On the banks of the mighty Mekong River and Tonle Sap, Phnom Penh is a vibrant capital city. It’s home to both inspiring and tragic history, elegant temples, palaces, and bustling markets. The bustling city has the endearing chaos that’s common in Southeast Asian cities, but with a unique story to tell.
Exploring Phnom Penh provides the opportunity to understand the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge. But Phnom Penh’s story goes way beyond, to the temples that were first established to mark the beginning of this phenomenal city. And these days? There’s a thriving hipster cafe scene with flat whites and avocado toast galore.
Travelers can balance the two while enjoying the beautiful waterfront, delicious street eats, and traditional rural villages.
Wander the Waterfront
At Sisowath Quay, locals and travelers unite to enjoy a vibrant waterfront. In what is a bustling city, the quay just may be the most happening part of town. Throughout the day, you’ll spot locals strolling up and down the boardwalk with friends, families, and pets taking in the views of the rolling Mekong River.
Along the path are schools of vendors selling everything from trinkets and handcrafted goods to street eats and refreshing beverages. You’ll find plenty of green space, shady trees and park benches on which to sit and enjoy your treats.
On one side may be the soothing river, but on the other is one of the busiest streets in the city. Something that becomes a delightful white noise the more you travel around South East Asia.
The waterfront is a great place to come and enjoy a morning stroll, coffee in hand, but during sunset it gets even better. The waterfront bars and restaurants light up and fill with patrons. Bright orange then floats across the sky and paints the Mekong with an array of warm colors.
Visit the Central Market
Known locally as Phsar Thmey, the Central Market was the largest in Asia when it first opened in 1937. The market was created by French architects who added another unique chapter to Phnom Penh’s diverse buildings.
The Central Market is a great place to go in your first few days in the city. Here, you can put on a range of hats, from sitting back and enjoying the local culture to putting your haggling skills to the test. The market opens every day from 7am to 6pm, and quickly fills with a boisterous crowd.
Phsar Thmey takes all the qualities of an exciting market and brings it inside to create a layout similar to a mall. As you wander along, you’ll be able to shop for a wide range of clothing, jewelry, shoes and gifts. There’s also a section dedicated to fresh produce, spices and seafood. Half way through, take a break by sampling the market’s specialty dish, creamy coconut pudding.
Have Noodles for Breakfast
Forget eggs, toast, cereal, and coffee. In Phnom Penh, you’ll be eating noodles for breakfast. With so much to do around the Cambodian capital, you’ll want to get an early start and the perfect way to stay fed on the run is with the help of the many local street carts.
If you haven’t discovered a popular street food spot near your accommodation, keep an eye out for dozens of locals hunched over tiny chairs and tables devouring the local delicacies. Here, a crowd is always a good thing. A slightly longer wait guarantees that your chef is going to serve up something delicious.
For just a dollar or two, sit down on your own mini red plastic chair with your bowl of steaming hot noodle soup. This is the most popular local breakfast, with plenty of influence taken from Chinese cuisine. Your soup will include a hearty broth, rice vermicelli, veggies, spices and your choice of meat, poultry or seafood.
See the Killing Fields
Travel isn’t all bliss and happiness. To understand your destination beyond the fun-filled attractions, you’ll have to reconcile with a country’s history, good or bad. Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields will be one of the most somber parts of your travels, yet will help you gain more understanding of where Cambodia was and how far it has come.
When you arrive at the tragic site, you’ll be handed a headset. You’ll then embark on a self-guided experience through the fields in silence. Your headset will provide expert narration and firsthand stories of those that managed to survive to atrocity. As you walk in stunned silence, you’ll feel the history of the grounds around you.
This field is one of many around the country. More than 20,000 mass graves have been discovered with an estimate of over 1.7 million deaths during the genocide. Each of them feel connected, a living landscape helping to make sure their stories continue on.
Explore the Royal Palace of Cambodia
One of the best places to explore in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace. The grandiose residence has been the home of Cambodia’s royal family since the middle of the 19th century. Paths guide you through landscaped gardens on your way by the many bright orange structures that are spread throughout the complex.
Many of them are enveloped in white columns that lead to the gilded orange roof capped off by the stunning spires. The royal place is a picture-perfect example of resplendent Khmer architecture and somehow more magnificent on the inside. One of the top buildings you can explore within the complex is the opulent Throne Hall, now over a hundred years old.
After seeing the royal throne, head across to the astonishing Silver Pagoda. Having been spared from destruction under the Khmer Rouge era, the palace remains much as it was, with ample amazing relics from long gone eras. You’ll find great examples of this within the pagoda, including both the Emerald and Gold Buddha. The latter covered in diamonds.
Journey back in time at the National Museum of Cambodia
Home to Cambodia’s biggest cultural and archaeological museum, the National Museum of Cambodia showcases the nation’s timeline from the 4th century to the modern day. The museum is a perfect complement to your time spent at both the Royal Palace and the Killing Fields.
The National Museum of Cambodia first opened in 1920 when it was a French colony. It’s since worn many hats, including as the Museum of Phnom Penh but is now the central repository for Cambodia. As you arrive at the complex, you’ll be drawn to the exquisite Khmer architecture with its heavy use of red, oranges and spires. But the real prize is within.
The museum features an incredible collection of history Khmer art, with just shy off 2,000 pieces on display. You’ll also see excavated relics from Angkor Wat, including the Vishnu head. Other highlights include artifacts from pre-Angkorian eras, such as the Chenia period. Afterwards, take some time to explore the museum’s grounds where you’ll find landscaped gardens, pagodas and meditating Buddhas.
On this 6-hour tour, explore the National Museum, bargain at the Russian Market and explore the beautiful Wat Phnom.
Tour the Wildlife Rescue Center
An hour south of Phnom Penh, the Wildlife Rescue Center is Cambodia’s largest zoo. It first opened its doors in 2000 and is more of a sanctuary than a traditional zoo. Here, animals can enjoy a safe refuge and a habitat protected from illegal poachers and wildlife traffickers.
The Wildlife Rescue Center, which also includes Phnom Tamao Zoo, covers an extensive 2,965 acres of land within a larger 6,200 acres of protected forests. The mass of space allows for each animal to enjoy plenty of room roam among a landscape tailored to its needs. One of the first parts of the center you’ll see are the resident crocodiles, followed by rambunctious gibbons, monkeys and deer. Following that is a highlight of the experience, the sun bear enclosure, the largest of its kind in the world.
Beyond the animals, the center is a spectacular place to explore. You’ll be surrounded by undulating mountains with the acreage also containing ancient temples including Thmor Dos and Phnom Tamao.
Visit Wat Ounalom
As the headquarters of Buddhism in Cambodia, the Wat Ounalom complex is the most important in the country. The temple was first established in the 15th century and its captivating stupa even features eyebrow hairs from Buddha himself. At its height, the temple was home to over 500 monks. Despite immense damage suffered during the era of the Khmer Rouge, including relics and statues, the temple has recreated its princely beauty.
The sprawling complex features 44 buildings. The main temple, built in 1952, is a faithful re-creation of the original 15th century shrine. It combines three levels with a startling collection of iconography, scripture and artifacts based on the life of Buddha. Behind the main temple is where you’ll find Chetdai. This Angkorian-era stupa is home to Buddha’s eyebrow hair. But it’s also beloved for its four bronze statues featuring Buddha facing north, south, east and west.
Last up is the Monastery of the Supreme Patriarch, where you’ll discover a beautiful image of Samdech Huot Tat who was executed under directions from Pol Pot.
Embark On a River Cruise
With its location on the Mekong, it’ll come as no surprise that Phnom Penh has a storied connection to the mighty river. After enjoying a stroll along the waterfront, take some time to get a different perspective of the city onboard a river cruise.
There is an abundance of options for getting out on the water. From Sisowath Quay you’ll have no shortage of private boats ready to take you on a tour, but be sure to have your haggling skills ready. Head to the Central Market first to get up to speed.
But to keep things simple, you can join any of the established tour companies on the riverfront. Often it’s as simple as rocking up, seeing the tour times and purchasing a ticket. However, for an elevated experience, combine your cruise with dinner. On this sunset dinner cruise, take in the colorful vistas from the water as you indulge in a delicious meal and a refreshing cocktail.
Explore the Tuol Sleng Museum
As the location of the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Security Prison S-21, the Tuol Sleng Museum is an absorbing insight into the regime. The complex was once a place of learning, being one of the city’s main high schools. Its open courtyard was once filled with children playing before becoming a part of the nation’s largest prison.
The museum pulls no punches, with the prison remaining much as it was during the height of the atrocities. It was within this building that over 17,000 were locked up under the suspicion of being against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Only a handful made it out alive. Some of those that did now work at the museum. Including one that was rescued at the 11th hour after Vietnam invaded, bringing an end to the horrid era.
As you explore the museum and prison, you’ll walk by cells fitted with iron beds where prisoners were executed. Their specks of blood remain on the wall. There is also a display of hundreds of black and white portraits that put a face to the genocide. It’s a heart wrenching experience that, alongside the Killing Fields, helps you understand the callousness of the Khmer Rouge.
Combine Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields into one experience on this guided tour.
Walk Around Wat Phnom
Phnom Penh is a decidedly flat city, making it a pleasure to walk around (if you don’t mind the heat). But one part of town that breaks the plane is Phnom Penh. No, not the city, the hill it was named after. It’s more of a knoll that a hill, but the elevation change still stands out among the broader skyline. Here, you’ll find Wat Phnom, the other significant temple within the city.
Wat Phnom was established on the hill in 1372 and now contains 4 statues of Buddha. Six decades are the construction of the temple, Phnom Penh was chosen as the site to replace Angkor Thorn as the capital of Cambodia. The city was named after the hill with Phnom Penh translating to Penh’s Hill.
The elegant temple has been refurbished over the years, making it more grandiose century after century. The entrance is now fixed with guarding lions and serpents who gaze over you as you walk up the steps. Within the complex, you’ll uncover lovely carvings and iconography. It’s also a place to pray for good luck, a handy trait for travelers to have.
Hunt for Bargains at the Russian Market
Another lively market to explore and experience life in Phnom Penh is the Russian Market. Originally known as Psar Toul Tom Pong, the market received its new nickname because of the amount of Russian expats that would frequent the stalls in the 1980s.
But travelers shouldn’t arrive here thinking they’ll find a slew of cheap vodka and Soviet-inspired merchandise. Instead, this is the place to go to load up on cheap clothes. If you want to change up the wares in your suitcase, then arrive here nice and early. The market is mostly indoor and with little ventilation, it becomes a hotbox of vendors and marketgoers in the afternoon.
Alongside turning over your entire traveling wardrobe, the Russian Market is home to a lot of quality and authentic Cambodian goods. As you walk the aisles, you’ll come across elegant silk scarves, handcrafted woodwork and even some a collection of spices. The market has some of the most varied shops in Phnom Penh. But as always, be ready to haggle.
Explore the Hip Neighborhood of Toul Tom Poung
Hopefully, you brought a backpack to the Russian Market, as it is within one of Phnom Penh’s coolest neighborhoods. Toul Tom Poung is a classic rags to hipster story seen in cities throughout the world. However, this district has a wonderful Cambodian twist.
When the market was frequented by large swaths of expats in the late 20th century, Toul Tom Poung wouldn’t have found its way onto many itineraries. But while the market is now a must visit, the surrounding streets have turned into an explorer’s delight.
With the early morning shop out of the way, you’ll be free to explore the vibrant streets that are lined with cafes slinging local coffee roasts, some delectable, cheap and unpretentious restaurants, and more boutiques if you’re not quite done shopping. With all three covered, plus some casual bars, Toul Tom Poung is a great place to get up to date on trip planning and is a popular spot for digital nomads.
Take a Trip to Koh Dach
For an easy day trip from Phnom Penh, make the brief journey to Koh Dach. Under 4 miles (6km) from downtown, Koh Dach is an island on the Mekong River where rural life still holds sway. Koh Dach is otherwise known as Silk Island, whose residents still take part in Cambodia’s rich silk weaving history.
In order to reach Koh Dach, you’ll need to take a short tuk tuk ride to the waterfront, where a brief ferry ride will shuttle you north along the river to Silk Island. After jumping off the ferry, you’ll feel a world away from the bustling streets of Phnom Penh. Here, life is simpler and quiet. Local streets are laden with hanging silk that’s been freshly dyed and the soft noises of handmade looms weaving the silk rings through the air.
After a leisurely stroll, head to the Silk Weaving Centre and Village. This is the place to get an in-depth look into Cambodia’s silk heritage and learn the process from start to finish. To explore the rest of the island, hire a bike at the ferry terminal and ride along the road that circumnavigates the island. Ride past tranquil rice paddies and peaceful woodlands, with the Mekong rolling along.
Adventure Through Kirirom National Park
When Kirirom National Park became protected land in the 1950s, it was the first of its kind in Cambodia. The beautiful landscapes within the park are home to an abundance of native animals, including rare and endangered species.
Kirirom National Park is a longer day trip from Phnom Penh, with a 2.5 hour drive required to reach the park. However, with its location among the mountains and to pine trees soaking up the sun, you’ll find it’s a great way to enjoy some cooler temperatures. Because of this, the park is jokingly known as “mini Switzerland”.
Like any national park worth its salt, travelers will find a range of hiking trails to trek. The trails meander through the lush forest to beautiful viewpoints, sprawling lakes and tumbling waterfalls. Kirirom also has several cycling trails, and bikes can be hired from the many resorts around the outskirts of the park.
For a cultural experience, check out the Chambok Community Ecotourism Project that allows travelers to explore authentic village life.
Take a Cooking Class (Frizz Restaurant)
If you’re a foodie, then many highlights of your travels will revolve around local cuisine. Enveloped by Thailand and Vietnam, it’s easy to overlook Cambodia cuisine in favor of the more renowned dishes in either country. But Cambodia food has a unique charm and one that is worthwhile exploring.
For those that have spent time in Vietnam, you’ll see a lot of similarities in the local cuisine. Remember, not only do they share a border, but a part of southern Vietnam was once Cambodia. Both countries were also colonized by France, leading Cambodia to also have delicious num pang pate (banh mi).
Traditional Cambodian meals feature rice, a lot of rice. In fact, nyam bai howie nov? (have you eaten your rice yet) is a common greeting. The staple will then be complemented by three or four other dishes, such as soup, a fish paste and spice paste along with freshly caught fish.
To experience cooking Cambodian cuisine firsthand, join the cooking class at the Frizz Restaurant. You’ll begin with a visit to the local market before making and tasting your creations.
Feast at the Night Market
Speaking of local dishes, if you’ve rather skip to the end product then get along to Phnom Penh’s exciting Night Market. You’ll find the market along the riverfront lit with bright bulbs dangling from the many stalls. The Night Market shines like the North Star and immediately you’ll know that this is the place to be.
The sounds and aromas of the market will hit you long before you step inside. But rather than be taken in by the first stall slinging delicious and authentic Cambodian cuisine, take some time to get the lay of the land. The market is large, with a wide variety of vendors serving everything from your simple noodle dishes and meat and veg options to more adventurous meals.
Vegetarians will be well represented at the market, with no shortage of options and tofu being the main protein. Once you’ve picked out your vendor (those busy with locals are worth the wait) you simply grab a tray and point to your chosen dish or load up yourself. The food is dirt cheap and you’ll either pay per dish or by weight.
With your food in hand, things get even more memorable. In the center of the market there are a slew of mats. Here, locals and travelers congregate in the communal space and enjoy their meals. Just remember to take off your shoes.
Day Trip to Tonle Bati
Under 20 miles from Phnom Penh, the beautiful waters of Tonle Bati will put a wide smile on your face. Popular among local weekend warriors, Tonle Bati is the place to go to relax and rejuvenate, away from the busy city. If you’ve grown a bit weary or need a well-earned break, then you’ll feel invigorated chilling by the lake.
On weekends, crowds gather on the elevated bamboo pavilions that jut out across the water. Families come together and catch up with the young ones jumping off the edge over and over again. Join them for a swim, paddle out on the lake or explore the local village which has its own fascinating history.
Tonle Bati is home to the Ta Prohm of Bati. The elegant temple is where you’ll find the Jayabuddhamahanatha statues and beautifully landscaped gardens. Further out is the village of Dok Por. Here, you can visit the 11th century temple of Phnom Chisor. The 461-step hike is worth the sweat thanks to panoramic views and historic architecture.
Watch Some Live Kickboxing
A thrilling way to spend the evening in Phnom Penh is to get along to a kickboxing event at the city’s Olympic Stadium. Fights occur 3 to 4 times a week, providing plenty of ways to fit the exciting event around your schedule. After another tuk tuk ride through town, you’ll arrive at the arena for an inexpensive night of beer, kickboxing, and gambling. In no particular order.
The arena packs out for each event, creating an atmosphere that is just as entertaining as the fight. Many of the kickboxing events are on TV, so if you’ve ever dreamed of being seen on a Cambodian television, then sit on the black couch in the center of the stands. You’ll be right behind the kickboxers and no doubt looking great.
With a crowd and the sticky Cambodian evening, you’ll want to stay refreshed. Thankfully, you can grab a beer or two to keep you cool. Just be careful as they’re only 25 cents each.
See Traditional Khmer Dancing
Siem Reap may be the center of traditional Khmer dancing, but Phnom Penh has a number of ways to experience this age-old art form. One of the best ways to watch tradition dancing in the city is at the Cambodian Living Arts’ theatre show. The institution is at the forefront of keeping this heritage alive and not only puts on marvelous shows, but trains everyone from musicians to singers and dancers.
The show is held daily within the Cambodia National Museum. The performances begin at 7pm and run for an hour. Each performer is armed with props to elevate the experience, allowing them to take you on a journey from the historic capital city of Angkor to rural villages and modern cities. All told through music, song and captivating dance.
Other options include the Sovanna Phum Arts Association. Shows occur each Friday and stood at 7.30pm and include Apsara dancing, folk music and puppet theater.
Treat Yourself to a Spa Day
If you’re in need of some R&R and aren’t up for leaving the city, then why not treat yourself to a local spa day? South East Asia can be a maddening, exhilarating, fabulous place, but it can take its toll. To help you, there are many traditional Khmer spas around the city, with Bliss Spa Cambodia being one of the top rated.
Offering short, two and three-hour treatments, prepare to have your stress, aches and worries washed away. Sign up for the aroma massage, have a body scrub with Himalayan salts. Or go all out with a herbal steam treatment, Khmer massage, and detox.
When all is said and done, you’ll feel born again and ready to tick off the rest of the best things to do in Phnom Penh.