To better understand Cambodia and its capital Phnom Penh, you need to know its history. In 1975 a vicious military guerrilla group Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, drove tanks through the streets of Phnom Penh, the start of a reign of terror over the country. They removed families from their homes, separated children from their parents and filled labour camps around the country. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted doctors, lawyers and any other intellectuals who could think for themselves and possibly revolt. By the time the regime ended in 1979, an estimated 2 million people, more than a quarter of the Cambodian population at the time, had been murdered or died of famine. Keeping this in mind, it is impressive to see the progress that has been made to move forward, however, you can still see remnants of Cambodia’s cruel and recent history.
Today, Phnom Penh is a fairly safe city, full of kindhearted people. There is plenty of good food to eat, lots of shopping to do, ample relaxing to be had, and so much history to be learned. As part of our month trip to Cambodia, we spent 4 days in the city and enjoyed our time there far more than what we anticipated - both in appreciating what the city has to offer today and learning more about its tragic past. The city was an interesting mixing pot of historic busy city life and relaxed modern green open spaces. It wasn’t at all what we expected and it surprised us in a very pleasant way.
(You will find a map of the route we walked here)
UNDERSTAND THE HISTORY OF PHNOM PENH
The best way to really understand the history of Phnom Penh is to go on a guided historical tour. While this is not something that we often do, it will definitely give you a greater appreciation of the history and culture of a place, particularly a with as significant a bloody history like Phnom Penh. Be sure to pick a guided tour with good reviews for the best experience. We recommend Get Your Guide and KLOOK to find reputable, reviewed experiences.
TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM (S-21 PRISON)
This grim museum is housed in a former Khmer Rouge prison and interrogation centre and now stands as a monument to the thousands that were murdered and imprisoned during the Cambodian genocide. The entire experience is very depressing, but if you’re looking to understand the Khmer Rouge era, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum very quickly puts its horrors into stark perspective. Much of the prison and surrounding buildings have been left as it was discovered in 1979 when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh. The blood-splattered walls, tiny brick and timber cells and abandoned torture tools offer an important insight into the brutal regime. We spent over 3 hours here, walking around the grounds and listening to the extensive audio tour. It is possible to spend less time here, but we think that you should dedicate 3 hours to this visit to gain a fairly good understanding of the happenings and history of the place. We purchased one ticket with an audio guide ($8) and one without ($5) and were easily able to share the audio guide as we could both plug our own earphones into the audio guide. The visit can be a little emotionally draining, so perhaps doing it first thing in the day is a good idea and don’t be in a rush when visiting.
CHOEUNG EK GENOCIDAL CENTER (KILLING FIELDS)
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, more commonly referred to as the “killing fields,” was the site of thousands of brutal Khmer Rouge executions and burials. Almost 9,000 bodies were discovered at the mass graves here. The site has been turned into a museum and memorial, with a glass-walled stupa full of skulls excavated from a mass grave in 1980. Audio guides are available and recommended. There is some controversy as to whether the “killing fields” are a must-see, or whether it is disrespectful to Cambodian Buddhists, who believe remains should be cremated. We chose not to visit the killing fields after visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as we already felt somewhat overwhelmed by the brutal and tragic history.
PHNOM PENH NATIONAL MUSEUM
The building’s design is based on the country’s wats and pagodas and is incredibly ornate. If museums aren’t really your thing, then at least take the time to walk around the outside to admire the building, as we did. It’s free to enter the grounds and walk around, there are even benches to allow you to relax in the shade. Built with dark red clay bricks and roofs that spirals toward the heavens, the museum building itself is a work of art. It is surrounded by a lush green garden as well as a small cafe and restaurant. The museum claims to have more than 2,000 objects on display, but there is very little printed information, so a guide would probably add a lot of value if you are interested in understanding the history.
THE PHNOM PENH ROYAL PALACE
Built during the 1860s, this opulent palace has since served as the royal residence in Phnom Penh, except for a brief period of abandonment during the Khmer Rouge. The Royal Palace now serves as the King’s official residence, a venue for court ceremonies and a symbol of the Kingdom. The entrance fee was $10 pp when we visited which we felt was really rather steep, all things considered! Only some sections are open to the public and although we spent about an hour and a half strolling through the manicured gardens and peering into ornate temples inside the palace grounds, we can’t honestly say that it was worth the $10 entrance fee. There are plenty of other temples which you can visit for a fraction of this cost. The palace compound is also home to the Silver Pagoda / Temple of the Emerald Buddha, a prominent temple that takes up a key place within the grounds. Without a guide, there is almost no English information available throughout the visit. Remember to dress respectfully by keeping shoulders and knees covered when visiting here.
THE SILVER PAGODA / TEMPLE OF THE EMERALD BUDDHA
On the same grounds as The Royal Palace, this gorgeous Buddhist temple is typical of Southeast Asian culture. The Silver Pagoda / Temple Of The Emerald Buddha is one of the few temples you are able to enter (after removing your shoes that is). It’s number 17 on the map. Try to take a peek at the elaborate silver tiled floor (which is now mostly covered with carpet to protect it). Be sure to take some time to look at the various Buddha, especially the 90kg pure gold Buddha who sparkles with 2086 diamonds. Each Buddha has its own story to tell.
PHSAR THMEI (CENTRAL MARKET)
Phnom Penh’s Central Market is not just any market in Asia. Although there are a hustle and bustle, hundreds of colourful stalls that make you feel as though you’re in a maze, the market is mostly housed in a beautifully ornate building and feels in some ways very clean and organised! It’s a great place to put your haggling skills to the test and if you’re any good, you can walk away with a bargain or two. The Central Market has anything from handicrafts and local art to designer handbags and clothing, making it a fun place to wander around! Be sure to explore beyond the organised inside sections, to the fresh food areas outside. We sat down and had the most delicious coconut custard pumpkin pudding here (Sankhya Lapov). No matter what your preference, it’s a great place to stop and try a local delicacy.
PHNOM PENH NIGHT MARKET
Just a few blocks northeast from Central Market, and at the northern end of the Riverside Boardwalk, you will find the Phnom Penh Night Market. Things start happening here from about 5 pm when you can browse through the many clothing and souvenir stalls as well as sample a range of cheap local snacks and dishes. You’ll find lots of grilled meat on sticks, noodle soups, dried seafood, and fruit shakes. There are plastic tables and chairs nearby where you can sit and eat, but why not rather relax on a floor mat like the locals do while enjoying your dinner. We really enjoyed this experience and the background music made for a great atmosphere. The shopping section has stall after stall selling clothing, jewellery, bags, shoes, dishes, hardware, and a collection of small trinkets that make for perfect souvenirs.
PHSAR CHAS (OLD MARKET)
Vendors are up and selling from as early as 5 am. This Old Market, also known as Phsar Chas, is an authentic Cambodian market known to the locals as the best produce shopping spot. If you want to taste truly fresh and organic mangoes or jackfruit then head here. In the Old French Quarter area next to the river, Phsar Chas is the perfect place to start your morning relaxing on a bench with your fresh fruit and watching the morning traffic zooming by.
TUOL TOMPOUNG MARKET (RUSSIAN MARKET)
They call this “The Russian Market” as it was a popular area amongst Russian ex-pats back in the 1980s. You’ll find a few odd Russian trinkets like Russian dolls and small Russian flags, but most goods are classically Cambodian like silk scarves, spices, wood carvings etc. While you’re there, you can try some local street food. There are some great and tasty options or if you’re feeling more adventurous, why not try the deep-fried crickets, tarantulas or some chicken feet?! Needless to say, we did not!
TEMPLES OF PHNOM PENH
While Siem Reap may be famous for Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh has a few significant Temples of its own. When you are exploring both ruins and temples, it is respectful (and sometimes required) to cover your shoulders and your knees. Keep in mind that these are sacred grounds where locals come to pray so it’s important to be respectful. A light scarf is a practical and easy way to cover up. Walking tours around temple areas is always a great experience. Here are a few Temples in and around Phnom Penh:
This well-manicured grassy green hill park on a traffic roundabout marks the official centre of the capital. As you ascend the wide staircase lined with Buddha statues and lions you’ll be met with a traditional temple at the top of the hill. It’s worth visiting for the small $1 entrance fee, although nobody ever asked to see our ticket. The gardens all around the temple make for a great place to escape the heat and business of the city and you can relax on a bench in the shade and watch people go by. Make sure to walk all the way around and also stop to see the enormous ‘garden clock’!
PREAH SISOWATH QUAY BOARDWALK / RIVERSIDE PARK
Visit the Preah Sisowath Quay Boardwalk in the evening and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the orange sun setting over the city. The boardwalk is lined with comfy benches where you can rest while vendors try to sell you peanuts, popcorn, beer, coconuts, and more. Just across from the boardwalk, you’ll be able to find both Khmer and Western restaurants, as well as bars serving ice-cold beer.
WAT BOTUM PARK
Just beyond The Royal Palace, you’ll find Wat Botum Park. In the daytime, this is a peaceful and relaxing green park which is great for exercising, walking or people watching. At night, the area comes alive with street vendors, families and their dogs! A fun place to take a stroll both day and night.
INDEPENDENCE MONUMENT & STATUE OF KING FATHER NORODOM SIHANOUK
These two large statues dominate the circle and adjacent green park strip. Some tour buses stop off here for photo opportunities, but there is absolutely no shade and the midday heat is intense! Don’t go out of your way to see these, just keep an eye out if you are in the area.
THE NATIONAL OLYMPIC STADIUM
The National Olympic Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium in Phnom Penh. Despite its name and having a capacity of 50 000, the stadium has never actually hosted an Olympic Games! It’s still an interesting place to visit and sunset from here isn’t half bad either.
CRUISE THE MEKONG RIVER
Phnom Penh is located where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet. A river tour will pass the floating villages of Kompong Chhnang and offer you a different perspective of Phnom Penh. Of course, you can choose to dine on the water, particularly as part of the very popular sunset river cruises. Or for as little as $5 pp, you can enjoy a simple hour-long sunset cruise which we thoroughly enjoyed and considered well worth the money. It not only allows you to enjoy a relaxing sunset, but it also gives you a different and beautiful perspective of the city and riverbank.
SILK ISLAND, KOH DACH
Approximately an hour’s journey from Phnom Penh, here you can learn about Cambodian silk weaving by visiting the weaving villages dotted across the island. You get to watch workers use hand-looms to spin silk while others dye materials to create beautiful designs. The whole trip out to the quiet island is a good way to escape the city for the day without going too far.
CAMBODIAN LIVING ARTS ARTS PERFORMANCE
Cambodian Living Arts is a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving traditional Khmer art forms including dance, theatre, music, and puppetry. They offer dance performances including traditional Apsara dance, theatre, shadow puppet shows, and musical theatre. The shows are entertaining and beautiful, offering a fascinating insight into historical provincial Cambodian life and culture. Daily performances at the capital’s National Museum start at 7 pm and are about an hour long. Check their site for the most current schedule and pricing.
If you’re not adventurous enough to sample street food by yourself, a guided food tour is the perfect way to feast on food cooked fresh on the streets. The tour will take you off-the-beaten-track to sample authentic Cambodian flavours at markets, street food stalls and hole-in-the-wall eateries, all led by an informative guide. This is a great way to sample the diversity of Cambodian food in a fun and safe way.
EAT KAMPOT PEPPER CRAB
If you’re not heading to Kep or Kampot in the south, then be sure to try this delicious Cambodian dish in Phnom Penh. You can choose from fried or baked crab (we preferred fried) prepared with a sweet and spicy fresh green peppercorn sauce. If you are heading to Kampot or Kep, see our articles on what to see and do there…
DINE IN THE DARK
We would have loved to do this, but it’s not exactly a budget activity! Dine in the Dark is a fairly unique concept where you sit in a completely blacked out restaurant while you are served meals in total darkness. Without sight, your other senses are said to become heightened, creating a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience. The concept of Dine in the Dark in Phnom Penh is supported by the reality that there are nearly 15 000 blind people in Cambodia who eat this way each and every day.
ENJOY A STREETSIDE ICED COFFEE
All over the city, you can find small coffee stalls selling a wide variety of excellent quality coffee. Choose a small stand on the sidewalk, order your beverage of choice and enjoy sipping away while sitting at their small table and chairs while watching the people and traffic go by. This was one of our favourite things to do and cost as little as $0.75 for a delicious and freshly made iced coffee! We really enjoyed the many green open spaces and parks that the city has to offer. We were surprised by the relaxed atmosphere we managed to find amongst the usual hustle and bustle of the city. Yes, Phnom Penh is a big city and you should be cautious and look after your belongings at all times, but at no time did we feel unsafe or uncomfortable.