Top 9 things to do in Phnom Penh
Once regarded as the “Pearl of Asia”, Phnom Penh Capital of Cambodia used to be the hub for both the Khmer Empire and French colonialists. Despite of not being the most beautiful place in Cambodia, there is a plethora of things to do in Phnom Penh. While you still see the remnants of Cambodia’s tragic recent history because Phnom Penh was the former epicenter of the Khmer Rouge regime, you also can explore masterpieces from the city’s rich heritages, stroll along beautiful boulevards lined with old colonial French villas and buildings, sampling local culinary delights and immerse yourselves into Khmer culture.
To help you have a fun and frolic vacation in Cambodia’s bustling capital, Cambodia Travel propose a list of 10 things that you shouldn’t miss to do while in Phnom Penh.
Table of Contents
1. Visit cultural landmarks in central Phnom Penh
Despite recent rapid changes, Phnom Penh still holds an undeniable charm with its wide tree-lined boulevards and faded colonial mansions. Even you plan a short or long stay in this city, the visit to Royal Palace should not be forgotten. The Royal Palace – a stunning architectural masterpiece of the 19th century, is home to the Cambodian King’s and royal family, as well as the proud symbol of Cambodia Kingdom.
Visitors can access some sections inside the complex grounds, such as the ornate temples, libraries, galleries and manicured gardens. Within the palace compound is a prominent temple named Silver Pagoda. This name comes from its gleaming floor, which is covered with 5 tonnes of silver. To admire the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture, just take a short walk from Royal Palace to National Museum – home to more than 5,000 artefacts dating back to the ancient Angkorian period.
The museum building itself is a graceful terracotta structure of traditional design with dark red clay bricks and roofs that spirals toward the heavens. The cultural exploration will be continued to Wat Phnom. This Buddhist temple stands on the only hill in Phnom Penh at the height of 27 meters. With more than 600-year history, Wat Phnom is the center of Cambodia’s important celebrations like Khmer New Year, and Pchum Ben. The sightseeing trip in central Phnom Penh can be done on foot or by cyclo. These are special ways to experience the city’s streets and buildings.
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2. Learn about Cambodian tragic recent history under Khmer Rouge
During the Khmer Rouge regime, Phnom Penh was chosen as the epicenter so it’s the best destination to grasp the harsh and bloody recent history of Khmer people. The former school was transformed into a torture prison – known as Security Prison 21 (S-21) where Khmer Rouge gathered and brutalized their victims. Within only 4 years (from 1975 to 1979), there were 14,000 people imprisoned but only 7 survived in this prison. S21 Prison has turned into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to reveal the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
Hundreds of thousands victims were sent from S-21 Prison to their deaths at Choeung Ek extermination camp. Now more commonly known as the Choeung Ek Killing Fields is a special place for those who want to understand the reality of what happened in Cambodia in their own eyes. Upon arrival at this memorial field, tourists will be given a headset that will guide them through the exhumed graves and tell the bloody stories in the past. Even it’s not a pleasant experience, it helps tourists understand more about how Khmer people have remained resilient and strong.
3. See the sun go down in Phnom Penh’s River
Conveniently located at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, Phnom Penh offers many excellent opportunities to enjoy sunset over water. A sunset river cruise can fulfill your desires whether you seek for romance or adventure. During the cruise journey, passengers can choose to taste local cuisine, along with cocktails and wine. With all-inclusive refreshments, you can leisurely float along the river watching the Royal Palace and Phnom Penh’s distinctive skyline become surrounded with a warm orange glow.
Sisowath Quay is also an ideal location for catching sunset moments. This lively artery alongside the turgid Tonle Sap River is lined with terrace cafes and restaurants where you can leisurely enjoy local drinks and snacks and watch the sun go down. Strolling along this riverside promenade at dusk, tourists will get closer to local nightlife scene. Just take a seat at any comfy bench in the boardwalk and see locals getting fit at the aerobics classes or playing games. Or don’t hesitate to sample any delicious local snack offered by local peddlers you stumble on along the way.
4. Get lost in local markets
Whether you want to test your bargaining skills, window shopping or get more local experience, Phnom Penh’s markets are a must-visit.
Sweltering Russian Market should be included into Phnom Penh trip of any traveler. This bazaar got its name because it was the popular area amongst Russian expats back in the 1980s. Coming to this market, you can expect to find a little bit of everything like silk scarves, spices, woodcarvings, and more.
Psar Thmei, or widely known as Central Market, is a landmark itself due to the impressive art deco design by French architects. Located right in the heart of the city, this huge golden domed structure resembles a Babylonian ziggurat and used to be ranked as the biggest indoor market in Asia when it was built. If you are short on time, just go straight to Central Market where offers anything you could ever want to buy while on vacation, from local handicrafts to designer handbags and discounted brand-name clothing. Hundreds of colorful stalls in local markets surely make you get lost and you may easily spend hours wandering around!
5. Immerse yourself in Phnom Penh’s urban art culture
Cambodia’s art scene and creativity were almost disappeared under the Khmer Rouge. Luckily, when the country rebuilt, Cambodia’s artistic ability shone through and many young artists turn traditional art into modern art form of expression. While in Phnom Penh, just pay a visit to the Street 93 and the laneway off Street 240 that make up Phnom Penh’s vibrant street art scene. Throughout the capital, colorful and creative murals brighten up drab paths, abandoned buildings, and crumbling structures. These awesome murals have been created by talented local and international street artists.
If you come to Phnom Penh in right time of the annual Cambodia Urban Art Festival, you can witness artists showcase their skills with live mural paintings. The festival’s missions are to professionalize local artists and encourage foreign artists to exchange culture through their artworks.
6. Interact with animals in an ethical way
Cambodia is home for many wildlife sanctuaries which are dedicated to the rehabilitation and conservation of animals. If you have more than two days in Phnom Penh, don’t miss the chance to access Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. With only an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh, this tour to the animal sanctuary surely will bring wonderful Cambodia wildlife experiences. Being founded in 1995 and operated by Wildlife Alliance, this conservation center now is home to over 1,200 animals, including sun and moon bears, elephants, leopards, lions, tigers, gibbons, macaques, deer, and more.
If taking part in the full day behind the scenes tour, tourists will have chance to visit a local market to pick up fresh fruit which they’ll then hand feed to the elephants and rescued baby macaques, visit the private tiger dens and baby animals which are undergoing rehabilitation. The tour includes a Cambodian-style lunch and resting time in the hammocks.
Bear Care Tour offered by Free the Bears is designed for those who are ever been wild about bears rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. During this full day educational trip, participants will help the Bear Care Team to prepare food and special treats to keep the bears happy and healthy in their natural living habitats. After lunch time with traditional Khmer food, visitors will visit other animals at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. By joining in these experiences, you contribute to support these ethical sanctuaries and organizations working to protect and save Cambodia’s vulnerable wildlife.
7. Watch cultural shows at Cambodian Living Arts
Once in Phnom Penh, you are highly recommended to spend at least one night to enjoy traditional dance performances at Cambodian Living Arts. This not-for-profit organization aims to preserve endangered performing art forms and rituals, bring traditional arts back to life and promote creativity and innovation in the arts sector. Shows start from 7 PM to 8 PM at the covered open-air theater in the beautiful premises of the National Museum. During one hour long performance of classical and folk dances, talented dancers and musicians will take you on a journey from the courts of Angkorian palaces to scenes of daily village life.
It’s really amazing to know that your attendance to this show serves a philanthropic cause because all profits have been used to support troupes as well as offer scholarships and fellowships to talented people in their art careers.
8. Go for a bike ride through Koh Dach Island
If you want to escape the bustling scene of Phnom Penh for the day without going too far, half day biking to the nearby Koh Dach Island is not a bad suggestion. Koh Dach, also known as Silk Island, is a narrow island in the middle of the Mekong River and just an hour’s journey from the capital, including a short ferry ride. Once in this silk island, tourists can take a soft biking through rice paddies, and small villages with traditional Cambodian teak wood houses.
Meeting with the local Khmer, tourists can learn about Cambodian silk weaving industry. In weaving villages dotted across the islands, tourists can watch women busy in using handlooms to spin silk while others dye materials to create stunning silk designs and accessories.
Don’t forget to bring your camera as there are plenty of novel things to explore and capture here.
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9. Sample Khmer food in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh might not have the same vibrant food scene as Vietnam’s Capital or distinctive food culture of Bangkok, but trying Khmer cuisine is still an essential part when visiting Cambodia’s Capital. If you want a taste of Cambodia’s classic culinary, just go ahead to the Night Market, where street food stalls offer a wide range of cheap local dishes. Visitors will have chances to feast on food cooked fresh on the streets, from deep-fried creepy crawlies to delicious Khmer curries and wok-fried Khmer noodles (Read more about Cambodia Food: 10 Dishes You Need to Try).
If food hygiene standards are your top concern, take part in Phnom Penh Street Food Tour with Cambodia Travel’s experienced and information tour guides. The trip will lead gourmets off the beaten track to gorge on authentic Cambodian flavors at local markets and street food eateries. This is a great way to sample the diversity of Khmer delicacies in a fun and safe way.
If you seek for fine dining experience, there are many good Khmer restaurants in town with reasonable prices and cozy atmosphere. To name a few:
- Eleven One Kitchen Phnom Penh – Street 460, Tuol Tom Poung & Street 334, BKK.
- Malis Restaurant Phnom Penh – #136 Street 41.
- Friends the Restaurant – #215, Street 13.
- Khmer Surin Restaurant – #9 Street 57.
- Romdeng Restaurant – Street 174.
Phnom Penh is a beautiful Southeast Asian city with interesting pre and post-colonial history. As the major economic and cultural center of the Khmer Kingdom, there are many things to do and see in Phnom Penh, as well as witness the progress that has been made to help the country move forward. Don’t hesitate in spending a few rewarding days in this Cambodia’s vibrant and bustling capital city.