One does pronounce the “P” in Phnom Penh

(Note added November 23rd: For actual information on the pronunciation of Phnom Penh, click here. The title of this post was intended to be slightly whimsical. This posting does not actually discuss the pronunciation of Phnom Penh.)

Every once in awhile it hits me. I woke up this morning and had the moment where I wondered where I was. Definitely not my own bed. Then I remember. I am in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, having arrived yesterday after a five hour speedboat ride down the Bessac River and up the Mekong River from Chau Doc, Vietnam. If it were not for the fact that Chau Doc is a provincial capital, it would likely take someone quite some time to locate  even in a good world atlas. We have completed an incredible Asian tour that started in Beijing, China and ends here in Phnom Penh. Tomorrow, we fly to Singapore to visit friends and prepare for work in Sri Lanka. It boggles my mind that we have had this wonderful experience.

About 1985, we visited Amsterdam. Quite accidentally, our visit coincided with their national holiday, the Queen’s Birthday. We barely managed to get a room and discovered some delightful things about the Dutch and the Queen’s Birthday. First, on the Queen’s Birthday, everyone either gives a public recital of their amateur musical skills or conducts a rummage sale in a public park. Second, we found it absolutely impossible to cross a street in downtown Amsterdam because of a dense, lively, happy crowd of people all drinking Heineken beer. As it turns out, today is Pchum Ben Day in Cambodia. We were told it is one of twenty-six national holidays in Cambodia, but this is one of the most important. What this means to us is that we have Phnom Penh pretty much to ourselves as all two million inhabitants have gone home to the countryside to spend time with their families and worship their ancestors. Almost all shops are closed, though our guide did find us one pretty good souvenir shop where Kris bought some silk scarves and some silver jewelry.

The Royal Palace grounds were off-limits today and that precluded visits to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. Disaster was averted because the National Museum was open. This was our primary reason for visiting Phnom Penh in the first place. When we visited Angkor Wat three years ago, we discovered that many of the best sculpture had been removed from Angkor and moved to the National Museum for safekeeping. On that visit, we went to Siem Reap via Bangkok and did not come through Phnom Penh. The National Museum was as good as advertised and even better than we expected. Visiting the museum complements a visit to Angkor in two ways. First, it does contain some of the best pieces of sculpture from Angkor and it was very satisfying to “complete” our visit to Angkor by seeing these fine examples of carving. Second, the National Museum contains many pieces of sculpture that a) are not carved stone, and b) are either from pre- or post-Angkor periods. This helped to put what we saw at Angkor into a broader historical perspective.

Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts. Our hotel is a bit of a thrill for Kris and it apparently grew out of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club here. Everyone here just calls it the FCC. There are only four guest rooms and they are very nice. The floor above us is a restaurant and it is also very nice. Unfortunately the restaurant charges Western prices. We have been spoiled by Vietnam and its excellent, cheap food. In our touring around town, we have seen the homes of some of the people getting rich off of Cambodia. Unfortunately, the tourist sites also display some of the most miserable beggars we have ever seen, many with war-related mutilations. Near the National Museum, we saw families camped under tarps on the sidewalks. One city park has been occupied by a squatters camp. Our guide praised the NGOs who have come to Cambodia and concentrated on giving work to the poor and the handicapped.

We’ve eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the hotel restaurant because of the holiday and now it is time to head off for dinner at the same spot.

Take care.




  1. November 16, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    […] keeps stats on how people get referred to my blog. A significant number of people have been viewing my posting titled “One does pronounce the ‘P’ in Phnom Penh” because some search engine is directing them to the post when they search on “pronouncing […]

  2. margaret from Maryland said,

    December 2, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    I’ve spent a great deal of time in Cambodia and was taught by the Khmer residents to keep the “p” in Phnom! A peeve of mine is the “nam pen” pronounciation I hear so often.
    Phnom means “hill”, Penh is the family name of a lady who lived on the hill in the city…hence Phnom Penh, or Hill of the Lady Penh.

  3. Tim said,

    December 3, 2008 at 2:07 pm


    Thanks for the comment. In a comment to the followup posting, Don said:
    “.. Pen is not pronounced “Pen” but more like “Peng” with an ng sound at the end. Cambodians themselves often shorten all this to “Mpeng”…”

    Does this agree with your experience?


  4. December 22, 2008 at 4:49 am

    […] I’ve uploaded my photos taken in Phnom Penh to my Picasa web site.  I’ve already blogged about some of our experiences in Phnom Penh in my posting that got the whole “How to pronounce Phnom Penh” thing […]

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