Phnom Penh, Cambodia is definitely a touristy city. It’s home to many of the country’s historically important places including the Royal Palace, the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum. Nevertheless, most tourists seem to zip in and out of the city, only touching the surface of this fascinating place. In this article, we explain 5 activities that will keep you entertained (and in some cases, mortified) while you enjoy this eclectic capital – Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
First Impressions of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
If you’re inclined to think that many South-East Asian countries differ only in name and currency, then you are way off the mark. While Asia is indeed a continent of countries sharing some similarities, the stark differences in culture, language, cuisine and standard of living cannot be ignored.
This was illustrated to us very clearly when we touched down in Phnom Penh, Cambodia from Bangkok on a Sunday afternoon. Now, everybody knows Bangkok is a thriving metropolis with skyscrapers and a sleek airport train to boot. And having flown less than two hours south-east of Bangkok, we didn’t really expect to notice a huge difference in the standard of living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. And this was an erroneous assumption.
From the Airport to our Hotel
While the airport itself is quite modern with flat-screen TVs and clean, spacious halls, the real Phnom Penh can be felt as soon as you leave the airport. The easiest way to reach the city center is by tuk-tuk. It takes about 20 minutes on a bumpy, dusty road. The roadsides are lined with small shops such as mechanics, cafes, bars with locals sitting out the front, trying to stay cool and naked babies running and playing.
There is lots of rubbish. Squashed water bottles, plastic cups and wrappers almost everywhere. It feels more like a country town than a capital. But don’t get us wrong. We loved this first impression of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We felt like we were seeing how people really lived, not a sugar-coated, polished version of a South East Asian city where eyesores and beggars are minimized for the sake of tourists.
Traffic In Phnom Penh
The roads in Phnom Penh don’t really have markings, and even where they do, the locals seem to ignore them. Every intersection is a mass of trucks, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and bicycles weaving in, out and around each other, so close you could barely fit a feather between two vehicles. Foreigners do drive around the city, but we were not brave enough. Coming from Chiang Mai, Thailand, where road traffic is relatively sedate, this was a bit of a shock.
If you’re not a fussy eater, Phnom Penh can be great. Pork and rice from the local vender? $1. Fruit smoothie at the market? Another $1. 4 fried balls with sweet bean inside? One more dollar. You can eat here on the cheap if you stick to the markets and street stalls.
However, if you are a bit more discerning with your palate and prefer vegetarian or vegan options, this city can be kind of tricky. It’s not like other cities in Asia where every street seller has signs in English. Most of the time you have to take a guess at what’s being sold or muddle your way through a conversation with the seller.
That being said, there are vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the city. They serve delicious food but one meal will probably set you back between $3 and $6 – not ideal if you’re on a budget.
The Cambodian economy is dollarized to a very high percentage. This means you can pay in dollars for anything and many prices will also be quoted in dollars. More than in Vietnam or any other country in SEA. There are ATMs in the city. They don’t always work.
By far the easiest way to get around Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is by using the PassApp. With this app you can order a rickshaw or tuk-tuk from your location to any other location in the city. The app will give you an approximate price and you can track your driver as he arrives and as your journey is being completed. You can also use GettTaxi to order taxis if you need a bigger vehicle for your luggage. Check out our POST about transport in Cambodia for more information.
What To Do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia?
So, you’ve made it to this bustling capital. How are you going to spend your time there? You probably need at least 3 full days if you want to get through the main attractions without feeling rushed. Here is a list of what you simply can’t miss in Phnom Penh.
1 and 2: The Genocide Museum and Killing Fields
Yes, both those places are extremely harrowing, yes, you will feel disturbed and distressed after visiting them, yes, you absolutely need to go and spend time there to understand the dramatic events that Cambodia has lived through and is still recovering from.
It’s a bit of a half-ass attempt at travel when you don’t delve into the country’s turbulent past. So, grit your teeth and do it. We recommend doing a bit of reading/viewing before you go so that you can be slightly more informed about the events that occurred under the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Check out these films: First They Killed My Father and read a book or two from our list of books about Cambodia.
Tuol Sleng: The Genocide Museum
The Genocide Museum is located within the city itself. You can catch a tuk-tuk or walk there. Entrance costs $5 and you can also grab an audio tour in your native language for an extra $3. We highly recommend doing this, and doing it in order, as it adds another dimension to the tour. You might find some of Khmer Rouge survivors in the territory selling their books. It’s really worth the time and effort to give this place your undivided attention for 2-3 hours.
Be respectful while visiting this place. Don’t talk loudly, drink or eat while touring. Don’t take selfies. Do dress respectfully.
A former school standing not far from Phnom Penh’s center. A place where children once solved sums, wrote essays and sang, their laughter ringing out across the grounds at lunch time.
The grounds are now quiet and calm. A few trees and bushes are scattered around them, along with tall, bizarre-looking metal structures that were once used to end lives.
Three-story concrete buildings glare down, the grated brick windows are menacing. The buildings are presented almost exactly as they were found.
There are four parts to this former torture machine; Building A, B, С and D. Each contains its own selection from horrors. Iron beds to which the last victims were chained before they were killed as the Khmer Rouge fled the city. The blood stains still seem visible on the floor.
Thousands of black and white photos, each displaying the last captured image of some 20,000 human beings whose fate was sealed behind these walls. Men, women, children. Young, old. Beautiful. Defiant. Cowering. Each of them has a story. Each of them deserves their story to be told. None of them deserved to die.
Choeung Ek: The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields are located outside of the city so you will need to catch a tuk-tuk or rickshaw to get there. It could cost anywhere between $15 and $20. You can also try your luck with the Phnom Penh Hop On Hop Off Shuttle Bus.
The road there is quite dusty so you might want to take a scarf or something to cover your mouth. The entrance fee + audio tour is $5 and again, it’s worth getting the audio tour. You will probably spend 1 – 2 hours here. There are food stalls and restaurants nearby.
Again, be respectful. Don’t swear, drink or eat while touring. Don’t take grotesque selfies with the bones of victims. Do dress respectfully.
This large clearing is, at first glance, a rather pleasant place. There are longan trees growing, the remnants of an orchard. Birds fly and chirp overhead. And strange mounds of earth give the place an undulating surface. It’s bizarre to think that thousands of people (the exact figure is not known) lost their lives in this very place. Murdered in cruel and violent ways.
The Khmer Rouge didn’t discriminate, destroying children, the elderly and everyone in between. The victims’ bones have been collected and are displayed along the pathway and in a giant tower that stands at the beginning/end of the tour. It is chilling in its normality.
3: Royal Palace
Entrance is $6.50 and you can hire a guide for $10 which is also advisable. Do make sure your knees and shoulders are covered if you are planning to visit the palace. However, T-shirts are available for purchase at the front desk for a few dollars. They’re good quality and can be kept as souvenirs. You could also try your luck reselling them to hawkers outside the complex. We’ve heard it’s possible.
The palace is a real testament to the luxury and abundance that existed in Cambodia in the past and a wonderful embodiment of unique Khmer architecture. The outside is doused with oranges and yellows, the edges of the rooves flicking up into golden dragons. Inside, you can see thousands of buddha statues, a floor made entirely of silver and a giant emerald buddha.
If you take your time to admire all the beauty inside this place, you’ll spend between 1 and.2 hours here. Khemarin Palace is the king’s official residence and can thus only be admired from afar. It’s still a beautiful building though.
4 and 5: The Russian Market and The Central Market
Phnom Penh is no stranger to colourful markets with unique handicrafts and there are two main contenders for the city’s best marketplace. You can spend time wandering along the cool concrete paths of the Russian Market, or head over to the giant pale-yellow dome where the Central Market can be found. Both are worth visiting, and each has its pros and cons.
The Russian Market
The Russian Market is a vibrant and eclectic affair. Disguised as a run-of-the-mill market on the outside, it’s actually a tourist paradise on the inside. Here you can find a range of souvenirs from gorgeous jewelry and cheap clothes to handmade goods such as wooden carvings, paintings and colourful teapots.
There are also food, meat and fruit and veg sections that, while rather pungent, are very eye-opening. This is a great spot to buy gifts for family and friends while in Cambodia. Just make sure you’ve brushed up on your bartering skills. It is narrow, dank but oh so fascinating.
The Central Market
The market itself is located within the walls of this giant yellow-roofed structure. However, around the building, several hundred vendors have popped up, creating their own ‘market outside the market’. This is where fruit, veg, seafood, snacks, drinks and a myriad of other goodies can be found. Lobsters, crabs, fish, tropical fruits, rice desserts, lychee shakes and other unidentified delicacies.
The ‘real’ market inside looks a little more professional than the Russian market and is certainly a lot bigger. The main hall is filled with jewelry display cabinets while the walkways shooting off from it offer clothes, electrical goods and many other items.
Remember that Cambodians like to barter and will have no qualms about selling you an item for $25 when the ‘real’ price is $10. If you don’t negotiate, you will pay more than necessary.
6: Wat Phnom
If you have some spare time in Phnom Penh, check out the park where Wat Phnom can be found. It was built in 1372 and still stands tall and beautiful in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, today. The wat itself is inside the park and it surrounded by other interesting displays and statues such as a giant grass clock.
Legend has it that a wealthy widow called Penh found several bronze Buddha statues in a koki tree in this area. She built a small shrine on an artificial hill to protect the holy statues. People began to pray before the shrine. In 1437 King Ponhea Yat elevated the shrine and his and his family’s ashes can be found in a stupa not far from the wat. This is a central point of celebration during Cambodian New Year. The entrance fee is $1.
7: Sangkat Chrouy Changva
We decided to avoid Phnom Penh’s Silk Island for ethical reasons. We were also hoping to find a less touristy side to the city and with this aim in mind, we headed over the bridge to where we thought looked interesting and voila. This is how we ended up on the end of the peninsula of Sangkat Chrouy Changya.
There are no great tourist attractions here. No tuk-tuk drivers begging to take you on a tour. No giant temples with hundreds of tourists eager to get their best shot. We were, in fact, surprised, by how quickly the busyness of the city melted away after the 20-minute journey.
We walked past fishermen and fisherwomen having breakfast by the water’s edge, their children splashing each other playfully in the shallows of the brown Mekong. To our surprise, their crude wooden boats had solar panels on top, dramatically changing our perception of how these people live.
An almost empty temple down the road caught our eye and so we spent a few minutes admiring the ramshackle beauty without another tourist in sight. It was then time to keep exploring and we walked the width of the island, through some small villages and returned by one of the main roads via a local market. There were no oohs and aahs. Just a relaxed stroll through what seemed to be quite an authentic party of the city.
If you’re going to Cambodia and are interested in getting a Cambodian visa check out our post HERE.