Phnom Penh is both the capital of Cambodia and the biggest city in the Kingdom. Still, it is highly underrated and is often overlooked in favour of top Cambodian tourist attractions like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and the Koh Rong islands.
Many travellers use Phnom Penh simply as a city to fly in and out of Cambodia from.
In my opinion, this is a huge waste of an incredible city full of history and an increasingly vibrant cultural scene.
We didn’t really have any expectations about Phnom Penh but it genuinely surprised us in a very positive way. So yes! If you were wondering, it’s definitely worth visiting as part of your travels through Cambodia and South East Asia.
But, what is Phnom Penh known for?
Everyone seems to flock to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat. So what is there to do in Phnom Penh? Read on for my detailed tips on the best things to do in Cambodia’s capital city!
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A Few Tips To Get You Started
Before I dive in with my list of things to do in Phnom Penh, let me just give you a few helpful tips to get you started;
- There is some confusion on how to pronounce Phnom Penh so let me save you some trouble here! It took me a bit of practice imitating the locals but it’s pronounced “P-nom Peng”. The P’s are definitely pronounced, although they are quite soft. The ‘ng’ at the end is pronounced the same as in “sing”
- Phnom Penh (and Cambodia as a whole) gets really, overwhelmingly bloody hot!!! It gets super humid so be prepared and maybe avoid the hottest part of the day if you can. Always carry water with you!
- While it is generally safe to travel in Cambodia, Phnom Penh is known for having a bit of a bag-snatcher problem. We didn’t have any issues, but always be alert. Keep your belongings out of sight, and your valuables in a safe in your hotel room
- There is a pretty visible sex industry here. Although things were fairly quiet in Cambodia as a whole when we were there in March due to COVID-19, it was still apparent that this is (unfortunately) a big part of “tourism” in Phnom Penh
- It’s a large city but most things are concentrated enough that walking is possible if you prefer. Otherwise, tuk-tuks are definitely the way to get around Phnom Penh!
- Phnom Penh, like much of Cambodia, is seeing rapid and considerable growth. Construction is almost everywhere, with new hotels, bars and restaurants springing up all over the place
Educate Yourself At Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
For me, this was without a doubt the saddest and most sobering part of our trip to Cambodia.
But, in some ways, it was also a highlight. Not in a good way, obviously. What happened here was terrible beyond words. But our visit was incredibly educational and eye-opening, if not a little depressing.
I left the S-21 Prison feeling extremely saddened about what happened here, but also with a deep respect for the amazing Cambodian people who overcame this part of their history and thrive in spite of it.
Perhaps surprisingly, Cambodians are warm, happy and welcoming people despite this dark history.
The S-21 Prison was a high school that was taken over by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who turned it into an interrogation and detention center where thousands of people were tortured and killed. Only seven people of the 14,000 known to have been there, survived. Tuol Sleng is now a museum and memorial to the tragic events that occurred here.
I highly recommend that you opt for the audio tour for an additional $3. It will take you a bit of time to complete the tour, but it is well worth it.
Entrance Fee – US$5 Adults / US$3 children aged 10-18
Note that it may not be appropriate to bring your younger children to the site as it could be quite distressing
Opening Hours – 8:00am – 5:00pm daily
Dress Code – Please dress respectfully with shoulders and knees covered
The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek)
Before arriving in Cambodia, I’d been adamant that we would visit the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. But honestly, in the end we just couldn’t bear it.
After spending many hours at the S-21 Prison, we both decided that we’d experienced enough sombre history for our 3 day visit.
In some ways I regret not going. But we’ll no doubt be back and the Killing Fields will be added to our list of things we’ll do in Phnom Penh on our next visit.
For a great overview of what to expect, I recommend you read this detailed post on visiting the Killing Fields by Along Dusty Roads.
Entrance Fee – US$6 per person (includes audio guide)
Opening Hours – 7.30am to 5:30pm daily
Dress Code – Again, dress modestly and be respectful. This is a memorial more than an attraction so dress and act accordingly.
Visit The Royal Palace
You’ll see the glittering golden Royal Palace before long if you stroll along the riverfront in Phnom Penh.
The Royal Palace is the official residence of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk. Although large parts of the sprawling grounds and beautifully manicured gardens are open to the public, the areas devoted to royal living are closed to visitors.
The stretch of grass outside the Royal Palace is popular with locals at weekends and public holidays, where many will sit with picnics, feeding the birds while children chase each other around the grass.
The grounds within the Palace walls are lovely to walk around although in my opinion it’s somewhat lacking in information for visitors.
Bonus – after traipsing around the grounds of the Royal Palace in the heat, we received a small bottle of cold water each as we exited the complex. This was included in our entrance fee.
Entrance Fee – US$10 per person. The use of cameras is allowed for an additional charge of US$2
Opening Hours – 7.30am to 11:00am, and 2.30pm to 5:00pm daily
Dress Code – Clothing needs to cover shoulders and knees
Try The Local Cambodian Food
Obviously, one of the top things to do in Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole is to try the local cuisine! In my experience it ranks up there with Thai food, although it’s generally a bit less spicy.
My personal favourite during our time in Phnom Penh was Lok Lak. Lok Lak is essentially stir fried beef in a reddish-brown sauce served with rice and a fried egg. Simple but delicious!
(Fish) Amok is probably the most famous Cambodian Food. It’s a creamy curry usually served in a banana leaf bowl. If you’re not a fish fan you can also opt for a chicken or beef amok.
If you like noodles and a show, try the Noodle House or David’s Restaurant (across the road from Friends). The noodles are made fresh right in front of you, and it’s truly incredible to watch!
Eat At Friends The Restaurant
Sadly, about a quarter of Phnom Penh’s population of 1.7 million currently live in slum communities. Friends International, a non-profit, is trying to address this by giving former street children a chance to an education in hospitality.
And, although it’s a bit more expensive than “regular” restaurants in Phnom Penh, all profits are put back into the program. So, if you’re hoping to contribute to a great cause while enjoying great tapas style food, give Friends the Restaurant a go.
It does get busy here and tour groups often have multiple tables booked so it pays to either arrive early or book in advance.
Opening Hours – 11:00am to 9:00pm Tuesday to Sunday
Closed 1:00pm to 5:00pm Tuesday and Thursday for student training
Enjoy A Drink On A Rooftop Bar
Like most big cities, Phnom Penh can be busy and hectic. It can also be extra hot and humid down at street level. So as the day winds down and the sun starts to set, it’s a great time to head up a little higher and enjoy a drink on a rooftop bar somewhere in the city!
There are actually a few around. Many will be part of a hotel but welcome non-hotel guests happily.
Point Boutique Hotel, where we were staying, has a lovely (Gin themed!) rooftop bar called Juniper with amazing views across the city and out towards the Mekong River
Opening Hours – Tuesday to Saturday 5:00pm – 11:00pm
A few other options if you’re looking for alternatives;
- Eclipse Sky Bar on the 23rd floor of Phnom Penh Tower is one of the highest spots to enjoy a drink
- Le Moon Rooftop Lounge, while only on the 3rd floor of the Amanjaya Pancam Suites Hotel, has an unbeatable view, taking in the river and the neighbouring golden temple of Wat Ounalom.
- Sora Skybar on the 37th floor of Cambodia’s tallest building, the modern Vattanac Capital tower, is arguably the best spot for a sunset and a whiskey.
Walk The Streets Of Phnom Penh
You could quite easily visit Phnom Penh for days and do nothing other than walking the streets of this amazing city!
It’s a real eclectic mix, with French colonial buildings and tree-lined boulevards interwoven with glittering Angkorian architecture
A good walking route to do on one of your days in Phnom Penh is to head all the way down along the riverfront walkway, until you end up not far from the Samdech Chuon Nath Statue, where you can turn right (west) to take in the Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk and the Independence Monument. From the Independence Monument, turn right again (north) along Preah Norodom. You could detour here to some of the markets (more on these below) before continuing on to Wat Phnom Temple.
- The Riverfront (Preah Sisowath Quay) – A stroll down the park-lined riverfront is a must-do during your visit to Phnom Penh. During the day, you’ll see where the mighty Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers meet. In the evenings, crowds gather and street vendors set up selling food, trinkets and palm readings!
- Independence Monument is a 37m tall Angkorian style tower, shaped in the form of a lotus flower. It was built to celebrate Cambodia becoming independent from France in 1953. Today, it also serves as a monument to Cambodia’s war dead. If you want to get close to it, be careful because it is located in the middle of a roundabout! Just down from the Independence Monument you’ll also find a statue commemorating the former King Norodom Sihanouk.
- Wat Phnom Temple – Phnom Penh takes its name from this small temple, which sits on the only hill in the city! Entrance is free for locals, who come here to pray for good luck. Tourists are charged $1 for entry. The main entrance is on the eastern side of the hill, where a staircase guarded by carved stone lions and snakes leads you to the temple at the top.
Visit Some Of Phnom Penh’s Many Markets
We always love walking around new places and discovering them without much of a plan. Wandering through the many markets in Phnom Penh was a great way to get a feel for and taste of the local Cambodian culture.
We especially enjoyed the food markets, although they can be a bit of a hit to the senses! Still, in my mind this is a must-do during your time in Phnom Penh.
- Kandal Market (Phsar Kandal) is the best places to go to if you want to get a glimpse of the local culture or if you want to try some local food. It’s not far from the riverfront. Some of it is covered but it spills out onto the surrounding streets. The Kandal Market mostly sells fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. You’ll definitely see rather questionable hygiene at some of the stalls! But it’s an amazing experience and a great way to immerse yourself in some local culture
- Old Market (Phsar Chas) is another genuine local market, where locals shop for their fresh produce and meat. You won’t find any souvenirs here! But again, an awesome thing to do in Phnom Penh for an authentic experience
- Central Market (Phsar Thmei) is located in an iconic art-deco style building under a large central dome on Street 128 . It’s popular with tourists so it’s a bit more expensive. You’ll find everything you can possibly imagine here, from gold to fresh foods.
- Russian Market (Phsar Toul Tom Poung) in the south of Phnom Penh is also a popular tourist spot especially for handicrafts like wood carvings and clothes. Perfect for stocking up on gifts!
So there you have it! These were some of our favourite things to do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Have you been to Phnom Penh? What did you enjoy most? Leave me a comment below and let me know!
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