Even as the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is often visited only briefly by tourists en route to Siem Reap and the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. But for anyone who is interested in learning about the devastation that Cambodia endured throughout the years, Phnom Penh has a sordid history and a resilient spirit.
After being controlled by the French in the post-WWII years, Cambodia later got caught in the middle of the Vietnam War. The US was attempting to flush out communist base camps by carpet-bombing huge areas of the country and killing thousands of civilians. As such, the country was broken down, destabilized, and about to be dealt the worst hand of all. The Khmer Rouge regime took over the city in 1975 for almost four years. It led to the death of one out of every four Cambodians.
And Phnom Penh was at the center of it all. Spend a few days in this city that has somehow managed to survive the turmoil, rebuild the structures, and thrive. You’ll get to see first-hand what the Cambodian people have endured over the years.
So if you’re wondering what to see in Phnom Penh, read on to learn about the top sights in Cambodia’s vibrant capital city!
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Phnom Penh Travel Basics
Things to Know Before you Go
- The currency of Cambodia is the Cambodian Riel (KHR) and at the time of writing, the exchange rate was 4032.26 to $1 USD. But Cambodia mainly uses US currency, just without the small change. Use Riels for anything under $1 USD.
- Khmer is the official language of Cambodia and nearly 90% of the people in the country can speak it. Most people in Cambodia also speak English.
- Learn a few Khmer phrases to get around! “Hello” is “sous-dey“, “thank you” is “orkun”, and “where is the toilet?” is “bantub dakk noew ay nah?“.
- Tipping should be minimal if at all in Cambodia. An extra $1-2 USD for a long tuk-tuk ride or great service at a restaurant should suffice.
- There are several luxury hotel pools in Phnom Penh that offer day passes for $5-10. So if you have extra time in the city, spend a day at a swanky pool!
Getting to Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has an international airport (PNH) so getting here is relatively easy.
And if you’re coming from a neighboring country or city, Giant Ibis is one bus company that is comfortable and reliable. It’s worth paying the extra charge for them to take care of your visa-on-arrival at the border. We prefer Bookaway.com for checking schedules and booking buses in Southeast Asia.
Getting Around Phnom Penh
And don’t worry about haggling with taxis or tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh. Download Grab (iPhone | Android) and/or PassApp (iPhone | Android) which are the equivalent of Uber in Cambodia. You can order a car, a tuk-tuk, or a motorbike for a standardized rate, no negotiations required.
The prices were so unbelievably low that we often gave a small tip on top of our rate just because we felt bad paying so little.
Where to Stay in Phnom Penh
The Plantation Urban Resort and Spa is the ultimate peaceful paradise in the middle of the hectic city of Phnom Penh. Featuring two pristine outdoor swimming pools, a fitness center, and a spa, it’s the perfect relaxing oasis. Spacious suites offer lots of natural light and every amenity you could ever want!
The Rosewood Phnom Penh has gorgeous rooms decorated with sleek, modern furniture. You’ll love the sweeping city views from your floor-to-ceiling windows or while enjoying a refreshing cocktail at the sky bar. You’ll never want to leave this lavish hotel where you’re treated like royalty by the amazing staff!
The Palace Gate Hotel & Resort is centrally located, right near the Royal Palace. And you’ll really feel like you’re staying in a palace in this gorgeously restored French colonial villa. You can relax in your lavishly appointed suite, in the beautiful outdoor swimming pool, or at the rooftop bar. This hotel really has it all!
The Best 9 Things to do in Phnom Penh
1. Wander Through the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is a complex of buildings that serves as the principal residence of the King, Queen, and the royal family. The current palace was constructed in 1866 and has been occupied by the Cambodian kings since that time, except for a short time during and after the Khmer Rouge regime.
The impressive throne hall was built in 1917 and is filled with ornate furniture, lush carpets, and intricate wall paintings. It is the room for important ceremonies and formal receptions for distinguished guests. The palace closes in the afternoons from 11 am until 2 pm so be sure to plan your trip accordingly.
And spend some time in the courtyard of the Silver Pagoda (also known as the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Preah Keo Morakot). It is a bit confusing as the temple is actually gold but it got this nickname from the silver tiles that cover the floor (currently rugs cover them). There are silver stupas on each side that contain the cremated remains of former kings.
Be sure to arrive as early as possible. The Royal Palace is one of the top things to do in Phnom Penh and tour buses start showing up right at 8 am; by 9:30 the crowds take over. Plus the sun is unrelenting in the central courtyards.
2. Visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
The S-21 prison is just one of over 200 secret prisons around Cambodia where people were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. The Khmer Rouge was the name of a revolution that was led by Pol Pot in 1975 and terrorized the country until 1979. Pol Pot and his highest commanders ordered any intellectuals in Cambodia – teachers, doctors, scientists, artists, etc. – and their families to be tortured and murdered. The rest of the citizens were forced to do backbreaking labor in the countryside.
In the four years that the Khmer Rouge regime ruled over Cambodia, over three million people died. Peopled died either by torture or murder in these secret prisons and killing fields, or from starvation in the fields. Somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 Cambodians were housed in the S-21 prison, and only 12 survived.
The audio that accompanies this tour is absolutely imperative for understanding all that went on here. Don’t go on the tour without it. You’ll see the actual cells that held people, see the photos of their dead bodies hanging above the metal beds where they were tortured, and hear horrendous stories of all that went on here. It is a difficult place to visit but definitely the most interesting thing to see in Phnom Penh.
3. Pay Your Respects at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (The Killing Fields)
After Cambodians received excruciating levels of torture at the various secret prisons around the country, most were then transferred to one of the 300 killing fields. This is where members of the Khmer Rouge dug giant holes as mass graves. Truckloads of prisoners arrived to the killing fields under the cover of night, lined up in front of the mass graves, and then murdered in cold blood. Their only crimes were their education level and contributing members of society.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is the most well-known of the killing fields. As you wander around the property, you’ll have an audio guide to explain what exactly you are looking at. You’ll hear stories from survivors. You’ll see the tree where children were picked up by their feet and then swung into the massive trunk, head first, killing them in front of their mothers. And you can see bits of clothing and bone fragments in the dirt all along the path.
The tour ends at the Memorial Stupa filled with 8,000 skulls of the Cambodian people who were murdered here. You should most certainly visit this site to pay your respects to the people who lost their lives, and but know that it is incredibly emotionally draining and may not be appropriate for children.
4. Go Bar Hopping on Bassac Lane
For a fun night out in Phnom Penh, check out Bassac Lane. This alleyway has been converted into a dozen or so trendy microbars – each with its own unique theme. On the weekend, you’ll often find a live band playing and people spilling out of the tiny bars onto the narrow street. A few of our favorite spots on Bassac Lane are Hanger 44 and western-themed Jack Saloon.
Around the corner from Bassac Lane, you’ll also find the ever-popular Red Bar on Street 308 and absolutely delicious dumplings at Mama Wong’s. And while you’re exploring this hip area, keep your out for some of Phnom Penh’s best street art.
5. Pray for Good Luck at Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom is a temple that sits in the middle of a traffic circle on top of the only hill in Phnom Penh. At 88 feet in height, it is also the tallest religious structure in the city. After paying the modest $1 USD entrance fee, you’ll approach the temple from the grand staircase. There are many women and children selling various snacks and beverages near the tour bus stop at the bottom of the stairs.
Wat Phnom is a popular place for people to pray for good luck and success both in school and in business. Take your shoes off before entering and you’ll find locals and tourists alike – praying or wandering around, admiring the walls and the artifacts.
After checking out the large pagoda in the back, you can take the shady path in the back of the temple back to the bottom of the hill. This is also a good place to take a breather if you find yourself at the temple in the middle of the day when the sun is unrelenting.
6. Take a Boat Ride on the Mekong
The Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River converge right near the touristy area of Phnom Penh and watching a sunset on the water is something you must do in Phnom Penh. The Kanika Cruise Boats dock right outside of the Himawari Hotel (address: 313 Sisowath Quay) and offer a quality cruising experience for a really reasonable price.
Boats leave twice a day from Monday to Sunday. The sunset cruise leaves at 17:00 (so you’ll want to arrive at 16:45 to reserve a spot) and the trip takes about an hour and 20 minutes. If you just want to enjoy the cruise, you’ll pay $8 USD per person. If you want to cruise and have a free-flow draft beer or soft drinks, you’ll pay $17 USD per person. You can just order food and drinks from the menu if you’d prefer as well.
The dinner cruise leaves at 19:00 and takes about an hour and 45 minutes. The $22 USD price includes the cruise as well as a 4-course dinner experience. No matter which one you choose, you’ll love getting the view of the Phnom Penh skyline from the mighty Mekong River!
7. Have a Drink at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club
The FCC Hotel and Restaurant opened in the early 1990s as a Foreign Correspondents’ Club, established as a place for foreign journalists and aid workers to come together and swap stories. Leo Dobbs, co-founder and Agence France-Presse correspondent described it as “a place where we can offer friendship between Cambodians and the rest of the world.”
The Paris Peace Agreements had just been signed and foreign journalists were moving into Phnom Penh to cover the aftermath of their years of unrest and turmoil. The devastation of the Khmer Rouge had ended but the country had yet to hold any of its leaders accountable for the countless deaths. Over the years, it became much more than just a bar, it was a cultural and political hub of the city.
The FCC has expanded since then and is now open to the public. Its rich history makes it a popular watering hole for ex-pats and tourists. The rooftop terrace is an ideal place to sip cocktails while watching the sunset and imagining what life here was like in those early days. It will be one of the highlights of your trip to Phnom Penh!
8. Visit the National Museum
The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh is a beautiful terracotta structure, a lush and peaceful garden surrounds it. Once you step inside, you’ll see the world’s largest collection of Khmer art – over 14,000 items. Many of these antiquities include sculptures and ceramics from the Khmer Empire.
There isn’t much English signage in the museum, so if you want more information you can pay an additional fee for the audio guide. Start on the left and continue clockwise to see the collection in chronological order. It will take about an hour to get through the museum, and be sure to save a few minutes to take a stroll through the beautifully manicured gardens.
9. Shop in the Markets
The Psar Thmei Market (Central Market) is a huge, bright yellow, art-deco style building. Here you’ll find clothing, jewelry, food stalls, and everything in-between. The shopping here is popular with locals and tourists and the building stays surprisingly cool in the heat of the day. A trip to Phnom Penh’s Central Market is high on most visitors’ to-do lists both for the shopping and the architecture.
The Phnom Penh Night Market is a good place to browse on warm evenings in Phnom Penh. There are often even small performances by entrepreneurial locals. There are a lot of clothing stalls here and just a few souvenir shops. It’s actually more popular with the locals than with tourists.
And finally, the Russian Market is a great place to pick up some classic Cambodian souvenirs, if you’re willing to barter. Here you’ll find plenty of handicrafts and antiques (or things that have been made to resemble antiques), woodcarvings, jewelry, and much more. You’ll also find loads of popular brand knock-offs that look exactly like the real thing.
Do you have a favorite thing to do in Phnom Penh? Let us know in the comments.
Want more information on things to do around Cambodia? Check out our favorite travel guides!