambodia has two railway lines starting from Phnom Penh. One goes to the Thai border and the other to Sihanoukville. The city’s Royal Railway Station worked for decades until it became a meeting hall for Khmer Rouge officials. Later on, it was a train station again, only to be abandoned at the beginning of the 21st century. It is currently operational.
The wonderful Art Deco building is from 1932. Its monumental appearance is due to its symmetrical layout and the two tall square towers. However, thanks to the long thin openings and the simple decorations, it is a modern structure. Don’t forget to go inside and admire the giant beams.
The Central Market in downtown Phnom Penh is what top Art Deco architecture should be. When it opened in 1937, it was one of the largest markets in Asia. Even to this day, locals and tourists visit to buy anything from jewelry, handicrafts, and souvenirs to furniture, clothes, and food.
When Jean Desbois designed it, he was also the city’s architect. A giant dome and four diagonal limbs cover the central area. The market stands out for its cascading roof and repetitive triangular decoration on the windows. Due to its tall ceiling and windows, the symmetrical building is full of light.
Chaktomuk Conference Hall
The Chaktomuk Conference Hall next to the river is a masterpiece by Cambodia’s most important modern architect: Van Molyvann. It opened in 1961 as the main venue of the Sixth Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. Today, it works as an auditorium, a theater, and a reception hall.
Since it’s next to the Mekong, the Conference Hall was designed to capture the river breeze. Thus the shape of a fan or a palm leaf. Its main façade is thoroughly modern, with horizontal and diagonal beams marking the design. However, in between, you’ll spot bas reliefs inspired by Angkorian temples. There is also a central spire that gives it a temple-like appearance.
Van Molyvann is also the author of Phnom Pehn’s most iconic landmark. The Independence Monument from 1962 pays homage to Cambodian independence from France in 1953. Most national celebrations in the city take place here. People from all over the country visit the monument. You will see friends and families taking pictures.
The monument stands in a roundabout at the intersection of two major avenues. It’s a stupa in the shape of a lotus flower, a clear reminiscence of the towers of Angkor Wat. The 37-meter tall structure stands on top of a pediment. There are large stairs on all four sides.
National Olympic Stadium
The Olympic Stadium is one of the best examples of Phnom Penh’s modern architecture. It’s another building designed by Van Molyvann. Throughout its history, it hosted international sports events, including two qualifying matches for the 1966 FIFA World Cup. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, it was the site of mass executions.
The Olympic Stadium is Cambodia’s first truly modern building. It features slick lines and exposed concrete. The star of the stadium is its western façade. It consists of three auditoriums protruding diagonally from the façade and a massive staircase. A thin concrete roof covers the entire entrance.
The Royal University of Phnom Penh
The Royal University of Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s biggest university. Established in 1960, it offers degrees in science, engineering, humanities, and social sciences. The current campus on Russian Federation Boulevard is from the late 60s. Its authors are French architects Leroy and Mondet. The gardens are as gorgeous as the buildings.
The most impressive building on the campus is the large auditorium. You’ll easily recognize it by its parabolic roof. It was designed to allow air and light in. However, it seems the acoustics are not that great. We like how the architects incorporated the rectangular openings into the parabolic shape.
Institute of Foreign Languages
The Institute of Foreign Languages has the most striking appearance of all the university buildings in the city. It is the work of Van Molyvann, who didn’t see it finished as he fled the country right before the military coup. In the beginning, the complex housed the Teacher Training College.
The compound has three buildings: the main offices, the classrooms, and the library. The main building is red and white, with a sharp contrast between the open and closed surfaces. The striking classrooms resemble animals with inclined pillars and protruding bodies. In contrast, the library has a simple round shape and triangular pillars.
Aquation Office Park
After a couple of decades of modest architecture, Phnom Penh is finally back. New buildings keep mushrooming all over the city. Our favorite contemporary architecture in Phnom Penh is in the middle of Diamond Island, a.k.a. Koh Pich. We are talking about the Aquation Office Park, a hip compound that attracts a young and creative crowd.
The first green office park in Cambodia, Aquation feels like an oasis in the middle of the urban chaos. Its height and density contrast sharply with the surrounding buildings. The slick béton brut structures with small squared openings and horizontal windows seem like an extension of the green area. The whole place has a solemn yet relaxed atmosphere.
Cool Hotels to Stay in Phnom Penh
To experience the best architecture in Phnom Penh, stay at the Pavilion Hotel. The meticulously refurbished 1920s main building used to be the residence of Queen Kossamak. We loved the antique furniture and art. The Pavilion is set in a luscious garden on one of the nicest streets in the city, within walking distance of most attractions. The service is in a class of its own.
The historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal is another great place to stay in Phnom Penh. French architect Ernest Hebrard designed the grand hotel in 1923. He’s the author of the famous redevelopment plan of Thessaloniki. The massive rooms are super comfortable and come with modern-day conveniences and balconies. We loved the pool and the chic spa.