What to do in Phnom Penh

by Caitlin
Published: Last Updated on
hello buildings with green door against golden sunset sky

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Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and with a population of about 2.3 million, it is busy and bustling and there are plenty of options for what to do in Phnom Penh.

The city sits where the Mekong, Bassac, and Tonlé Sap rivers meet and because of its ease of access by water and central location in the region, it has been the capital since 1434 when the land was the Khmer nation. 

When I traveled to Phnom Penh I came from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam overland and made a border crossing. As an American national I can get a visa on arrival as can many other countries. The fee for this must be paid in cash and the advice when I went was to have USD (the most commonly accepted currency in the country) of the exact amount. But what is the exact amount? It’s not always clear. I’d recommend having ten-dollar notes as it can vary from 30 – $50.

The drive straight through takes about 5 hours but with the border crossing, in which everyone has to get out of the vehicle and be processed, it will probably be about 6 if all goes ok at the border.

And then you’re in Cambodia!

The first thing I noticed when I crossed the border was how very different the people looked, they don’t have the same eastern Asian features of the Vietnamese nor do they have the same very pale skin. They are dark, more of an Indian skin tone, their features following suit. The men can grow hair and have some height to them, the women have lovely brown skin and lack the massive heels and caked-on makeup of the Saigonese women. As we approached Phnom Penh two more things came to mind: the reverse proportions of cars to motorbikes as in Ho Chi Minh and how oddly clean the streets were.

Exhausted and stinky from traveling, my friends and I negotiated with a tuk tuk and made our way to our hostel. Eager to explore we took a stroll. As we wandered the strangely quiet, clean, wide streets of Phnom Penh we couldn’t help but feel that we could have been in a European city. The houses all have massive gates, huge columned entryways and big balconies. 

So, once you’ve had a wander – what to do in Phnom Penh?

S-21 Prison

Cambodia has an exceptionally dark recent history involving four years of Khmer Rouge reign and the mass killings they carried out. This history can and should not be avoided on your visit, and a stop at the S-21 Prison, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is part of that history and your education on it. 

empty metal bed Frame in bare room with green chalk board on wall behind

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, known as the S-21 prison during the Khmer Rouge regime, is directly in the center of the city. It is in many ways preserved as it was but is now also an extremely well done and informative museum – and it is not a light experience. Previously used as a school, there is a great deal of information about the head perpetrators of the genocide– both men and women, nearly all of whom were highly educated and educators themselves. 

Sitting right in the middle of the city you’d wonder how the neighbors didn’t ever question what was going on behind the walls: thick, thick windows, creating a sound barrier was the answer, masking the screams of torture. Or maybe they just never said anything.

Entry into the museum is $5 per adult.

There is an audio guide available for $1 or personal guides who work on donations.

As with all religious or memorial sites in Cambodia, legs and arms should be covered.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields was the name given to the areas where the Khmer Rouge carried out mass executions and which are now mass burial sites. Choeung Ek is one of the largest – where over one million people were murdered – and is now open for visitors to learn and pay their respects. 

skulls piled behind glass display case

At Choeung Ek you’re provided a personal audio guide, not only is this wonderfully informative, but it also takes away the need to decide what to say. Each person is walking and listening at their own pace, taking it in as they need to, silence is what a place like this deserves, words simply wouldn’t be able to do it justice. 

Walking through the beautiful, peaceful space past piles of rags – once clothing – and bone fragments, and standing below a tree, listening as it’s described as the killing tree where children were brutally murdered, I felt like an intruder. An intruder walking on the unfinished graves of so many innocent people whose individual lives would never and could never all be recognized. 

As much as I strive to be an educated traveler I wonder, and I felt the same visiting Sachsenhausen, if it is necessary to visit the actual sites of these mass murders to educate or if it wouldn’t just be better to let the sufferers finally rest in peace and learn from a distance.

Choeung Ek is located about 10 miles south of Phnom Penh. Negotiate with a tuk tuk driver to get you there – and ask them to wait to bring you back (this should all be one price, agreed on at the beginning and paid for at the end).

Entry into the site is $3 per adult and includes an audio guide.

The Russian Market

There are several markets around Phnom Penh. This one is called The Russian Market not because it has any association with Russia or because it sells Russian goods, but because back in the day the main tourists to Phnom Penh were Soviet and they frequented this market.

black white photo of people and motorbikes outside of open air market

It’s now much like many of the markets in the region and sells a variety of souvenirs and inexpensive clothing. The rows of stalls are maze-like and you may get lost. Plus, this is not a space for the faint of heart or claustrophobic. You may have to squeeze through some spaces and it can get very hot inside, plus the smells can often be overpowering. 

Do note that you should always haggle here. The sellers are expecting it and it is not at all insulting to do so.

Drinks by the rivers

As I mentioned already, there are three rivers that join together in Phnom Penh, and the riverside area is an awesome spot to hang out, eat, drink, and stroll. The area is called Preah Sisowath Quay and sits on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River just where it begins (or ends – I’m not sure of the geography on this one). 

blue and purples of buildings glowing at night with reflection on the river

If you’re looking for more locally produced items there are several craft shops in this area which will allow you more quality shopping than in the markets. There are loads of restaurants as well. If you want to try authentic Khmer food, try The Green House. And for a nice drink and a gorgeous rooftop check out Juniper Gin Bar

While you can of course head to this area at any time of day – and a walk along the river is one of the best free things to do in Phnom Penh, your best bet is to go in the evening, as the temperatures cool and the people come out, things get lively and fun and generally this is, even for the locals, what to do in Phnom Penh at night.

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center

If you’re looking for one of the more unusual things to do in Phnom Penh, visiting this wildlife rescue center is it.

leopard walking with mouth open against chain link fence

I never like seeing animals behind bars, but when it’s that or death, I’m ok with it. And this center is doing good work. 

When I went out we took a tuk tuk, perhaps without realizing exactly how long the drive is. We negotiated with the driver to go 35km out of the city for $25.00 round trip. We’d known it was far, but none of us, nor our tuk tuk driver, had realized just how far we had to go.

Ninety minutes later we arrived at the sanctuary coated in one solid layer of road filth. As we drove up the drive we were being watched, on both sides, by monkeys, so many monkeys. Not an animal I am a huge fan of since Morocco. They get overly confident with tourists and can in fact get quite aggressive, and if you have any sort of food they will gladly do whatever they need to to get it from you. So on we went, through a few Cambodian banana sellers telling us how much the monkeys loved bananas and how we could buy them for just $1, and just as persistent as they were with their sales pitch I was in telling them that I didn’t like the monkeys and there was no way I was going to buy them food. Wandering around the first section we found an extremely forward deer, a few crocodiles (or were they alligators? I’m not sure of the difference), some birds, and plenty more monkeys. 

Back in the tuk tuk we followed the signs to the sun bears – they were meant to be the main attraction of the sanctuary. They were adorable, what looked like mini black bears. They are native to Cambodia and are identifiable by the white crescent on their chests. 

We found the elephants, many different types of monkeys, more birds, some random sloth-like animals, other squirrel-like creatures, lots of things we didn’t recognize, and after a good few hours we thought we’d head off on the long journey home. So we hopped into our tuk tuk but our driver didn’t seem to be ready to go as he slowly drove around the sanctuary loop just once more… and I am so thankful he did because it was then that he drove by my favorite animal of the day, an absolutely stunning leopard. With little space and only a few chain links between him and I, I must’ve snapped over a hundred photos and just watched with complete infatuation. Pacing and roaring and hissing he was just like one of my cats at home, at one point mid growl he turned his head and ran the top of his neck along the fence to scratch an itch. At last having had my big cat fill for the day we were off.

While we did fine with the tuk tuk you might consider getting a private car instead, it would make the drive much more comfortable and cool. We did a self-guided tour, entry for which is just $5 per adult. But you can instead do a full day tour with the center in which you’ll get to hand feed elephants. This tour includes pick up in Phnom Penh and costs $100 per person.

The National Museum 

Located just north of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia is home to one of the largest collections of Khmer artifacts on the planet. Inside, you’ll be able to discover over 14,000 items from the country’s history, dating from prehistoric times to the present day.

red building with green grass in front

Even if you’re not that big on museums, this is still one to visit, if only to admire the impressive terracotta-coloured Khmer architecture on the exterior. And for those of you who love history and culture, there are so many jewels awaiting you inside. 

The main highlight of the museum is the section of excavated relics from Angkor Wat, with a sizable bronze statue of a reclining Vishnu taking center stage. Beyond that, you’ll find stone and bronze sculptures and reliefs, a collection of ceramics, ethnographic art exhibitions, and dozens of Buddha statues. 

Items are accompanied by brief descriptions in English, but there’s also an audio guide for sale ($5) if you’re eager to learn more. 

Before leaving the museum, there are two additional activities you must do. The first is to spend some time in the peaceful central courtyard, where you’ll find a lush garden with four lotus ponds. It makes for a wonderful place to sit and absorb the calm before hitting the chaotic city streets once more. 

The second activity is to walk around the exterior of the museum. You’ll be able to take in the architecture from all angles and spot some of the staff carving replica stone sculptures of some of the relics you’ve just seen. 

If you’re traveling to Cambodia on a budget, you might be alarmed to discover the entrance fee for the museum is $10 per person, as it’s fairly expensive relative to other attractions in the country. But if you love your ancient kingdoms, and want to get to know the country better, it’s well worth the splurge. 

Recommended by Lauren, Never Ending Footsteps

Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is a truly outstanding and magnificent building that you should not miss during your visit to the Cambodian capital. With its decorated exterior facade, the Royal Palace is one of the city’s most impressive buildings.

long yellow walkway leading up to silver temple with gold roof

Even though the entrance fee is not exactly cheap compared to other activities in Phnom Penh, it is worth visiting even if you are visiting Cambodia on a budget.

The palace was built back in the late 19th Century to house the royal family when Phnom Penh was officially named the country’s capital. Since then, various kings have expanded the palace, and impressive parts have been added to the stunning property.

You can now visit large parts of the palace not used by the royal family. Especially impressive is the yellow and white gold decorated throne room.

The entrance fee includes a visit to the Silver Pagoda, which is located on the same property. The temple is considered one of the most valuable pagodas, as it survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror without much damage.

Generally, a visit to the Royal Palace and the imposing Silver Pagoda is highly recommended. To enter the complex, you should cover your shoulders as well as thighs to show respect.

Recommended by Vicki, Vicki Viaja

Wat Phnom

Visiting the beautiful Wat Phnom is a must for any Cambodia itinerary!

beige pagoda with lion sculpture in front

It’s a Buddhist temple located within the center of Phnom Penh and is one of the city’s most popular attractions. 

Built in 1372, Wat Phnom is not only one of the most important religious structures in the city, but it’s also the tallest at an impressive 46m (151 feet). 

It’s situated on the only hill within Phnom Penh, and according to legend was originally built to house four Buddha statues. 

Today, many people come to Wat Phnom to pray for success and good luck. Then, once they believe their wish has been granted, they return again to make an offering. 

Wat Phnom is one of the most peaceful spots in the city, so it is perfect if you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh.

Not only does it offer travelers the chance to relax and learn about Cambodia’s culture,  but you can also admire the incredible architecture of this temple.

With two stone lions guarding the entrance, colorful murals found on the walls, and a large bronze buddha — there’s plenty to see! 

During your visit, just make sure you dress modestly by covering your knees and shoulders and remove your footwear before entering the temple.

Recommended by Jack & Abbie, A Couple’s Calling

Night market

One of the best things to do in Phnom Penh is the Night Market. Located on the western bank of the Tonle Sap River and in the shadows of Wat Phnom, visiting Phnom Penh’s Night Market is a wonderful, albeit eye-opening experience.

a variety of food laid out on silver platters

The market is open every day between 5pm and 11pm, except for on a variety of bank holidays, and is accessible from the sites east, along Preah Sisowath Quay. 

Firstly, the clothes stalls literally have any item under the sun so if you’ve always wanted to snap up some affordable designer clothes or sparkling watches, this is definitely the place to visit. These stalls take up roughly two thirds of the whole market and are set up in a way to line the walkways. However, be warned, the market can get incredibly crowded and if you’re noticeably a foreigner, you’ll be enticed into every stall you look at. 

Top Tip: If you’re looking to purchase some clothes, make sure to always haggle the price and have an opening offer below what you’re willing to pay. 

Conversely, the food court is an extremely spacious area as all the stalls are located on the perimeter and surround the floor mats you’re encouraged to eat on. Should you choose to do so, it is polite to remove your footwear before siting down. 

The food itself is very affordable and epitomises amazing Cambodian culture. Whilst it can be eye-opening for a first-time visitor to see raw food openly on show, everything is cooked right in front of your eyes and is unbelievably tasty; if you want to try authentic Cambodian food then this is definitely the place to visit.

Recommended by Alex & Leah, Alex and Leah on Tour

Where to stay in Phnom Penh

To accompany this info on what to do in Phnom Penh, a really quick few tips on where to stay: I stayed at Mad Monkey Phnom Penh which is a great hostel option on the banana pancake trail if you’re looking for a bit of a party – I also stayed in their Siem Reap location. If you’ve graduated from the pure partying backpacker life and want some flashpacking check out Hotel Emion. Or if you’re still looking for something budget-friendly but want a private room, check out 139 Guest House.

And have an amazing time! There is a myriad of things to do in Phom Penh and all across Cambodia. My trip was one of my favorites and I quickly fell in love with the country, I hope you do too!

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