The Cambodian capital is known for both its beautiful architecture, both ancient and from French colonial times, as well as its recent violent history. Before the war in the seventies, Phnom Penh was called the Paris of the East, and hailed for its beautiful white facades interspersed with temples (wats) over a millennium old.
Though the Khmer Rouge regime is long gone, the roughness of Phnom Penh is just slowly disappearing. Brick by brick, a new sense of identity is emerging. Putting the city at the center of all that is great about traveling through South East Asia.
A youthful vibrancy fills the hot, humid air, juxtaposing the saffron robes of monks. The mighty Mekong operates as the sky’s personal mirror. It spreads the exotic sunset colors to kingdom come, splashing on a collection of modern skyscrapers that stand alongside traditional markets.
The modern and classic collide, offering an interesting mix of things to do in Phnom Penh. But while modernism wins out in Saigon, it’s not the case here. Travelers can get lost in the smells, sounds and sights of Phnom Penh with plenty of opportunities to take a glimpse into the past. For better or worse.
17. Visit Tonle Bati
Explore the outskirts of Phnom Penh by visiting the local getaway spot of Tonle Bati. This is a multi-dimensional destination that combines a relaxing lakeside experience with ancient Buddhist temples.
Arrive during the week when it’s quieter and kick back by the lake where restaurants pool over the water’s edge and drink stalls help thirsty passersby. Not far from the lake is Wat Tonle Bati, whose pagoda can be traced back to the year 1576.
Alongside Ta Prohm and Yeay Peov, this was a space for Hindu deities and a place of worship since the 6th century, when the maritime empire of Funan ruled the region.
16. Koh Dach
As you venture through the many markets of Phnom Penh, you’ll see an abundance of silk. Much of this is sourced from Koh Dach, the aptly-named Silk Island.
The island is steps from the heart of the city. Koh Dach is a discernible reminder of the city’s past. Residents still live in traditional housing, the flow of life is without hints of Western society and visitors get a glimpse of rural life, just minutes from downtown.
Here, locals spin the wheels that transform their silk materials into clothing and accessories. These are then sold for much cheaper than elsewhere. So grab a bike, explore the island and, in addition, sample some of the riverside restaurants.
15. Night Market
A staple of travel around South East Asia is the Night Market. They exist in all shapes, but always bring a vibrant atmosphere full of delightful aromas and eye-catching colors. The Phnom Penh Night Market is no different.
Food, shopping, a beer or two combine with aplomb as you make your way down the many aisles. Stalls packed with local delicacies fill the thick, warm air with mouthwatering scents and the noise of bartering bounces from left to right.
The Night Market is visceral and palpable. With all your chosen treats, kick back and enjoy the action from the classic plastic tables and chairs and revel as your taste buds dance.
14. Cambodia Post Office
A vivid image of Phnom Penh’s colonial history can be found at the Cambodia Post Office. The bright array of yellow splashed across the Art déco style building will immediately draw you in.
Still functioning with its original purpose in the 21st century, the building is a poignant reminder of the treaty signed with the French in 1863. This led to a relatively small village receiving enormous growth, transforming Phnom Penh into an urban landscape.
The area surrounding the post office is still known as the French district and harbors an array of colonial architecture from Belle époque to Victorian.
13. Watch a Cambodian Living Arts Performance
Traditional Khmer dance is over a thousand years old. But as it was seen as the bridge between the kings and gods, it was only performed in the royal courts. This all changed in the middle of the 20th century, paving the way for you to enjoy one of Cambodia’s unique experiences.
Shows are performed around Cambodia, but Cambodian Living Arts is arguably the best of the lot. The brilliant one-hour performance occurs within the Meta House and is a collaboration of old fables, history, opera and folk dance.
If this piques your interest, come back to Meta House for art exhibitions and film.
12. Take a River Cruise
Cambodia is the Mekong River’s second last stop on its epic 4,900km journey through South East Asia. Phnom Penh’s location on its flowing banks makes it a wonderful spot for a river cruise.
Whether it be broad daylight where the city is awake and in motion, or at sunset as the heat wanes and life slows down, taking a cruise is a fantastic way to see the city. Away from the busy, narrow streets, enjoy some peace and time to appreciate the views.
Taking sunset cruises are among the popular things to do in Phnom Penh, both on the Mekong and neighboring Tonle Sap. You can also hire a private boat from the river banks throughout the day.
11. Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center
Run by the Wildlife Alliance, the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is all you need to restore faith in humanity. The non-profit organization has several centers across the world. But here in Phnom Penh, it’s all about habitat conservation and protecting animals from illegal trafficking.
A tour of the rescue center puts you meters away from some of the most charming, delightful and intimidating animals on the planet. Starting early, before the mid-day heat, your tour takes you by tigers, a nursery with baby monkeys and the chance to interact with elephants.
While you can visit the center without a tour, the animal interactions, delicious Cambodian lunch, and personal guide take the experience to another level.
10. Wat Ounalom
This complex of over forty buildings is considered the nation’s Buddhist headquarters. Founded in 1443, this lovely, ornate collection of Pagodas and relic-filled stupas is fun to explore.
It is the home of the head of the Cambodian Buddhist brotherhood, as well as a number of other orange-clad monks. Higher accesses offer chances to see lesser-viewed artworks, and lovely views of the Mekong that few take the time to discover.
Though damaged by the Khmer Rouge, much of the temple’s statuary has been restored and continues to be visited in holy pilgrimages. Of special note is the stupa containing an eyebrow hair of the Buddha himself, and an inscription in the ancient language of Pali.
9. Independence Monument
This tower was created in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia’s freedom from French Colonial Rule five years earlier. It is modeled after the central tower of the country’s most famed ancient temple, Angkor Wat, and represents a lotus-shaped Stupa that also honors the war dead of Cambodia.
The monument sits near a park that contains a number of other important statuary honoring war heroes and peace accords with neighboring nations like Vietnam. It is the center of many festivals held during national holidays, and is often adorned with flowers during celebrations, or enjoyed by the park goers during concerts, outdoor martial arts classes or other recreational activities.
8. Russian Market
Though Phnom Penh’s most famed foreign occupation was that of the French, there is a notable Russian component to the city that came here during the cold war era of the early eighties.
The Russian Market is a notable place to buy many discounted (though often not authentic) designer items at a tenth of US prices. Its handicrafts are equally impressive, and include jewelry, silk and other fabrics, woodcarvings, musical instruments and much more.
It is a great place to learn to haggle, as the expected asking price is often much less than the first offer.
7. National Museum of Cambodia
With a captivating array of Khmer designs, the National Museum of Cambodia is a masterful journey into the past. Housed within its own traditional terracotta structure, the museum houses statues, bronzes and pottery from as far back as the 4th century.
A stone’s throw from the beautiful Royal Palace, the National Museum, guides you in a clockwise direction on a passage of discovery. You’ll quickly discover an ancient culture where art and function closely combine.
One of the first exhibits is a reclining Vishnu statue that was uncovered near Angkor Wat. That’s complemented by a 9th century Shiva sculpture, monkeys wrestling (12th century) and pottery from the pre-Angkorian period which began in the 4th century.
6. Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
Under the command of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975. The regime embarked on a terrifying genocide that was as thorough in its record taking as it was in ending the lives of up to 3 million citizens.
At the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, you’ll uncover the next step for the prisoners held in S-21. The high security prison would end up sending 20,000 to this to Choueng Ek, resulting in almost 130 mass graves.
Combining the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center with a visit to Tuol Sleng will certainly be a heavy day. However, it creates an encompassing experience that showcases a period of modern history many of us have been sheltered from.
5. Wat Phnom
Any amount of time spent traveling through Cambodia will be complete with several temple visits. When in Phnom Penh, there’s one that you can spot from all directions, Wat Phnom.
Surrounded by a relatively flat city, Wat Phnom stands alone atop a small hill. The religious site dates back to at least the 14th century, with its grounds and main temple having seen several reconstructions since then.
Today, Wat Phnom remains a hearty part of local life. Time spent wandering through the eloquent gardens will come alongside the quiet hush of Phnom Penh’s residents arriving with offerings and praying.
It’s a beautiful sanctuary that will balance your time spent uncovering the deeds of the Khmer Rouge.
4. Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
With its classic Khmer roofs and lavish decoration, the Royal Palace dominates the skyline of Phnom Penh. Located near the riverfront, it bears a remarkable likeness to its counterpart in Bangkok.
The palace has been the home for the royal family during peace times since the 1860’s, when the capital city was moved from Oudong. This complex of buildings has 4 main structures, the Silver Pagoda, the Khemarin Palace, the Throne Hall and the Inner Court.
Though half of the compound is considered the king’s residence and is closed to the public, the Silver Pagoda and Throne Hall compounds are popular attractions in Phnom Penh and can be explored freely.
3. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge closed in on Tuol Svay Prey High School and turned what was once a place of education into a brutal prison. Over the four years that followed, the school became the regime’s most prominent place of torture.
The school was renamed S-21 and all but seven prisoners who found themselves within its walls would meet a gruesome and untimely end. The seven that survived were there the day the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh. Two of them still spend time at S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, providing riveting and emotional first-hand accounts.
For visitors, it’s a horrifically poignant, yet immensely valuable experience. Here, the juxtaposition of the hope of education is starkly contrasted with torture instruments and pictures of the victims.
2. Sisowath Quay
This riverside strip has been an important commercial public region for centuries. Bordering the Mekong River and abutted by the Royal Palace, this area is full of street vendors and shops, restaurants and hotels.
It is one of the best locations to watch the boat races during Phnom Penh’s (and much of Southeast Asia’s) famed water festival, which takes place in mid April to celebrate the Buddhist new year.
Sisowath Quay has a very westernized, multinational vibe, as it is home to several colonial-style buildings as well as a number of Embassies. For those planning a boat trip to Siem Reap, the ferry terminals leave from here.
1. Phsar Thmei
There are several reasons to visit the bustling, atmospheric Phsar Thmei. Literally translating to “New Market”, you’ll find this happening spot in the heart of the city.
Walking from afar, the enormous domed hall, one of the 10 biggest on earth, stands out like a Babylonian ziggurat. From the second you wander into the hall, you’ll say goodbye to the sticky Cambodian heat to shop under invigorating A/C.
The true size of Psar Thmei won’t become clear until you’ve wandered down each of its four wings. Discover gold and jewellery artisans, historic artifacts, and a mix of local and western fashion. Top it all off with a hearty serving of local cuisine at the food hall.
Where to Stay in Phnom Penh
There are several districts in Phnom Penh. But if you’re only traveling through the city for a few days, Daun Penh is your best option. This central region has a beautiful collection of colonial architecture while being a short tuk-tuk ride from the best known tourist attractions in Phnom Penh such as the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom. The amount of nearby amenities including restaurants makes it a superb choice for families, couples and backpackers.
Travelers looking for some heady nightlife should park themselves in the Riverfront District. Here you’ll find exciting night markets, a wealth of bars and plenty of chances to jump on a ferry and cruise the Mekong. Budget travelers will also find plenty of accommodation options.
In Daun Penh, the Plantation Urban Resort has two outdoor pools and an onsite restaurant and bar. Air-conditioned rooms boutique resort at this come with modern amenities and access to the spa house.
A few blocks to the west is the budget friendly Pacific Hotel. Boasting an “explorer-themed” concept, the hotel’s interior layout is eye-catching. Some rooms offer great city views while you’ll also have access to an in-house restaurant with local and western cuisine.
How to get there
Getting to the heart of Phnom Penh isn’t an arduous task, although the city has some famously bad traffic jams. On a good day, arriving at the airport leaves you about 30 minutes from the center and 60 on a bad day.
The easiest way to make the trip is by jumping onboard the Royal Railway shuttle that takes you to the Phnom Penh Railway Station. This comes with zero stops and drops you off in the city center.
Bus Number 3 has 20 stops on its way into the city and could drop you closer to your accommodation, but the full journey takes at least an hour. Those with their bargaining hats on could also consider a tuk-tuk.
Best Time to Visit Phnom Penh
November to February is usually considered the best time to visit Phnom Penh. This is when temperatures are slightly cooler, there is less humidity and the hot and rainy seasons have yet to start.
Average temperatures of 30 to 32°C (86 to 89°F) are perfect for strolling about the park-like riverfront and enjoying relaxing cruises along the Mekong River. The capital is at its busiest and most expensive, however, with fun events like its Boat Racing Festival also taking place.
As March to May is the hot season, the number of tourists starts to dwindle. The Khmer New Year celebrations in April are great to take part in but the city and countryside start to look a bit parched. Many farmers also burn their fields during this period.
The rainy season then kicks in from June through October. As it mainly tips it down towards sunset, many still visit in July and August due to the European summer holidays. Thanks to the monsoon weather, the countryside is lush, green and beautiful to see again. Many hotels also offer discounts to entice tourists to town.