Often over-shined by Siem Reap, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, many charms and attractions of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia go neglected to tourists. Here are the best places to see and things to do in Phnom Penh you can’t miss. Visiting Phnom Penh is among the best things to do in Cambodia for every traveler!
Cambodia Capital Phnom Penh Overview
Phnom Penh is a capital like no other. The city has a story of its own, and no, it’s not at all about the horrors of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge but rather a story of how the city overcame that terrible pain and memories to heal, to reborn as the beautiful, peaceful, slow-paced capital.
The nickname ‘pearl of Asia’ is often used to talk about Phnom Penh, implicating glorious days of amazing architecture, culture, and vibrancy with music and parties in the past. Even though the glory was gone but this city is still the dream destination for travelers who love a tranquil atmosphere, authentic culture and a rather relaxing trip to get away from the whole busy world out there.
Come to Phnom Penh, your heart will be at ease when you realize how much kindness you’re receiving from the kind-hearted people here. Don’t hesitate to spend a couple of days in this amazing city.
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Phnom Penh Attractions & Best Things to do in Phnom Penh
1. Learn History at Killing Fields & S21 Prison
Killing Fields and S21 Prison are not for everyone. And those who visit must be well-prepared in advance, emotionally and psychologically. It’s definitely not an easy trip, but if you want to come in reality with what’d happened in Cambodia in the time of Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, you can’t skip these places.
Toul Sleng – S21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh was the place Khmer Rouge confined, tortured and murdered nearly 17,000 individuals who were political prisoners and suspected enemies of the regime. Most of the victims were Khmer Rouge’s soldier condemned of treason against the regime. Coming here, you’ll see the classrooms where the prisoners were tortured and learn the stories of those who survived.
Located just 17km away, Choeung Ek is the place Khmer Rouge soldiers killed and buried the victims, the truly killing fields. There is the infamous Killing Tree against which the Khmer Rouge soldiers killed the children and infants by beating them. A number of 8895 bodies were found here after the regime fell apart.
Come to the Killing Fields and Choeung Ek, you’ll feel that all the horrors are now parts of the past but the scar is visible and undeniable. The grounds of Choeung Ek are replaced with green trees, creating such a gentle and beautiful scenery, but please mind your steps, since there’re still remains of the victims that are uncollected.
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2. Visit the National Museum of Cambodia
Cambodia National Museum would be your most comprehensive representation of Khmer culture, with artifacts from ancient time to the present day. This museum is also home to one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art with a total of over 14,000 items.
The outside appearance of the museum boasts a gorgeous standard Khmer temple architecture in brown red color. Coming here, you’ll find a number of most beautiful stone busts of Buddhist figures, statues of Cambodia warriors, models of traditional Khmer houses, female clothing and accessories…
Admission is from $5-$10, audio guide available.
3. Take in the magnificence of Royal Palace
Built in 1860, the palace has served as the royal residence of the king in the capital of Cambodia. Its full name Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol, and the whole palace is divided into four main compounds.
From afar, the whole place is in harmony with a green garden and Tonle Sap River flowing by, emphasizing even further the glittering golden roofs. Come to the Royal Palace not only can you learn more about the history of Cambodian royalty but you can also enjoy the beautiful neighborhood on the Tonle Sap riverside. Remember to dress appropriately, women should cover their knees and shoulders when men should wear shirts with sleeves.
4. Admire Silver Pagoda
This is one of the most gorgeous pagodas in Cambodia which is located just south of Royal Palace. The pagoda houses many national treasures of which are many gilded and jeweled Buddha statues. The star of them all must be a small green crystal Buddha statue (or the ‘Emerald Buddha’) and a life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha weighted 90kg.
But most people know about Silver Pagoda for a reason that is reflected exactly in its name – the floor inlaid with more than 5000 tiles made of silver. However, only Buddha can set foot on the floor, not any King or, obviously, tourist.
The white stupa outside of the pagoda is also a masterpiece of Khmer architecture. Don’t miss this place in your trip to Phnom Penh.
4. Wat Phnom
Even though located in the capital city, Wat Phnom is covered with grass, trees, and flowers which is also the thing that makes Wat Phnom so special. Believed to be built in the 1300s, the pagoda is located on a 27m-high hill scattered in trees, its entrance is a wide staircase lined with Buddha statues and lions.
The pagoda itself was rebuilt several times in the 19th century and again in 1926, still retaining the traditional Khmer architecture. There are several statues and figures around the place, creating such a peculiar atmosphere for the whole complex.
5. Shop at Central Market
Central Market can’t be mistaken with any other place in Phnom Penh with its golden yellowish dome. First opened in 1937, it was said to be the biggest market in Asia and still operates as a market in Phnom Penh. You can find near to everything you need to buy on a vacation in Cambodia.
Come to Central Market when hungry, you’ll yourself very satisfied with all the stalls and stands selling fried fish, hot soup and an array of fried bugs and spiders. Don’t miss this place out!
6. A night out in Phnom Penh Night Market
Yes. Phnom Penh has a night market and to many, that’s enough. A night spent at a local night market would be a perfect touch-up of your trip before you love this lovely city of a capital.
In a Phnom Penh night market, you can find the fanciest food to enjoy the night. A wide range of street food represented to you in a decent and hygiene way – the sellers will wear gloves while making your food. There’s a picnic style set up with sitting mats on the grounds. The food is typical Khmer food, mostly rice noodles, grilled food and seafood.
There’re also stores that sell handicrafts, clothes, accessories and souvenirs. The prices here are considered cheap. Night Market is an experience you shouldn’t miss in your trip to Phnom Penh.
7. Rare items hunt in Russian Market
Back in the 1980s, the market was such a popular site amongst Russian expats. Until today, the market is still popular but not just for Russian travelers. Come to the market, you can find a few Russian things like Russian dolls and small Russian flags. but the majority of products that are sold here are Cambodian stuff such as handicraft, souvenirs, woodcarvings and traditional clothing.
This market is the best place to go if you only have little time for shopping.
8. Breath in the rural air on Silk Island – Koh Dach
The name gives it away. You’ll a whole bunch of colorful silk stuff when visiting the Silk Island or Koh Dach. The very items you see in any market in Phnom Penh are mostly made on the Silk Island. Located in the middle of Phnom Penh, the island offers a short trip to a rural side of Cambodia without having to travel far outside the city.
Households on the island still live in traditional houses and the roads here are still not paved. One thing you might notice is that every family owns a weaving and spinning machine in their home. Women are mainly in charge of making silk items. You can also visit a factory where caterpillars produce silk and see how the local harvest them.
A small restaurant lying on the riverside here would satisfy your hungry stomach.
9. Short walk to Sisowath Quay Boardwalk
This is the most communal place to enjoy in Phnom Penh. From Sisowath Quay Boardwalk, you can find your way to almost all tourist activities like sightseeing, shopping, eating and drinking with a single walk from here.
A 3-km road along Tonle Sap River is filled with vendors, locals, tourists and expats busy enjoying themselves in hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and shops lined up along. There are some Khmer architecture to take pictures here and the locals can be friendly enough for you to open a chat.
Not much of a tourist site, but the Quay is a great place to take a breath, chill, interact with locals and, most important, have a Beerlao before leaving.
10. Enjoy the sunset on a Mekong Cruise boat
A tropical orange sunset cruise on the great Mekong can be theme for many things – a proposal, a dramatic adventure or just a chillax afternoon in Phnom Penh.
Some Mekong River Cruises have cocktail service and onboard BBQ made from local ingredients that would totally make your cruise trip worth it. The cruise will pass Royal Palace just in time the sun goes down. You’ll the most wonderful 2 hours in Phnom Penh with this small excursion.
What to eat in Phnom Penh
Khmer cuisine has a distinctive appeal that no other cuisine has.
1. Fish Amok
This dish is truly an authentic Khmer street food travelers have to try when visiting the country. The dish is basically cooked fish coated in coconut curry, all wrapped in banana leaves. A wide selection of spices is used to build layers of flavor.
You can find Fish Amok in a neighboring country like Lao but the taste can never quite like the original one thanks to a local herb called slok ngor.
In Phnom Penh you can easily find this dish in the markets.
2. Grilled Pork on Skewers
Everyone loves grilled pork skewers in Cambodia, from a child to an adult. First thing that draws you to this dish is its savory aroma. There are two kinds of pork skewers: one served with pickle salad, served with vegetables and rice, the other one with herbs and condiments.
This is one cheap on-the-go cheap you can find anywhere in the city. The skewers can be addicting for grilled food lovers. But the price for one stick is so cheap you can just enjoy as many as you want.
This particular dish is known for sparkling up a fierce debate on is it ethical to eat fertilized embryo of a duck. This dish is so famous in Southeast Asia, almost every country has a version of it. In Cambodia, balut is kept simple, without the use of herbs and spices. The dish is well loved amongst the locals for its richness in nutrition and protein.
On the streets and in the markets of Phnom Penh, you can find stall selling balut everywhere.
4. Phnom Penh Noodle Soup
Like Vietnam and many other Asian countries, noodle soups have become a major part in the daily life of the people of Cambodia. A noodle soup you must try when visiting Phnom Penh is the famous Phnom Penh noodle, even has its name familiar in Vietnam as Nam Vang noodles. The Phnom Penh version is a big bowl of noodle topped by a lot of pork, eggs, pork liver, poached shrimp, sautéed ground pork, garlic and shallot…. The broth is a wonderful result of pork bones, dried squid and dried shrimps.
This is a dish that will fill you up for breakfast or lunch.
Best time to visit Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is warm year-round, having a rainy season from May to October and drier season from November to April.
The best time to travel to Phnom Penh is from November to February when the temperature and rainfall are at the lowest. This time is also the best time for exploring Siem Reap and even Vietnam. These months are just perfect for combined, longer tours to Cambodia and Vietnam.
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Recommended Itineraries to Phnom Penh
Here are some of our best itineraries to Phnom Penh where you can see all the highlighted attractions in the capital of Cambodia.
- Estimated cost: $150 per person
If you little time and you choose Phnom Penh over other destinations in Cambodia, this itineraries is just perfect for you.
Destinations: Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, Wat Phnom, Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, Cheuong Ek Killing Fields, Russian Market, Cambodian National Museum
- Estimated cost: $862 per person
This is a perfect combined longer trip to Cambodia Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Battambang. You can visit Phnom Penh with a full day city tour before the trip ends. This tour is suitable for anyone who wish to discover Cambodia in-depth.
Destinations in Phnom Penh: Wat Phnom, Independence Monument, Wat Unalom, National Museum, Royal Palace, Killing Fields
- Estimated cost: $1700 per person
If you want to visit both Vietnam and Cambodia at once, this tour is the most perfect. On Day 11, you’ll have a full city day tour in Phnom Penh before transfer for Siem Reap the next day.
In this tour, you’ll see all the highlighted attractions of the city, plus a Mekong Sunset Cruise at the end of the day.
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