The Two Gallivants

Phnom Penh Palace: decent photos, good music but otherwise a royal letdown!

On lists of things to do in Phnom Penh, the Royal Palace is usually touted as a must see…but we’re not so sure. Why? Well, here’s a short account of our weird day out at the Palace…

We found the Palace very easily as it sits right off the main riverside strip in the city. The queue to get in moved quickly and we paid the US$13 total for both our tickets, to include entry to the Silver Pagoda area as well (it would have been US$2 extra to bring in our camera(!), but we were very naughty and hid it from view). We thought the price tag was a bit steep going by usual Cambodian standards, but we didn’t dwell too much on it. We assumed it would be worth it, given the ticket guys were very organised and they kept the entrance looking pristine. It all boded well from our first impressions…

Phnom Penh Royal Palace

Enter the Palace

So we happily made our way into the main square of the Palace grounds, which seemed fan-dabby-tastic. It looked like there would be lots of places to roam about and get lost in, not to mention great opportunities for sweeping shots of the glistening, Disney-like buildings all around us. Well, so far, so good we thought…

palace4 palace7Hmmm, yep, so far, so good…naturally something just had to come along and bring us back down from our little high with a thump! When we tried to go off-piste away from the main square and take an innocent stroll down an innocuous looking path, a guy suddenly jumped out from behind a tree shouting “No go!” “No go!”, almost browning our pants in the process! If you look close enough at the following picture you can see him hiding behind a tree…

palace2After our initial shock and bewilderment at his ninja display, we guessed he was telling us that we couldn’t walk down that path, for whatever reason. So we continued our stroll around the square. After that little incident, however, the realisation set in that this visit would be a regimented affair, one in which we’d march along behind the heels of the tourists in front. So the Palace started to lose its character in our eyes and began to seem a tad sterile.

We walked on anyway, taking the obligatory snaps as we went, not really looking where we were going, until we were barked at again! This time by a more official looking dude, complete with a security uniform and a gun. With more shouts of “No go!” “No go!” and arm waving, it didn’t take us long to figure out that yet again we couldn’t go down another little path! Who knows, maybe Jimmy Hoffa is hidden there in the flowers or something…

"You shall not pass!"

“You shall not pass!”

You might ask why were we so riled at this, given that the guards weren’t exactly stopping us from attending the party of the century. That may well be true as it didn’t seem like there was much happening down these mysterious little paths, but in any situation, any arbitrary restrictions on our freedom to wander does annoy us. That is especially so after paying a fairly significant entrance fee without being informed beforehand that the attraction is not really open! Maybe we’re just too easily irked.

Anyway, we asked a few tourists what was going on and we were told that some of the Khmer royal family were staying at the residential bit of the Palace and that’s why there were so many areas in shutdown.

Hmmm, ok, but it doesn’t really make sense as the residential wing is nowhere near the public bit. It also didn’t explain why we then kept encountering signs all over the place refusing entry to most buildings around the public square – far away from the precious VIPs. We couldn’t even take photos through open windows or doors of these buildings. A lot of the seemingly public garden areas were out-of-bounds too; it was simply a rather strange tourist attraction indeed!

Phnom Penh Royal Palace 3Phnom Penh Palace 2To our amazement though there were a few isolated display rooms that were actually open to the public! These rooms had dusty displays of ceremonial dresses, swords and trinkets. These were ok to have a glance at, although on closer inspection there wasn’t enough useful information to properly explain what we were looking and and it was all a bit boring to be honest.

But let’s hold up for a second. We are probably being a bit too harsh on the Palace, as it does have some redeeming features. While slightly artificial, the grounds and gardens are beautifully ornate, are pleasant for strolling in and are very photogenic…

palace12and there is interesting and colourful art scattered around.

Silver Pagoda at Phnom Penh Palace

Art at Phnom Penh PalaceThe best part of the Palace for us though was watching a Khmer traditional band entertaining the tourists near the exit. Listening to the band was the most real experience we had that day of Khmer culture. It would have been even better if those guys were given more of a centre stage in the Palace grounds, so that the music followed us wherever we walked. Here’s a quick clip of the band we watched:

So, would we say the Palace is a must see? No, we wouldn’t, although if parting with US$6.50 per person is not a worry to you, then it is fine to pass an hour or so there while you wait for a respectable time to hit the upmarket cocktail bars!

For those of you, like us, on a tight budget, thirteen dollars per couple is a lot for this attraction which we thought lacked any authentic atmosphere. The buildings and the religious monuments all appeared too new and shiny and they have a certain faux-ancient look about them. We are no lovers nor have any knowledge of architecture and are likely just lacking in taste, but the Palace is too modern to be enchanting for us. Maybe we were too spoilt as we had recently been to the mystical Angkor Wat temple complex, which kept us totally enthralled for days. Whatever the reason we didn’t fall in love with the Palace, we do know that if we could jump back in time, we’d save our money by just chilling out in the gardens outside the Palace and watch Phnom Penh go busily by. With the river on one side and the Palace buildings towering on the other, that’s not bad for nothing!

In our next post, we’ll be looking at the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge, which are vividly retold at the brilliant and evocative Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Those are definitely must see if you’re in Phnom Penh.

Have you been to the Palace in Phnom Penh? How did you find it?

The Two Gallivants

4 thoughts on “Phnom Penh Palace: decent photos, good music but otherwise a royal letdown!

  1.'pauline melillo

    nice wee narrative there Declan, great photos and agree that the soothing music from those musicians should have been heard throughout the grounds for an added touch……I too have a preference for things old and unmanicured, left more in their natural, unorganized state( Drew comes to mind, haha!)……thinking you two might enjoy a visit to Jordan at some future point and visit PETRA…my favorite, ancient place I’ve been to so far…..keep well and keep these blogs coming! xx

  2.'donna bradley

    palace grounds look lovely and a gran wee bita music as well what morw do you want for a couple of dollers
    i spelt everything wrong hittin the wrong keys lol

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